This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of January to March 2010


“Broken Embraces”- Pedro Almodóvar is a great director and screenwriter who has made several wonderful films, including “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “Talk to Her,” “Bad Education,” and “Volver.” His films almost always are gorgeously photographed, have interesting and unusual stories, and are acted with precision and panache. “Broken Embraces” is no exception. Starting with crisp, perfectly lit, and gorgeous cinematography, thanks to Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (“Brokeback Mountain”), “Broken Embraces” is a joy to watch. The film begins with a mystery. A blind writer, who admits that his real name is Mateo Blanco, reveals that he now calls himself Harry Caine (Lluís Homar). He is accompanied and aided by his agent, Judit Garcia (Blanca Portillo) and her son, Diego (Tamar Novas). Two events lead to a look back at events 14 years earlier. First, the death of a wealthy businessman, Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) is announced and, second, Harry Caine is visited by a young man who calls himself Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano), claiming to want Harry to help him write the script for a documentary he wants to film. When Harry suspects that Ray X is in fact the son of Ernesto Martel, the truth begins to come out. The story that is told centers around a triangle involving Martel, his mistress, the gorgeous and talented Lena (Penélope Cruz), and Mateo Blanco. “Broken Embraces” is loaded with interesting dialogue as the romance/mystery is unveiled through a variety of jumps between the present and flashbacks to 1994. Penélope Cruz, who has developed into a star of the highest magnitude, is a delight to watch, as is Lluís Homar, an actor I don’t recall seeing before. “Broken Embraces” embraces themes of lust, jealousy, and revenge and is highly recommended. (In Spanish with English subtitles). A (3/28/10)


“The Informant!”-I’ll say one thing for director Steven Soderbergh: he doesn’t make the same movie twice. “The Informant,” for example, is as far from “Che” as one could possibly imagine. This film, based on real-life events, tells the very strange story of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a high-level executive of early 1990s ADM (Archer-Daniels-Midland, a midwestern company which manufactures food ingredients and supplements made from corn and other agricultural products), who decided to become an FBI whistleblower about ADM’s illegal price fixing, only to have his own world come crashing down due to some obvious and weird character flaws. Matt Damon does an extraordinary job in a role unlike anything I can remember seeing him do before, as the seemingly sincere exec (with a bad toupee and a few too many secrets) who ultimately was just a little too loquacious for his own good. Melanie Lynskey (“Up in the Air”) plays Whitacre’s wife a little too bright eyed, bushy tailed, and innocent, although she was the one who originally pushed Whitacre into the role of whistleblower. But although attempting to be humorous and a little James Bondish (especially the score by Marvin Hamlisch), “The Informant” ultimately drags as Whitacre’s weird behavior befuddles all around him, including FBI agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula), the Justice Department officials who originally believe Whitacre will be a great witness against ADM, and his own lawyers who either don’t know what to make of him or believe all his fantastic assertions. In the end, rather than being a really funny film about a somewhat eccentric man on a crusade for justice, “The Informant” turns into a rather extended case study of a very disturbed man who couldn’t tell the truth if he fell over it. B (3/26/10)


“Paris”-Written and directed by Cédric Klapisch, this lovely film is a true homage to the city of Paris much the way a Woody Allen film might be an homage to New York City. Klapisch shows Paris at its absolute best and, not surprisingly, it’s pretty darn beautiful. In the midst of “Paris” we are introduced to a group of people, some related and some not, experiencing a variety of emotions and life changes. At the heart of the film is the luminous Juliette Binoche as Élise, an unattached mother of three trying to get by who finds herself having to care for her brother, Pierre (Romain Duris of “Molière”), a dancer who has just learned that he has serious heart disease and needs a transplant. While Pierre is alone, he stares longingly into the apartment across the street of a lovely young woman, Laetitia (Mélanie Laurent of “Inglourious Basterds”), who, at the same time is being wooed/stalked by her much older and lonely professor, Roland Verneuil (played to perfection by Fabrice Luchini of “The Girl from Monaco”). Meanwhile, Verneuil’s brother Philippe (Francois Cluzet of “Tell No One”) is going through the emotions of becoming a father at a later than usual age. And then there is Jean (Albert Dupontel), the owner of a large outdoor vegetable stand who employs his former wife, Caroline (Julie Ferrier) and learns only too late that his feelings for her haven’t quite disappeared. A regular customer is Élise who clearly is intrigued with Jean. There are more stories and if this film has a fault, it is that the story is a little too disjointed and there are a little too many unconnected segues. One story that could have been eliminated, although I suspect it was very important to Klapisch, was that of a young man from Cameroon who dreams of coming to Paris. “Paris” is beautifully filmed, the cast first-rate, and the stories are loaded with emotions ranging from affection to melancholy to ardor to pain. This film is worth your time. (In French with English subtitles) A- (3/20/10)


