This page contains Roy's Movie Reviews dated between December 25, 2006 and May 5, 2007.


“The Last King of Scotland”-In most films about real-life individuals, the only fictional characters have minor roles. Here, we have the story of Ugandan dictorator Idi Amin (Forrest Whitaker), one of the great monsters of African history, told through the experiences of a completely fictional Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy). Garrigan leaves Scotland and the potential boring practice he would have with his father, to come to Uganda, a place he has chosen by virtue of putting his finger randomly on a spinning globe. He meets Amin early in his reign, and is persuaded to become Amin’s personal doctor and advisor. Considering Garrigan’s somewhat meek personality and weak character, the latter situation seems hardly likely. What follows, however, are Garrigan’s experiences, at first idolizing the seemingly charming Amin and then horrifyingly becoming aware of Amin’s monstrous and murderous rampage of his Ugandan “enemies.” Forrest Whitaker, who has gotten great recognition for this performance, including an Oscar, ultimately emotes to the nth degree as the temperamental and volcanic dictator. Whitaker’s performance makes Amin somewhat sympathetic, a goal hardly to be expected considering Amin’s nightmarish rule over Uganda. McAvoy seems somehow out of place as the doctor who does his job, but can’t keep his hands off local wives, first Sarah Merritt (Gillian Anderson), the wife of the British doctor he initially helps upon arriving in Uganda, and later disastrously with Kay Amin (Kerry Washington), Amin’s third wife. “The Last King of Scotland” is thus a strange mixture of fiction and fact and performances of alternately sympathetic and unsympathetic characters. B (5/5/07)

“Dreamgirls”-A splashy production with music ranging from mediocre to earsplitting, “Dreamgirls” contains some memorable performances, especially by Jennifer Hudson as Effie White, and Eddie Murphy as James “Thunder" Early. In my experience, when watching a musical in a theater, the audience usually expects the inevitable conversational songs that move the story along. That’s usually what makes a show a musical, although it often doesn’t work well in a film unless the musical nature of the story is quickly established, such as in “Chicago.” One problem with this film is that it begins realistically in which the music is simply part of the story: the stage performances of the characters. It gives the impression of a standard show biz biography. So when there is the sudden change, well into the film, to scenes in which the characters sing to each other as part of the conversation, it’s somewhat unexpected and jarring. Effie White, with a loud gospel-type voice, leads the Dreamettes, a Detroit girl group, with her friends Deana (Beyoncé Knowles) and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose). They are discovered by Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx) and, with the songwriting of Effie’s brother, C.C. White (Keith Robinson), start out as a backup group to James Early and then begin their rise to fame as The Dreams (obviously reminiscent of Diana Ross and The Supremes). Unfortunately, Taylor, who is obsessed with success, turns on his lover Effie, makes the beautiful Deana the lead singer, ultimately pushing Effie right out of the act and his life. That C.C. White greedily goes along with Taylor and also turns on his sister, ignoring her for several years, seems unlikely but is a necessary part of the theme of success at all cost. Jennifer Hudson certainly deserved recognition for an amazing performance as an overweight, but attractive and wronged woman. Eddie Murphy provides what may be the performance of his life as an enthusiastic R & B singer (and womanizer) who is used up and tossed out by the cynical Taylor. Jamie Foxx does an excellent job of switching from the sympathetic Ray Charles of “Ray” to the self-centered and arrogant Curtis Taylor. “Dreamgirls” also contains a first-rate performance by Anika Noni Rose as Lorrell, the junior member of the Dreams. Also of note in the cast are Danny Glover as Early’s first agent, Sharon Leal as Michelle Morris, who succeeds Effie in The Dreams, and Hinton Battle as Taylor’s assistant. B+ (5/4/07)

