This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of October to December 2009


“Of Time and the City”-This is a short (a little over 70 minutes) documentary exploration by Terence Davies (director of “The House of Mirth”) of his hometown, Liverpool, England, where he grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s not a history but rather a very personal contemplation of his feelings about the city and its effect on his life. Davies, whose voice is deep and monotonal in the film (almost guaranteed to put you to sleep unless you’re already very wide awake), offers a variety of images from that era, with the occasional ironic musical accompaniment (such as Peggy Lee’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” heard over scenes of ugly urban housing). Liverpool doesn’t come off well, especially with Davies’ cynical and sarcastic narration (referring to Liverpool at one point as the “mondo anus”). In most scenes, it looks like the industrial ugly urban city one might imagine and there is little reference to the river Mersey, made famous by The Beatles. Davies has little time for them, noting them with disapproval quickly in passing while emphasizing his preference for classical music. “Of Time and the City” has received some raves, but to this viewer, it’s somewhat of a tedious and choppy observation of a place that deserved a little more detail and less of a dirge-like narrative. C+ (12/30/09)

“The Girl from Monaco”-This film is generally described as a French romantic comedy, but there are few laughs, and it certainly doesn’t have the kind of ending one would expect of a comedy. Maybe it’s “comedy” in the sense of an analysis of how frail we humans are. Fabrice Luchini plays Bertrand Beauvois, a highly successful attorney who is tough in court and strangely meek outside. Beauvois comes to Monte Carlo to defend Édith Lassalle (Stéphane Audran), accused of murdering her lover. Because Édith’s victim was a tough, Édith’s son, Louis (Gilles Cohen), hires Christophe Abadi (Roschdy Zem) as a security agent to protect Bertrand. Christophe, who is at first an annoyance to Bertrand, gradually turns himself into Bertrand’s guardian angel. But he can’t stop Bertrand, seemingly confused about romance despite having had women throw themselves at him, from meeting and falling for an ex-girlfriend of Christophe’s, the young, gorgeous, and sexually aggressive TV weathergirl, Audrey (the beautiful and quite vivid Louise Bourgoin). That Bertrand becomes entranced with Audrey despite her many flaws, and despite being discouraged by Christophe, is the center of this initially light-hearted tale (which undergoes quite an un-light-hearted metamorphosis at the end). However, despite the scenery and some fine performances by Fabrice Luchini, Roschdy Zem (“Indigènes”), and Louise Bourgoin (Stéphane Audran, a wonderful French actress, unfortunately, has only a very minor role), the plot is simply too thin and silly to take seriously. The film ends with an ironic scene, but it is irony in the context of what had been a light film, and that undermines its effectiveness. (In French with English subtitles) B- (12/27/09)

“District 9”-This highly original film is a movie-viewing experience quite unlike any other that I can recall. Starting out in documentary style, it tells the history of the arrival, 20 years earlier, of a large spaceship which stalled over Johannesburg, South Africa. Inside, local officials found over 1 million large insect-like aliens in poor physical condition. They have been living in District 9, a filthy camp just outside of Johannesburg, but now officials of the Multi National United (MNU) have decided to move these aliens (known as “prawns” by the humans) to a camp farther away from the city. Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley, in a memorable performance), pushy and arrogant, is put in charge of the operation and starts knocking on the doors of the aliens’ shacks to get them to agree to eviction by signing a form (oy, bureaucracy even in a sci-fi thriller). Unfortunately, he also happens upon a liquid substance which accidentally sprays in his face and starts a transformation of his body from human to alien. Wikus finds himself, as noted by one of the filmmakers, becoming the oppressed rather than the oppressor. It is in this portion of the film, with reminders of Dr. Mengele’s experiments during the Nazi era, that it becomes clear that it is the humans, and not the aliens, who are the far more violent and immoral species. Although political sub-themes seem apparent in this film (think apartheid), director and co-writer Neil Blomkamp insists that wasn’t his intention. Instead, with some incredible CGI creativity and originality, he has made a brilliant sci-fi thriller that seems just a little too realistic for comfort. A- (12/26/09)