“Up in the Air”-George Clooney is skillfully cast as Ryan Bingham, a man who believes he is happy leading the lonely existence of a constant air traveler with virtually no roots, whose job it is to go from city to city firing corporate employees while rather half-heartedly trying to ease their way into the world of unemployment. When we first see Ryan, he’s showing us how he loves his singular and cold existence. He knows exactly how to pack, how to get quickly through airport check-ins, and how to get to the head of the line at all times. He has a card for every purpose, but he has almost nothing in the way of real human interaction in his life. His sister Julie (Melanie Lynskey) is getting married in northern Wisconsin, but he has barely had contact with her or his other sister, Kara (Amy Morton), for years. His main dream is to make 10 million miles. He even gives lectures on ridding oneself of all the baggage of life, including possessions and people. When two women enter his life, however, Ryan slowly finds himself reassessing his existence. First, he meets a female counterpart, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), and they begin a relationship whenever they can meet up during their corporate travels. Meanwhile, his boss (Jason Bateman), at the company headquarters in Omaha, introduces him to a new smart hire, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who immediately proposes that the company save lots of money on travel by using video teleconferencing to perform their cruel occupation. Ryan’s world, it seems, is about to change. “Up in the Air,” co-written and directed by Jason Reitman, is lovingly filmed, and contains a rousing soundtrack, starting with a rhythm and blues version of “This Land is Your Land.” As a character study of a man who is an expert on avoiding any substance in his life, it does a fine job, although it goes a little astray at the end when Ryan undergoes a little too much of a sudden transformation. Its ultimate theme requires a few unlikely events, including Bingham’s growing affection for the very attractive Alex and his surprising discovery about just who she really is. Vera Farmiga is adeptly cast as the cool, good-looking, and sexy Alex whose existence seems the perfect match for someone like Ryan. Not having seen Anna Kendrick before, it’s hard to tell whether she’s simply an annoying, slightly shrill actress or merely perfect at playing the annoying, slightly shrill Natalie. Since all three (Clooney, Farmiga, and Kendrick) received Oscar nominations, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and say that she is right-on as the know-it-all techie who discovers the realities of life the hard way. “Up in the Air” has its flaws, but is unusual, original, and definitely something to see. A- (3/12/10)


“The Damned United”-Brits may actually be more fanatic about the game they call football (and we call soccer) than Americans are about our game of football. “The Damned United,” which centers around the world of British soccer, is the true-life story of Brian Clough (Michael Sheen), who managed to turn one second division team, Derby County, into a first division champion, and then made the disastrous mistake of trying to manage Leeds United, a team with which he had had an extremely intense rivalry. Sheen is brilliant in a role apart from anything I’ve seen him do before. Unlike his well known roles as fairly sophisticated characters such as Tony Blair (“The Queen”) or David Frost (“Frost/Nixon”), in “The Damned United,” he’s a man of multiple personality traits, ranging among charismatic, angry, caring, lugubrious, pushy, and overbearing. With the help of his close friend, colleague, and great recruiter, Peter Taylor (the always wonderful Timothy Spall), and despite resistance from the head of Derby County’s management, Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent), Clough revitalizes soccer at Derby County and turns it into a major rival of the arrogant, nasty and ultra-successful Leeds United team which was managed by Don Revie (Colm Meaney). And when Revie is named manager of the England team, Clough can’t resist taking over Revie’s old team, one that he has literally despised for years. “The Damned United” is a fascinating character study of a man with great talents but who couldn’t control his worst characteristics and couldn’t resist going just over the edge, almost managing to ruin his career and his close friendships in the process. The cast is superb. Colm Meaney is perfect as the arrogant but smart Revie, who knew exactly how to get the most out of his very tough team. A- (3/12/10)


“The Invention of Lying”-This film does something that’s rarely seen in American cinema. It comes right out and tells its audience that religion is lying hokum. And yet this film’s script didn’t raise a ruckus in the world of religious fanaticism. I suspect that the theme behind the humor went over people’s heads because the film itself, comedy-wise, is something of a dud. Ricky Gervais, who is good for a few funny lines, but can’t seem to sustain an entire film, is Mark Bellison, a failing writer of non-fiction movies in a world where no one tells lies (can’t have fiction in such a world). He’s in love with the beautiful Anna (Jennifer Garner), but she comes right out and tells Mark he’s not good genetic material for a husband. One day, Mark realizes that he has the capacity to make something up in order to pay his rent and then becomes a prophet by telling his dying mother the ultimate fib (there’s a man in the sky and everyone will live in a mansion after death--you get the picture) to ease her fears of going into oblivion, and he is overheard. Eventually, the film turns into a very minor league version of the ending of “The Graduate” since Anna plans to marry a good looking man (Rob Lowe) for his genes even though she loves Mark. “The Invention of Lying” contains a few lame cameos by names such as Tina Fey, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Guest, and John Hodgman. C (3/7/10)


