This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of July to September 2010


“Me and Orson Welles”-Richard Linklater has had an up-and-down directing career, creating memorable films like “Dazed and Confused” and “Before Sunrise,” but also far less successful and rather pedestrian films like “School of Rock” and the 2005 version of “Bad News Bears.” This time, in a film based on a novel by Robert Kaplow, Linklater has produced a fairly charming film about a young actor, Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), finding himself cast in a small role as Lucius in Orson Welles’ 1937 Mercury Theater production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” Richard is a high school student enamored of the theater who quickly impresses Welles (Christian McKay) sufficiently to find himself in the play. McKay’s portrayal of Welles is the closest thing to the reality that I could imagine both in looks and the sound of his voice, as Welles comes across as egotistical, arrogant, and disorganized, but brilliant. And the cast of players know it, including some of the future cast members of “Citizen Kane,” such as Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) and George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin). Zac Efron is sufficiently effective as Richard, although the script contains a rather unseemly distraction in the form of Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), a pretty and bright-eyed member of the troupe who is portrayed, unfortunately, as promiscuous, vacuous, and cynical (career-wise). Her unlikely and distracting liaison with the teen Richard makes little or no sense, but this nonsense is in contrast to Richard’s meeting with Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan), a young writer with hopes of being in “The New Yorker.” Despite its ungrammatical title, “Me and Orson Welles” provides a pleasant couple of hours of viewing for those who enjoy films about the theater. B (9/25/10)


“The Secret in Their Eyes”-This is a wonderful and memorable movie, one of the most original and interesting to be seen in a long time and it deservedly won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar earlier this year. It involves a murder mystery and a romance, but is told in a way that avoids the usual clichés of such genres. It begins with Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) attempting to write a novel about the 1974 murder of a beautiful young woman, Liliano Coloto (Carla Quevedo), in Buenos Aires, a case that he was involved with years before as a court investigator under the leadership of the judge’s beautiful chief clerk, Irene Menèndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil). Irene is a woman he clearly loves, but does so from afar because he is older and she is upper class. With scenes shifting between the murder and its investigation in 1974 and the consequences many years later, “The Secret in Their Eyes” explores not only the murder case (solved due to the secret in the eyes) but also the Argentinian system of right-wing justice during the presidency of Isabel Perón. Beautifully filmed and with a highly intelligent script, “The Secret in Their Eyes” gradually reveals the murderer; the effect on the victim’s husband, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago); and the consequences to the main characters, Benjamin, Irene, and Benjamin’s alcoholic colleague and friend, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella). The cast is outstanding. The romantic tensions between Benjamin and Irene are very slowly revealed but are something to behold thanks to the wonderful efforts of the actors. Guillermo Francella is brilliant as the funny alcoholic but ill-fated Pablo. I don’t always like the use of flashbacks, but here they work to perfection. (In Spanish with English subtitles) A (9/24/10)


“The Secret of the Grain”-Like “A Prophet,” this film about Arabic citizens of France, raises interesting questions about filmmaking and its intentions. Long (2 1/2 hours), “The Secret of the Grain,” takes place in Sète, a port city, where the quiet but determined Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares) loses his shipyard job after many years of faithful service and has to deal with his loss of income and a variety of family pressures, including an ex-wife, Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk); a married son, Majid (Sami Zitouni), who is unfaithful to his wife; a lover with a beautiful and resourceful young daughter, Rym (Hafsia Herzi); and the jealousies that arise. The first half of the film is made up primarily of conversations which introduce us to the varied members of Slimane’s extended family, including some Russian members. Ultimately, Slimane decides to buy an old ship and convert it into a restaurant to specialize in couscous (the grain of the title to be prepared by his ex-wife) and, with the help of Rym, he faces the powers of the somewhat paternalistic and hostile white non-Arabic establishment which must provide loans and permits. “The Secret of the Grain” explores the gender relationships within the French Arabic community (usually from Algeria or Tunisia) as well as the economic pressures of modern life on people who don’t always find themselves completely welcome. The film is, at times, difficult to watch because the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, chose to extend certain scenes for effect. In one such scene, Slimane’s daughter-in-law harangues him non-stop about her husband Majid’s womanizing, and it feels like it goes on forever. At the end, when Slimane’s opening night customers are waiting interminably for the couscous to be served (due to a thoughtless act by Majid), Kechiche drags out the painful ending to make the viewer understand what the characters are experiencing. “The Secret of the Grain” is a work of art, but clearly not for the typical American sensibility. This is powerful filmmaking but it requires an interest in learning and caring about a community of people quite alien to ours. The film contains some wonderful performances, especially considering that many of the actors were novices. Habib Boufares is excellent as the tight-lipped Slimane who does what he feels is necessary for himself and his family, but the most amazing performance, including a self-sacrificial belly dance at the end, comes from the young and beautiful Hafsia Herzi who establishes herself as someone to watch in the French cinema. (In French, Arabic, and Russian with English subtitles) A- (9/19/10)


“Letters to Juliet”-This schmaltzy romantic comedy (of sorts) pushes every button there is, has an extremely unlikely plot, and yet manages to be mildly entertaining because of the quality of the cast and the magnificent Tuscany scenery. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a fact checker for The New Yorker magazine, goes off to Verona with her fiancé, Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), a New York restaurateur, for a pre-honeymoon vacation. When Victor is more interested in meeting his food and wine suppliers than in spending time with Sophie, Sophie goes off on her own, ultimately finding a 50-year old letter addressed to Juliet (yes, of “Romeo and….”). Doesn’t take long for Sophie to find the women who call themselves “Juliet’s secretaries,” who respond to all the letters written to “Juliet,” and she begins to write to the English woman who had written this long-lost letter. And, of course, the woman, Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), shows up in Verona with her seemingly snotty grandson, Charlie (Christopher Egan), and the three begin a search for Claire’s long lost love, Lorenzo Bartolini. Searching all over Tuscany by car, they find that unfortunately “Lorenzo Bartolini” is a very common name. Is there love in the future for Claire? Will Sophie drop Victor and fall for Charlie? What do you think? The scenery for the most part is magnificent, playing the primary role in this film. But a strange thing happens at the end. The last few scenes are poorly done and the final scene has the camera pulling away for a landscape view of what is clearly fake scenery almost like you would see in the movies of 50 years ago. I can’t imagine what caused the filmmakers to screw up the final scenes, but they sure did. C+ (9/17/10)


