This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of October to December 2011


“Warrior”-This is the story of a very dysfunctional family, consisting of a recovering alcoholic and wife and child abuser, Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), and his two sons, Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton). When Tommy (who left the family home in Pittsburgh many years earlier with his now-deceased mother and went west) arrives back home, he hasn’t seen his father and brother in many years and dislikes both intently. Brendan, a married high school physics teacher, needs money and decides to return, against his wife’s wishes, to Mixed Martial Arts fighting. But Tommy, an apparent war hero, is also an extremely intense Mixed Martial Arts fighter, and both ultimately decide to participate in a major MMA event in Atlantic City where the prize is in the millions. You can see where this is going. Although “Warrior” is loaded with sports film clichés, it’s very well done and packs a powerful punch. The viewer has to be a pretty cool customer to avoid becoming emotionally involved in the ultimate outcome. When I heard about this film, MMA fighting didn’t sound like something that would attract me to a film, but when “Warrior” appeared in some leading top 10 lists for 2011, I decided it was worth a look. And indeed, with a dynamite performance by Tom Hardy (“Inception”), and tremendous supporting performances by Nick Nolte and Joel Edgerton, as well as by Jennifer Morrison as Brendan’s wife, Tess, who fears for his safety. Mixed Martial Arts is a brutal sport which I do not recommend although the fighting scenes are very well done. “Warrior,” obviously following in the spirit of “Rocky,” but with a twist, is recommended to those who can tolerate watching brutality in a ring/cage (the referee urges the fighters before each round: “okay, let’s go to war”) in order to see an interesting tale about paternal hatred and sibling rivalry. B+ (12/27/11)


“The Debt”-I don't particularly like the title of this film. It's not terribly revealing and is pretty misleading. The story: three young Israeli Mossad agents enter East Berlin in the mid 1960s to attempt to capture a former Nazi doctor (Jesper Christensen) and return him to Israel for trial. But the same three are also seen in Israel more than 30 years later and it’s obvious that something in their past has come back to haunt them. “The Debt” is a good thriller with an outstanding cast. The three young agents are played by Jessica Chastain as Rachel, Sam Worthington as David, and New Zealand-born Marton Csokas as Stephan. The older characters are played by Helen Mirren (Rachel), Ciarán Hinds (David), and Tom Wilkinson (Stephan). Directed by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love” and “Proof”), “The Debt” provides just enough mystery as to the political events of 30 years earlier and the romantic tension among the three primary characters, to keep us guessing as to their secret. Jessica Chastain has to be the leading up-and-coming young star of 2011, having been in a slew of films, including “The Help” and “The Tree of Life”, and having played (to the nth degree) completely different types of characters in each. (“The Debt” is mostly in English, but with some German and Ukrainian with English subtitles). B+ (12/26/11)


“Midnight in Paris”-Over the many years Woody Allen has been making films (41 features more or less since 1969), the themes at the heart of his creations include the desire for someone (usually a beautiful young woman) or something that one doesn’t have; ridicule of the know-it-all; a fear of death; a love of nostalgia; and a general fascination with romance. Those themes are present in spades in this delightful comedy about a Hollywood writer named Gil (Owen Wilson) who is visiting Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). Inez and her right-wing stuck up parents are clearly not tuned in to Gil’s liberal, artistic sensibilities as he dreams of publishing a novel and fantasizes about Paris in the 20s. They would be happy if Gil simply returned to Hollywood and continued to write screenplays. One night Gil decides to take a walk through the Paris streets, and magically finds himself back in the 20s, meeting the likes of Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), an experience he is able to repeat nightly. But he also meets and is enchanted by the lovely Adriana (Marion Cotillard) who is about to break up with Pablo Picasso and appears taken with Gil. Despite his love of nostalgia (his book is about a nostalgia shop) and his tempting experiences in the Paris of the 20s, Gil realizes in the end that he has to face reality. Leave it to Woody Allen, who dazzles us with a virtual travelog of scenes of beautiful Paris accompanied by the usual tasteful jazz and Cole Porter songs, to give the film a charming romantic ending on a lovely Paris bridge with a lovely Paris maiden named Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux). The diverse cast is delightful and includes Michael Sheen as Paul, a know-it-all professor who fascinates Inez, Carla Bruni (the wife of President Sarkozy of France) as a museum guide, and Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali. A- (12/25/11)


