This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of January to March 2012


“Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life”-I have long been a fan of actress/singer Jane Birkin (who appeared at age 20 in “Blow Up”) and her daughter, actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, but I never knew much about Serge Gainsbourg (the excellent Eric Elmosnino), the French singer and songwriter of Jewish ancestry who survived the Nazis as a teen, became a star, lived with Jane (among others), and fathered Charlotte (among others). “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” is a fantastical version of Gainsbourg’s life, told with a variety of unusual creatures, including a long-nosed alter ego called his “mug,” who seems ever-present. Identities are not often provided (I believe Birkin is called “Jane” once in the film and late in their relationship), but gradually we watch Gainsbourg grow from a precocious child dedicated to drawing and painting into a creative but insecure singing star who loved beautiful women. Although the film introduces us to some of Gainsbourg’s important songs and lyrics, including a controversial reggae version of the “Marseillaise” and the very well known 1969 breathless hit “Je t’aime, moi non plus” sung with Birkin), it seems to emphasize Gainsbourg’s love life, including his relationships with his first two wives, a flirtation with Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis), a brief but apparently wild affair with Brigitte Bardot (the stunning Laetitia Casta), his long relationship with Jane Birkin (played by British actress Lucy Gordon who committed suicide not longer after doing this film), and finally his marriage to actress Bambou (Mylène Jampanoï). The film is written and directed by Joann Sfar, based on his graphic novel. While I now know more about the women in Gainsbourg’s life, I still have no idea why that life was heroic. (In French with English subtitles). B (3/30/12)


“Certified Copy”-This is a puzzling but intriguing little film about a woman and a man who appear to be strangers at the beginning of a day but seem to have a very different relationship by the end. Iranian writer/director Abbas Kiarostami tells the story of Elle (Juliette Binoche), a woman who runs an antique shop in Tuscany. She is taken with James Miller (British opera singer William Shimell), the author of a book about art originals and copies, who visits her shop. They decide to ride into the country where she hopes to show him a famous art copy. While seated in a café, while Miller is on the phone, the hostess starts to converse with Elle about her “husband” and thus begins the transformation. It’s never clear just who these people and what is their real relationship, but in the meantime, the film is an examination of relationships, art, and philosophy. Juliette Binoche, as always, is outstanding. (In French and Italian with English subtitles and some English) B- (3/25/12)


“The Skin I Live In”-The movies of Pedro Almodóvar are not for everyone. He’s made a number of eccentric and brilliant films, including “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “All About My Mother,” “Talk to Her,” and “Volver.” But “The Skin I Live In” may be the strangest, a movie that might be called Almodóvar’s “Frankenstein.” Antonio Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a crazed plastic surgeon whose beloved wife has died following a fiery car crash. He is bent on developing an artificial skin that will resist fire as well as other damage and it appears that nothing will stop him from his experimenting. When Dr. Ledgard first appears, he has a beautiful patient named Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya) locked up in his mansion under the watchful eye of his mother, Marilia (Marisa Paredes). At one point, Vera is sexually attacked by a tiger-suited intruder only to be “saved” by Dr. Ledgard. But Vera, living in a body stocking, had also attempted suicide with no clear explanation. Although she’s annoyed at being locked up, she appears to be content with her situation and with Dr. Ledgard. Our conception of what’s happening in the present, however, is completely turned upside down when the film takes us back six years and reveals how Vera came to be Dr. Ledgard’s patient. I won’t go into any more detail, but believe me when I tell you that it is a very unique and somewhat disturbing story. As I said, this film is not for everyone. But it adds to Almodóvar’s growing legacy of uncommon stories told with wit, intelligence, and first-rate acting. This is the first film in years in which Antonio Banderas has had a chance to stand out. I can’t think of anything but “The Legend of Zorro,” a far cry from this film. Elena Anaya is one of those fine European actresses who is little known to American audiences and yet has been in a variety of notable films, including “Sex and Lucia,” “Talk to Her,” “Point Blank,” and the two “Mesrine” films. (In Spanish with English subtitles) B (3/23/12)