“Red Riding: In the Year of our Lord 1974”-This is the first of three “Red Riding” films in a trilogy, each by a different director (this one by Julian Jarrold of “Becoming Jane”), based on novels by David Peace, but using the true life Yorkshire Ripper killings as background. A schoolgirl has been found murdered and Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young reporter, discovers that there had been two similar schoolgirl disappearances in the area in the recent past, and begins to investigate. Initially, the film gives promise of a thoughtful mystery with Eddie’s investigation as the potential source of a resolution, but it soon becomes a psychological study of a determined and reckless young journalist. When Eddie tries to question Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall), mother of one of the missing girls, he is brutally attacked by the local police. When this happens again after another interview, the vicious cops tell him that in the north (of England) “we can do what we want” and this is what he’ll get if he continues. However, neither the beatings nor the death of his friend and fellow journalist, Barry Gannon (Anthony Flanagan), in questionable circumstances, stops Eddie from his dangerous course, including becoming romantically involved with Paula. Eddie concentrates his investigation on a local powerful and menacing businessman, John Dawson (Sean Bean of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy), who is dead set on building a mall on the location where the last murder victim was found, and who, at the very least, implicitly claims responsibility for the police brutality. While the killings remain in the background, the issue of official (police) corruption is at the heart of this film. Andrew Garfield, soon to be the next Spider-man, effectively plays the brash young reporter and Rebecca Hall (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) stands out as the disturbed young mother who has not only lost her daughter but her husband, a suicide, as well. Sean Bean, as usual, is effective as a tough and, in this case, nasty character. My biggest complaints about this film, though, were the murky cinematography and the difficult northern England accents that are impossible to decipher at times, made worse by poor sound quality generally. B (9/7/10)

“Red Riding: In the Year of our Lord 1980”-The killings have continued and have mostly been of young women, including some prostitutes. Detective Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) is brought in from another part of England to lead a new investigation and almost immediately senses the intense hostility of most of the local police officers. But it’s not just hostility. It’s menace, particularly in the form of Bob Craven (Sean Harris), one of the officers responsible for Eddie Dunford’s beatings in the “Red Riding 1974” film. To make matters more complicated for himself, the married Hunter has chosen for his investigative team Detective Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake), an attractive woman with whom he has had an affair in the recent past, something which ultimately helps to undermine the investigation. Every attempt by Hunter to act is met with resistance, including by those who picked him in the first place, and ultimately significant violence ensues. This film accomplished little more than telling us what we already knew: something really stinks in the West Yorkshire police. As for the production values, some of the accents are again difficult to follow, although the sound in general seemed better in this second part of the trilogy directed by James Marsh (“Man on Wire”). Overall, I found “Red Riding 1980,” a rather depressing and suffocating follow-up to the previous “1974” film. C+ (9/10/10)

“Red Riding: In the Year of our Lord 1983”-This third film in the trilogy, directed by Anand Tucker (“Leap Year”), is cinematically superior to the first two films. Why? It’s well-filmed, has good sound, and the accents, for the most part, are understandable. And, most importantly, the acting and pacing are superior. However, the film suffers from both helpful and confusing flashbacks, some of which help to explain the events of the first two films, and some of which are utterly confusing, at least to this viewer. There were scenes that, in retrospect, were flashbacks but that wasn’t clear at all at the time. The best example is a scene in which an attorney, John Piggott (see below), arrives at a house only to find police everywhere and a bloodied dead man lying in a shed. I couldn’t figure out who the dead man was until I read an analysis of the film revealing it to be a flashback to Piggott discovering the suicide of his father, who had been referred to mysteriously by other characters earlier in the film. This turns out to have been a significant element in the story, but alas it didn’t click for me because it seemed to be taking place in the story's present. “Red Riding 1983” begins with the disappearance of another schoolgirl, and the appearance of a slightly overweight and unkempt lawyer, John Piggott (the excellent Mark Addy), who is asked to represent Michael Myshkin (Daniel Mays), the disturbed young man who confessed to and is serving time for the 1974 killing that Eddie Dunmore was trying to solve in “Red Riding 1974.”. It doesn’t take long for Piggott to realize that Myshkin was framed by the police and that another young man, Leonard Cole (Gerard Kearns), an alleged suicide in police custody, was likely framed with regard to the current missing schoolgirl and then murdered by the police (probably to coverup their brutal interrogation). Myshkin tells Piggott he knows who killed the girls, but only refers to him as the “Wolf.” British murder mysteries have a tendency to be quite dense, with a multitude of characters, most of whom are suspicious, and some rather bizarre relationships. Considering the obvious corruption and brutal nature of the West Yorkshire police (the cause of the corruption and the connection to John Dawson, is explained early in a flashback), plus a slew of miscellaneous characters who seem to come and go in these films, and the intervention of Eddie Dunford in the first film, Peter Hunter in the second film, and John Piggott in the third, the details are simply not easy to follow even when the filmmakers are providing the rather tenuous clues. Hercule Poirot, anyone? But what’s most puzzling and unlikely is that one of the most corrupt of the cops, Maurice Jobson (a fine performance by David Morrissey), who initially seemed good by aiding Eddie Dunmore in his investigation, but who then murdered witnesses and fellow cops who were getting in the way and brutally forced Michael Myshkin to confess, suddenly develops a conscience and helps to resolve the crimes (in part with a shotgun) and provide, believe it or not, something of an upbeat ending. Combine all the police corruption with a pedophilia conspiracy and you have quite an implausible resolution to the mystery. B+ (9/11/10)