“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”-Having decided it was a good idea to make the ultimate prequel to the original “Planet of the Apes” (1968), which starred Charlton Heston, and its cinematic progeny, the makers of this film used a hint contained in the early film(s) about an original intelligent chimp named Caesar and his first actual word: “No.” And so this rather flawed script offers a story about a Bay area scientist, Will Rodman (James Franco), who is developing a chemical/virus formula to cure Alzheimer’s through experimentation on chimps. After a disaster at the lab, Rodman takes home a baby chimp who has inherited the intelligence that derives from Rodman’s viral formula. The chimp is named Caesar and he quickly becomes a part of Rodman’s family (which includes his father, Charles, suffering from Alzheimer’s and played by John Lithgow, and Will’s primatologist girlfriend, Caroline, played by Freida Pinto). When Caesar, now a large animal, attacks a neighbor in defense of Charles Rodman, he winds up in what at first appears to be a benign shelter for primates but is really a prison for the animals run by a jailer (Brian Cox) and his cruel son (Tom Felton). Caesar’s intelligence and anger grows the more he and his fellow inmates are mistreated, and you can guess the result (especially when there are hints that humans, when exposed to Rodman’s viral formula, die). The cast is pleasant, although Freida Pinto appears to be present more to provide a pretty face than a really vital character. The real star of this film is never actually seen. He is Andy Serkis (Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy) who performs all of Caesar’s movements and expressions and is transformed by brilliant computer magic into a powerful, intelligent, and realistic chimp. The Blu-ray disc of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” contains features showing how the actors portraying the primates were trained to move like apes, chimps, and orangutans, and then were transformed by CGI magic into very realistic primate images. That transformation is probably the best reason to see this film. C+ (12/23/11)


“Margin Call”-As this taut intelligent drama opens, the financial crisis of 2008 is about to begin. When Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a risk management expert at a major investment bank, is informed that his employment is being terminated (along with many others) he’s in the middle of discovering something that could bring the bank down. Although he’s furious at being fired and his computer and cell phone have been turned off, he passes the computer file on which he was working (on a flashdrive) to his now former underling, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), and says “Be careful.” Sullivan, curious and concerned, stays late to evaluate this information. A former scientist, he does the math and sounds the alarm. Within a short time and despite the late hour, the powers-that-be at the bank arrive and the nervous discussions begin. Are they to attempt to sell billions of worthless mortgage securities as quickly as possible the next day, thus bankrupting the buyers and threatening the bank’s own future ability to do business? Although “Margin Call” is not likely an accurate portrayal of the financial world in many respects, it is a psychological drama concentrating on the character and ethics of the various personnel involved. The film resembles a stage play in many ways and the cast is first-rate. Jeremy Irons is just right as the cool upper-class CEO, John Tuld, who realizes that he may be about to lose billions and has no intention of letting ethics get in the way of what has to be done. Simon Baker is Jared Cohen, directly under Tuld, who operates with frigid efficiency. Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), the brokerage floor boss, lurches between concern for his dying dog and an impulse towards maintaining integrity. Paul Bettany is Will Emerson, a rising self-serving star at the firm. Demi Moore is Sarah Robertson, another executive caught up in the mess. The script analyzes not only the morals and ethics of the bank officials’ ultimate decision and how they get there, but also raises questions about the value to society of these investment bankers and especially the vast amounts of money they earn. Two of the younger bankers, Sullivan and Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) are seen sitting in a cab discussing with amazement the money they make and with even more amazement the millions made by their superiors. At one point Tuld says to Rogers that he should appreciate what he has, that he could have been a ditch digger. Rogers replies that at least there would have been holes in the ground to show for it. B+ (12/22/11)