“Whiteout”-A murder mystery at the South Pole? Sounded like an intriguing possibility, but this very frigid film quickly goes wrong, starting with the ridiculous premise of Kate Beckinsale as a US Marshal at an American geological outpost at the South Pole. While Carrie Stetko (Beckinsale) chums around with the pleasant station doctor, John Fury (Tom Skerritt), both dreaming of going to a nice beach, a murderer is making mayhem at a nearby former Soviet facility. Although a major storm is headed right for the South Pole, Carrie doesn’t hesitate to head off by air in a variety of directions to check out on problems off the base. Soon, she finds herself battling a mad killer in the snow while freezing her fingers off. The dialogue is stilted and the script poorly developed. Scenes in which Carrie is thinking about a past event that led her to take the job at the Pole are embarrassing. Worse, unfortunately, were some of the lame performances. Actors sounded either disinterested or ready to take a nap. Despite efforts by the filmmakers to build excitement, I found myself squirming and contemplating using the fast forward. But I didn’t and got a rather expected ending to this very predictable film. Kate Beckinsale has had an odd career. She got off to a promising start in England, but it’s been mostly downhill since moving to Hollywood. Kate, get back that nice British accent and head home before it’s too late. D (3/5/10)


“Coco Before Chanel”-Directed by Anne Fontaine (“The Girl from Monaco”), “Coco Before Chanel” tells the charming story, based on true events, of a young French woman born in poverty in the late 19th Century who survived, with her sister, living in an orphanage, became something of a cabaret singer, and then attached herself to a wealthy horseman named Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde). That young woman was Gabrielle Chanel (Audrey Tautou), also known as Coco, who would ultimately push the French into the 20th Century of fashion. Concentrating on Coco’s early years and not completely accurate as to events, but close enough, “Coco Before Chanel” portrays Coco as an independent-minded young woman living with Balsan in his castle in the country, while watching the frivolous behavior of the idle rich, and instinctively rejecting the overblown corseted fashion and manners of the upper class. Eventually befriended by an actress friend of Balsan’s, Emilienne d’Alencon (Emmanuelle Devos), Coco begins to influence the fashion of d’Alencon and her cohorts towards simple and tasteful clothing. But before success hits, Coco finds herself caught between the increasing romantic feelings of Balsan and her attraction to Balsan’s friend, Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola). There is something quite unique about Audrey Tautou that makes it hard to take your eyes off her. She’s adorable, her eyes are amazingly expressive, and she does a fine job of portraying the gist of Coco’s outlook on life. Meanwhile, Benoît Poelvoorde, an actor I don’t recall seeing before, is memorable as a very rich somewhat self-centered man who gradually begins to realize that Coco is much more than just another mistress. Alessandro Nivola, an American actor, also does a fine job of portraying the ill-fated British, but French-speaking, Boy Capel. (In French with English subtitles). B+ (2/27/10)


“Che: Parts One and Two”-This is not about the Ernesto Guevara we saw in “The Motorcycle Diaries.” That man was young and fun-loving, unlike the far more serious and driven Che of Steven Soderbergh’s two-part film. These films constitute a serious docudrama about the rise and fall of the Communist guerilla fighter (from Argentina) and Cuban leader (for a brief time), Ernesto Che Guevara, played with grace and panache by Benicio Del Toro. Che, a man who was angered by the capitalist system’s exploitation of working class people, initially in Cuba and later in Bolivia, is portrayed as thoughtful and soft spoken, but very intent on accomplishing his goal of overthrowing, first, Fulgencio Batista, dictator of Cuba, and later General Rene Barrientos of Bolivia. Part One is the story of Che’s joining with Fidel Castro (Demián Bechir) in the mid-1950s to start a rebellion aimed at conquering Cuba and installing a socialist government. In Cuba, Guevara and Castro were successful in getting peasants and working class people to join their rebellion and Batista lacked the army organization that might have won the day. Soderbergh’s first film (each is about 2 1/4 hours) effectively, gradually, and with sustained magnificent cinematography, takes us through the events, the personalities, and the locales of the battles that eventually brought down the Cuban government and started more than 50 years of a new dictatorship. Part Two is a very different story. Beginning with Castro reading a letter explaining why Guevara had suddenly left Cuba, we see how Guevara, only a few years after the Cuban success, entered Bolivia with the intent of starting a new rebellion. But it is painfully obvious, right from the start, the Bolivia was a very different story and that the Bolivian peasants simply did not respond to Guevara and his ragtag gang of rebels. The film also does a fine job of showing how the Bolivian army, with American support, was far more sophisticated in its efforts to track and destroy Guevara and his almost pathetic supporters. Among those making brief appearances in Part One are Julia Ormond as a reporter interviewing him after the Cuban success and Catalina Sandino Moreno, as Aleida March, the young woman Guevara initially rejects and later married. In Part Two, the cast includes Franka Potente as Tania, a female rebel portrayed as surprisingly ineffective, Joaquim de Almeida (“24”) as Barrientos, and Lou Diamond Phillips as a man Guevara needed to inspire the peasants. Together, these two films provide a spectacularly insightful look at the drive, energy, and willingness to sacrifice that some have in order to achieve justice, and also about how those efforts often provide extremely disappointing results, both immediate and in retrospect. (Primarily in Spanish with English subtitles, but with some English). Part One: A-; Part Two: B+ (2/26/10)