“Red Cliff”-This film was apparently shown in the US in a single 2 1/2-hour version. I saw the entire 5-hour version in two parts (on two Blu-ray discs). Directed in his native land by John Woo who has spent many years in Hollywood making mediocre films such as “Face/Off” and “Paycheck,” “Red Cliff” is the story of the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 A.D., at the end of the Han Dynasty. Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhan), the overly ambitious prime minister, has convinced the emperor that he needs to battle against two southern warlords, Liu Bei (Yong You) and Sun Quan (Chen Chang). Lei Bei’s very smart military advisor, Zhuge Liang (the very cool Takeshi Kaneshiro of “House of Flying Daggers), convinces Sun Quan and his brilliant general, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung of “Lust, Caution” ) that they must join together to defeat the evil Cao Cao who, among other things, lusts after Zhou Yu’s beautiful wife, Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin). At the heart of this beautiful and violent film are the battles between Cao Cao’s large force (said to have been between 200,000 and 800,000 men) and the much smaller combined forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan, both on land and in the Yangtze River. Suffice it to say that like so many recent epic Chinese films, “Red Cliff” portrays battles in spectacular fashion with magnificent cinematography and the kind of special effects that make you wonder just how in the world the scenes were filmed. There were no guns in the early third century and so these battles were fought by swords, spears, fire, hundreds of thousands of arrows, shields, and clever military planning. The cast is outstanding, and I should note the amazing battlefield performance of Jun Hu as Zhao Yun, a “superman” who seems capable of defeating hordes of opposing soldiers all by himself, even while carrying a baby on his back; and the lovely performance of Wei Zhao (a pop star in China) as Sun Shangxiang, sister of Sun Quan, who shows her courage and spirit by invading Cao Cao’s encampment as a spy by posing as a male soldier. Her flirtation (friendship) with a nice, but not terribly bright commander is one of the non-combat highlights of the second part of the film. Of course, no man in his right mind would think Wei Zhao, even in a male soldier outfit, was male, and no one could possibly believe that individual warriors could defeat, solo, hordes of sword and spear-carrying enemies with barely a scratch. But let’s give John Woo a little poetic license as he tells the story of this epic battle, well-known in Chinese lore. (In Mandarin with English subtitles) A- (9/8/10 and 9/9/10).


“Harry Brown”-Within the first few minutes of this film, we see tough British teens going through an initiation to join a drug gang and some of those teens randomly shooting a mother strolling with her child. The violence has just begun. Harry Brown (Michael Caine) is a former Marine, now a pensioner living in one of London’s downtrodden estates who tries to ignore the violence around him while he plays chess with his old pal, Leonard (David Bradley) at the local pub, and worries about his dying wife. When Mrs. Brown passes on and Leonard is killed by the local thugs, Harry feels he has nothing left but to avenge Leonard’s death. With the use of his Marine skills, Harry begins to mow down the drug dealers and thugs, despite the attention paid to him by Detective Inspector Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer). D.I. Frampton finds herself in the ultimate movie cliché about cops. She’s right, but ignored and treated with contempt by her superiors. Although Michael Caine is always fun to watch, “Harry Brown” is a depressing bloodbath with little point to make other than the “joy” of watching thugs get their due. C (9/5/10)


“As It is in Heaven”-This 2005 Best Foreign Language film Oscar nominee is an uplifting delight. Daniel Daréus (Michael Nyqvist who plays Mikael Blomkvist in the more recent “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), is a famous orchestra conductor with a bad ticker who retires and returns to the snow-laden village of his youth, buying the old schoolhouse and planning to live as quietly as possible. His somewhat asocial plans are disrupted by the local pastor, Stig (Niklas Falk), who invites him to church, and the offered opportunity to guide the choir. Despite an initial reluctance and social awkwardness (strange for someone who had been a celebrity), Daniel finds himself slowly but surely turning the choir into a genuine harmonious group, and this despite the personalities and quirks of some members and their spouses. These include an overbearing male quasi-leader, Arne (Lennart Jähkel); a moralistic prig, Siv (Ylva Lööf); a lovely singer, Gabriella (Helen Sjöholm), with a seriously abusive husband, Conny (Per Morberg) who had bullied Daniel as a child; and Inger (Ingela Olsson), the angry and frustrated wife of the pastor. But most of all there is the the adorable, caring, and single Lena (Frida Hallgren) who has been unfairly assigned a “reputation” by some of the locals for her single life. Michael Nyqvist is wonderful as a man who slowly emerges from a shell to bring light and joy to the locals, but at the same time creating envy and resentment among others. Frida Hallgren, whose smile can light up a room, is truly luminous as the young woman who falls for Daniel but has an awful time getting him to show his similar feelings. Hallgren's ability to express her feelings by facial expression is what makes great acting. “As It is in Heaven” contains one of the most delightfully irreligious scenes in a long time in which Inger enlightens her pastor-husband Stig on the true nature of sin. This is one of the most positive and thorougly enjoyable human films I’ve seen in a long time. Highly recommended. (In Swedish with English subtitles, and some English). A- (8/28/10)


“City Island”-Secrets are at the heart of this funny and touching film about a group of people who don’t know how to confide in their loved ones. Andy Garcia plays Vince Rizzo, a corrections officer (nice term for prison guard), born, raised, and living with his family in the Bronx’s City Island, a small picturesque island in Long Island Sound. Vince attends acting classes while telling his wife, Joyce (Julianna Margulies), out of embarrassment, that he’s “playing poker” and Joyce not surprisingly becomes suspicious. Is her husband of 20 years having an affair?. When Vince’s acting teacher (Alan Arkin) gives the class an assignment to tell one of their classmates their deepest secret, Vince pairs off with Molly (Emily Mortimer), a young attractive woman with a British accent and some real secrets of her own. At the prison, Vince realizes that a young inmate, Tony Nardella (Steven Strait), is his son from a long-ago liaison prior to his marriage, and he gets custody to bring the young handsome Tony home, but he can’t get himself to reveal the secret of their relationship other than that he knew Tony’s mother. With the frustrated and attractive Joyce and Vince’s pretty young daughter, Vivian (Garcia’s daughter, Dominik Garcia-Lorido), supposedly home on spring break, around the house, Vince doesn’t realize that he may be asking for trouble. That Vivian and her brother, Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller), have some unusual secrets of their own adds to the pathos and genuine humor of this film. While the plot of “City Island” gets a little convoluted and silly, it ends with a touching all-revealing scene, in which the cast, the setting, and a well-done script by writer/director Raymond De Felitta, allows the actors to show their stuff. With all its weaknesses, “City Island” is a very appealing film. Andy Garcia gives one of his best performances and Julianna Margulies is delightful as the frustrated and almost hysterical Joyce. Emily Mortimer is charming as Molly who, despite her own problems, convinces Vince to take a step in his acting career that really pays off. Finally, young Ezra Miller is very amusing as the teen son with an unusual fetish concerning big women. Recommended. B+ (8/27/10)


