This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of April to June 2010


“The Red Baron”-I’m not quite sure what to make of this production. It’s a German film and yet it was made in English (although some insist it was filmed in German and dubbed, Wikipedia indicates the film was made in English which is consistent with my own observations), and although it has mostly German actors, the love interest is played by Lena Headey, a British actress who has to put on a German accent. This makes little sense, especially as the actors spoke their lines with obvious discomfort. “The Red Baron” tells a fairly historically accurate version of the brief life of Manfred von Richthofen, a baron with an aptitude for flying and shooting which led him to become the most famous aviator of World War I. In his red Fokker, von Richtofen, played by the handsome and rising young German star Matthias Schweighöfer, shoots down the enemy but his flirtation with a young nurse, Käte Otersdorf (Headey), causes him to rethink his arrogance and lack of concern for the deaths he has caused. The problem with “The Red Baron” is that despite some good flying scenes (thanks to CGI), the script is pretty limp, the actors sound out of place, and it seems to be more of a typical romance between the baron and the nurse than a film about the baron’s real interest, flying. The cast includes Til Schweiger (“Inglourious Basterds”) as von Richthofen’s comrade in arms, Werner Voss, and Joseph Fiennes, in a brief appearance as a Canadian pilot who is first shot down by the Red Baron, then saved by him, and then portrayed as the man who might have ultimately shot von Richthofen down in April 1918, when he died at age 25. C- (6/18/10)


“Shutter Island”-Martin Scorsese’s film starring Leonardo DiCaprio begins symbolically with a boat emerging from the fog as it heads for an ominous island upon which is located a creepy mental institution for the criminally insane under the direction of Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow). It is 1954, and DiCaprio is Teddy Daniels, a US Marshal, coming to the island to investigate the disappearance of a female inmate. But the first strange thing we notice is that Teddy, who seems seasick, a precursor to other ailments he will suffer while on the island, has apparently never before met his partner and fellow US Marshal, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), until he emerges onto the deck just as the boat is arriving at the island. The term “psychological thriller” seems pretty appropriate as “Shutter Island,” based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (“Gone Baby Gone” and “Mystic River”), becomes an investigation of both the mystery surrounding the missing woman and the mystery of Daniels’ nightmarish dreams of liberating Dachau. It also involves the circumstances surrounding the death of Teddy's wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), whose ghost appears regularly to give him advice as to how to deal with his growing feelings that Drs. Cawley and Naehring are engaging in dastardly experiments and that he is in danger of never escaping the island. “Shutter Island” has a first-rate cast of actors, including Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, and John Carroll Lynch, and a “surprise” ending, although I felt more of a letdown from the obviousness of the surprise than shock. Why? Because the story is based on a couple of improbable premises (which I won’t give away here) and a lot of overdone and at times confusing hokiness. I've read that the film requires a second viewing for things to fall into place. Had “Shutter Island” been worth it the first time, I might have tried to watch it again. But it wasn’t. C- (6/12/10)


“The Messenger”-Directed by first timer Oren Moverman, “The Messenger” is a serious study of two soldiers whose job it is to provide notification of war casualties to next of kin. Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson are quite intense as, respectively, Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery and Captain Tony Stone, men who initially find themselves at odds but who gradually grow on each other due to the wrenching emotional experience they share. Samantha Morton is, as always, superbly effective, here playing Olivia Pitterson, a young mother who has lost her husband in Iraq, and seems insufficiently moved by the notification delivered by Montgomery and Stone. Nevertheless, Montgomery who has split with his long-time girlfriend, Kelly (Jena Malone), is intrigued by Mrs. Pitterson but at a very wrong time. The filmmakers commented that this film is a non-political anti-war movie, and watching the traumatic reactions of family members is certainly one more element in the truth about the nightmare of war. “The Messenger” is at times difficult to watch as it is pretty somber and serious about exploring the psyches of soldiers who have been in battle as well as the sorrowful effect that war has on so many of the survivors. B+ (6/11/10)