“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”-This is the third version of this story that I have experienced. The first was Stieg Larsson’s book. The second was the Swedish movie of the same name, reviewed in 2010. And now this version. And although it is a decent film, it’s also a film that did not need to be made as the Swedish version was just fine and told the story in a simpler and more succinct manner. The story is summarized in my previous review and so I’ll concentrate on the performances and other production values. Being familiar with the story, I can say that this film does a fairly good job of setting forth the dramatic thriller elements of a tale about a seemingly disgraced writer, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), chosen to explore the family mystery of an extremely wealthy Swedish family, the Vangers, who live in Hedestad several hundred miles north of Stockholm; and the life and ultimate involvement in the mystery of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), one of the most unusual characters to be seen in a long time. Knowing the story fairly well, I tried to imagine how it would appear to someone who was not at all familiar with the tale and I found that it was likely to be pretty confusing at the start. The film jumps back and forth between Blomkvist and Salander until the stories finally merge. Some of the dialogue is hard to follow which is funny since it’s in English. I found it a little annoying to hear actors trying to portray Swedes by adding slight accents which was made even sillier by the fact that some didn’t try at all. Had not Noomi Rapace already done Lisbeth Salander to perfection, I would be more impressed with Rooney Mara’s stunning take on Lisbeth Salander, an extremely eccentric computer expert. Salander is a ward of the state, and the reasons for that are an important element in this story and the two “Girl” tales to follow, and when her first and decent guardian suffers a stroke, he is replaced by Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), a pervert who will be very sorry that he chose to cross Salander. Ultimately, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” has too many stories to tell. The primary theme about the Vanger family mystery (the disappearance 40 years earlier of teenage Harriet Vanger) is at the heart of the film but is wrapped up far too quickly and abandoned (and with a somewhat different ending than contained in the book and the first film) so that the filmmakers could move on to show how Lisbeth manipulates Wennerstrom, the man who disgraced Blomkvist, out of his money and his life. Unfortunately, at the end of this rather long film (158 minutes), I was somewhat relieved that it was over. B (3/22/12)


“The Descendants”-Director Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) makes humane movies about the sensitivities of people in potentially real circumstances. “The Descendants” is a wonderful example, telling the story of Matt King (George Clooney) who is a mostly haole descendant of a relative of Hawaiian King Kamehameha. Matt King is the head of a waning family trust which is considering selling a magnificent piece of Hawaiian real estate for development. He and only he has the power to make the deal. But his life is interrupted when his wife suffers a severe head injury in a boating accident and lapses into what may be a fatal coma. Played not only amidst the beauties of Hawaii but also the reality of Honolulu suburban life, King has to deal with the needs and feelings of his two teenage daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) and his cousins, including the somewhat pushy Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges). King, who was often away from home and the needs of his family when his wife was well, finds his life even more disturbed when his older daughter, Alexandra, informs him that his wife (and her mother) had been having an affair. George Clooney is absolutely wonderful as a man who refuses to act precipitously but instead considers each step to take while his life has been turned upside down by the accident and the revelation. And he is beautifully supported by the two young actresses who portray his daughters. The script is pure and simple and makes the film a delight to behold. The cast is loaded with fine performances, including the humorous Nick Krause as Sid, Shailene’s boyfriend, who initially annoys Matt but eventually almost becomes part of the family; Robert Forster as Mrs. King’s angry father; Matthew Lillard as Brian Speer, Mrs. King’s married boyfriend; and Judy Greer as Mrs. Speer who has to live with the revelations of her husband’s infidelity. All of this takes place around the eventual decision on the sale of the real estate inherited from the King family’s Hawaiian ancestor. This warm and intelligent film brings back hope that there are more great movies still to be made by directors like Alexander Payne. A (3/18/12)