“The Princess of Montpensier”-Based on a 17th Century short story by Madame de La Fayette, this film directed by Bertrand Tavernier (“In the Electric Mist,” “‘Round Midnight,” and “Coup de Torchon”) takes place in France in 1560 with a mix of fictional and historical characters. The setting is the off-and-on religious war between the Catholics and the Protestant Huguenots. The fictional Princess Marie (Mélanie Thierry) is in love with and supposed to marry Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel) until her father arranges a marriage to the Prince de Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). Marie is resistant but finally realizes that she has little choice, and she appears to take on her new relationship with appropriate enthusiasm. But the Prince, despite being a mighty warrior, is a weak man when it comes to romance as he has no idea how to relate to the lovely princess. He’s jealous, and with good reason, about Marie’s continuing feelings for his cousin Henri. Marie’s beauty is admired by virtually all the men who meet her, including the Duc d’Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz), the king’s brother, and the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), the man whom the prince trusts to guide Marie in her education. “The Princess of Montpensier” is beautifully filmed and provides some interesting historical perspective, but is ultimately a tragic love story. Mélanie Thierry is stunningly beautiful as the young princess who can’t decide between her emotions and the responsibilities thrust upon her as a woman forced to marry against her will in 16th Century France. Lambert Wilson, so effective in “Of Gods and Men,” is outstanding as a thoughtful man who nevertheless has romantic feelings that must be sublimated. And Raphaël Personnaz provides an amusing performance as the Duc d’Anjou, a man who is in a position that allows him to openly flirt with a married woman. One of the rather shocking scenes in the film is that of the prince and princess’ wedding night where it is clear that there is no such thing as privacy for the married couple. (In French with English subtitles) B+ 12/21/11


“Crazy, Stupid, Love”-Too often modern film comedies contain far too many tasteless scenes like the bridal dress shop scene in “Bridesmaids,” or simply fail to rise above an adolescent mentality. But this one is appealing, partly because of a clever script and partly because of a first-rate cast. Cal (Steve Carell) and Emily (Julianne Moore) Weaver seem like a happily married couple with a couple of children when Emily suddenly announces that she’s been having an affair and wants a divorce. Cal reacts with understandable numbness and then can’t stop telling the world that he’s a “cuckold.” But while hanging out at a bar, Cal’s poor social approach is observed by a cool dude, Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling), who promises to turn him into a stud and in doing so creates some uncomfortable social situations which the characters will regret. Ultimately, “Crazy, Stupid, Love” is all about an amusing confusion of misguided attractions, involving Cal’s 13-year old son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo); the Weavers’ baby sitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton); a young woman, Hannah (Emma Stone), whose eyes are originally set on an obvious dud (played by singer Josh Groban); Robbie’s attractive teacher (Marisa Tomei); and one of Emily’s co-workers (played by Kevin Bacon). When we reach the end, we’ve experienced some surprises, and things pretty much get ironed out. But the route to that end is imaginative and a lot of fun. Emma Stone, a rising young star, is always a pleasure to watch. Ryan Gosling is impressive as a man undergoing some attitude corrections. And there’s one memorable but brief performance that has to be mentioned: Liza Lapira as Hannah’s very amusing friend Liz. B+ (12/18/11)