“The Queen”-Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) became Prime Minister of England in 1997 and only a short time later had to deal with the crisis of the British Royal Family’s “reaction” to the death of Princess Diana. Helen Mirren, who deservedly won the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress for this role, is perfect as Queen Elizabeth II, a woman portrayed as dowdy, possibly a little bored with her royal role, and oblivious to how she appears to the British public when she fails to make any public statement following Diana’s death. “The Queen” shows the royal family, including Prince Philip (James Cromwell) and the Queen Mother (the wonderful Sylvia Syms), attempting to ignore the tragedy because Diana was no longer an HRH. But the British public was in mourning for the loss of the “people’s princess,” as she was portrayed by Blair, and angry at the coldness coming from Buckingham Palace. In one obvious but telling sequence, the Queen is shown demonstrating more concern for a stag that has been shot than she did for her former daughter-in-law. It seems that Mirren’s performance is so brilliant that Michael Sheen’s performance as the newly elected prime minister has been overlooked. Sheen provides a magnificent performance as a man who is still learning his job, but has the confidence to do everything he can to guide the Queen into doing what was needed to protect the monarchy. Directed by Stephen Frears (“Mrs. Henderson Presents”) and with brilliant cinematography, “The Queen” also has excellent performances by Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair, the anti-monarchist wife of the PM; Alex Jennings doing his best to portray sympathetically the generally unsympathetic Prince Charles; and Roger Allam as Sir Robin Janvrin, the Queen’s private secretary, and a man who must watch his p’s and q’s no matter what’s happening. James Cromwell, an American actor, does a fair job of being the arrogant and nasty Prince Philip, and Sylvia Syms is delightful as the old and stuffy Queen Mother. Highly recommended, especially for Helen Mirren’s award-winning performance. A (4/27/07)

“Children of Men”-It’s England twenty years in the future. No child has been born on Earth for 18 years and no one knows why. Humanity is quickly deteriorating into a dreary and dirty fascistic world in which immigrants are rounded up and caged. There are, of course, the expected rebels, the Fishes, led by Julian (Julianne Moore), who was once the wife of Theo (Clive Owen), an activist long retired from activism. Theo is dragged back into the world of the rebels by Julian because he may be able to help a young woman named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who is pregnant. The idea is to get Kee to a group of researchers at sea who may be able to figure out how to bring back fertility. But Julian is killed and the remainder of the film turns into an arduous dreary chase across a miserable landscape in which Theo attempts to protect Kee and get her to the seabound research ship. Unfortunately, nothing much happens the rest of the way except Theo running around miraculously escaping the flying bullets and exploding bombs going off in all directions. Characters babble in a variety of languages and the child is ultimately born in a horrifying Holocaust-like refugee camp. For a moment, the government troops and the rebels, caught up in a seemingly hopeless and meaningless war, stop to admire the newborn child, but the battle quickly resumes. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón (“Y Tu Mamá También”), the film seems to add little to the theme of humanity, when faced with unexpected major crises, teetering on the edge of utter and totalitarian chaos. I think we got that message way back with “1984” and “Brave New World” and from classic films like “Bladerunner.” Michael Caine appears as Jasper Palmer, an eccentric hippie-like friend of Theo’s who aids in Kee’s escape, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is Luke, a misguided murderous member of the Fishes. Based on a novel by P.D. James, “Children of Men” gives us a hint of a bleak future, but a bleak future that just doesn’t make for scintillating filmmaking. B- (4/27/07)

“The History Boys”-With essentially the same cast as the play that was a hit on Broadway, “The History Boys” is a fascinating little tale of a group of young men at a private school in England hoping to get into Oxford or Cambridge. Guided initially by their inspired and intelligent teachers, Hector (Richard Griffiths) and Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), the boys find themselves being tutored by a new teacher, not much older than them. He is Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) who is there to give them the “polish” they’ll need to be admitted to one of the leading universities. We see intellect, interpersonal rivalries, and the homosexuality that seems everpresent in any story about British boys at school. The film has a wonderful cast led by Griffith, de la Tour, and Moore, but including a group of articulate and spirited young actors, including Samuel Barnett as Posner, the singing Jewish student; Russell Tovey as Rudge, who appears less intellectual than his classmates but knows what he wants; and Dominic Cooper as the sharp, witty and sexually adventurous Dakin. “The History Boys” is a smart, intelligent and fun film about young men who know how to use their brains. A- (4/25/07)

“Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles”-After completing “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” director Zhang Yimou obviously decided to make a “small” film about quieter, simpler and more modern themes. This is the tale of Mr. Takata (Ken Takakura) who has been estranged from his son, Ken-ichi, for years. When his daughter-in-law, Rie (Shinobu Terajima), informs him that his son is seriously ill, he rushes to the hospital only to be rejected by his son. But he learns that his son spent a great deal of time in China listening to and studying Chinese opera, and was especially interested in an opera called “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” starring Li Jiamin. Mr. Takata decides to travel to China to record this opera for his son. Unfortunately, when he arrives in China and travels to the remote mountainous town where Li lives, he discovers that Li is in prison. What follows is a charming tale about fathers and sons and bureaucratic hastles of dealing with interpreters and government officials. Most telling is Mr. Takata’s interaction with Li’s young son, Yang Yang, a young man who speaks a completely different language, but who ultimately communicates quite well with Mr. Takata. A simple, but nice film with a humane theme. (In Japanese and Mandarin with English subtitles) B+ (4/22/07)

“Notes on a Scandal”-Let’s get one thing out of the way: this film has an incredible cast, including Cate Blanchett as art teacher Sheba Hart, Bill Nighy as Sheba’s older husband, and Judi Dench as Sheba’s older and more experienced colleague, Barbara Covett. You can’t do much better than that for a cast. Unfortunately, “Notes on a Scandal” also has an astoundingly unpleasant story. Barbara Covett, who has been teaching for many years, makes nasty observations about those around her, including new teacher Sheba who lives with her husband and two children, including a son with Down’s syndrome. Gradually they become friends until one day Barbara makes a shocking discovery about Sheba’s sexual activity with a 15-year old student, Steven (Andrew Simpson). Although obviously the motivation of a grown woman to have a sexual relationship with a child could be anything, this relationship seems inexplicable in the circumstances of the film’s characters. Barbara, with her own personality quirks and sexual predilections, decides to use her knowledge to her own advantage and attempts to effectively blackmail the already confused and disturbed Sheba. There is nothing attractive about any of these characters and the denouement of the film is ultimately unsatisfying. Despite the wonderful cast, “Notes on a Scandal” leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. B- (4/21/07)

“Bobby”-Emilio Estevez has here made his homage to Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the 1968 presidential candidate who was shot down in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in June of that year. While the film shows lots of shots of RFK and his campaign, and centers around the California presidential primary and the Senator’s visit that night to the hotel, it’s more about a large cast of characters at the hotel on that fateful day. Following somewhat the style of the classic “Grand Hotel,” “Bobby” introduces us to a wide range of characters with utterly different moods, activities, and needs who just happen to be in the hotel that day. There’s William H. Macy as the hotel manager, Heather Graham as his mistress (and hotel switchboard operator), Sharon Stone as his wife (and hotel hair stylist), Christian Slater as the head of the kitchen who doesn’t see why Mexican kitchen workers should be let off from work to vote, Laurence Fishburne as the articulate hotel chef, Freddy Rodriguez (“Six Feet Under”) as a busboy with Dodger tickets, Anthony Hopkins as a former doorman who just can’t leave the hotel, Harry Belafonte as his chess mate and friend, Helen Hunt and Martin Sheen as a couple staying at the hotel, Nick Cannon as an RFK campaign official with stars in his eyes, Demi Moore as an over-the-hill singer, Emilio Estevez as her frustrated husband, and Elijah Wood and Lindsey Lohan as a young couple about to be married to help the young man avoid the draft. One of the funniest performances is that of Ashton Kutcher, as a drug salesman who provides two young political workers, played by Shia LeBeouf and Brian Geraghty, with their first doses of LSD. The problem with “Bobby” is that it seemingly elevates Robert F. Kennedy to godlike status, and also jumps around from character to character without letting much develop in any one story. But it does exude the enthusiasm of Estevez, who also wrote the screenplay, for a more idealistic time long past, and ultimately is charming, shocking and sad at the same time. B+ (4/14/07)