“My Week with Marilyn”-Michelle Williams is an interesting, lovely and very talented actress. She plays parts that are different and challenging (consider “Blue Valentine” and “Meek’s Cutoff”) that one can’t help but be amazed by her talent. And here, as the one and only Marilyn Monroe, she hits it out of the park. And when I say “one and only,” I mean it. Can you think of any actress in movie history who had the impact that Marilyn did? So sexy, so startling in appearance, and so natural on the screen that she is still talked about and loved 50 years after her death. When Michelle Williams is herself, she isn’t even close to being Marilyn Monroe, but she plays this role with such skill and a genuine sense of what Marilyn was all about, that you really believe you are watching Monroe. The thin wife in “Blue Valentine” here becomes the curvy and amazingly sexy and yet incredibly vulnerable movie star of her age. “My Week with Marilyn” is based on a memoir by Colin Clark, the son of Sir Kenneth Clark, the art historian. It was 1956, and Clark (Eddie Redmayne), who knew Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), was hired as third assistant director (i.e., gofer), on Olivier’s production of “The Prince and the Showgirl,” a film to star Olivier and Monroe. But Olivier, whose wife Vivian Leigh (Julia Ormond) was worried and jealous of Monroe (who arrived in England with her new husband, Arthur Miller, to great fanfare), finds that Monroe is nervous and distracted by her personal problems (with, among other things, her new husband) and the insistence of Monroe’s acting coach, Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), that Monroe follow her Acting Studio directions to a tee. Monroe, who apparently felt alone in the world even when married and surrounded by fellow actors, has trouble performing and getting to the set on time, but finds herself attracted to young Colin (six years her junior) who has an ease and charm about him that make Monroe trust and want him. Clark, who is shown initially flirting with another production employee, young Lucy (Emma Watson), is drawn naturally into a brief relationship with Monroe that any man will understand. What man could possibly resist Marilyn Monroe, especially when she invites him into her bed and has no compunctions about skinny dipping? “My Week with Marilyn” is a lovely experience for anyone who knew or appreciates Monroe and for those who love the movies. Kenneth Branagh is wonderful as the great Olivier who found a genuine challenge in dealing with Monroe. Eddie Redmayne is delightful as the slightly naïve but charming and smart Clark, and the outstanding cast also includes Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike, Dougray Scott as Arthur Miller, Dominic Cooper as Milton Greene, a Monroe assistant, and the inimitable Derek Jacobi as Sir Owen Morshead who, in a delightful scene at Windsor Castle, introduces Monroe and Clark, his godson, to the wonders of the Queen’s book collection. A (3/16/11)


“Hugo”-Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, “Hugo” begins with a bit of magic as we are introduced to a romantic, somewhat surreal view of Paris and then move closer to meet a young boy, Hugo (Asa Butterfield), living behind the walls of a railroad station in a spectacular world of staircases, clocks, pendulums, and gears. But Hugo does not simply live there, it soon becomes apparent that he is following in the footsteps of his uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) and his late father (Jude Law) by secretly maintaining the station’s clocks, and by attempting to rebuild an automaton robot out of parts stolen from here and there, including the toy store in the station run by the mysterious Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). Suffice it to say that Hugo finds himself involved with Georges and his charge, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), as he attempts to avoid the nasty, limping station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and to explain himself to the initially hostile Georges, and to the far more friendly Isabelle. As the story progresses and the mystery resolves, “Hugo” becomes a magnificent homage to the early days of cinema when, not long after the Lumière Brothers invented the motion picture camera and began to make primitive films, a French gentleman found himself inspired to create superbly imaginative films long before anyone had even thought of a place called Hollywood. Directed by Martin Scorsese, a man with a keen appreciation of the history of the cinema, “Hugo” is loaded with astonishing images, both of the physical world around Hugo, and the turn-of-the-century silent movie-making productions. The re-creations of some of these early film productions is breathtaking. In one spectacular dream sequence, the filmmakers re-create an actual event in which a steam engine managed to crash through the outer glass walls of a railroad station onto the sidewalk below. Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz are delightful and charming as to the two youngsters who move the story along, and Ben Kingsley is ideal as Georges, an obviously unhappy and frustrated man at the start who fails to understand what Hugo is all about but whose secrets and immense creativity eventually emerges due to Hugo’s efforts. Of note in the cast are Helen McCrory as George’s adoring wife, Jeanne; Emily Mortimer, as the train station’s flower girl who turns the inspector’s nasty heart, Christopher Lee as an elderly book seller, and Michael Stuhlbarg as Rene Tabard, who teaches Hugo and Isabelle about the history of the cinema and helps them solve the mystery of the robot-automaton and the genius at the heart of the film. This is a motion picture not to be missed. A (3/11/12)