“Moon”-Duncan Jones (director, co-writer, and son of David Bowie) reveals on the Blu-ray disc that his motivation to write this story was so that he could make a sci-fi film with Sam Rockwell. It shows. Rockwell who is pretty much the sole actor in this film, plays Sam Bell, a man just completing a three year contract to work as a solitary employee on the moon for an energy company that mines a special form of helium. Why he would take on such a long lonely ordeal away from family and friends is at the heart of the plot. With scenes reminiscent of the early stages of “2001, A Space Odyssey,” Sam is shown going through his daily routines, eating, exercising on a treadmill, watching videos of his wife and daughter from back home, and interacting with a robot/computer called GERTY (voice of Kevin Spacey) which controls everything at the base. Sam, already frustrated by an inability to talk directly to his loved ones on earth (although GERTY seems able to have direct communication when Sam is not around), begins to have some unusual visions and, following an accident in which Sam is injured, he finds himself saved by a duplicate Sam. I’ll leave the plot at that, but suffice it to say that the secret is revealed rather early in the film, and the remainder involves the two Sams trying to figure out the details of their predicament. Jones has said that he did this film as an homage to many great old sci-fi films. Sam Rockwell is quite good playing two versions of his character, one healthy and the other injured and debilitated, but I really wish Jones had picked a less familiar voice for GERTY. Kevin Spacey’s voice is so well known from films and commercials that it comes across almost like a joke to hear him speak the voice of the robot. “Moon” does explore issues of the nature of humanity, but the ending is a little too hurried and unsatisfying. Jones deserves some credit for this effort and Sam Rockwell has proven his ability to play opposite himself, not an easy task. B- (8/21/10)


“Chloe”-This is what I can only describe as an unerotic and unthrilling erotic thriller. Julianne Moore plays Catherine Stewart, a gynecologist, who thinks her husband, David (Liam Neeson), a music professor, is having an affair. To test him, she hires the young and beautiful call girl Chloe (Amanda Seyfried of HBO’s “Big Love,” and “Mamma Mia”) to tempt David and see what happens. Soon, Chloe is feeding Catherine’s worst fears with tales of erotic adventures with David. But it doesn’t take long before we realize that we’re watching a new version of “Fatal Attraction,” except this time on a family-wide scale and with a lesbian touch. Amanda Seyfried is lovely, but comes across more like the girl next door than as a professional call girl. Just being beautiful isn’t enough to be able to portray the manipulative sensuality that’s needed for this part. Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson do their usual workmanlike jobs, but are generally wasted in this dud with a pretty lame script (and it's not even original--see "Nathalie" with Emmanuelle Beart). A surprisingly weak film from the likes of Director Atom Egoyan (“The Sweet Hereafter”). D (8/20/10)


“Greenberg”-Director/writer Noah Baumbach seems to specialize in films about families or people on the edge, including “The Squid and the Whale.” With a script he co-wrote with his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also appears in the film, Baumbach has taken a wrong turn. “Greenberg” is the rather unmemorable story of Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) who has just left a mental hospital in the east to come to Los Angeles to stay at his brother’s home for a few weeks while his brother and family are off vacationing in Vietnam. It doesn’t take long for Greenberg to meet and become involved to some extent with his brother’s personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), and to try to stir up an old friendship with Ivan Schrank (Rhys Ifans), a member of a rock band whose chances of success were ruined, in the past, by Greenberg. The problem is that Greenberg is a bore and a stiff, a man without much personality or character, and poor Florence is so insipid and insecure she can’t see the forest for the trees. Greenberg simply doesn’t know how to relate and it seems that the people he associates with have similar characteristics. It’s not exactly an uplifting tale of human relations. In fact, the only redeeming value in this film is the care and concern Greenberg shows for his brother’s dog, certainly more than he shows for any human. C (8/15/10)


“Everlasting Moments”-Directed by Jan Troell (“The New Land” and “The Emigrants”), and based on a true story about his wife’s ancestors, “Everlasting Moments” is a lovely film that takes us back to a small Swedish town not long before WW I. Sigfrid Larsson (Mikael Persbrandt) is a hard-nosed alcoholic day laborer who takes his frustrations out on his Finnish wife, Maria (Maria Heiskanen), and their children, including young Maja (Nellie Almgren as Maja through age 10, and Callin Öhrvall as the teenage Maja), who narrates the story. Despite a background of labor unrest that almost costs Sigfrid his freedom, “Everlasting Moments” concentrates on Maria, an attractive woman worn down by the need to work incessantly to care for her large brood of children. Why she stays with the brutal Sigfrid, is a question that came to the mind of this viewer and is expressed by Maja when she’s old enough to understand what’s going on with her parents. But the story is not just about the difficulty of that life (notably before Swedish welfare), but also about a creative discovery that Maria makes one day when she picks up a camera that she had won in a lottery and finds that the she has the talent to take and develop photographs and to do it well. Encouraged by the neighborhood photographer and camera store owner, Sebastian Pedersen (Jesper Christensen), who is clearly smitten with Maria, Maria at first hides her hobby from her husband, but then has to battle his jealous rages to continue. Filmed in a slightly sepia tone to give the viewer a sense of watching images from the past, “Everlasting Moments” contains wonderful performances, especially from Maria Heiskanen, who is brilliant as Maria, Mikael Persbrandt, powerful as the alcoholic Sigfrid, and Jesper Christensen, touching and sensitive as the photographer who encourages Maria in her creative efforts. Recommended. (In Swedish and Finnish with English subtitles). A- (8/12/10)