“The Help”-What can you say about a film that’s based on the modern-day book of a white woman (Kathryn Stockett) about a very touchy subject like race relations in Mississippi in 1963? Well, it’s wonderful. There are some uncomfortable scenes in this film, but the script and the theme are dynamite and virtually every performance is extraordinary. The plot centers around a group of empty-headed well-to-do white women in Jackson, Mississippi, all of whom have black women as maids who raise their children, clean their homes, and are treated almost like slaves. The leader of this unwholesome group is Hilly Holbrook (a powerful performance by Bryce Dallas Howard as an evil witch) whose primary concern in life appears to be her unhappiness with the fact that the maids share the white families’ bathrooms. But also a part of this group is Skeeter Phelan (the delightful and up-and-coming Emma Stone), a recent Ole Miss graduate who plans to be a writer and who is actually a human being. Skeeter, observing the way the maids are horribly mistreated by their employers, decides to interview them and write a book about their experiences. This is obviously a very dangerous path for Skeeter and the maids to take in Mississippi in 1963 (for those who didn’t live through this era, recall the murder of Medgar Evers which is mentioned in the film, and the murders of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, MS, which took place the following year). But take it they do (whether likely or not, it serves the point of the film to tell the maids’ stories). And what of the maids? There is an absolutely mind-blowing performance by Viola Davis (a tremendous actress) as Abileen Clark, whose son has died at the hands of the racists, and who daily suffers the insults and indignities of raising the child of an insufferable white woman. And then there is the breakthrough performance of Octavia Spencer in the wonderful role of Minny Jackson, a maid who does the unthinkable to get revenge on her hateful ex-boss, Hilly Holbrook. But Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer’s performances are not alone. Also terrific are Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother who has done the worst thing imaginable to her maid of many years, Constantine Jefferson (Cicely Tyson) (a woman who raised Skeeter), just so she could impress a group of racist women; Sissy Spacek (one of my favorite performers) in the very humorous role of Hilly’s absent-minded but still-together mother; and last, but absolutely not least, Jessica Chastain as the bumbling, but warm-hearted and delightfully sincere Celia Foote, a role so unlike the part she played in “The Tree of Life” that it serves to demonstrate the emergence of another brilliant young actress. “The Help” is directed by Tate Taylor, someone I’d never heard of before, but who is tremendously talented and should be watched very closely in the future. My only criticism of this film is the unlikely ending but that can be excused because I can’t imagine anyone really wanting this outstanding film to end any other way. A (12/17/11)


“Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”-Based loosely on real-life historical figures and with a title that sounds like it should be a segment of the Indiana Jones films, “Detective Dee” is another in a series of Chinese cinematic extravaganzas that have been imported to the US in recent years. But unlike some of its predecessors, such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “House of Flying Daggers,” and “Curse of the Golden Flower,” this one trips right over its special effects and its somewhat lame story. It’s the 1st Century and Empress Wu (Carina Lau) is waiting to be crowned as the first female emperor of China. She knows that many of the Chinese lords would like to dethrone her and when two of her officials mysteriously explode with flame from inside and die, she recalls Dee Renjie. aka Detective Dee (Andy Lau), from the prison to which he had been sent years ago for plotting against her when she was the dowager. Joining forces with Dee are Pei Donglai (Chao Deng), an albino investigator, and Shangguan Jing’er (Li Bingbing), one of the Empress’ officials sent to help and yet spy on Dee. Sounds like the makings of a good old fashioned police procedural, albeit in China and in the 1st century, doesn’t it? But unfortunately the pace of this film, directed by Hark Tsui, is somewhat sluggish, the special effects just aren’t special enough, and the resolution of the mystery is pretty unimaginative. Add some confusing sequences to the mix, and the effect is a rather dull film despite all of the filmmakers’ efforts to be spectacular. In Mandarin with a touch of Spanish with English subtitles. C (12/16/11)