“Tokyo Sonata”-Films about depressing, dysfunctional families often get praise simply because of the apparent seriousness of the theme. But “Tokyo Sonata” takes this theme just a little too far. It introduces us to a family on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Ryûhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) has just lost his job as an administrator at a large Japanese company recently taken over by the Chinese. But he doesn’t have it in him to tell his wife, Megumi (Kyôko Koizumi), or his two sons, and spends his time pretending to be at his old job, eating in free food lines, and unenthusiastically searching for a new job (likely to be a menial one). One scene in which Ryûhei is being interviewed and can’t think of one talent that he has to offer a potential new employer underscores the depths to which he has fallen. Meanwhile, the elder son has decided to join the American army, and the younger son, Kenji (Inowaki Kai), dreams of learning to play the piano despite his father’s irrational but firm opposition. At the heart of the film’s problems is that Ryûhei is a dull, untalented, self-pitying hypocrite, someone who is not likely to achieve any sympathy from the viewing audience. But what really undermines “Tokyo Sonata” as an effective tale of the stresses of modern-life in Tokyo is the portrayal of a single day in which things go very wrong for Ryûhei, Megumi and Kenji, but in a highly unlikely absurdist, and unappealing way. (In Japanese with English subtitles) C+ (6/4/10)


“The Blind Side”-Notable for Sandra Bullock’s Oscar, “The Blind Side” is a true-life fantasy. The story of a wealthy white, southern, Christian, Republican family, the Tuohys, taking in a lost black youth of large proportions, is real but the details are undoubtedly embellished in this feel-good film. Sandra Bullock certainly does a good job as Leigh Anne Tuohy, an attractive self-confident woman who seems to have had only the slightest doubts about making Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a taciturn and troubled youth, a part of her family, but "best actress" over the likes of Meryl Streep in “Julie and Julia”? No, sorry, I can't agree with that. When I say fantasy, I refer to the fact that the members of the family are shown as having had virtually no difficulty adjusting to this significant change in their lives. And when Michael finally achieves an improved academic status and joins the high school football team, it’s little “brother” S.J. (Jae Head) and Leigh Anne, and not the school football coach, who teach Michael how to work out and play football. Sure! But “The Blind Side” is an otherwise acceptable film despite these reservations. Tim McGraw practically disappears into the background as Sean Tuohy, Leigh Anne’s husband, owner of a slew of fast food restaurants in the Memphis area, who accepts whatever his wife does seemingly without question. Kathy Bates is amusing as Miss Sue, the tutor who is apparently the first Democrat the Tuohys have ever met. What’s mentioned in the film, but given little regard, is that the Tuohys are Ole Miss boosters, which led to an NCAA investigation when Michael, with the urging of the Tuohys, chose to accept a scholarship to attend Ole Miss as a football player. The NCAA investigated whether the Tuohys took Michael in with the idea that he would someday play at Ole Miss. The film indicates otherwise, but the unlikely circumstances certainly makes one wonder. B- (5/30/10)


“Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire”-A powerful film by director Lee Daniels about a very overweight, abused, and pregnant young woman in Harlem, “Precious” shows us how a desire to overcome all the adversities of life combined with some love and affection can change an existence from utter disaster to one of hope. Mo’Nique gives a brilliant performance as Mary, Precious’ nasty and pitiful mother, a performance that deservedly won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Paula Patton (“Deja Vu”) offers a very appealing performance as the pretty Ms. Rain, the alternative school teacher, who refuses to give up on Precious and shows her the caring and love that she had literally never had before. Mariah Carey, sans makeup, does a fine job as Mrs. Weiss, the Social Services worker whose job it is to learn about the lives of the people who receive the welfare checks and who, in doing so, discovers the truth behind Mary’s vile treatment of her daughter. Lenny Kravitz is handsome Nurse John, who helps nurse Precious after the birth of her second child and sees the magic lying beneath the surface. But most of all this film provides one of the most astonishing and brilliant debut performances by Gabourey Sidibe who literally becomes Precious in face, form, and manner of speech. Never for one moment do you doubt Precious’ lot in life, until you see her fantasizing about being a celebrity of one form or another and then you realize that there is a great deal more to this young amazingly talented actress who apparently had never considered acting until she auditioned for this role. A (5/29/10)