“Amelia”-This biopic about Amelia Earhart, the great female pilot who disappeared forever over the Pacific in 1937, was generally panned when it was released in theaters. And so I was surprised that I enjoyed the film, although I will admit that it is hardly deeply insightful as to just what made Amelia Earhart tick. But then how many biopics are about their subjects? Directed by Mira Nair (“The Namesake” and “Monsoon Wedding”), the film provides a cinematic overview and recreation of the important elements in this haunting story of a popular pioneer of the air. Earhart was a slim, almost boylike, but attractive woman, who wanted to fly and lead more women into the world of aviation. Played by Hilary Swank (who with the right haircut and makeup looks amazingly like the real Earhart, seen in photos at the end of the film), Earhart marries her sponsor/publisher, George Putnam (Richard Gere), while at the same time insisting that neither he nor she is bound to the fidelities of marriage. And it isn’t long before she is taken with Gene Vidal (a somewhat stiff Ewen McGregor), another aviation pioneer and father of young Gore Vidal. But “Amelia” isn’t really about her love affairs, although the screenwriters obviously felt that the romances added to the poignance of her final flight. That final flight is portrayed in bits throughout the film as Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston), attempt to circumnavigate the world. They knew the final leg, across the Pacific was going to be dangerous because the plane had limited fuel capacity and the only place they could land and refuel, after taking off from New Guinea, was the extremely small unpopulated Howland Island at which a Coast Guard cutter, the Itasca, was waiting to help guide them in. The looks on Earhart’s and Noonan’s faces are painful to watch as they begin to realize that they are lost and unable to communicate with the Itasca or to locateHowland. No one knows exactly what happened to Earhart and Noonan, but it seems logical that they ran out of fuel and crashed into the vast sea. A tragic ending for a woman who was so full of life. I suppose "Amelia" could have been a more detailed examination of the life and motivations of a female pioneer. Instead, we get what is only slightly better than a TV biopic, but with beautiful cinematography and poignancy nevertheless. B (8/9/10)


“A Prophet”-Movies of this nature are exactly the kind that lead to philosophical thinking about the purpose of cinema. “A Prophet” begins with Malik El Djabena (Tahar Rahim), a 19-year old Frenchman of Arab descent, entering a prison only to find himself confronted by a small group of Corsican gangsters led by the arrogant and vile César Luciani (Niels Arestrup). Luciani makes it clear to Malik that he runs the prison and that Malik is going to be working for him and no one else. Malik’s first distasteful assignment is to murder another of the Arab prisoners, something he does messily but successfully. Malik eventually manages to gain the right to leave the prison for 12 hours on a regular routine and while Luciani thinks Malik is exclusively doing his dirty work outside of prison, Malik has other ideas. Gradually and ultimately (the film is 2 1/2 hours long) we realize that Malik is becoming a criminal power unto his own. “A Prophet” is co-written and directed by Jacques Audiard, who last made “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” a film I reviewed negatively in 2006. The problem with that film was that it celebrated an unpleasant thug with unusual classical music pretensions. There was no one in that film with whom to be sympathetic or empathetic. “A Prophet” celebrates the emergence of another young criminal, Malik, under the indirect tutelage of the contemptible Luciani, although Malik certainly is somewhat more sympathetic than the main character in “The Beat That My Heart Skipped.” “A Prophet” is very well filmed and acted, although the details of the criminal deals and character interactions are dense and often difficult to follow, but the issue that kept coming to mind was the purpose of such cinema. Is it intended to tell a story about the lower forms of life and make a philosophical point that the viewer can analyze and learn from? Or is it simply entertainment? I didn’t find it hard to watch, although I can’t say I was entertained. And as for a philosophical point of view. is it really necessary to learn the ins and outs of how a teenager is turned into a hardened criminal in a French prison? (In French, Arabic, and Corsican with English subtitles) B+ (8/8/10)


“The Ghost Writer”-Director Roman Polanski and writer Robert Harris, based on his book “The Ghost,” here pay homage to Alfred Hitchcock in this mystery tale of a young ghost writer (Ewen McGregor), hired to help complete the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a former British prime minister. Our unnamed ghost (as he calls himself) is brought to Martha’s Vineyard, where Lang is living, after the death of his predecessor aboard the ferry. Finding himself in the company of Lang and two beautiful women, Lang’s wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and Lang’s assistant (mistress?), Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall), and almost immediately learning that Lang has been accused by a former minister of war crimes to be investigated at The Hague, the ghost begins to suspect that something is wrong. His investigation, minimal that it is, leads him to believe his predecessor didn’t die by accident or suicide, but rather was murdered. In the process of packing to get out of this eerie situation, the ghost discovers something in his predecessor’s room which leads him to realize that there have been inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the story Lang has been telling him about his life. Suddenly, and without explanation, our ghost decides to forget his packing. When curiosity takes over, the ghost starts taking some very dangerous and unlikely chances to discover the truth. Although well filmed and paced, and clearly an homage to Hitchcock thrillers, “The Ghost Writer” contains too many lame circumstances, including the highly improbable investigation of a former British PM for alleged war crimes (including charges allowing waterboarding as was done by our very own Bush Administration), and the ghost’s sudden switch from common sense which was telling him to leave, to curiosity which, as we well know, often leads a character into tremendous jeopardy and this is no exception. The film’s ending is the biggest disappointment as it requires knowledge of a series of events that would have been impossible to predict. “The Ghost Writer” contains pithy performances from the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Eli Wallach, and James Belushi in the supporting cast. Olivia Williams is excellent as the forlorn and somewhat abandoned wife. Kim Cattrall, who was born in England and grew up in Canada, struggles with a British accent, but looks just fine as Amelia. “The Ghost Writer” has quite a few merits but a few too many demerits to warrant a recommendation. B- (8/7/10)


“Hot Tub Time Machine”-In Hollywood “comedy” obviously means humor for the infantile or simple-minded. Kinky sex and bathroom humor abound in the vast majority of such films. Seems the only place sophisticated humor shows up these days is in classic animated films like “Wall-E” and very rare adult comedies. “Hot Tub Time Machine” is intended to bring in the cash and fill movie theater seats with teen bottoms. It introduces us to three sad sack middle age friends, Adam (John Cusack), who can’t seem to keep a woman, the astoundingly hyper and possibly suicidal Lou (Rob Corddry), and Nick (Craig Robinson), who had a chance for a musical career and gave it up for marriage, as well as Adam’s nerdy nephew, Jacob (Clark Duke). The four decide to go to a ski resort at which the three older guys had experienced great sex and debauchery in their youth. Unfortunately, the place is now run down, but they are enticed into an attractive hot tub in the back only to find themselves transported back to 1986, when a wild and crazy Russian drink spills onto the controls. Amidst the cursing, the fighting, the drinking, the wild sex, and general pandemonium, the three older guys find themselves experiencing once again what they went through in 1986, but with some slight and significant changes, while young Jacob tries to figure out how to get them back to the present with the help of a mysterious hot tub repairman played by Chevy Chase. Like most of this genre, “Hot Tub Time Machine,” a “Back to the Future” for simpletons, contains no redeeming social value whatsoever and is loaded with tasteless scenes. There is the occasional (very) chuckle, but for the most part the film isn’t funny (especially when the characters are awaiting the bellhop at the ski lodge--played by Crispin Glover who actually was in “Back to the Future”--to lose his left arm). What remains is boring chaos, a lot of tiresome curse words. and some very unappetizing situations. D (8/6/10)