“The Mighty Macs”-Would it have been logical for a college to hire someone to coach a women’s basketball team in 1972 when the school’s gym had burned down? Well, I guess it seemed so to the nun running Immaculata College, a small Catholic college near Philadelphia. Despite the college’s serious financial problems, Mother St. John (Ellen Burstyn) hires Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino) the only woman who applies for the job, and tells her to find a place to play. Cathy, who had no prior coaching experience, is thrilled to have something to do (for practically no pay). She cleans out a recreation area attached to the college’s church and starts pushing her players, who are used to failure, to play real basketball. As a big fan of the UConn Huskies women’s basketball team, one of the powers of women’s basketball, I couldn’t resist this little film about the early days of the sport. It’s no secret that Cathy Rush so inspires her players that, despite incredible odds and primitive conditions and equipment (she’s given a beat-up old basketball and skirts for uniforms), they go on to win the first national women’s basketball title. “The Mighty Macs” doesn’t exactly have a scintillating script or brilliant acting, but for any fan of women’s basketball it’s a must. Carla Gugino provides just the right bravado that someone like Cathy Rush would have needed to succeed under such circumstances. She manages to portray not only Rush’s success as a coach but her achievement in overcoming the doubts and negativity of her NBA referee husband, Ed Rush (David Boreanaz). Marley Shelton is notable and very appealing as Sister Sunday, a nun with some doubts about her calling, who lets her hair down and becomes Rush’s enthusiastic assistant coach. “The Mighty Macs” is loaded with the clichés of inspirational sports films, with one difference. This one is about women playing in team sports in an era when no one expected it. Title IX wasn’t passed until three months after Immaculata’s amazing victory, and the world of women’s basketball still had a few years to go before the emergence of great coaches like Geno Auriemma, Pat Summitt, and C. Vivian Stringer. But “The Mighty Macs” lets us in on the story of a pioneer, the great Cathy Rush. And if you love women’s basketball, you’ll be as excited and emotional as I was when they are shown beating the heavy favorite, West Chester State, for the national title. B (3/9/12)


“Meek’s Cutoff”-Have you ever wanted to experience what it was like traveling in a 19th century wagon train across the west? Well, this is one of the closest cinematic experiences you’ll have to the real thing. And it’s not fun. Based on actual incidents which occurred in 1845, the film provides us with minute details of life as part of a small wagon train on the Oregon Trail which has been led off route by the hirsute Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a braggart mountain man hired to lead the travelers. Unfortunately, he’s led them into a waterless desert and doesn’t seem to know how to reach the group’s intended destination, the Willamette Valley near the Columbia River. Director Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy”) exposes us to the rigors of daily life on the trail as food and water runs out, one of three wagons is destroyed, and the travelers find themselves with a mysterious Indian captive (Ron Rondeaux) who speaks only his native language (for which we are given no subtitles). While the blustering and seemingly clueless Meek would try to turn the travelers against the Indian, the travelers, led by Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) prefer to keep him alive in hopes that he will lead them to water. “Meek’s Cutoff” has been described as a feminist film because Emily plays such an important role in the group’s decisions, even sewing the Indian’s moccasin in order to curry favor with him, and the women seem primary among the travelers. In one powerful scene, Meek aims his handgun at the Indian with intent to kill, while Emily aims her musket at Meek in order to stop him. But there is little power displayed by the other women (Shirley Henderson and Zoe Kazan) or by the men (Will Patton, Paul Dano, and Neal Huff), for that matter, as they attempt to determine what course of action to take.. The film carries us for days and nights over the desert in hopes of reaching water, but instead we reach a very unsatisfying conclusion after the tedium of watching the film. (To find out what actually happened to Meek’s group, look up Meek or the Meek Cutoff in Google.) C+ (3/3/12)


“Texas Killing Fields”-Directed by producer Michael Mann’s daughter, Ami Canaan Mann, “Texas Killing Fields,” to begin with, has an awful name. It sounds like a horror film, but it’s really a police procedural of sorts filmed mostly in the dark. “Texas Killing Fields” is based loosely on actual serial killings of women that have occurred in a desolate area between Houston and Texas City, TX, but is otherwise pure fiction. The film introduces us to some characters with a history, but few details ever come out. Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Mike Souder (Sam Worthington) are Texas City detectives investigating a death within the city limits, when Souder’s ex-wife, Detective Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain), asks for their help in investigating other murders in the county outside Texas City. Stall and Souder are at odds but no explanation is given. Heigh wants to investigate despite Souder’s misgivings. Rather confusing at times, the film leaves some aspects of the story hanging. There’s one rotten character (a blonde man with lots of tattoos) who gets away and is never heard from again. Was it intentional or just an oversight? Not the greatest acting I’ve ever seen, but adequate. Young Chloe Grace Moretz is wasted in the role of an unhappy youngster suffering pathetic living conditions. In fact this reminds me that the film makes Texas look rather pathetic although it was actually filmed in Louisiana. The film is watchable but hardly memorable. C+ (2/24/12)