“Everybody’s Fine”-A remake of a 1990 Italian film starring Marcello Mastroianni, “Everybody’s Fine” is the story of Frank Goode (Robert De Niro), a recent retiree and widower who is terribly disappointed when his four adult children cancel a visit to his home where he now spends most of his time puttering around the garden. Although Frank has a lung condition and is dependent on medication, he defies doctor’s orders and begins a very unlikely cross country trip by train and bus to surprise each of his four children. After the first one, David, an artist, fails to answer his door in New York, Frank moves on to the midwest to visit his daughter Amy (Kate Beckinsale), his musician son Robert (Sam Rockwell), and then to Las Vegas to visit his other daughter Rosie (Drew Barrymore). But Frank quickly realizes that things are not as he imagined they were with each of his offspring. All three are covering up what’s going on with the missing David and, even more importantly, what’s going on in their own lives. The Robert De Niro who is now in his mid-60s, is a very different character from the Robert De Niro of the past. In this film he’s calm and unemotional, almost to excess considering his character's lot in life, except when he pictures his offspring as the children they once were and when he begins to realize that he has been told some significant untruths. “Everybody’s Fine” eventually turns a little too gooey and maudlin for my taste when Frank faces a health crisis and learns the truth about his children. C+ (5/21/10)


“Crazy Heart”-Jeff Bridges has the role of his career as Bad Blake, a down on his luck country singer/guitarist who can’t seem to function without a cigarette in his mouth and an alcoholic beverage in his hand. Once a big star, Bad, who can still perform when he’s not puking his guts out, is now playing in small town venues and bowling alleys in the Southwest, driving himself from place to place in his beat-up old car. While his agent is trying to straighten him out and get him better jobs, Bad meets a lovely reporter, Jane Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and they make an instant connection. Jane, who lives with her four-year old son Buddy (Jack Nation), in Santa Fe, even begins to trust Bad alone with her child after she sees how he and the boy enjoy each other's company. With surprisingly excellent music performances by Bridges (and by Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet, Bad’s protege who is now a big star), thanks to T. Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton, “Crazy Heart” is a delightful story of a rebirth of sorts. Bridges deserved the Oscar for best performance by an actor as he totally transforms himself into the somewhat dissolute Bad Blake, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as always, is impressive as the young mother who finds herself attracted to and intrigued by an older man who is clearly messed up by alcohol but demonstrates enough talent and sensitivity to give her reason to care about him. Directed by first timer Scott Cooper, “Crazy Heart” is beautifully photographed in the gorgeous southwest (mostly in and around Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico, places close to my heart). A- (5/15/10)


“Summer Hours”-Apparently inspired by a request from the Musée d’Orsay to make a film relating to the museum, writer/director Olivier Assayas has created this rather sensitive and insightful look at a French family which has at its heart the heritage of an uncle who was a renowned painter. Hélène (Edith Scob) is 75 and suspects that her life is near an end. Living in a lovely country house surrounded by furniture and paintings made or collected by her long deceased uncle, with whom she may have had a relationship, Hélène informs the eldest of her three adult children, Frédéric (Charles Berling) what she would like done with the house and works of art. Since two of her children, Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) and Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) live in distant parts of the world, Hélène is somewhat realistic about the chances of keeping the house and collection together, but Frédéric, with the most memories, convinces himself that everything should be retained. After Hélène dies, Frédéric soon learns that his younger siblings do not have the same attachment to the possessions of their mother and her uncle and the family begins the process of disposal. With an excellent French cast, “Summer Hours” introduces us to an appreciation of fine objects which had always been “around the house” and the variety of attitudes among the family members to the treasures they had owned. Most telling is a wonderful scene in which Frédéric and his wife visit the Museum to see on display pieces (a desk and a vase) that they once took for granted in Hélène’s home. “Summer Hours” also reflects on how the attitude of the modern world, with people dispersed around the planet, has changed toward the value of its cultural artifacts. In French with English subtitles. B+ (5/14/10)