“Revanche”-Directed by Austrian director Götz Spielmann, and an Academy Award best foreign film nominee last year, “Revanche” is a beautifully filmed contemplation of a variety of human emotions, actions and reactions to events. “Revanche” which, according to Mr. Spielmann, can mean either “revenge” or “second chance,” begins with some rather raw scenes showing the romantic and physical relationship between Alex (Johannes Krisch), an ex-con working at a brothel in Vienna, and his sexy Ukrainian girlfriend, Tamara (Irina Potapenko), one of the prostitutes. The two feel trapped, especially when the boss tries to encourage Tamara to move into one of his flats to become a higher class call girl. Alex’s solution is for the two to run away, but not before he robs a bank. When Tamara expresses concern for his safety in this endeavor, his response: “What can go wrong?” Well, plenty, including the deadly intervention of a local cop, Robert (Andreas Lust). The result is that Alex finds himself alone at his grandfather’s farm where he saws and chops wood to alleviate his anxieties and guilt. But fate intervenes and he discovers that the cop, Robert, and his wife, Susanne (Ursula Strauss), live nearby. The remainder of “Revanche” concerns the interaction of the three and it’s a sight to see, especially when it deals with anxiety, guilt, and lust. The cinematography in “Revanche” is extraordinarily well done. The images are sharp and the colors vividly reflect the emotions of the characters. The cast, especially Krisch, Potapenko, Strauss, and Hannes Thanheiser as Alex’s ailing grandfather, is outstanding. Director Spielmann, who also wrote the screenplay, deserves all the accolades he has received for this intelligent film. (In German and Russian with English subtitles). A- (2/20/10)


“St. Trinian’s”-Inspired by the British comedy classic “The Belles of St. Trinian’s” with Alastair Sim (1954), directors Oliver Parker and Barnaby Thompson have put together a rather surprisingly workable modern comedy about a British school for girls where the girls dress and behave wildly and things are as haywire as you can imagine. When the film began, I almost choked, thinking it was utterly ridiculous and that I would be bored out of mind, as I probably would have for any similar American film. But the British are clever when it comes to comedy, and loaded with first-rate actors, and that makes all the difference here. When “St. Trinian’s” begins, Annabelle Fritton (Talulah Riley), is being brought to St. Trinian’s by her obviously cynical father, Carnaby Fritton (Rupert Everett). Annabelle immediately realizes that something is very wrong at St. Trinian’s and wants to leave, but the school is run by Carnaby’s sister, the superficial and flippant and hysterical Camilla (also played by Rupert Everett). Despite a rocky start, it doesn’t take Annabelle long to join in, and join in she does in the plot of the St. Trinian’s girls to raise money to save the school by stealing a famous painting from the National Gallery. Sounds silly? Sure, but it works because of the acting chops of people like Riley and Everett, plus Colin Firth (as the British Minister of education who wants to clean up St. Trinian’s but doesn’t realize that his own daughter, played by Lucy Punch, is a nasty bully at her own school); Gemma Arterton (“Quantum of Solace”) as the head girl, Kelly; Russell Brand (doing what appears to be a great Ricky Gervais impersonation); Kathryn Drysdale, Juno Temple, Tamsin Egerton, and Paloma and Holly Mackie as other St. Trinian’s girls of various ages; and Stephen Fry as the host of a game show. Needless to say, I didn’t think this film would work, but by the end I had in fact enjoyed myself. B (2/19/10)


“The Time Traveler’s Wife”-I enjoy films and stories about time travel, especially those of the quality of the great “Time and Again” by Jack Finney. “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” however, is a bust when it comes to time travel and romance, which is really its primary theme. The film begins with some awfully stiff acting, and we quickly learn that Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana) is an unwilling time traveler who can go back and forth in time unexpectedly and without his clothes. Somehow, despite being naked whenever he arrives, he immediately finds clothes, even if it means breaking and entering. On one of his travels back, he finds himself in a meadow meeting a young girl, Clare Abshire (played by Brooklyn Proulx as a child and by Rachel McAdams as an adult). Does Clare run when she observes an older man in the bushes (he would never arrive out in the open or it might be embarrassing) who claims to be naked? Of course not. She helps him with a blanket and soon, after several visits from him over the years, falls in love. Ultimately, she meets Henry at a time when he hasn’t yet traveled back to meet her, but they marry anyway and the film proceeds to tell the story of the ups and downs (or should I say backwards and forwards) of their relationship. My problem with this film, besides the weak acting, is that it doesn’t even make one curious as to the complications of time travel (time travel is portrayed by Henry’s body quickly disappearing, leaving his clothes on the floor, and it contains the simplistic explanation that Henry cannot change history on his “travels”). It’s also rather lame when it comes to the romance as Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams have no chemistry whatsoever and it seems inconceivable that any woman in her right mind would marry a man like Henry under the circumstances. C- (2/14/10)