“The Rum Diary”-Based on the novel (semi-autobiographical?) of Hunter S. Thompson, “The Rum Diary” is a drunken mess. Johnny Depp, who seems drawn recently to some pretty less than worthwhile films (think “The Tourist”), stars as Paul Kemp, an alcoholic writer in 1960 who is hired to write an astrology column for a dying San Juan newspaper run by an angry and pathetic editor (Richard Jenkins). Although trying to avoid alcohol and dreaming of writing serious social articles, Kemp finds himself drawn to pitiable characters, including the paper’s friendly photographer, the unshaven Sala (Michael Rispoli), and another writer, Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), who looks very much like something the cat dragged in. When Kemp finds himself being recruited by a slick and sleezy businessman, Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), to take part in a legally questionable activity, it’s Eckhart’s beautiful girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard) who gives Kemp a reason for living and a little pizzazz to the film. Kemp, however, seems too bright to find himself in the ridiculous situations that occur in the film, including a fire-breathing car chase in the Puerto Rican backwoods. But the worst thing about “The Rum Diary” is that the script is flat, the story (whatever there is of it) is dull, and except for a few scenes along the beach, even the scenery is ugly. D (2/19/12)


“Anonymous”-This was an unusual choice for director Roland Emmerich, usually known for disaster thrillers such as “2012” and “The Day After Tomorrow.” This time he chose to expend his efforts on a speculation about the true authorship of the plays and poems of William Shakespeare, one known as the Oxfordian theory. “Anonymous” begins with a Broadway introduction by the incredibly articulate Derek Jacobi, exposing Shakespeare’s lack of education and experience and the unlikelihood that he could have authored the plays for which he is known. The scene then morphs back to the 16th century and the Elizabethan era. Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), is the hostile son-in-law of Elizabeth’s primary advisor, William Cecil (David Thewlis), a man who for fanatic religious reasons despises all of the creative arts, especially plays and poems. Rhys Ifans provides a stunning and, for him, unusual performance as an articulate, brilliant, but weak earl who chooses to have others take credit for his written works of art. While he selects Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to be the “author,” Jonson is reluctant. As a result, an actor, Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), who is accused by Jonson of being able to read but not write, jumps in and takes credit for the works originally described as those of “Anonymous.” But “Anonymous” is also a political history of the Elizabethan era. With Joely Richardson as the young Elizabeth and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, as the elder queen, the film explores her desires and affairs, and the evil plotting of William Cecil and his son and heir, Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg), to make certain that James of Scotland becomes James I after Elizabeth’s death. The younger Cecil is portrayed as a malicious soul who convinces the queen that the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) and the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel), who is said to be her own son with her once lover, Oxford, are committing treason by plotting to take the throne for Essex, and should be executed. The significance of this part of the plot is that in real life Shakespeare dedicated some of his works to Southampton. Although not shown in the film, Southampton was a patron of Shakespeare, but the film would have it that the dedications were actually those of Oxford towards his own son. The political plotting is somewhat confusing in “Anonymous” because of two factors. First, the film jumps back and forth in time between the era of the younger Elizabeth and that of the elder. Second, some of the actors playing the important characters are, frankly, a little too similar in appearance. That said, the film is still rather powerful, especially due to the outstanding performances of the brilliant British cast. In addition to those already mentioned, I should note fine performances by Jamie Campbell Bower as the young Oxford (who has a rather erotic scene with the younger Elizabeth) and Trystan Gravelle as the ill-fated Christopher Marlowe (whose murder is attributed in the film to an unlikely source). “Anonymous” presents the Oxfordian theory well. It should be noted that while Mark Twain made it very clear that he did not believe that Shakespeare actually wrote the works attributed to him, presenting a strong case for why Shakespeare's authorship was almost impossible to believe, it appears that most historians continue to stand by Will Shakespeare as the actual author of his plays and poems. B+ (2/11/12)


“Drive”-Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a quiet young man who knows how to drive. He drives fast and dangerous as a film stuntman and he drives fast and furious as a getaway man in robberies. And when he has to get away from the police and leave the thieves in the backseat, he has no compunctions about doing so. Then Driver finds himself charmed by a lovely young neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son, only to discover that Irene’s husband is about to get out of prison. But Driver is an unusual character, not only for his taciturn nature, but also strangely for his human concerns and he volunteers (hoping to help Irene’s husband who is in a predicament with gangsters), to drive the getaway car in what turns out to be the robbery from hell. “Drive” has the virtue of being beautifully photographed and very well paced, and cast with first-rate actors, including Bryan Cranston as Shannon, the owner of the garage where Driver works; Oscar Isaac as Standard, Irene’s husband; Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman as two greedy and malicious gangsters; and Christina Hendricks ("Mad Men") as Blanche, a redhead who makes the mistake of getting involved in the robbery. Ryan Gosling is the actor of the moment, seemingly in every other film and deservedly so. His range is first-rate when one considers the difference between Driver, the pol he plays in “The Ides of March,” and the sad husband in “Blue Valentine.” My only problem with “Drive” is the ending which defies the laws of biology. B+ (2/4/12)