“Nine”-Based on the successful musical of the same name and directed by Rob Marshall (“Chicago”), one would think that a very exciting two hours await. But “Nine” doesn’t quite come through, thanks to the absence of character development, the presence of a tepid script, and the slightly stale nature of some of the Broadway production numbers. The cast and musical performers, however, are flawless. “Nine” is a musical meditation on the creative and romantic difficulties of a 1960s Italian director, Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), who is scheduled to make a new film with the grand title of “Italia.” Unfortunately, Guido, while he has gathered together producers, a cast, and a staff, has omitted to produce a script. The little we know of angst-ridden Contini we learn through Felliniesque scenes of his childhood and romantic/sexual liaisons in the form of musical numbers performed by the women in his life, including his wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard); his adoring mistress, Carla (Penelope Cruz); his star, Claudia (Nicole Kidman); his costume designer and friend, Lilli (Judi Dench); a provocative American reporter, Stephanie (Kate Hudson), his mother (the glorious Sophia Loren), and Saraghina (Fergie), the woman of the dunes who introduced him and his friends to the possibilities of love and sex. Some of the musical numbers are less than inspiring, including the ones in which Day-Lewis performs, but some are memorable Rob Marshall creations. Among these is one in which Marion Cotillard, as Guido’s frustrated wife, performs a strip of sorts to advise him that the marriage is over. In the other, without a doubt the best scene in the film and one of the best cinematic musical numbers in many a year, Fergie and a gaggle of red-costumed female singer/dancers perform the exciting signature song of the film, “Be Italian,” with a strong rhythmic beat and sand flying in all directions. B (5/8/10)


“It’s Complicated”-Writer/director Nancy Meyers (“Something’s Gotta Give”) does movies about middle-age women and romance, something that obviously doesn’t get produced often. In “It’s Complicated,” she gives us the story of Jane (Meryl Streep), a well-to-do divorced woman in Santa Barbara, CA, with three grown kids, who hangs around with her women friends, talking about her lack of a love life during most of the 10 years since she was divorced. But suddenly she is confronted with ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin), once again coming on to her, this time due to his unhappy second marriage to a much younger but rather annoying woman, Agness (Lake Bell), and his step-fatherhood of her very annoying child, and Adam (Steve Martin), the seemingly uptight architect planning an expansion of Jane’s house. Using the spectacular scenery of Santa Barbara with a contrasting visit to the always scenic Big Apple for the graduation of Jane’s son, Luke (Hunter Parrish), Meyers provides a comedy of middle age temptation and desire. But what makes this comedy special is the wonderfully talented cast led by the always superb Streep, the enthusiastic Baldwin (perfect at playing a grown-up adolescent), and the amazingly funny Martin who can go from serious to wild and crazy in an instant. A scene in which Streep and Martin get high at a party almost had me rolling on the floor because of their superb comedic timing and expressions. “It’s Complicated” isn’t perfect, but it tells a good story, has a fine cast, and is entertaining. What more can you ask? That cast includes the excellent John Krasinski as Jane’s observant and loyal future son-in-law, Zoe Kazan (“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee”) as daughter Gabby, and Rita Wilson, Mary Kay Place, and Alexandra Wentworth as Jane’s friends. B+ (5/7/10)