“The Headless Woman”-This is sophisticated filmmaking for a sophisticated arthouse audience and typifies in so many ways the non-Hollywood approach to filmmaking. We see a group of boys and a dog playing between a dirt road and a canal in Argentina. Next, we see a group of upper middle-class women and one, Verónica (aka Vero) (Maria Onetto), leaves to drive home. When she leans over to pick up something while driving, we hear a thud and it’s clear that she has hit something or someone. But Vero doesn’t get out of the car. She simply stares straight ahead in what seems a fog, and then drives on, while in the distance we see a dog lying in the road. From this point on, it’s difficult to tell just what’s going on in Vero’s mind although it's obvious something is wrong. We see her being x-rayed at a mysterious facility, but walking out before giving her name, and then in a hotel room being visited by a man who, it later turns out, is not her husband, but may be a relative. All the while, it’s obvious that Vero is in a daze, possibly as a result of being hit in the head or possibly due to guilt, and the viewer is left to ponder the mystery of just who is who and what’s going on. When Vero ultimately arrives later at her own dental office, she sits down with the patients in the waiting room as if she has no idea where she is and then gives an enigmatic smile when told she is sitting with her patients. Little by little, some things come together, and Vero finally admits to her husband that she thinks she has killed someone. Vero interacts with her upper middle class relatives and friends who may or may not be assisting in a cover-up. Writer/director Lucrecia Martel has said that the film is based on a series of dreams about the fear of having killed someone, and the film has several dreamlike sequences. So many non-American film directors choose obscurity over clarity in order to keep their audiences guessing. Ms. Martel has done a fine job of that here. We guess and we wonder but we never really know. (In Spanish with English subtitles) B (12/25/09)

“Taking Woodstock”-Ang Lee, who has directed some wonderful films such as “The Ice Storm,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” goes very wrong with this nostalgic but very sour look at the roots of the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Based on a book by Elliot Tiber (played in the film by Demetri Martin), it tells the story of Elliot’s depressing attachment to his parents, Sonia (Imelda Staunton, in one of the most negative and bitter portrayals of a Holocaust survivor I’ve ever seen) and Jake Teichberg (Henry Goodman), their miserable rundown El Monaco Motel in White Lake, NY, and the events that led Elliot to aid in the creation of the Woodstock Festival which overran the White Lake-Bethel portion of the Catskills in August 1969, and incidentally, to save his parents’ motel from foreclosure. To be successful, most movies should get off to something of a rousing start, but “Taking Woodstock” seems almost like an amateur production in its opening scenes as we’re introduced to Elliot, a young man who would rather be in New York City but is enticed by his embarrassing parents to stay in the Catskills and run their downtrodden motel. At the same time, Elliot, as head of the local Chamber of Commerce, issues a concert permit that leads to Woodstock. I must admit, having lived through the Hippie years, that retrospectives on that era are depressing because of memories of the incredible and absurd idealism and optimism that soon led so many Americans to utterly reject it and vote in 40-plus years of primarily conservative power in this country (Nixon had already been elected in 1968). Instead of the film celebrating in any significant way the music of the great festival, “Taking Woodstock” features the anger of the locals, local anti-semitism, the utter chaos in the production side of the concert, and the even worse chaos that arrived when thousands of fans overran the roads and fields of the area as the festival was about to begin. To be positive about one thing, Ang Lee did a fine job of recreating what the conditions were undoubtedly like during the days leading up to and through the concert, including the over-crowded roads. Also, Ang Lee obviously thought it would be a good idea to include a few cameos and so Liev Schreiber appears (in possibly the best performance of the film) as a tranvestite hired for security purposes at the motel; Emile Hirsch plays a stereotypical role as a local young Vietnam vet obviously suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; Eugene Levy, amusingly, plays Max Yasgur; Mamie Gummer appears as Tisha, girlfriend of festival organizer Michael Lang, although her head is almost completely covered by a very wide-brimmed hat throughout; and Paul Dano appears as an acid-tripping freak whom Demetri meets at the festival grounds. In that scene, Demetri goes to Max Yasgur’s farm to see the concert but instead winds up on an acid trip with two hippies (Dano and Kelli Garner) in a VW bus. Sadly, “Taking Woodstock” felt to me like a bad acid trip with visions of an astoundingly unkempt and rundown Catskills motel before the concert, and the trash mess and mud left behind by the fans after the concert, two memories I would rather not have. C- (12/24/09)