“Mysteries of Lisbon”-A very European 4 1/2 hour movie, “Mysteries of Lisbon,” based on a 19th Century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, begins with the tale of young João, later revealed to be Pedro de Silva, who lives in an early 19th century Lisbon school run by a priest, Padre Dinis. After João is hit on the head, and recovers, he discovers that he is really Pedro, the son of Ångelina De Lima, the Countess of Santa Barbara, who is extremely unhappily married to the Count of Santa Barbara. And this is just the beginning of a group of tales involving interconnected characters, all centering around Padre Dinis (Adriano Luz) who is also known in the story as Sabrino Cabra, a gypsy, and Sebastião de Melo, a mystery man. The stories are told via the symbolism of a toy stage given to Pedro by his mother. There’s travel, adventure, and mysteries revealed (and some not--who shoots himself at the end of the duel in the second half of the film?), as “Mysteries of Lisbon” takes us on a journey back and forth until we arrive back at the school just after João’s head injury and we reach the ultimate mystery. “Mysteries of Lisbon” moves slowly at times, from stories told to action, but is never dull. Notable in the cast are Ricardo Pereira as Alberto de Magalhães, Maria João Bastos as Ångelina De Lima (who ultimately finds refuge from life in a convent), Clotilde Hesme as Elisa de Montfort and Léa Seydoux (“Midnight in Paris”) as Branca de Montfort. (In Portuguese and French with English subtitles) B+ (2/3/12)


“The Ides of March”-Based on a play called “Farragut North” and directed by George Clooney himself, “The Ides of March” has a wonderful cast which is its strength. Centered around an Ohio primary battle for the Democratic nomination for president, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is a young major operative for Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), working under the very experienced Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman). On the other side is Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) who is doing his best to undermine the Morris campaign. For a guy as smart as Meyers seems to be, he much too easily allows himself to be tricked into what appears to be a disloyal act and is close to being exposed by a reporter, Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei). There are plenty of political zingers in the script aimed mostly at the right, but the plot turns much too melodramatic when a young intern, Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), who also just happens to be the daughter of a major political activist, becomes the primary figure in the story. Lasting only a little over 90 minutes, “The Ides of March” is a little too familiar (considering what we see and hear in the news daily), and is wrapped up much too quickly, especially considering the relatively artificial plot twists, to be truly satisfying. The cast includes a brief appearance by Jennifer Ehle, as Morris’ wife, Cindy; and also by one of the most diverse character actors, Jeffrey Wright, as a Senator who uses his powerful endorsement for his own advancement. B- (1/28/12)


“Higher Ground”-Based on a memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs, “Higher Ground” is Vera Farmiga’s first directorial effort and a fairly good one it is. Farmiga ("Up in the Air") also stars as Corinne, a woman who joins a Christian fundamentalist flock which includes her musician husband, Ethan (Joshua Leonard) and her children, but who seems never completely comfortable with her own search for a connection to Jesus. Exposed to these views by her childhood pastor (Bill Irwin), she continues to follow the preachings of her righteous and all-knowing adult pastor (Norbert Leo Butz) without much thought. But when her best friend, Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), becomes paralyzed due to a brain tumor, her doubts seem to grow, and some slight feminist concerns occurs, especially when she is told that women are not allowed to preach to men. It seems to me that this kind of film would never have been made in past decades, but is the result of the growing influence of Christian fundamentalists. “Higher Ground” is not political. It’s about a woman’s need for faith and her inability to connect with the obsessive religious views of those around her while never actually rejecting her own religious needs. What makes the film worthy of attention is the cast, which includes several first-rate Broadway players, including Norbert Leo Butz; Donna Murphy as Corinne’s mother; and Nina Arianda as Corinne’s cynical sister. The cast also includes John Hawkes (“Deadwood” and “Winter’s Bone) and an effective performance by Vera Farmiga’s much younger sister, Taissa Farmiga, as the teenage Corinne. With a lesser cast, this film might have been a complete dud because it fails to explain just what is going on in Corinne's mind. B (1/21/12)