“A Serious Man”-Directed by the original and brilliant Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan (“No Country for Old Men” and “Fargo”), and exquisitely photographed by the equally brilliant Roger Deakins, “A Serious Man” is the Job-like story of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a midwestern physics professor, who suddenly finds his life turned upside down by one misfortune after another. While he’s worried about getting tenure at his college, and he has reason to worry, especially since one of his students may or may not have given him a bribe, his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) informs him that she has started a relationship with a family friend, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), and wants a “Get” (an orthodox divorce document which frees the wife). Not only that, she wants him to move out while Sy, who speaks in deep sonorous tones, has the gall to give him advice on life. At the same time, he has to deal with the errant ways of his strange and disturbed brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), who happens to be living with Larry and Judith and their children. Perhaps the pithiest part of the movie consists of Larry’s attempts to get solace and advice from three rabbis: the first is the junior rabbi who provides Larry with silly and meaningless concepts, the second, the head rabbi, talks in empty banalities and tells Larry an absurdist story about a Jewish dentist and a “goy” patient, and the third, the elder, has a godlike appearance and setting for a king, but offers little more than references to the Jefferson Airplane. Do you have to be Jewish to appreciate this film? Maybe. The Coen Brothers indicated it was inspired by their upbringing in Minneapolis where this film appears to be set. They tried to convince the members of the temple they used for filming that the film doesn’t ridicule the religion, but they haven’t convinced me. The excellent cast, for the most part, is made up of little known performers and proves that there are some very talented actors out there waiting for a good script and an opportunity. A- (8/1/10)


“The Runaways”-I never saw or heard The Runaways during their 1970s run at fame and success and so I have to judge this film on its own merits. Based on Cherie Currie’s “Neon Angel,” the film concentrates on Currie (played by the young and talented Dakota Fanning) while it attempts to document the birth, success and ultimate failure of this first all-female rock band. The problem is that the film is disjointed, lacks a coherent script, and seems to be missing a lot of the story. It begins with a young and disconnected Joan Larkin (Kristen Stewart), who is shown painfully plucking her guitar (she rejects a guitar teacher who wants her to learn chords by playing, horrors, “On Top of Old Smokey”), and then decides to rename herself as Joan Jett and start a female rock band. With little or no effort, she impresses an eccentric record producer, Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon of “Revolutionary Road”), who seems to randomly gather a group of female musicians, and then picks 15-year old Cherie Currie as lead singer for her blonde blank stare look rather than any obvious singing talent. As the amateurish group practices in an old trailer, Fowley is shown unlikely making up The Runaway’s big hit, “Cherry Bomb,” off the top of his head while trying to encourage Currie to sing with male aggressiveness. And before we know it, The Runaways are playing like professionals, knocking ‘em dead, and almost immediately falling apart as the group members fight over Currie’s ego and overtly sexual presentation. Dakota Fanning does a fine, if not totally successful, job of portraying the young Currie (who eventually left the world of stage performing and years later became, believe it or not, a chainsaw sculptor) and all the teen angst she has from dealing with an egotistical actress mother (Tatum O’Neal), an alcoholic father, and an envious twin, Marie (Riley Keough). Kristen Stewart, one of the leading young film performers of our day, becomes Joan Jett, due to her thick, long black hair, if nothing else. Certainly, one gets the feeling, knowing of Joan Jett’s success in the business, that there had to be more to this charismatic character than is portrayed here. The other members of The Runaways, including Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton), who later had solo success of sorts, are pretty much ignored except as they grew bitter over Cherie Currie’s behavior. “The Runaways” doesn’t really seem to tell the full story of The Runaways and contains too many cinematic stage success and failure clichés. It's certainly worth a look if you were a fan of Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, et al., but otherwise I’d run away. C- (7/31/10)


“Visual Acoustics-The Modernism of Julius Shulman”-With the growth of modernism in the architecture of the west, and southern California in particular, Julius Shulman, born in 1910, grew into not only a great photographer of the architecture of modernism but also, to some extent, an advocate (especially in response to the post-modernism architecture which followed). This documentary about Shulman, who died in 2009 at age 98, is about his wonderful and rather unique photography and the architects whose buildings he photographed, but in some sense even more about Shulman himself, pictured late in life as a charming old codger whose archives were sent, during his lifetime, to the Getty Museum in LA. When you think modernism, you have to think houses for the wealthy with lots of glass walls in beautiful locations (overlooking the San Fernando Valley, alongside picturesque mountains, or on the edges of beautiful cliffs). One of his famous photos, shown in the movie poster below, was of just such a house on one of the hills above LA. It was ideal for a photographer of Shulman’s talents who was ultimately upset by the cookie cutter homes that were eventually built all around LA. Directed by Eric Bricker, “Visual Acoustics” is informative (with some narration by Dustin Hoffman) but the photos flash by a little too fast and the film contains just a little too much unenlightening commentary as well as publicity shots such as images of Shulman discussing the publication of a book of his photos, signing the book for buyers, or singing happy birthday to himself at a party given by actress/model Kelly Lynch. Despite its weaknesses, “Visual Acoustics” is still a good introduction to a very talented photographer who should be better known considering his accomplishments. B (7/23/10)


Flame and Citron”-One would think that filmmakers would have run out of ideas for stories about WW II and the Nazis by now. But here’s one more and it’s loosely based on real events in 1944 and real-life characters: two members of the Danish resistance known as Flame (Thure Lindhardt), no doubt due to his red hair, and Citron (Mads Mikkelsen of “Quantum of Solace” and “After the Wedding”). At the direction of a resistance leader, Aksel Winther (Peter Mygind), who claims to be under the direction of the British, their job is to hunt down and kill Danes who support the Nazis, but it isn’t long before things get quite confusing. Flame, the more intelligent of the two, meets and falls for Ketty Selmer (Stine Stengade) who may or may not be working for the Danish resistance. Before long, Flame and Citron begin to think they may have killed innocent people to protect Winther’s private dealings and their doubts never quite lift, especially after Flame is sent to kill Ketty and she offers him a version of things that he can’t resist. Ultimately, the two men have to go on instinct, sometimes threatening and even killing fellow resistance members, but their goal is to bring down the local Gestapo leader Hoffmann (Christian Berkel), something resistance leaders, well, resist. “Flame and Citron,” with excellent performances by the two leads, is a pretty riveting thriller and recommended. (In Danish and German with English subtitles) B+ (7/18/10)