“Inglourious Basterds”-Quentin Tarantino has always been an innovative filmmaker, if not a little over-the-top when it comes to violence (think “Reservoir Dogs). However, in “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino’s talents have come to full fruition. This film is original, witty, violent, beautifully paced and filmed, thought-provoking, loaded with perfect Tarantino musical touches, and a wonderful revenge fantasy (something Tarantino does extremely well). It also contains some of the best performances in a long time. The plot? Well, a group of American soldiers, including Jews, led by the southern accented Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), enter Germany to kill as many Nazis as possible. Meanwhile, Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who escaped the slaughter of her Jewish family while they were hiding in the floor of a farmhouse and who now runs a Paris cinema, has the unfortunate problem of being wooed by a German soldier, Private Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who just happens to be a Nazi war hero/killer machine and who just happens to be the star of Joseph Goebbels’ latest Nazi propaganda film, “Nation’s Pride.” And Zoller has convinced Goebbels and Hitler to have the film debuted not at a large theater in Paris, but rather at Shoshanna’s smaller movie theater, thus providing an opportunity for the Basterds to attack a multitude of Nazi officials while Shoshanna has her own plans for revenge. But the film centers around a brilliant portrayal by Christoph Waltz of Col. Hans Landa, one of the most charming, sophisticated, multilingual, and brutal movie Nazis of all time. Landa is a master at putting those he is investigating at ease before pulling out the rug. Christoph Waltz is a revelation in this role and will undoubtedly win lots of acting awards for his incredible performance. But let’s not forget Brad Pitt who, once again (think “Burn After Reading”) is hysterical in his portrayal of Aldo Raine, the head “basterd.” Also worthy of note in this outstanding cast are Melanie Laurent, as the young Jewish woman who must bite her lip when she is forced to deal with Nazi officials all the way up to Goebbels; Michael Fassbender as Archie Hilcox, a British spy in the Basterds; Eli Roth as the Basterds’ Sgt. Donny Donowitz; Til Schweiger as Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz, a former German soldier who loves killing Nazis; and August Diehl as Major Dieter Hellstrom, who plays an arrogant Nazi officer to the hilt while inadvertently interrupting a meeting between some of the Basterds who are plotting with German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger). There’s even a brief, but effective performance by Mike Myers as a British officer. This is one of the best films in years. Don’t miss it. (Primarily in English but with a few scenes in German and French with English subtitles). A (12/23/09)

“Paper Heart”-This is an alleged documentary. Is it real? It hardly seems so. The co-writer and director, Nicholas Jasonevec, appears in the movie. Oh wait, no he doesn’t; he’s played by an actor, Jake M. Johnson. So, whatever this film is, it’s about Charlyne Yi, who is said to be an actress and comedienne, and her doubts about the nature of love and her ability to fall in love. Unfortunately, although Ms. Yi undoubtedly has some talents (she appeared in"Knocked Up"), they’re not obvious here. In fact, for a 20-something in show business, she comes across as a dour, rather dull, unattractive, and monotoned character. She is shown talking to a variety of people about love, some in show business described as “friends,” such as Seth Rogen, and others who although supposedly real seem suspiciously like actors. A few of those, including an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas and a biker, are either amusing or shown in amusing situations. The film also has two or three puppet shows apparently intended to demonstrate the details of stories being told. At the heart of the film is actor Michael Cera, shown allegedly meeting Ms. Yi for the first time and then starting a friendship (would you call this a relationship?) which seems to last only a short period of time (in fact, Internet sources indicate that Mr. Cera and Ms. Yi actually went together for three years until Mr. Cera recently broke it off). All in all, I found this a gigantic yawn. C- (12/21/09)

“Sin Nombre”-This is a beautifully filmed and powerful look at the lives of desperate people south of the border. Written and directed by American Cary Fukunaga, “Sin Nombre” follows two groups whose paths eventually cross: three family members trying to migrate by train from their native Honduras through Mexico to reach other family members in New Jersey, and truly vicious gang members in Mexico. The Hondurans include the teenage Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), traveling on top of the train with her father and uncle in miserable and exposed conditions. At the same time, Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta), a vicious and overly tattooed gang leader, forces Willy (El Casper) (Edgar Flores) and Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) to accompany him while he robs desperate people on the train. When Lil Mago gets too interested in the lovely young Sayra, Willy, who earlier seemed at odds with the gang, kills him, chases Smiley off the train and back to the gang, and, as a result, brings down the force and power of the seemingly omnipresent thugs upon himself. Willy/Casper knows he’s doomed, and leaves the train only to find that Sayra, hopelessly attached to him for having saved her, is following along and risking her life as well. “Sin Nombre” seems brutally realistic in its tragic view of the miseries of life among the poor in countries from Mexico to Latin America. Paulina Gaitan and Edgar Flores are both first rate and memorable as the young couple trying to survive as they head for the border. (In Spanish with English subtitles) B+ (12/19/09)