“City of Life and Death”-In December 1937, the Japanese army invaded Nanking, the then capital of China. By the time they left, the Japanese had raped and killed many thousands of Chinese. The Chinese government later said it was more than 300,000, while Japanese historians claimed it was “only” 40,000 to 200,000. This film, written and directed by Chuan Lu, explores the events of the early days of the invasion through the eyes of the Chinese victims and one particular Japanese soldier, Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi). “City of Life and Death” does not contain a plot as such but rather scenes of events which follow the primary characters, including Lu Jianxiong (Ye Liu), a Chinese soldier who symbolizes all who are about to die; John Rabe (John Paisley), the Nazi businessman who tried to protect the Chinese civilians; his assistant Mr. Tang (Wei Fan), and Mr. Tang’s wife (Lan Qin) and her sister May; and Miss Jiang (Yuanyuan Gao), a leader of the so-called safety zone. “City of Life and Death” is an absolutely beautiful film about a horrifying and terrifying subject. With magnificent black and white cinematography by Yu Cao, which somehow seems perfect for the nightmare that was Nanking in late 1937, “City of Life and Death” leaves little to the imagination. The invading Japanese army descends into the depths of evil with little difficulty as the leaders forget their own humanity as well as those of their victims. There seems no guilt among the Japanese as they slaughter men and rape women other than the growing awareness by Kadokawa of the devastation and abomination that has been created by his fellow soldiers. But this film is not only breathtaking in its appearance, it also contains a memorable score made up primarily of powerful drums. I will never forget the scene at the end in which the Japanese soldiers, celebrating their victory, perform a hypnotic dance through Nanking’s ruined streets to a powerful rhythmic beat on large drums being carried by the soldiers. This is a painful story about human evil, but a film that should not be missed. (Primarily in Mandarin and Japanese with English subtitles) A (12/10/11)


“Sarah’s Key”-The Holocaust and WW II have probably been the subject of more films over the last seven decades than any other subject. “Sarah’s Key” manages to tell a moving story about the Holocaust with only minimal reference to the Nazis. And that’s because this story is about how the occupied French government in 1942 chose to curry favor with the Nazis by rounding up thousands of Jews and forcing them into the Vel’ d’Hiv velodrome before their ultimate transportation to and extermination at Auschwitz and other concentration camps. With scenes alternating between 1942 and 2009, the film introduces us to the two significant female characters of the plot: Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Meyance), a 10-year old Jewish girl who unfortunately locks her brother in a closet when the French police come to round up her family (and carries the key with her for the rest of her life), and Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas), a modern day American journalist, whose research leads to the distressing discovery that her French husband’s family occupied the Starzynski apartment almost immediately after the family was removed. As it is that very apartment that Julia and her husband were planning to live in after renovations, Julia finds herself dedicated to discovering the truth and solving the mystery of what happened to Sarah and her brother. Be warned, the early scenes concerning the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup are quite disturbing. But Julia’s incessant modern-day desire to learn the truth, taking her to such disparate places as Florence and Brooklyn, is inspiring and satisfying, despite personal disruption in her own life. Kristin Scott Thomas is a fine actress who almost exclusively stars in worthwhile films. Mélusine Meyance is impressive in a difficult role as a frustrated and angry young girl. Charlotte Poutrel is lovely as the young adult Sarah who is beautiful but depressed by the events of her life. Others worth noting in the cast are Niels Arestrup as Dufaure, the Frenchman who initially rejects Sarah but ultimately makes her part of his family and Natasha Mashkevich, in a powerful performance as Sarah’s doomed mother. The plot has its flaws with just a few too many coincidences and unclear character identifications (thankfully not completely vital to the ultimate outcome). Julia’s search for the truth seems a little too facile. But such plot contrivances are often necessary to tell stories about the awful events depicted in this film. Despite its flaws, I’d recommend this film. (In both English and French with English subtitles) B+ (12/9/11)