“A Single Man”-Writer and director Tom Ford has been known as a fashion designer with Gucci, and an obviously talented man in that field. With “A Single Man,” based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood, he has now proven that his talents extend into a very different field, that of intelligent and thoughtful cinema. Colin Firth, who deservedly received an Oscar nomination for his performance in this film, is George, a southern California professor in 1962, who is British, who has just been informed that his lover of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode), has been killed in an auto accident in Colorado. “A Single Man” is an examination of the various intense emotions, including love, loss, and loneliness, that leads George to consider suicide. The film follows George through a day in which he writes notes to friends, lays out the clothes for his funeral, and buys bullets for his gun. Through flashbacks we learn of his loving relationship with Jim. But as George goes through the day, interacting with friends, including former lover and current friend, Charley (Julianne Moore), a sensual young Spanish man he meets on the street, Carlos (Jon Kortajarena), and one of his students, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), who is very taken with George, it becomes clear that there may be some hope. Colin Firth has been impressive for many years but this performance is a revelation. He seems to have matured into an actor of deep talent to be watched closely. He’s supported by outstanding performances by Goode and Hoult and a wonderfully emotional portrayal (despite a weak attempt at a British accent) by Julianne Moore of a middle-aged woman whose life seems to have passed her by. In this regard, it's worth observing an usual aspect of the casting in that two British actors (Goode and Hoult) play Americans, while an American woman (Moore) plays a Brit. This was Tom Ford’s first film as a writer/director. I certainly hope he decides to try again. A- (7/17/10)


“The White Ribbon”-Michael Haneke, writer and director, likes to create edgy films, often ambiguous, morally and otherwise, such as his recent “Caché” and “The Piano Teacher.” “The White Ribbon” is one of his most intriguing, taking place in a small rural German farming community just prior to World War I. The village seems almost feudal, operating under the authority and power of the local baron (Ulrich Tukur), but also under the familial power of the various men who live and work in the community. Filmed in exquisite black and white thanks to cinematographer Christian Berger, “The White Ribbon” introduces us to the unusual and disturbing doings in the village, including the purposeful injuring of the local doctor (Rainer Bock) while on horseback, an apparent accident in which a woman falls through a rotted floor and is killed, the kidnapping and torture of two young children (including the son of the local baron), and a fire in the baron’s barn. The story is narrated by an elderly version of the town’s schoolteacher (the voice of Ernst Jacobi as the narrator, and Christian Friedel as the young schoolteacher) who admits that no one is quite sure what happened but that the story is worth telling. Taking place in an era of strict morality and paternal power, we learn that the doctor, once healed from his injuries, is a pretty nasty character, especially towards the woman who cared for his children and obviously adores him, and that the local pastor (Burghart Klaussner), father of several children, expresses his “love” for them by frequently lecturing on morality and punishing them for perceived wrongdoings. The pastor’s oldest children, Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) and Martin (Leonard Proxauf), and the other children of the town seem clearly to be at the heart of what has been going on in the village, and we certainly are given enough hints including the purposeful murdering of a bird with scissors by the pastor's daughter, but with Haneke’s classic ambiguity it’s ultimately up to the viewer to decide. While the criminal acts remain unsolved, the village and its inhabitants undergo changes, including the disappearance of a few important characters and the destruction of the marriage of one major figure. Michael Haneke doesn’t spoon feed the solutions to the mysteries. They are only clues to a morality play in which the viewer has to decide for himself or herself just who is responsible and why. In an interview on the DVD, Haneke hints that the film is about the rise of “radicalism.” While he claims it is not necessarily about Germany, one gets the sense that he is talking about the rise of the mentality that led to Nazism, although that, like so much in a Haneke film, is anyone’s guess. (In German with English subtitles) A- (7/11/10)


“Séraphine”-This is a rather strange and depressing true-life tale of a French cleaning lady named Séraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau). seemingly always on the verge of madness, who went out of her way to find unusual and original paint ingredients in order to create works of art consisting mostly of rather scary looking arrangements of fruits and vegetables. The film begins in Senlis in 1914, detailing Séraphine’s struggles to make some money from cleaning and washing so that she could afford the few items she needed to do her art, driven in part by religious mania. She is discovered by Wilhem Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), a German art dealer with a Paris gallery living for the moment in Senlis, who is surprisingly enthusiastic about her art, but they are soon separated by World War I. Then in the late 1920s, Uhde rediscovers Séraphine and she experiences momentary success until her ultimate descent into mental illness and life in an asylum. “Séraphine” is an enlightening look at a bizarre moment in art history, and Yolande Moreau is outstanding as the determined but somewhat crazed cleaning lady turned artist. But this is not a film for the psyches of most American viewers unless they happen to be students of art history or are deeply interested in the psychology of primitive artists. (In French and German with English subtitles) B (7/10/10)