“Julie and Julia”-Nora Ephron’s “Julie and Julia” is an absolutely delightful surprise. Julie Powell (Amy Adams), author of the book upon which the film is based, is a young hopeful writer living with her husband Eric (Chris Messina) over a pizza parlor in Queens in 2002, who works for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, a government agency dealing with the effects of 9/11. She comes up with the intriguing and seemingly tiresome task of making every recipe in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and then writing about it on an Internet blog. While Julie cooks with success and frustrations, almost threatening her marriage at one point, joyfully the film also tells the wonderful story of how Julia Child (Meryl Streep), wife of Paris-stationed State Department employee Paul Child (Stanley Tucci), became Julia Child the megastar of the cooking world. Amy Adams is so talented, spunky and energetic, and so well supported by Chris Messina, that the Julie portions of the film are adventurous and intriguing. Will she succeed? Will she be able to cook live lobsters or bone a duck? But the overpowering star of this film is Meryl Streep as the inherently humorous, talented, and self-confident Julia Child who once inspired one of the most absurdly diabolical and hysterical Saturday Night Live routines by Danny Ackroyd (which appears in the film). Meryl Streep is literally perfect as the tall woman with a high-pitched voice whose personality was utterly unique. Streep proves, once again, that she is one of the very few actors capable of turning herself completely into the character she portrays. And Stanley Tucci is magnificent as the utterly supportive Paul. “Julie and Julia” does a decent job of balancing the two stories, but contains a sour note at the end when it is revealed that the elderly Julia disapproved of young Julie’s efforts, feeling it was a stunt and that she wasn’t a serious cook. Director Nora Ephron (“You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle”) has done a masterful job of telling both stories and entertaining her audience. Highly recommended. A- (12/12/09)

“A Christmas Tale”-A few years ago, Arnaud Desplechin, director and writer of this film, made a film called “Kings and Queen,” about a group of dysfunctional people, including a rather cold woman whose father is dying of cancer and who has a relationship with a man who finds himself in a mental institution. Desplechin seems stuck on theme as “A Christmas Tale” is the story of a rather screwed up family in which Junon, the mother (Catherine Deneuve), has cancer and needs a bone marrow transplant, the daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) hates her brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric) and, at least for a while, successfully bans him from the family, and also has a young son with mental problems. The theme of Desplechin’s film is the ultimate coming together for the benefit of the mother, but believe me it’s a tough road getting there and seems the result of fate and utter necessity rather than familial love. There is nothing wrong with the production values. The film is lovingly photographed and the actors are superb. I was especially taken with Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve’s real-life daughter, as Sylvia, the wife of Junon’s son Ivan, who finds herself making up for old times with Simon (Laurent Capelletto), her husband’s cousin. Also, Jean-Paul Rousillon, who died not long after the film was made, was wonderful as Junon’s elderly husband, Abel, the disappointed leader of the clan. I kept expecting revelations that never came but maybe that’s not such such a surprise in the often enigmatic French cinema. (In French with English subtitles) B (12/11/09)

Gomorrah”-Using stories contained in Roberto Saviano’s popular Italian book of the same name, Director Matteo Garrone takes us on a horrifying tour of the Naples-based underworld clan, the Camorra, and its internecine wars, including between the old line gangsters, who had a semblance of protocols and procedures, and the newer and younger goons whose primary protocol seems to be force and murder. There’s no Tony Soprano or Godfather “charm” here, just pedestrian thugs in an ugly environment, whether it be in the heart of the city slums or in the outlying rural or waterfront locations. The stories center on Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese), a young boy living in a hell-like slum who chooses to side with the old versus the new; Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), a money carrier for the inner city gangsters; Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a tailor attempting to help some local Chinese start up a garment business who should have known better when forced to ride in the trunk of a car to get to the Chinese factory; Franco (Toni Servillo of “Il Divo”), a well-dressed gangster attempting to show the ropes to young Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) as he plans a local environmentally thoughtless toxic waste disposal operation; and two young hoods (Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone) who think they can operate independently but who meet an expected ending when their bullet-riddled bodies are picked up by a bulldozer and ignominiously carried away to the trash. Although beautifully filmed, “Gomorrah” is not a pretty picture and, unfortunately, is somewhat confusing. The stories are intermingled in such a way that it took me a good deal of time into the film before I could make some sense of where it was going. In the end, Director Garrone certainly accomplished his goal of proving that Italy is not all the picture-book tourist attraction that so many Americans imagine, but it would have been more effective had the stories been more clearly defined. (In Italian with English subtitles) B+ (12/5/09)