“Public Enemies”-Director and co-writer Michael Mann (“The Insider”) must have had “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) in mind when he started out on this project to tell the story of the final days in the early 1930s of notorious bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp). But although “Public Enemies” has vivid cinematography (thanks to Dante Spinotti), some rip-roaring shootouts, and a moderately interesting tale to tell, it never reaches the cinematic originality of the earlier film. What essentially we do see is a fairly straightforward cat and mouse story between the murderous but clever Dillinger, and his pursuer, G-man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, sounding like he was using his raspy “Batman” voice). Purvis, of course, is the ultimately successful agent assigned by his boss, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), an obsessive and fanatical young administrator bent on proving to the world that he could bring down any bad guy. But before Purvis’ success at the Biograph Theater in Chicago, there are plenty of screwups to make the film interesting, including a rather amusing moment when Dillinger manipulates the local authorities into keeping him at a jail where escape was a possibility, and then daringly escaping with the use of a fake pistol. Johnny Depp does a fine job of portraying the gangster who will mow down anyone in his way while at the same time showing concern for the feelings of others exposed to his crimes. Marion Cotillard (“La vie en rose”) provides beauty and sex appeal as Billy Frechette, the young part-French/part-Indian woman Dillinger woos and drags down with him (at least part of the way). Others of note in the cast are Jason Clarke as Dillinger’s cohort, Red Hamilton; Stephen Dorff as Homer van Meter, another of Dillinger’s associates; and Branka Katic (“Big Love”) as the foreign-born woman who is used by Purvis to ultimately find and destroy the seemingly invulnerable Dillinger. Mann makes a not completely successful effort to explain Dillinger’s popularity with the public during the Depression, and to show that Dillinger was ultimately an anachronism, but the real heart of this film is the chase with the famous ending. B (2/7/10)


“Moscow, Belgium”-The title is a little confusing since the actual title in Flemish/Dutch is “Aanrijding in Moscou,” which translates to “collision in Moscow.” And this Moscow isn’t in Russia, but happens to be a suburb of Ghent, Belgium, although the name apparently came from an occupation by Russian soldiers in the early 19th century. “Moscow, Belgium” is full of collisions, from a minor fender-bender at the beginning to lots of human hostility later. Matty (Barbara Sarafian) is a washed out unhappy 41-year old mother of three whose husband is having a fling with a 22-year old. Into her life comes 29-year old Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet), the bearded blonde truck driver who originally damaged her car and who quickly goes from hostile to adoring. When husband Werner (Johan Heldenbergh) finds out about Johnny, he suddenly rekindles his interest in Matty and wants to come home, and it doesn’t help Matty that Werner discovers some dark secrets about Johnny’s background. “Moscow, Belgium” is very well done and engrossing, ranging from drama to comedy and with a fine cast. Barbara Sarafian is terrific in the difficult role of a woman torn between two men while concerned about the needs of her children, including almost-17-year old Vera (Anemone Valcke) whose “boyfriend” turns out to be named Iris. Jurgen Delnaet is also outstanding as a troubled young man who enthusiastically sets his sights on an older woman. Directed by Christophe Van Rompaey, “Moscow, Belgium” is a first-rate film that was deservedly honored at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. (In Flemish/Dutch with English subtitles). A- (2/6/10)


“New York, I Love You”-The old saying that there are eight million stories in the naked city might apply here, at least to a fractional extent, as “New York, I Love You” intermingles a variety of stories about New Yorkers with a few characters seemingly present in more than one story. Most, if not all, revolve around human emotions, ranging from love to desire to desperation, but ultimately “New York, I Love You” lays a big egg because the stories lack cohesion and range from silly fantasy to fantastic silliness. With segments individually directed (the directors include Mira Nair, Yvan Attal, Fatih Akin, and Natalie Portman), and with gorgeous cinematography, “New York, I Love You” was clearly trying to emulate “Paris, je t’aime,” a far more successful film. But alas it doesn’t come close. A story about a man (Ethan Hawke) trying to pick up a woman (Maggie Q) with overt sexual references is embarrassing, despite the surprise at the end. One of the unfortunate elements used in this film is smoking. It gives an excuse for people to stand on the street outside restaurants and in one artificial scene, a woman (Robin Wright Penn) makes no secret of the fact that she’s coming on sexually to a man (Chris Cooper) who, as it turns out, knows her better than we thought. But there are a couple of first-rate segments, including one directed by Mira Nair about an Indian diamond dealer (Irrfan Khan) and a young orthodox Jewish woman (Natalie Portman), that are delightful and touching. These include a sensitive one in which an aging opera singer (Julie Christie) rents a room high up in a hotel with a plan of action besides simply staying overnight (Shia LeBeouf does a fine job as a handicapped bellboy). On the other hand, one episode directed by Brett Ratner, in which a young man (Anton Yelchin) is talked into taking the daughter (Olivia Thirlby) of a pharmacist (James Caan) to his prom is simply too clever and unseemly, and another in which a young handsome thief (Hayden Christiansen) is outdueled by an older man (Andy Garcia) gets the film off to a very disconcerting and cloying start. Others in the cast include Bradley Coooper, Orlando Bloom, Qi Shu ("Three Times"), Christina Ricci, John Hurt, Drea de Matteo, Cloris Leachman, and Eli Wallach. The writers and directors of many of the segments simply tried too hard to be more clever than the next. Too bad, because New York really does have millions of really good stories. C (2/5/10)