“Pirate Radio”-Based loosely on real events, “Pirate Radio,” aka “The Boat That Rocked,” is an enthusiastic comedy with a fine and funny troop of actors playing DJs on a ship anchored in the North Sea in 1966, broadcasting rock back to English ears under the name of Rock Radio. Led by Quentin (Bill Nighy), the group includes The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Doctor Dave (the slightly rotund Nick Frost), and the mysterious Bob (Ralph Brown). Into their midst comes the innocent young Carl (Tom Sturridge) sent there by his rather wild and crazy mother (Emma Thompson, hamming it up). But back in London, Sir Alastair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), a government official and tightass if there ever was one, is plotting to bring down the “immoral” Rock Radio with the help of his assistant, Dominic Twatt (Jack Davenport of TV’s “Flash Forward”). When advertising revenues crash due to the efforts of Dormandy and Twatt, Quentin brings back his star DJ in the form of Gavin Cavanagh (deliciously played by Rhys Ifans). “Pirate Radio” has a good mix of a talented cast and a wonderful soundtrack loaded with the songs that remind you what a unique and inspired period that was for great rock music. In one of the most amusing scenes, a beautiful blonde bride named Eleanor (January Jones) is brought out to the ship to marry one of the DJs. Her arrival is accompanied by the great Turtles’ song “Elenore” which inspires the scene and underlines the irony of events that follow. The film’s weakness centers around some rather lame and adolescent humor, especially when a group of beautiful young women come out to visit the sex-starved DJs. Overall, though, I have to say that the cast, the unique situation, and the soundtrack make this film a worthwhile experience. B+ (4/30/10)


“Avatar”-I didn’t see it in 3D, but I did see it in Blu-ray on a relatively large HD screen. James Cameron’s “Avatar” is without a doubt one of the most amazing cinematic experiences ever despite the fact that its basic theme is familiar. But, running 2 hours and 42 minutes, it was in serious need of editing. The film has been criticized for its “liberal” political stance, but if opposition to attempted corporate/ military destruction of a race of people and of their homeland is merely a “liberal” position, I can’t imagine a conservative viewpoint that doesn’t border on psychopathic. The story? Well, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic soldier, is brought to the planet/moon Pandora by corporate/military powers bent on the taking of a valuable element (facetiously called “unobtanium”) that happens to lie under the sacred home of the Na’vi, a race of large blue creatures. Humans have created avatars of the Na’vi into which human personalities and character can be transported so that they can interact with them. But the Na’vi have already learned that humans (referred to as the “sky people”) are a treacherous group and when Jake Sully’s avatar (not paraplegic) arrives on the scene, they are, not surprisingly, hostile. But Jake shows signs of might I say “humanity,” and this attracts Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the female daughter of the Na’vi’s leader who is assigned to teach him their ways. Among the “humans” of the human beings there are the scientist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and the helicopter pilot Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez), but behind the whole evil project are the corporate yes man Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and the cold-blooded Colonel Miles Quaritch (played with genuine evil flair by Stephen Lang). Quaritch is bent on taking unobtanium without concern for the feelings of the Na’vi and this leads to the ultimate confrontation. This film is a cinematic experience because it allows the audience to view a world that seems to have emerged fully blown from the minds of the filmmakers and the computer graphics extraordinaire. On its visual basis alone, the film deserves its high rating and its Oscar nomination. As I said earlier, the theme is somewhat of a cliché, but so what. It needs to be repeated over and over to remind the human race what it is capable of doing when greed takes the upper hand. A- (4/25/10)


“The Beaches of Agnès”-Beginning on a beach in which her crew installs a variety of mirrors, the director Agnès Varda offers us an introspective view of her life story and her creativity. Varda was born in 1928 in Belgium, ultimately coming to France to become a part of the French New Wave Cinema along with her friends and co-filmmakers Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Alan Resnais, among others. Recreating scenes of her childhood and adult life with new and old visuals, as well as scenes from her films, Varda keeps her story interesting at all times in an almost Felliniesque manner. She talks of her early years as a still photographer, ultimately transforming herself into a movie director and establishing herself with the great “Chloe From 5 to 7” (1962), starring Corinne Marchand as a young woman walking the streets of Paris in real time while worrying about her health. Varda explores Paris, an adventure photographing Fidel Castro and Cuba shortly after the Cuban Revolution, and coming for a time to Los Angeles and Hollywood with her husband, Jacques Demy. She also reveals a great deal about Demy. the love of her life, who directed “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” and who died tragically of AIDS in 1990 at age 59. “The Beaches of Agnes” is no ordinary documentary. It is the story of a woman well worth knowing and it’s never dull. Varda’s great creative talents are obvious in every scene. She is a sensitive and intelligent human being and this comes across so well that one almost wishes to have the opportunity to know her personally. A- (4/25/10)