“Jerichow”-Writer-director Christian Petzold admits that this film is inspired by the classic film “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” but “Jerichow” never reaches the dramatic heights that film achieved. “Jerichow” is the story of Thomas (Benno Fürmann), a German who has returned from the Afghan war to the slightly decrepit home of his recently deceased mother. After being beaten and robbed by some acquaintances, making it impossible for him to renovate his mother’s house, Thomas doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself until he is hired as a driver by Ali Özkan (Hilmi Sözer), a German of Turk descent who operates a snack bar business, and he meets Ali’s tall blonde wife, Laura (Nina Hoss). While Ali is obviously a pushy and jealous man, Thomas and Laura nevertheless find themselves in an affair that can lead only to trouble. Although Benno Fürmann and Nina Hoss (who was excellent in “A Woman in Berlin”) are leading stars in Germany, they have no chemistry in this film. While the film gives us a good idea of Ali’s business dealings, and the Thomas-Laura affair “heats up” when Ali leaves on a business trip, the relationship between the two lovers seems utterly artificial as does the ending. In fact, the characters seem aimless and emotionless most of the time and this ultimately is the film’s undoing. One puzzling observation: although significant scenes take place at a seaside beach which seems in easy reach of the characters’ homes, one look at a German map will show that the town of Jerichow, west of Berlin, is nowhere near such a body of water. (In German and Turkish with English subtitles) C+ (12/4/09)

“Angels & Demons”-It’s directed by Ron Howard and stars Tom Hanks and so this thriller can’t be too bad, can it? Well, no. Judging “Angels & Demons” by the standard of sensationalistic films with absurd premises, it’s a pretty effective film. Although the original novel by Dan Brown was written prior to “The DaVinci Code,” here Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is summoned to the Vatican after and despite the “incidents” involved in that tale. The Pope has just died and the Church has been warned that four leading Cardinals, in Rome for the Conclave, have been kidnapped and will be killed in horrifying ways after being branded, and that an explosive device will destroy the Vatican by a blinding light. The information is said to come from a group known as the Illuminati which has been at odds with the Church for centuries and, somewhat inconsistently, is known to have been made up of scientists and progressive scholars. As we learn this information, we also learn that antimatter created by Cern’s Large Hadron Collider has been stolen and is at the heart of the bomb used to threaten the Vatican. Needless to say, Langdon, the Harvard mystic sign expert, followed by a retinue of Vatican officials, police, and Swiss Guard races around Rome to find the clues to try to save the Cardinals and the Vatican itself. Although Langdon ostensibly has a female sidekick, namely Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), a Cern scientist responsible for the antimatter, Vetra turns out to be a relatively minor character and Zurer adds little pizzazz to the unfolding events. On the other hand, director Howard has cleverly cast the excellent Stellan Skarsgard (recently seen in “Mamma Mia”) as the suspicious Commander Richter, and Armin Mueller-Stahl as the powerful Cardinal Strauss, leader of the Conclave. A less thrilling choice is Ewan McGregor as Camerlengo Patrick McKenna, the priest who temporarily runs the Vatican before another Pope is selected by the Conclave. McGregor, whose character is at the heart of the story, seems undynamic and somewhat miscast. “Angels & Demons” is a loaded film (is it pro or anti-Catholic, or just neutral?) but a fairly effective thriller, especially in the movie-making magic which makes you believe it’s really taking place in St. Peter’s Square and the heart of Rome. B+ (11/26/09)

“A Woman in Berlin”-Based on the anonymous diaries of a German woman who survived WW II, “A Woman in Berlin” is a powerful portrayal of the human condition, especially fear, in Berlin in the spring of 1945 upon the arrival of angry Soviet troops, particularly for the surviving German women who were their easy victims. At the heart of the film is the unnamed woman (known in the titles as Anonyma), sensitively portrayed by Nina Hoss, whose husband, Gerd, has not yet returned from the war, and who is eventually sexually assaulted several times before developing a “friendship” with the local Soviet commandant, Major Andreij Rybkin (Yevgeni Sidikhim). Rybkin is a man caught between anger over the German army’s brutal murder of his wife, and his attraction for the unnamed heroine. Directed by Max Färberböck, this film reveals with clarity the animalistic nature of war interspersed with rare moments of humanity and is in its way one of the best films about the nature of the effect of war on the human psyche. One of the most telling moments comes when Gerd returns and treats his wife with contempt upon learning of what she has been through, reflecting the apparent actual reaction of the German public to the publication of the book upon which the film is based. In German and Russian with English subtitles. A- (11/25/09)