"The Good Shepherd”-Robert De Niro demonstrates that he can be a fine director in this excellent production about the early years of the CIA. Beginning with the JFK/CIA debacle at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1961, and implying that a leak helped defeat the invaders, “The Good Shepherd” takes us back to 1939. We meet Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a tight-lipped student at Yale, who is picked for Skull and Bones, the secret society that has had more than its share of powerful people as members over the years. In “The Good Shepherd,” in the pre-war and early WW-II years, several members are recruited to become agents employed by the OSS, the CIA’s predecessor. Finding himself in the ultra-self-confident upper class world of the “Bonesmen,” Wilson not only finds a career but also a not-necessarily desired wife in the form of the aggessive Margaret Ann Russell (Angelina Jolie), aka Clover, who forces her attentions on him at a Skull and Bones outing and then, pregnant, forces him to “do his duty” and marry her. In doing so, he sacrifices the apparent love he has developed for Laura (Tammy Blanchard), a partially deaf student he has met in the Yale library. “The Good Shepherd” is a masterful thriller with minimal violence (strangely, two of three people killed are women) that takes us back and forth between Wilson’s early years in the OSS and 1961, in which his dealings with a Soviet agent with the code name “Ulysses” lead him to discover the source of the Bay of Pigs leak and, in the process, to learn a very painful secret. The script and cast are both outstanding. The film is 2 hours and 40 minutes long and I watched it twice within a 24-hour period without boredom. The cast includes the marvelous Michael Gambon as a suspect Yale professor; Billy Crudup as a British agent; William Hurt as Wilson’s colleague, Philip Allen, an early head of the CIA; and John Turturro as Ray Brocco, Wilson’s right-hand (in more ways than one) man. Angelina Jolie is perfect as the young aggressive Clover, a manhunter if you ever saw one, but not so right for the later role of an unloved and bitter wife. Matt Damon does his usual fine job as a man with limited expression and emotion, something he seems to do quite well. “The Good Shepherd” is highly recommended. A (4/7/07)

“Volver”-Pedro Almodóvar is, without question, one of the finest and most imaginative movie-makers around. I have yet to see one of his films without being utterly delighted and “Volver” wonderfully continues that trend. One of the things that makes an Almodóvar film great is that the story is about the human comedy and filled with wondrous characters in unique settings. On top of that, an Almodóvar film is virtually always exquisitely photographed and a delight to watch. And more: an Almodóvar film always has a fantastic cast, and this time he has a cast of women who are sublime. It’s not always easy to describe an Almodóvar plot, however. Here, Penélope Cruz is Raimunda, a woman living with her teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) and husband Paco in Madrid. Raimunda and her sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas) visit their elderly Aunt Paula in La Mancha and discover, when talking to family friend Agustina (powerfully portrayed by Blanca Portillo) that the locals suspect that their dead mother Irene has been helping Aunt Paula. Back in Madrid, Paula is sexually assaulted by Paco and kills him, and Raimunda takes it on herself to get rid of the body. But before she can do that, she finds herself using her friend’s nearby closed restaurant to cater for a film crew working nearby. When Agustina, dying of cancer, comes to Raimunda to ask her to ask her mother whether Agustina’s mother is alive or dead, Raimunda begins to wonder just what is going on. And what is going on is that the “ghost” of Raimunda’s mother has returned in the form of the wonderful Carmen Maura, one of the finest Spanish actresses, and family secrets are revealed. “Volver,” which literally means “to return” or, as indicated in the film, “coming back,” is simply a masterful tale about the lives of Spanish women and how they interact in the environment of the big city and in the relatively superstitious rural area of La Mancha. Penélope Cruz is a revelation with a great script and a real part to play. (In Spanish with English subtitles) A (4/6/07)

“Copying Beethoven”-Sometimes movie magic fails and this is one of those times. Director Agnieszka Holland (“Olivier, Olivier” and “Europa Europa”) obviously had a dream of making a fantasy about a young woman entering the life of the almost totally deaf Ludwig van Beethoven in early 19th Century Vienna. But she went wrong in so many ways. The cinematography is dull and the scenery bland when it should have vibrant and exciting. Diane Kruger (“Troy” and “National Treasure”) is an actress with little or no spirit playing Anna Holtz, a fictitious musical copyist, sent to work for Beethoven while he is writing the Ninth Symphony. Ed Harris, as fine an actor as he usually is, just isn’t Ludwig van Beethoven and never for a second did I think he was. He was just Ed Harris with wild hair and wearing lots of horns near his ears to help his hearing, blusteringly attempting to dominate the other characters. There’s not much to the story. Copyist comes to Beethoven who ridicules the idea that a woman could be interested in or capable of writing music. Woman manages to calm him down. And when Beethoven conducts the symphony while introducing the Ninth, woman must sit in the orchestra and essentially conduct Beethoven to make sure that he doesn’t mess up the timing since he can barely hear what is being played. Even the performance of the Ninth about two-thirds of the way through the film seems relatively unexciting with this silly and bland setup and production. I cannot recommend this film. C- (4/5/07)