“The Young Victoria”-I’ll take a beautiful period piece about British royal history any day. The scenery, the politics, the costumes! Didn’t Shakespeare thrive on tales of the British monarchy? And throw in the lovely Emily Blunt as a radiant young Queen Victoria and what could go wrong? Despite some flaws, “The Young Victoria” is a bright and fresh romance about the ascension of 18-year old Victoria to the throne of England in 1837 following the death of her uncle, the rather obscure King William IV (Jim Broadbent), and her ultimate romance with and marriage to Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). With luscious scenery and costumes, the film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, introduces us to the intrigues surrounding Victoria’s early life and early reign as the first resident monarch of Buckingham Palace. Emily Blunt surprised me. She displays just the right combination of emotions, toughness, and regality to bring the young Victoria to life, especially when one considers that most of the images we have of Victoria (who reigned for almost 64 years), are of a rather stout and unattractive older woman. Rupert Friend plays Albert, originally sent by King Leopold of Belgium to spy on Victoria, as a bright and sensitive young man who has the sense to refuse to follow orders and to fall in love with the young Queen; Jim Broadbent is shockingly exciting as the outspoken King William who adores Victoria but despises the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), Victoria’s mother; Paul Bettany is a little too low key as Lord Melbourne, the prime minister who gives Victoria so much support that the public begins to turn on her when Sir Robert Peel (Michael Maloney) becomes PM; and Mark Strong is ideal as Sir John Conroy, the Duchess of Kent’s nasty cohort who makes the mistake of ruining Victoria’s childhood in order to try to control her, leading to his ultimate banishment from the royal scene upon Victoria’s reign. “The Young Victoria” unfortunately and unnecessarily plays a little fast and loose with history (a common problem in historical dramas). For example, in one scene Victoria and Albert are riding in an open carriage in public when a man fires a pistol at them. In the film, Albert protects Victoria and is shot in the arm. In real life, neither was injured. Also, Lord Melbourne is portrayed as rather young and a possible suitor for the Queen. In real life, Melbourne was 40 years older than Victoria and died only 11 years after Victoria bccame Queen. B+ (4/23/10)


“An Education”-With a fine cast led by the young and exciting (and deservedly Oscar nominated) Carey Mulligan, and directed by Danish director Lone Scherfig (“Italian for Beginners”), “An Education” is a coming-of-age story of a very bright high school girl, Jenny (Mulligan), with a strict father (the wonderful Alfred Molina as Jack), who dreams of attending Oxford (or is it her father's dream?). But she’s easily sidetracked when she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a handsome older man offering adventure and excitement that Jenny had never before experienced. David takes Jenny on a whirlwind and downhill tour of his adult world, along with his entourage, Danny (Dominic Cooper of "Mamma Mia") and Helen (Rosamund Pike). Even though based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, the problem is that the entire situation seems unlikely especially for a girl of Jenny’s maturity and intelligence, and particularly when we discover David’s secret which is known to his cohorts. Jenny goes from an Oxford-bound standout student one second to, the next, ignoring the highly questionable (and sometimes illegal) behavior of this older group, tossing away her educational accomplishments in the process. Even sillier and possibly the biggest flaw is watching her initially strict father being so easily gulled by David’s alleged charm that he appears to switch from being a tyrant to a puppet in one easy lesson. That a strict father such as Jack would allow his high school age daughter, especially in 1961 when the film takes place, to go away overnight with an older man is almost impossible to believe. The first-rate cast includes Olivia Williams (TV’s “Dollhouse”) as Jenny’s enthusiastic but disappointed teacher, and Emma Thompson as the school’s headmistress. The music used for the opening titles, while catchy, was completely misleading, giving the sense of a “Pink Panther” type comedy rather than the rather serious tale to be told. Also, and somewhat strangely, David's ethnicity as a Jew is emphasized for no good reason that I could fathom. B- (4/18/10)