“Star Trek”-The “Star Trek” franchise needed some freshening and director J. J. Abrams (known for TV series such as “Lost”) has done just that, updating the crew and the technology so that the Enterprise and its crew seems a little more out of “Star Wars” than “Star Trek.” Rather than moving to a “Star Trek” future, Abrams takes us to a “Star Trek” past in which little by little the familiar crew of the Starship Enterprise comes together. Unfortunately, at the heart of the story is a time warp involving Nero (Eric Bana), a Romulan angry at Spock for failing to prevent the future destruction of his native planet. Nero, with a very large insect-like spaceship, plans to avenge the future loss of his planet by destroying Vulcan and other Federation assets. Although I tend to like time travel stories, I found the details of this aspect of the story extremely muddy (maybe a second viewing would have helped, but the film wasn’t THAT good). In any case, Spock’s time traveling, is at the essence of this film’s tale about the coming together of the familiar Star Trek crew. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is the son of a man who died a hero, saving him while in the womb for future greatness, and the young rowdy Kirk uses his inherited gifts to take over as Captain of the Enterprise from a young Spock (Zachary Quinto, looking a lot like a young Leonard Nimoy). While waiting to battle Nero, the same angry Romulan nemesis whose aggressiveness led to Kirk’s father’s death, Kirk befriends the cynical Bones (Karl Urban) while in training; joins Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho of TV’s “Flash Forward”), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) as they become pivotal parts of the Enterprise crew; and meets and and brings aboard Scotty (Simon Pegg) to perfect the beam ray. While William Shatner (the original Kirk) is nowhere to be seen, Leonard Nimoy does appear as the elder version of the allegedly emotionless Vulcan, Spock. Despite the weaknesses in the story, “Star Trek” is an enjoyable updating of the Star Trek legend and the cast is a fine modern recreation of the original crew. Also of note in the cast are Ben Cross (“Chariots of Fire”) as Spock’s father, Sarek; Winona Ryder as Spock’s ill-fated mother; and Bruce Greenwood as Captain Pike who ultimately hands the reins of the Enterprise to Kirk. B (11/21/09)

“Up”-Another first-rate animated film from Pixar, “Up” is at its best during its opening sequence in which we are cleverly introduced to Carl Fredericksen as a young boy, sitting in a movie theater, and watching a newsreel of his hero, explorer Charles Muntz, who claims to have made amazing animal discoveries in Paradise Falls in South America. Young Carl fantasizes about Muntz’s adventures and then happens on a like-minded young girl in Ellie who has him promise that they will someday travel to Paradise Falls. But life gets in the way and next we see Carl as an old man living in the same house that he and Ellie occupied as a couple, but now surrounded by big city construction. When things get hairy, Carl, who sold helium balloons, uses thousands of balloons to lift his house off its foundation and head for South America. “Up” changes at this point from a poignant love story to a slightly more mundane childhood adventure fantasy with Carl and a young chubby stowaway, Russell, managing to make their way to Paradise Falls where they meet a variety of unusual characters, including a pack of talking dogs and a very colorful large bird Russell names Kevin. As is always the case with Pixar’s films, “Up” is brilliantly animated, extremely clever and original, and beautifully filmed, and loaded with worthwhile themes, including the “never too late” philosophy that emerges in Carl’s old age, and the disappointment of learning the truth about one’s childhood heroes. Ed Asner voices the older version of Carl and other voices of note in the cast are Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson, and Delroy Lindo. “Up” is certainly a film for children but, once again, Pixar loads it with enough material to make adults happy they saw it too. A- (11/15/09)

“Whatever Works”-Woody Allen returns to New York City and revives his classic theme of romance between an older man and younger woman. In doing so, at least for the first half of the film, Allen also revives his old sense of humor and produces one of his funniest films in a long time. I was a little wary of seeing Larry David (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) in an Allen film because I’m not a big fan of his “Curb” character, but David turns out to be the perfect curmudgeon to play Boris Yelnikoff, an almost-Nobel prize winning physicist and self-proclaimed “genius,” who is sarcastic about virtually everything and isn’t afraid to let the world know it. He’s living alone after divorcing his beautiful wife, Jessica (Carolyn McCormick), and finds young Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) sleeping outside of his apartment. Despite his automatic reluctance, Boris allows the young Mississippian to move in and,, after much denial and protestation, to marry him. Larry David provides a perfect delivery of the Allen message of cynicism about our culture, societal interests and activities, politics, and religion, and Evan Rachel Wood is a delightful revelation as the young big-eyed and enthusiastic foil for the David/Allen proclamations. But about half-way through, the film loses some of its punch and cynicism when Melodie’s overbearing mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), suddenly shows up at the door spouting Jesus and outrage that her daughter has married such as Yelnikoff. Leave it to Woody to ridicule the Southern rural ultra-religious right-wing mentality by having first Marietta and, later, her estranged husband, John (Ed Begley, Jr.), arrive in New York and undergo amazing transformations. Actually, a little too amazing and, as a result, not quite as funny as the initial interaction between Boris and Melodie. But, as Boris keeps saying: “whatever works,” and here Woody Allen’s return to his earlier style of comedy certainly worked (for at least a good portion of the film). B+ (11/13/09)