“Super 8”-In a feature on the Blu-ray version of this film, J. J. Abrams (writer and director) and Steven Spielberg (producer) talk about their common experience of making either 8mm (Spielberg) or Super 8 (Abrams) films when they were kids. This experience, as well as similar efforts by others involved in the production of the film, led them to the story of young makeup artist Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney, in his debut) and his buddies in Lillian, Ohio, in 1979. His friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the obsessed teen filmmaker who arranges for the fetching Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to join them in their cinematic efforts. But while shooting at a train station outside of town, they witness a spectacular train crash which unleashes a mysterious and alien threat to the local community. In the midst of the classic hostile military invasion of Lillian, conflicts between Joe’s father, a local police officer (Kyle Chandler), and Alice’s deadbeat father (Ron Eldard), and blooming romantic feelings of both Joe and Charles for Alice, the film almost becomes a standard sci-fi tale about battling a monstrous threat to the locals. But the film has its charm in the form of the interaction between the kids and the ultimate peaceful solution (which comes on pretty suddenly and seems inconsistent and illogical with previous events). Joel Courtney, who is now 15 years old, makes an impressive debut as the charming leading “man.” Riley Griffiths is amusing as a chubby but creative kid whose obvious dream is to emulate Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock. But I was really impressed with the more experienced Elle Fanning, who is now all of 13 years old, and who plays the “older” love interest of both young leading men with a tremendous amount of maturity. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Steven Spielberg is involved in the making of this film. Almost his entire career has been dedicated to films about the things that concern young people. While the sci-fi elements of “Super 8” get a little silly (the story of young filmmakers could have been made into a truly serious and charming human interest story without all the violence and smashed objects), the scenes in which Joe, Charles, and Alice appear are worth the price of admission. B (11/28/11)


“Baarìa”-Giuseppe Tornatore, who made the renowned “Cinema Paradiso,” in 1988, and introduced the world to Monica Bellucci in “Malena” back in 2000, puts on his best Felliniesque cap and tells the story of life growing up in Mafia-controlled Sicily. Unfortunately, although it’s a pretty movie to watch, it’s also pretty flimsy. Peppino Torrenuova (the very handsome Francesco Scianna) grows up watching the criminal element control life in Bagheria (known as Baarìa to the locals) and gradually turns into a Communist. He meets and marries a beautiful and loyal but fairly vacant young woman, Mannina (Margaret Madè), and has children. They seem to lead a fairly normal life despite the fact that he has no regular job, although he occasionally leaves home to work. Peppino’s political career develops but there’s no indication that he accomplishes anything for the people of Sicily. I found it a little difficult to become entranced by this man’s life, especially with the retrospective knowledge of the failure of Communism and its basic elements which are contradictory to most human competitive impulses. Besides looking pretty and containing some puzzling scenes reminiscent of Federico Fellini’s great epics, when I got to the end of “Baarìa,” and it gets a little tedious, my reaction was: okay, ho hum, what was that all about? (In Italian with English subtitles). C+ (11/21/11)


“The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”-Morgan Spurlock, who succeeded in “Super Size Me,” his documentary about the adverse effects of eating exclusively food at McDonald’s, hasn’t quite succeeded in this documentary about product placement and advertising. The film shows Spurlock talking to a variety of companies about his proposed film and their place in the film. Some buy in, some don’t. He particularly succeeds with POM Wonderful, a pomegranate drink, but what happens is that the film is not really so much about product placement as it is about Spurlock selling the idea for such a film. Yes, he does occasionally move into other directions, like showing and discussing Sao Paolo, Brazil, a city which has banned all outside advertising. But these slight diversions don’t seem enough to distract from Spurlock’s basic idea which is to make a film about advertising and product placement by selling loads of scenes advertising his sponsors’ products. Along the way, he has an occasional amusing interview with expert product placement people, and with people like Ralph Nader, Brett Ratner, Peter Berg, and Noam Chomsky. But in the long run, the film doesn’t really contribute a great deal to the theme of how advertising dominates our culture. C+ (11/11/11)


“Brand New Day”-Known as “Bran Nue Dae” in Australia, this musical is a celebration of the modern-day life and struggles of Aborigines. Based on a stage play, the story takes place in the late 1960s, in western Australia, although with one exception, the music sounds very 21st century. Willie (Rocky McKenzie), is in love with Rosie (Jessica Mauboy), but doesn’t know how to show it. When Lester (Dan Sultan), a rock star of sorts at the local hotel/bar, flirts with Rosie and gets her to sing with his band, Willie runs off and winds up being sent by his mother to far off Perth to attend a Catholic school run by the overbearing Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush). The goal? To make Willie a priest. But Willie knows that he loves Rosie and manages to escape the school and head for Perth with Father Benedictus not far behind. The problem is that Broome is a very long distance away. What follows is a wild road trip in which Willie meets a whole range of characters, mostly cartoonish, including Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo), Slippery (Tom Budge) and Annie (Missy Higgins), a hippie couple driving a VW bus, and the flirtatious Roxanne (Deborah Mailman). The music of “Brand New Day” is pretty mediocre, and the singing/dance numbers are sometimes embarrassingly staged. The film is loaded with ultra-coincidences, but it’s still a feel good film summarized at the end by the upbeat main theme of one its songs: “Nothing I would rather be, than to be an Aborigine.” B- (11/4/11)