“Whip It”-The Roller Derby has always amused me and, happily, screenwriter Shauna Cross (from her own novel) and first-time director Drew Barrymore have done a smashing job of putting Roller Derby at the center of this delightfully funny film with a dandy cast of women and a first-rate soundtrack of pop songs. Ellen Page once again is simply peachy as Bliss Cavendar, a 17-year old who lives in a small miserable Texas town, works at a dull diner with her friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat), and is obviously unenthusiastic about the pageants favored by her mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden). So Bliss breaks away, lies to her parents, joins a hopeless Roller Derby team in Austin as “Babe Ruthless,” and finds herself attracted to a young musician, Oliver (Landon Pigg). But in the process, while she’s having the time of her life, Bliss also discovers she is alienating those close to her and has to make a decision about the important things in life. “Whip It” has a cast of bodacious women, ranging from Kristen Wiig as Maggie Mayhem, Zoe Bell as Bloody Holly, Eve as Rosa Sparks, Ari Graynor as Eva Destruction, and Drew Barrymore herself as Smashley Simpson. But of the women on skates, the best by far is Juliette Lewis as Iron Maven, Bliss’ opponent who ultimately teaches her a thing or two. As for the men, it’s a delight to see such a fine and charming comic actor as Daniel Stern appearing as Bliss’ father, a man who has to hide his TV sports viewing from his wife and ultimately comes to realize and enjoy just what his daughter has accomplished. Drew Barrymore has put together a fantastic jam. “Whip It” is an absolute delight. Don’t miss it. A- (1/31/10)


“Bright Star”-Director Jane Campion has had a curious career, hitting the jackpot with “The Piano” in 1993, having some success with “Holy Smoke” in 1999, then falling into oblivion with the disastrous “In the Cut” in 2003. With “Bright Star,” Campion, who also wrote the screenplay, returns to a level of filmmaking quality that brightens her own star. A period costume drama, “Bright Star” centers around the relationship between Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), a young woman whose primary interest was in designing and sewing clothes, and John Keats (Ben Wishaw), the romantic poet, which began in 1818. Brawne is shown living with her mother and siblings, who ultimately come to share a house with Keats and his friend, Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), ever hostile to Brawne. Brown is the heavy here, a man who cares so deeply for his friend that he seems to do everything he can to discourage a relationship with Brawne. But Keats, a sensitive man with no money and no literary success in his lifetime, and Brawne nevertheless are deeply attracted to each other. Cornish and Whishaw do an excellent job of portraying the plodding nature of early 19th century courtship and the ultimately deeply romantic feelings that develop between the two. The film expresses no doubt that Brawne was the subject of Keats’ poem “Bright Star,” although this is not considered an absolutely established fact in the literary world. Was Keats taken with Brawne? If actually about Brawne, these words from “Bright Star, written in 1819, should give some idea: “Pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast, To feel for ever its soft fall and swell, Awake for ever in a sweet unrest, Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, And so live ever -- or else swoon in death.” Keats, considered one of the great romantic poets, wrote almost all of his memorable works within a very short period of time. “Bright Star” portrays his exposure to his brother’s fatal tuberculosis and his own similar demise at the age of 25 in February 1821. B+ (1/30/10)