“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”-As I have previously experienced all three of Steig Larsson’s Millennium series books, the question becomes whether one reviews the movie on a standalone basis or compares it to the book upon which it’s based. It’s hard to avoid the comparison and I’ll say right away that the unavoidable problem with “Dragon Tattoo” is that in a 2.5-hour feature, the filmmakers had to omit a great deal of detail about important elements of Larsson’s story and character development. These include Mikael Blomkvist’s relationship with Erika Berger (Lena Endre), who barely appears in the film, the importance of Millennium magazine itself, which is glossed over quickly, and the ultimate pleasure in the satisfactory resolution of the Wennerström affair, for which investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nykvist) has been set up and found guilty of libeling Hans-Erik Wennerström, a powerful businessman. And then there is the question of the detailed development of the incredible character and talents of Lisbeth Salander, although Noomi Rapace does a fabulous job of turning herself into this unique character. Of the three Millennium stories, “Dragon Tattoo” is the only one in which there is a somewhat standard third-party mystery to be solved, and the filmmakers have done a pretty good job of getting to the heart of that story. Despite Blomkvist’s libel conviction in the Wennerström case, he is hired by a leading industrialist, Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), to come to Hedestad, the Vanger family compound, and look into the 40-year old disappearance of his beloved niece, Harriet Vanger, but only after he has been vetted and cleared by Milton Security’s best investigator, Lisbeth Salander. At the same time, we see the mysterious, violent and rather graphic interaction of 24-year old Salander with her second “guardian,” Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson), but, despite providing some hints, the film leaves the viewer in suspense as to why a woman of her age and obvious talents requires a guardian. Salander and Blomkvist ultimately come together to work on the Vanger mystery, aided by Salander’s incredible computer hacking skills. That the mystery ends with a couple of real clichés (an attack on and capture of the hero by the villain, and a car chase) is a little disappointing in the film, although it didn’t seem so in the book because of all the detail that’s now missing. So, yes, I had to compare the film with the book. But the film does have many virtues. Michael Nykvist is just right as Blomkvist and the filmmakers could not have found a more perfect Salander than Noomi Rapace (watch the interview with Rapace on the DVD to get an idea how different she is in real life from the character she becomes in the film). Combining the first-rate performances of the cast with the lovely but muted winter cinematography of the Swedish countryside, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” remains a highly worthwhile and enjoyable mystery film. But if you want to see what Steig Larsson is really all about, read the book whose real title is "Men Who Hate Women." B+ (7/9/10)


“Green Zone”-Is this a political film? You bet. It is spring of 2003, just after the “shock and awe” bombing of, and the US entry into Baghdad. Matt Damon enthusiastically plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller whose job it is to lead a squad to find the weapons of mass destruction that were the basis for the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq. But despite the “intel,” Miller and his men find nothing and he starts raising some serious questions that are not popular with military officials and with Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), the obviously sleazy leading Administration official. After meeting CIA agent Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) and a reporter, Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan) who has been pushing the WMD story in the Wall Street Journal, apparently based solely on statements by Administration officials who assure her that there is an Iraqi informant (“Magellan”), Miller becomes seriously curious and then falls into real intel that leads him to suspect that the entire WMD story is a fake. “Green Zone,” directed by Paul Greengrass (who did a great job with two of the “Bourne” films and with “United 93”) and, although fiction, obviously based on real people and occurrences, thus falls into two categories: a movie thriller and a quasi-documentary about the events surrounding our invasion of Iraq. As a thriller, “Green Zone” has all the elements, building up from what appear to be normal events of an invasion to a sinister, complex plot surrounding the conspiracy of some rotten government and military officials. My only concern here is the unlikely freedom that Miller, an army officer, displays in roaming around, seeking information, and doing whatever he believes is appropriate. As a quasi-documentary, and I emphasize the “quasi,” it reminds us of some real people, including a certain controversial New York Times reporter who fell for the WMD story hook, line, and sinker. Although, like most of the films concerning the Iraq war, “Green Zone” was not terribly successful in theaters, I found it a hard-hitting and rather exciting thriller with a message, albeit fairly obvious. Of note in the cast are Yigal Naor as General Al Rawi, and Khalid Abdalla (“The Kite Runner” and “United 93”) as Freddy, the one-legged Iraqi who provides Miller with the material that starts him on his search for the truth. A- (7/4/10)


“Invictus”-It was a genuine surprise when I saw, at the end of this fine film, that it was directed by Clint Eastwood. It’s without a doubt one of his best, a fine exploration of the astoundingly upbeat nature of the great Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) who had just become president of the nation after spending 27 years in South African prisons under the oppressive white Afrikaaner regimes which had employed apartheid to separate and abuse the nation’s blacks. Morgan Freeman, who has worked with Eastwood before (“Million Dollar Baby”), provides just the right tone to embody the sense of justice and fair play used by Mandela to unite a nation that was undoubtedly on the verge of civil war after his election. “Invictus,” the poem by William Earnest Henley, not only was an inspiration to Mandela while he suffered in prison, but is used by him to encourage Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the captain of the South African national rugby team, the Springboks, to elevate the play of his team as the 1995 Rugby World Cup (played in South Africa) was approaching. Why rugby? Because it was the favorite sport of the white South Africans and Mandela realized how nationalistic pride in a sports team could be used to ease the fears of the formerly powerful whites and unite them and their black countrymen. Although Matt Damon has a relatively small role, with a near perfect South African accent and a fine physique he becomes the hard-playing Pienaar who, despite exposure to the prejudice of whites around him, begins to understand what Mandela went through, what Mandela’s approach signifies, and how he can use that knowledge and understanding for the betterment of his team and ultimately his country. B+ (7/3/10)


“The Last Station”-Based on the novel by Jay Parini, “The Last Station” is a fairly successful, if not wholly satisfactory, attempt to tell the story of the final days of 82-year old Count Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian author, who had reached almost godlike status for his views on social justice and economic inequity. It’s 1910 and Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) has a following, including the very pushy Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) who wants Tolstoy to turn over the copyrights to his great novels to the Russian public. On the other side is Tolstoy’s wife of almost 50 years, Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), battling to save her children’s inheritance [even though one daughter, Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff), fully supports her father’s efforts]. Into this situation comes a young secretary to Tolstoy, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), hired for the job by Chertkov and urged to keep him informed of the doings at the Tolstoy estate. Bulgakov is initially wide-eyed and nervous but soon becomes inured to the childish and selfish battles going on among the Tolstoys and Chertkov. “The Last Station” has some fine acting by a fine cast, but ultimately doesn’t have enough drama to keep the feature going. Scenes of the Count and Countess battling with each other become tiresome, especially when the Countess (except for one scene when she comes through a balcony window to meet those she feels are plotting against her) doesn’t seem to have enough in her to make her points. Kerry Condon (HBO’s “Rome”) appears as Masha, a fictional love interest for Valentin, thus balancing the love/hate relationship of the elderly Tolstoys with a young growing love between Valentin and Masha. My biggest problem is that Tolstoy, the author of “War and Peace” and one of the greatest writers of Russian literature, never is shown demonstrating the intellect one would expect. Instead, the film concentrates on what appear to be late-in-life emotional tantrums that apparently resulted from far too many marital frustrations. B (7/1/10)

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