“Il Divo”- Director Paolo Sorrentino clearly desired to expose the alleged murderous connections between Giulio Andreotti (Toni Servillo), who served as the Prime Minister of Italy on several occasions from 1972 to 1992 (and is still alive and active at age 90) and the mafia. Employing a rather original approach, Sorrentino introduces us to the small, taciturn, and slightly hunchbacked Andreotti, played brilliantly and with tightlipped efficiency by Servillo, whose demeanor makes it difficult to fathom how Andreotti would have managed to maintain his power without the violence and the gun-toting guards who protected him. Some scenes are dream-like, others are vividly real. And others involve long and intense dialogues by and about characters whose identities are not always clear. For the American audience, not familiar with Andreotti or Italian politics, the film seems long, dense and much too detailed, loaded with subtitles. By the end you may feel like you have read a complete novel. But the essence comes through, especially in dramatic “Godfather”-like scenes in which a variety of people are gunned down or blown up. “Il Divo” is definitely an enlightening experience, but not for those who like their film stories told simply and directly. (In Italian with many English subtitles). B (11/7/09)

“The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3”-This remake of a 1974 film about a hijack of a New York City subway train has bright and energetic cinematography from Tobias A. Schliessler, taut directing by veteran thriller director Tony Scott (“Top Gun”), and rather intense performances by Denzel Washington and John Travolta. Travolta is the crazed and murderous Ryder who leads a small band of machine-gun toting hoods as they take over the Pelham 1 2 3 train in a tunnel and demand $20 million to be delivered from the city of New York in exactly one hour. Washington is Walter Garber, a laconic subway bigwig who is being investigated for alleged bribe-taking and is temporarily working as a dispatcher. It’s Garber’s fate to be sitting in the dispatch chair when the Pelham train is overcome and to wind up in a one-on-one psychodrama dialogue with the passionate Ryder who manages to make all conversations personal via his threats to kill hostages. With all these elements, one would think the film would be memorable, but in the end it seems like just another manipulative special effects thriller, including the required car chases and crashes. That’s not to say that the film isn’t fun to watch. It certainly is. But it seems like we’ve seen this stuff before and not only in the original which starred Walter Matthau as Garber and Robert Shaw in the Travolta part (remember Spider-man chasing down a runaway subway train?). John Turturro plays the police hostage negotiator and James Gandolfini is amusing as the cynical but earnest mayor. “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” certainly won’t bore you, but don’t expect to see it on any best film lists. B (11/6/09)

“Chéri”-Based on the novel by Collette, and with a screenplay by Christopher Hampton (“Atonement’), “Chéri,” is the story of courtesans during the turn-of-the-century Belle Epoque in Paris who became quite wealthy and formed their own little social circle. Michelle Pfeiffer, looking lovely at age 51, is the aging Lea de Lonval, a successful and somewhat retired courtesan who falls for Chéri (Rupert Friend), the son of one of her colleagues. Chéri, whose mother, Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates), is overbearing and opinionated, is taken with the elder Lea and falls into a six-year relationship with her. While Peloux initially tolerates the relationship between the young Chéri and the much older Lea, she ultimately dreams of grandchildren and forces her son into a loveless marriage with Edmee (Felicity Jones), the daughter of another of their clan. Lea, although outwardly calm, realizes that she greatly misses her young lover. Although the film is watchable, and Michelle Pfeiffer, not one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses, does a fairly decent job, it suffers from some stilted acting and miscasting. “Chéri” is a French story that needed French actors and language. Listening to the stars in period costume speaking “American” or “British” is disconcerting. It’s a shame that director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) loaded it with Americans Michelle Pfeiffer and Kathy Bates and Brits Rupert Friend and Felicity Jones, with nary a French word or accent to be heard. B (10/30/09)

“Every Little Step”-I saw “A Chorus Line” twice in the late 1970s, once in London and once in Washington, DC. It was a delight for those of us who love Broadway musicals because it gave behind-the-scenes insight into the psyches of the talented people who rarely, if ever, star but are always in the background. This is a subject of particular fascination to someone like me who wonders about just who the people on stage really are. “Every Little Step” is a simple documentary about the behind-the-scenes casting of the recent behind-the-scenes musical revival itself. With archival footage of the late Michael Bennett, the creator of “A Chorus Line,” and interviews with composer Marvin Hamlisch and original star Donna McKechnie, we are introduced to the pain, effort, and joy that went into the casting of a recent Broadway revival of “A Chorus Line,” with the production crew led by Bob Avian, Michael Bennett’s original co-creator, and Baayork Lee, who originated the role of Connie. “Every Little Step” is enlightening, if not a little repetitive and seemed to overemphasize the female tryouts, giving short shrift to those contending for the male roles. At the end there is joy among the successful, although a look at the Internet Broadway database shows that some of the winners were only in the show for a few months. The revival ran for a little less than two years. B- (10/27/09)