“Tulpan”-We never see Tulpan, supposedly a beautiful young woman, desired by young Asa (Askhat Kuchencherekov), but we do see lots of camels, dirty sheep, and dust on the steppes of Kazakhstan. “Tulpan,” co-written and directed by Sergei Dvortsevoy, is a film about desires in the midst of a rather barren lifestyle. Asa has returned from his seagoing time as a sailor to the steppe where his sister Samal (Samal Eslijamova) lives with her husband Ondas (Ondas Besikbasov) and their three children in a yurt that seems to provide little protection from the dust storms that blow regularly. He wants to marry Tulpan, but she’ll have nothing to do with him. Meanwhile, he helps his brother-in-law attend to the rather sickly looking sheep herd that he is responsible for (where they find food in this desolate landscape is beyond me). Asa wants to get married, get a herd of sheep and a yurt, and settle into the life of a sheepherder on the steppe. Asa’s friend Boni (Tolepbergen Baisakalov), providing genuine comic relief with his loud radio and porn photographs decorating his vehicle, wants Asa to leave and head for city life. At the heart of this film is the temptation Boni presents Asa to give up his dream, abandon the steppe, and go with him to an urban lifestyle. This film is certainly not for everyone. In fact, it's only for those who enjoy images of life lived in an utterly alien situation. The hardships of this life are made clear, especially in the scenes in which Samal does her daily work, preparing meals and caring for her three children. She looks bored and sometimes on the verge of tears, but she goes on. But with Boni and a very funny scene in which a vet, while examining dead sheep, is concerned about a mother camel that is following his cycle and her injured offspring who sits bandaged in a side compartment, “Tulpan” also has its moments of humor and humanity. The actors, all apparently first-timers, do a fine job. There are some difficult scenes, including nasty scenes of sheep birthing, but “Tulpan” is an interesting movie that’s hard to get out of your mind once you’ve seen it. (In Kazakh and Russian, with English subtitles) B+ (1/29/10)


“The Baader Meinhof Complex”-Post World War II, the US fought a war in Korea and then came Vietnam (following the French), and this after President Eisenhower warned of the existence of the military-industrial complex. As the Vietnam war grew more oppressive, radical groups, such as the SDS and the Symbionese Liberation Army, began to develop in this country. At the same time, political violence was growing with the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. But the American radical groups never reached the level of violence that was brought about by the founding, in 1970, of the Red Army Faction (RAF) by a group of German left-wingers, including Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), the journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck of “The Lives of Others”), and Horst Mahler (Simon Licht). “The Baader Meinhof Complex” provides a thoughtful, cohesive, and intelligent portrayal of the mentality of these terrorists who robbed banks, blew up government, business, and military facilities, and seemed to have no compunctions about killing innocent people while supposedly fighting against the evils of business and government on behalf of “the people.” Despite the virtual thriller style of the excellent script, “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” written and directed by Uli Edel, never descends into mindless violence or preaching. Instead, it puts on display a practical portrayal of the strengths and weaknesses of the RAF leaders and followers. On the other side is Horst Herold (portrayed with wonderful subtlety by Bruno Ganz), the police chief of Nuremberg, whose efforts led to the capture and imprisonment of most of the RAF leaders. “The Baader Meinhof Complex” is one of the best films I’ve seen about radical terrorists and the personality weaknesses and mental problems that led such people to kill in the name of what they believed was “good” over “evil.” The cast is excellent, bringing each of the gang’s members to life. Martina Gedeck is particularly impressive as Meinhof, the mother of twin girls, who essentially sacrificed her relationship with her children to join in the radical insanity of the other founders. I found it particularly intriguing and telling about the psyches of these characters to read, after seeing the film, that the one surviving RAF founder is now a member of the German far right. A- (1/24/10)


“The Hurt Locker”-How war and war movies have changed! From the old romantic action hero WW II films (think John Wayne) to the reality of D-Day in “Saving Private Ryan” there was always an enemy one could identify. But “The Hurt Locker” portrays an astonishingly different type of war: a grim day-to-day horror, a war against an unclear enemy, someone who could well be the civilian driving down the street, who kills with IEDs (improvised explosive devices), often hidden and booby-trapped and often set off from afar with an electronic device such as a cell phone. With an outstanding script by Mark Boal and brilliant direction by Kathryn Bigelow, the combination of which made the characters and settings so realistic I felt like I was there, “The Hurt Locker” is one of the most riveting films of its type I’ve ever seen. It centers around three American soldiers in Baghdad in 2004, Sgt. J. T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) who are the backup for SSgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) whose terrifying job it is to defuse IEDs. James immediately lets his cohorts know that he’s something of a cowboy, someone who literally enjoys the thrill of the astonishingly dangerous and life-threatening job he does. James appears to act with reckless abandon, but in fact he knows exactly what he’s doing. Renner’s performance is memorable. Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty also stand out as soldiers who want James’ cooperation and to live. This remarkable film includes cameos from Guy Pearce as James’ predecessor, Ralph Fiennes as a contractor, David Morse as a colonel enthusiastic about James' achievements, and Evangeline Lilly as James' girlfriend back home. A (1/18/10)