“The Tree of Life”-This film by Terrence Malick is the sort that is likely to cause the viewer to either love it or hate it. I’m not really in either category, but I have to admit that except for the visuals by Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the production design by Jack Fisk, I was extremely disappointed. Malick has made only five feature films in the last 38 years, beginning with “Badlands,” and including “Days of Heaven,” “The Thin Red Line” and the wearisome “The New World,” in which the director seemed far more concerned with visuals than substance. The words that came to mind when I saw “The New World” were pretentious and self-indulgent and those adjectives apply to the nth degree with regard to “The Tree of Life.” The film is ostensibly about a family in Waco, TX, in the 1950s: an overbearing father (Brad Pitt), a loving mother (Jessica Chastain), and three sons, one of whom apparently grows up to be another adult character who appears briefly in the film (played by Sean Penn). It contains no “story” as we know it, but rather impressionistic scenes of the family with limited segments of dialogue some of which is whispered and almost inaudible. Early in the film, the mother receives a message (telegram?) telling her that one of her sons has died. Was it in a war, an accident, or by natural death? The circumstances are never made clear and in fact it was never clear which son had died. For the rest of the film I was convinced that the elder son was the one who died only to find that it was the elder son who grew up to be Sean Penn’s character. Even this was not clear from the film itself (and neither was the fact that he was named Jack). I discovered more about the characters by later reading commentary about the film than by my actual viewing of it. But what really raised the hackles were the early and seemingly interminable “Koyaanisqatsi”-like impressionistic scenes of forms, volcanic activity, colors, space, planets, creatures, and even one brief scene of dinosaurs rambling and tromping about what appears to be a mountain stream in modern-day America. A reference to the birth of the universe, the planet, a child, or "God"? Who can be sure? I’ve heard that this 15-20 minute portion of the film produced laughter from some live audiences or caused audience members to walk out. No wonder. Malick certainly knows how to produce a pretty film, but he’s no Kubrick, Fellini, or Resnais when it comes to impressionistic cinema. C (10/16/11)


“Happythankyoumoreplease”-It really annoys me when a character does something so ridiculous and illogical that it has great potential to spoil the film right from the beginning. Here, SamWexler (Josh Radnor, who also wrote and directed the film), a writer of seeming intelligence, witnesses a young 10-year old boy being accidentally abandoned by a foster parent on a subway and decides to help the kid, Rasheen (Michael Algieri). But does he take him to a police station like any rational person would do? No, he takes him home, keeps him there for several days, and occasionally leaves him alone in his apartment, thus setting himself up for lots of legal trouble. But although that part of the story comes to a head later in the film, it’s quickly abandoned as a real issue, because the film wants to concentrate on the lives and romances of the main characters, including Sam’s friend Annie (Malin Akerman) who is bald from alopecia and has, as a result, issues; Mississippi (Kate Mara), the lovely girl Sam eyes on the street and quickly gets to know very well only, for some bizarre reason, to later experience hesitation; two other of Sam’s friends, a couple living together named Mary-Catherine (Zoe Kazan) and Charlie (Pablo Schreiber), who appear to be heading for a confrontation over staying in New York versus moving to Los Angeles for a job; and Sam#2 (Tony Hale), a seemingly ordinary guy who has his eye set on his co-worker, Annie. “Happythankyoumoreplease” is a decent enough start to Josh Radnor’s career as a director, but it seems to raise the issues of young thirty-somethings that have been considered before and without adding any insight. In addition, it has a rather abrupt upbeat and predictable ending that might have played better if it had been drawn out just a little more. C+ (10/12/11)