“Tyson”-A surprisingly interesting documentary about boxer Mike Tyson, “Tyson” shows us that despite his misadventures in love, life and boxing, Tyson is an intriguing character who is more intelligent than one might have thought. Written and directed effectively by James Toback, “Tyson” not only contains interviews with the subject himself and those around him, but first-rate boxing footage as we see Tyson go from Heavyweight champ to an out-of-shape opportunist who admitted boxing at the end of his career just to make ends meet. The film is also enlightening as to Tyson’s love life, including his brief early marriage disaster to actress Robin Givens, and his later success at producing a substantial number of offspring, although his admitted philandering apparently helped end his second marriage. I was particularly intrigued by Tyson’s interactions with the great trainer Cus D’Amato, and also his rather bitter comments about boxing promoter Don King. B (10/16/09)

“The Brothers Bloom”-If you’re going to make a film about con men, it helps to have a good con story to tell. Unfortunately, in “The Brothers Bloom,” the victim of the con seems ready, willing, and able and not at all concerned about losing her money since she’s loaded and doesn’t really care. The film gets off to a rousing start with brothers Stephen and Bloom being passed around from foster family to foster family while developing their con skills. When we see them as adults, the older brother, Stephen, is played by Mark Ruffalo, and Bloom by Adrien Brody, and they are aided by a mysterious mostly mute Asian woman named Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) who knows how to set off a good explosive. Although Bloom claims to be reluctant to continue the con game, he’s constantly brought back into it by his older brother and ultimately they set their sights on Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), a young loaded woman living in an eccentric mansion in what is supposed to be New Jersey but looks more like Switzerland. Stephen, Bloom, Bang Bang, and Penelope set out on an adventure that takes them to sea and overland by train and which ultimately seems aimless since it is impossible to tell what is con and what isn’t. In fact, Penelope may be the best “con man” of all as she inexplicably talks her way out of police custody in an exotic Eastern European location. There’s nothing wrong with the performances by any of the actors, although Rachel Weisz stands out. And the supporting cast is delightful, including Robbie Coltrane as a Belgian smuggler and Maximilian Schell as the brothers’s nemesis. But ultimately, although beautifully filmed and loaded with eye candy, the script fizzles and we’re left with a rather lame finale and a sense of wonderment about the point, if any, of the film. B- (10/13/09)

“Away We Go”-A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote a brilliant, scathing review of this film back in June that stood out from so many others that just pass in the night. My reaction to this film (directed by Sam Mendes and based on a screenplay by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida), is similar in some ways but hardly as critical. I highly recommend Scott’s review, but here are my thoughts. The film begins with a risque scene in the bedroom of Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), an unmarried couple living in and out of a ramshackle house which appears to be out west somewhere, near Burt’s parents. Verona is soon pregnant and off they go to visit the “grandparents,” Burt’s father (Jeff Daniels) and mother (Catherine O’Hara) who shock the young couple by giddily announcing that they are leaving for Belgium for two years and won’t be around to help when the baby comes. Faced with being alone, Burt and Verona decide to take a tour of cities in which their friends and relatives are located to consider a possible move. They embark on what appears to be a voyage of discovery but what they quickly learn is that most of their friends and relatives are wackjobs or troubled and, in contrast, they’ve got it pretty much together. Along the way, we meet the astonishingly inappropriate Lily (Allison Janney) in Phoenix; LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a highly affected women’s studies professor, in Madison, WI, in what has to be one of the most painful portrayals of a true believer and her nutty husband (Josh Hamilton) I’ve seen in a long time; Tom (Chris Messina) and Munch (Melanie Lynskey), a couple in Montreal who initially appear happy with a houseful of adopted children but who really miss having their own; and Burt’s brother Courtney (Paul Schneider), in Miami, feeling sorry for himself after his wife has left him and his daughter. Although the film would seem to be about Burt and Verona, I had the lingering sense that it was really a portrayal of messed-up Americans, each of which is essentially rejected by the happy traveling couple. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the performances. Particularly outstanding are John Krasinski as the rather amusing Burt who seems utterly self-confident without real cause; Maya Rudolph as the future earth mother; Allison Janney in a role unlike almost anything I’ve ever seen her do; Maggie Gyllenhaal in a bravura performance as the obnoxious LN; and Chris Messina as a man who tries to explain life to Burt and Verona, but doesn’t seem to be fully in control of his own. “Away We Go” is beautifully filmed and certainly watchable, but beware your reaction to these characters. B (10/2/09)

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