“Fame”-It has a good beat and you can dance to it. Unfortunately, it’s ultra-slick and lacking any kind of real story. This new version of “Fame” (the last was 30 years ago) begins with auditions by a large group of young people, most of whom look far too old to be attempting to enter a high school (New York’s long gone Performing Arts or PA, to be specific). We initially see many vignettes of effort, some good, some bad, and then we travel quickly through four years of schooling, with more vignettes that never seem to end. Some of the highlighted students succeed in their schooling, others become professionals before graduation, and others fail. And at the end, the students put on a show that reminded me more of an Ed Sullivan presentation than anything you’re likely to see in a high school, even at the Performing Arts level. The adult cast includes Debbie Allen (who appeared in the original) as the principal, Bebe Neuwirth, Kelsey Grammer, Megan Mullally, and Charles S. Dutton, all doing a pleasant job as teachers trying to encourage the talent. The stars among the students are Naturi Naughton as Denise, a young talented singer whose overbearing father wants her to be a concert pianist; Kay Panabaker as Jenny, a shy young lady whose talents are not obvious at the beginning, but who matures by senior year; Kherington Payne (“So You Think You Can Dance”) as Alice, a talented dancer with a real future; Collins Pennie as Malik, a boy trying to overcome the anger of his upbringing; and Anna Maria Perez de Tagle as Joy who, in an unlikely twist, joins the cast of a famous TV show before she has a chance to graduate. If you are satisfied with splashy production numbers and young people showing off their talents, try it. If you would like to see some real drama, forget it. C+ (4/16/10)


“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee”-This is not a film for those who were thrilled with “Avatar” and can’t wait for “Clash of the Titans” in 3D. Written and directed by Rebecca Miller (“The Ballad of Jack and Rose”), “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” is a clever, insightful film with an excellent ensemble cast which examines the life of a woman who had a difficult childhood, leading to marriage to a man many years her senior and finally to freedom. Robin Wright Penn is Pippa Lee, a 40ish mother of two young adults, married to a retired New York publisher, Herb Lee (Alan Arkin), and now living, at Herb’s request, in a retirement community in Connecticut. Their marriage seems content, with each appearing well-adjusted to each other and to their marital situation. But Pippa exposes the truth by describing the events of her childhood with a hyperactive, slightly deranged mother (a bravura performance by Maria Bello), her decision to leave home that leads to a period of aimlessness, her ultimate meeting and marrying Herb, a man at least 30 years older, and the current events that change everything. The cast is first rate, including Keanu Reeves as Chris, still somewhat wooden but just right as the handsome, yet mysterious son of a neighbor (Shirley Knight) who has returned east from a bad marriage with Jesus tattooed in the center of his chest. Others of note are Mike Binder as Sam, one of Herb’s friends; Winona Ryder as a somewhat hysterical Sandra (Sam’s significant other); Zoe Kazan as Grace Lee, Pippa’s initially hostile daughter who undergoes a miraculous and very unlikely attitude change; Robin Weigert (“Deadwood”) as Pippa’s lesbian aunt, Trish; Julianne Moore in a brief but unusual role as Kat, Trish’s kinky lover; Monica Bellucci as Gigi Lee, Herb’s first wife; and especially Blake Lively who does a memorable job of portraying Pippa as a young woman as she grows into her marriage with Herb. “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” is an intelligent evaluation of the title character's life (played with thoughtfulness and sincerity by Robin Wright Penn), as well as mother-daughter and April-November relationships. Alan Arkin’s performance is more subtle and nuanced than his other recent roles. Recommended for those who like good acting and a thoughtful, insightful script. A- (4/2/10)

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