“Jane Eyre”-There have been many film and television versions of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” and this one seems to fit into the genre fairly well. Despite a few slightly confusing jumps back and forth in time, the story eventually becomes clear as we find that Jane (Mia Wasikowska of “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Kids are All Right”), having been abused by her upperclass aunt, Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), and forced to attend an even more abusive school under the direction of Mr. Brocklehurst (Simon McBurney) and the really nasty Miss Scatcherd (Sandy McDade), has finally found an apparently good situation as governess to a young French girl at Thornfield, the castle-like home of the mysterious Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender). But when she meets Rochester, she’s not quite sure what to make of his overbearing and gruff manner. Mysterious noises heard in the house at night and an even more mysterious fire which bursts forth in Rochester’s room, leads Jane to even more doubts despite the occasional moments of tenderness in Rochester’s personality and the film doesn’t give many clues to the ultimate attraction between the two. Directed by Cary Fukunaga (whose last film, “Sin Nombre,” was so utterly different from this 19th Century British gothic tale, as to make one wonder), “Jane Eyre” is lovely to look at due to the excellent cinematography of Adriano Goldman (“Sin Nombre”). Mia Wasikowska is a talented young actress, but it would have helped if she could have changed her expression once in awhile. Finally, Judi Dench is her professional self as Mrs. Fairfax, Mr. Rochester’s trusty housekeeper, and confidante for Jane, and Jamie Bell does a fine job as a rather stiff St. John Rivers who saves Jane from the elements when she runs away from Thornfield. B (10/9/11)


“Howl”-This is an eccentric quasi-documentary about the poet Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) and a 1950s trial in which a prosecutor of the city of San Francisco attempted to censor Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl.” The words spoken by the characters in the film are said to be the actual words of the real-life individuals. Told with some animation to move the story along, we see James Franco performing multiple readings of Ginsberg’s poem (to get an idea how relatively weak Franco is as a poetry reader, see the extras showing Ginsberg reading his own poem), interlaced with other commentary by Ginsberg and by characters discussing Ginsberg and his entourage, including Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi) and Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott). Most telling are the court scenes in which David Straitharn plays the prosecutor and Mary-Louise Parker is rather amusing as Gail Potter, a so-called expert, who testifies against the value of “Howl” due to its rather shocking (for that period) language. Bob Balaban gets to sit quietly throughout as Judge Clayton Horn until, at long last, he gives an eloquent verdict in favor of free speech. B (10/7/11)


“Incendies”-Deservedly nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, “Incendies” is a powerful tale about the inhumanity of war, especially civil war in which people who once lived peacefully are now killing and maiming each other. But “Incendies,” a Canadian production directed by Denis Villenueve, and based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, tells it in the form of an intense mystery thriller. When Nawal Marwan (a memorable performance by Lubna Azabal) dies, she leaves envelopes for her children, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and her brother, Simon (Maxim Gaudette). Jeanne is told that she must find her father and give him her envelope. Simon is told to find their brother and give him his envelope. Neither knew anything about their father or that they had a brother. Initially, Jeanne travels to an unnamed country which very closely resembles Lebanon and begins to learn the story of her mother’s life which is told in flashbacks to a war and time very closely resembling the Lebanese civil war (with hostilities between opposing religious groups) of the 1970s. I won’t reveal anything about the details. You owe it to yourself, if you care about powerful and intelligent films, to see this extraordinary film and find out for yourself what Jeanne and Simon learn about their mother, father, and brother. It’s a shock, but in the process of discovering what happened to Narwal, we also learn about what war, especially civil war, can do to dehumanize human beings. Of note in the cast is Rémy Girard (“The Barbarian Invasions”) as Lebel, the notary, who was Narwal’s boss and confidante in Quebec. With some English, the film is primarily in French and Arabic with English subtitles. A- (10/1/11)

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