“Contagion”-This is a scary movie, not because the filmmakers wanted you to scream and squirm in your seat like most horror films, but because it is about something that could really happen. “Contagion,” directed by Steven Soderbergh. is the story of the spread of a highly contagious virus that kills quickly and the doctors who try to contain it. We are almost immediately introduced (interestingly, it begins on “Day 2”) to Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) who has been in Asia on business but stops in Chicago to have an affair. By the time she arrives home, she is extremely ill and dies soon thereafter along with her young son. Her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), discovers quickly that he’s immune, but many others are getting sick and dying. Emhoff and his teenage daughter Jory (Anna-Jacoby Heron) provide the means by which the filmmakers demonstrate how the virus affects daily life in America when fear spreads. We’re also introduced to a slew of doctors at the Center for Disease Control, who are desperately trying to figure out what the virus is, how it spreads, and how it can be stopped without endangering themselves and committing ethical violations. Led by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), the group includes Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) who heads for Asia; Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) who attempts to determine the scope of the spread of the virus among victims; Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) who experiments on herself in hopes of achieving a useful vaccination; and Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould). One of these doctors will die from the virus. But “Contagion” is also about modern-day hypsters who spread fear and misinformation in order to satisfy their own egos and possibly achieve wealth. This aspect of the story is represented by Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a San Francisco Internet blogger who is trusted by his many readers. “Contagion” surprised me. I originally dreaded watching it, but I quickly discovered that the script is methodical and intelligent, while at the same time including many familiar elements of a standard thriller, such as the pulsating and dramatic background music. But what really makes the film worthwhile is the excellent cast. And of these fine actors, I particularly want to note the very appealing Jennifer Ehle as a soft-spoken but courageous scientist. B+ (1/16/12)


“Moneyball”-It’s not hard to make a list of memorable baseball films. There haven’t been that many. Films like “Bang the Drum Slowly,” “Bull Durham,” “The Natural,” “Field of Dreams,” “Eight Men Out,” and “A League of Their Own” come to mind. “Moneyball,” based on the book by Michael Lewis, can now be added to the list. It tells the mostly true-life story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), a ballplayer who apparently had great potential, was signed by the New York Mets for a big bonus in 1980, and who utterly failed to come through as a player (he had 3 homers and 29 rbis over six seasons with the Mets, Twins, Tigers and A’s). But Beane had other baseball talents which emerged when he became a scout for the A’s and ultimately their general manager. As the film begins it is 2002 and the Oakland A’s, who lost to the Yankees in the 2001 playoffs, need to rebuild after losing free agents Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi, and Jason Isringhausen to teams with a lot more money. Beane initially begs the A’s owner for more funds, but then happens upon a young Yale economics graduate, Peter Brand (based on the real-life Paul DePodesta) who has analyzed via computer what makes teams win. Hiring him away from the Cleveland Indians, Beane and Brand (Jonah Hill) begin their job of rebuilding the A’s over the protests of the scouts and other officials who can’t imagine what they’re thinking when they decide to replace first baseman Jason Giambi by signing a ballplayer like Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), a former Red Sox catcher with a bad throwing arm who has never before played first base. Brad Pitt owns this film, turning Billy Beane into a very cool and outwardly self-confident baseball exec who decides to take a chance and go with a whole new approach to creating a major league team. Jonah Hill, who has usually been seen in silly raunchy comedies, does a fine job of portraying Brand, the initially nervous young follower of the sabermetrics of Bill James, who begins to grow in experience on the job. Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of our finest actors, appears in the limited role of the A’s manager, Art Howe, who is very resistant to Beane’s approach and knows his days as A’s manager are numbered. “Moneyball” is a fresh approach to a baseball film, concentrating on the executive office rather than the play on the field, although what happened during the 2002 season becomes an important element of the end of the film. Brad Pitt is memorable as we watch Beane manipulate the team roster and the players to achieve his goals. A- (1/15/12)


“Point Blank”-The French have a history of excellent gangster films, ranging from classics like “Breathless” and “Rififi” to the more recent documentary-like “Mesrine,” but “Point Blank” more closely resembles a Hollywood thriller than the classic French films of the genre. And, thus, not surprisingly, it’s loaded with the clichés of the American thriller, including the theme of the innocent man and his family caught up in the middle and the corrupt officials who seem to be at the heart of so many of these films (I’ll be circumspect in order to avoid giving away any of the film’s secrets). The film literally begins in the middle of a violent chase, but ultimately flashes back to its origins. Gilles Lellouche is Samuel, a nurse’s aid in a hospital who helps revive an injured thug, Hugo Sartet (Roschdy Zem). Shortly thereafter Samuel is knocked out and his very pregnant wife, Nadia (Elena Anaya), is kidnapped. As a result, Samuel finds himself being forced to commit an illegal act, thus beginning a breathless chase through the streets of Paris. My biggest complaint about “Point Blank” is that the action becomes a little too overwhelming at times. The characters needed to take a few more breaths. But for its genre, it does the job. Maybe because it’s French and not from Hollywood, I found “Point Blank” to be an enjoyable thriller. While the ending wasn’t unexpected and isn’t totally satisfying, the film did contain a few good twists and turns. I particularly want to note the fine job done by Roschdy Zem, a very appealing actor seen previously and memorably in “Days of Glory (Indigènes),” as a safecracker whose true nature and character emerges as the story progresses (In French with English subtitles). B (1/13/12)