“In the Loop”-Ostensibly, this is a “comedy” about people at the heart of a governmental decision-making process concerning whether the US and Britain should begin a war, and director Armando Iannucci is quoted as saying that he wanted people to laugh. But if you think of “comedy” as something that makes you laugh or at least chuckle, the humor, which seemed sort of Monty Pythonish, runs out after about 20 minutes because the people in this film are the worst imaginable to be involved in making decisions about war and peace and their repetitive and nasty interactions stop seeming funny. In fact, “In the Loop” turns into a horror film of sorts. When British minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) says in an interview that war is “unforeseeable,” the equivalent of avoiding the issue, he then makes gibberish statements to the press that sound pro-war and all hell breaks loose. He finds himself and his bumbling aide, Toby (Chris Addison), together with his foul-mouthed and constantly irate boss, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), running back and forth between London, Washington, and the UN in New York, involved in political shenanigans of the most utterly banal and absurd sort. Foster is really anti-war but he’s too inept to get that across, especially when it becomes clear that the PM and the president appear to prefer to go to war. On the US side there are the byzantine maneuverings of the supposedly anti-war Lt. Gen. George Miller (James Gandolfini), Assistant Secretaries of State Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) (anti-war) and Linton Barwick (David Rasche) (pro-war) and their underlings, including Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky) who has written a controversial paper stating the pros and cons of the war, and a sycophantish creep named Chad (Zach Woods) who never lets Liza forget what a jerk he is. In the midst of all this, there are such events as mouth-bleeding (not particularly funny), sexual shenanigans, and most of all psychological intimidation. The fine British actress Gina McKee plays Foster’s aide Judy Molloy, who is the most competent and, as a result, is left at home. “In the Loop” has been compared to such great political comedies as “Dr. Strangelove.” Not even close, but in the end, “In the Loop” does serve the useful purpose of satirizing the psychopathic nature of so much that goes on at high organizational levels, whether government or otherwise. B (1/16/10)


“Trucker”-Written and directed by first-timer James Mottern, “Trucker” is about a woman in her 30s who drives an over-the-road semi and likes her independence. Diane Ford (Michelle Monaghan) has her own rig and a small house and enjoys her privacy until one day she finds herself having to deal with the 11-year old son she abandoned as an infant (along with his father, Len (Benjamin Bratt), now dying of cancer). Needless to say the boy, Peter (Jimmy Bennett), is hostile. Although the film has a few of the usual clichés of blue collar films, the cast rises to the occasion. Michelle Monaghan does a successful job of making you want to care about a woman who has chosen a life on the road and tried to shut others, including her son, out of that life. Nathan Fillion (“Castle”) is also appealing, as usual, as Runner, a married man who hangs around with Diane and obviously would like to be more than simply a “friend.” “Trucker” is one of those small films that is worth a view, especially now that it’s on DVD. B- (1/15/10)


“Lorna’s Silence” - This fine film directed by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes (“The Child” and “The Son”) raises eternal questions about the human tendency to greedily manipulate and abuse others. But at its heart is the existence of guilt or a conscience, something which seems to be sadly lacking in far too many human psyches. Here, Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), a slim, attractive young Albanian woman has arrived in Belgium and found herself involved with mobsters who have arranged a marriage to a junkie, Claudy Moreau (Jérémie Renier), so that she can become a Belgian citizen. While Lorna initially scorns Claudy, who is trying to get off drugs, she begins to appreciate him at the same time that Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), the taxi-driving gangster behind this mess, tells her they want to get rid of Claudy in a hurry because they need her to play Claudy’s role in a marriage to a Russian who needs to enter Belgium. “Lorna’s Silence” is about Lorna's awakening and efforts to revive her humanity. The cast does a fine job in this thoughtful but serious film. Arta Dobroshi, a new actress who was acclaimed in Europe for this role, does an impressive job of showing a woman undergoing at least some level of enlightenment about just what she has gotten herself into. Jérémie Renier is also notable for his fine performance as a desperate man on the edge of his drug addiction. (In French and Albanian with English subtitles) B+ (1/8/10)


"(500) Days of Summer" - This film may be the best I’ve seen about falling in love head over heels with someone who teases and hints, but may not feel the same way. Have you ever, at one time or another, become incredibly infatuated with another person almost to the point of obsession and then lost them because you never really had them? If so, you will undoubtedly relate to the situation that Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds himself in. When Tom’s boss at the greeting card company at which he works introduces him to his very attractive new assistant, Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), Tom experiences that magical connection with another person that could only mean, he thinks, love. Although Summer insists that she’s not interested in having a boyfriend or a serious relationship, she sends Tom all the opposite signals (such as kissing, holding hands, and sex) and thus reinforces his belief that she cares for him in a serious way. “(500) Days of Summer” takes us on a whirlwind tour of the relationship, jumping back and forth in time over the 500 days in question without confusing or disrupting the story. In the process, the charming Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a fine job of revealing all the emotional highs and lows that someone in such a reverie cannot escape feeling, as well as an almost willful inability to recognize negative signals that are coming his way. Zooey Deschanel is perfect as Summer, for her looks, her attitude, and her way of enticing Tom without really giving back. Directed by first-timer Marc Webb, who has done a fine job, “(500) Days of Summer” contains one quirky situation that somehow works and is worth noting: one of Tom’s advisers is his little sister Rachel (Chloe Moretz) who seems, amusingly for her years, quite knowledgeable in the matters at hand. Geoffrey Arend and Matthew Gray Gubler are also on hand as Tom's friends, McKenzie and Paul. Recommended. A- (1/1/10)

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