“Brighton Rock”-Based on the 1938 novel by Graham Greene, which was made into a classic film with Richard Attenborough in 1947, this “Brighton Rock” is updated to 1964. After his gang boss is murdered by an opposing gang, Pinkie (Sam Riley) decides to get revenge and bludgeons to death the killer, Hale (Sean Harris), under the Brighton pier. But he quickly learns that a young local woman, Rosie (Andrea Riseborough), was photographed with Hale and Pinkie’s current boss, Spicer (Philip Davis) only moments before. Pinkie must get the photo and woo Rosie in order to get her on his side. Sam Riley (“Control”) is appropriately emotionless as a thug trying to act normal around Rosie, who seems innocent at the start, but doesn’t seem so innocent as things progress. And Pinkie, whose goal is to take over his gang, doesn’t plan on one obstacle, Ida (Helen Mirren), a local woman who liked Hale and doesn’t think much of Pinkie. Updated against a background of youth violence in mid-1960s England, “Brighton Rock” is an effective British gang thriller. Andrea Riseborough is very effective and touching as the young Rosie who goes through a transformation from innocent waitress to gangster’s moll, or at least so she thinks. John Hurt also appears. The film also contains an endearing performance by Nonso Anozie as Dallow, a gangster with a heart. B (1/8/12)


“Tuesday, After Christmas”-I wish I could tell you what the point of this Romanian film was, but it leaves me mystified. It begins with Paul Hanganu (Mimi Branescu) in bed with his mistress, Raluca (Maria Popistasu). It’s quickly obvious that Paul is married to another woman, Adriana (Mirela Oprisor), and has a young daughter (who is getting dental treatment from Raluca). Was it intentional that the filmmakers put glasses on Adriana to lessen her attractiveness? The film proceeds as if we are a fly on the wall of a mundane marital situation. No one seems to notice that Paul looks distracted and expressionless much of the time, and little happens until Paul finally informs Adriana that he is in love with Raluca (incidentally, at this point Adriana takes off her glasses and looks more attractive). Mirela Oprisor has her best scene as she reacts with fury to what her now estranged husband has just told her. Directed by Radu Muntean, who also co-wrote the screenplay, “Tuesday, After Christmas” seems to be all about showing us the fairly common details of the lives of the characters without making moral observations. I can’t say I was bored, but at the end I wondered about the point of the story. (In Romanian with English subtitles). [Note: A.O. Scott of the New York Times listed this film among his best of 2011.] C+ (1/6/12)


“Beginners”-Lovingly directed by Mike Mills, based on a story about his own life, “Beginners” is about life, death, love, sadness, heterosexuality, homosexuality, and a dog. Ewan McGregor is Oliver Fields who tells the story of how his parents were married for over 40 years although his father was gay. The father, Hal Fields, played with great charm and sensitivity by Christopher Plummer, decides at 75 to inform his son that he is gay and that he wants to find out what it’s like to come out. Unfortunately, and although he begins a life with a younger lover, he soon learns that he has terminal cancer. His father has died by the time he tells the story, but Oliver, a somewhat sad young man who has been unable to maintain a serious relationship, meets a lovely young French actress, Anna (Mélanie Laurent of “Inglourious Basterds”), who in many ways is almost as morose as he is, but it’s obvious that they belong together. And in the midst of all this, there is the amazing Arthur (Cosmo), a Jack Russell terrier who was Hal’s pet and has now become a loving, loyal, and somewhat demanding member of Oliver’s household. Mike Mills gets everything he can out of his wonderful cast. Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent are wonderful as a loving couple exploring their emotional needs and weaknesses, and Christopher Plummer turns himself thoroughly into an older gay man. Also of particular note in the cast are Goran Visjnic as Andy, Hal’s young lover, and Mary Page Keller as Oliver’s late mother, Georgia. A touching and moving film. Highly recommended. A- (1/2/12)

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