“Curse of the Golden Flower”-Director Zhang Yimou has made some of the most elaborate and gorgeous films about China, its culture and its history. These include the wonderful “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Hero.” After his last film, “House of Flying Daggers,” I was afraid that Zhang had gotten into a rut of wildly spectacular kungfu films. But I was wrong. “Curse of the Golden Flower” may be one of the most colorful films ever made, an actual sight to see, and it certainly has its share of individual and group hand-to-hand kungfu-style combat, but it is more about the culture of Chinese royals in the Tang dynasty and the imperial family with its deep, dark secrets. Empress Phoenix (Gong Li) has been forced by the emperor to take medicine every two hours for 10 years, and most recently the emperor added a new ingredient, one aimed at destroying her mental faculties. Needless to say, she and Emperor Ping (Chow Yun Fat), are not happy campers. There are three sons. The oldest, Wan (Ye Liu), who is the empress’ stepson and a somewhat weak character; Prince Jai (Jay Chou), who is allowed to return to the Imperial Palace after several years, and clearly loves and supports his mother; and the youngest, Prince Yiu. But there are secrets below the surface, including the identity of Wan’s mother, and the plotting by the empress to force the emperor to abdicate on the Night of the Chrysanthemum (the golden flower of the title). Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat provide powerful performances as they figuratively bang heads over family affairs, ultimately ending in a battle on the grounds of the Imperial Palace that puts to shame anything seen in fantasies such as the “Lord of the Rings” series. The elements that cry out for attention in this film are color, sets, and costumes. As described by Zhang on the DVD, the intent was to show the splendor of the Tang dynasty, one that was opulent on the outside and rotten inside. The colors inside and outside the Imperial Palace are almost blinding in their intensity. The costumes, many of which are gold, almost defy description. Although this film got less attention than earlier Zhang films, this too deserves to be seen. Highly recommended. (In Mandarin with English subtitles) A (4/4/07)

“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”-One could almost see this as a live version of the animated film “Cars.” Well, maybe not. “Cars” didn’t hysterically ridicule NASCAR, its supporters and followers, and the religious habits of those involved. This time the tale is of Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell), who listened intently to his father’s drug-induced wisdom that “if you’re not first, you’re last,” and becomes a big winner on the NASCAR circuit, supported by his loyal lapdog friend, Cal Naughton, Jr. (John C. Reilly), who always finishes second to Bobby’s first. Bobby, a simpleminded hick, not only wins races, but wins the blonde Carley (Leslie Bibb), the well-endowed blonde who can’t resist winners. But Ricky Bobby’s success is threatened by a new French driver, Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), and one spectacular crash sends Bobby off to the hospital with more mental and social than physical issues. Can he recover and beat Jean Girard at Talladega? “Talladega Nights” skewers the entire culture of car racing, from its hick accents, to the unexplained obsession with speed and danger, to the ubiquitous advertisements that cover virtually everything NASCAR. This is the first “Will Ferrell” comedy that I’ve seen and he certainly has his moments. I actually like him better in more serious funny roles, such as that in “Stranger Than Fiction,” but he has an uncanny ability to seem as weird and dumb as the character he plays. John C. Reilly does a fine and funny job as Bobby’s sycophantic friend. Amy Adams is adorable as Ricky's assistant turned girlfirend, but not quite as exciting as she was in “Junebug.” I don’t know what to make of Sasha Baron Cohen. I don’t find him funny and here he’s particularly unfunny as a French racecar driver with possibly the worst French accent I’ve ever heard. “Talladega Nights” has its moments, especially in its ridicule, intended or not, of the culture it portrays. B- (4/1/07)

“Blood Diamond”-Leonardo DiCaprio was deservedly nominated for a best actor Oscar for this amazing performance as diamond smuggler Danny Archer. Born in Zimbabwe (he calls it Rhodesia), and with a classic South African accent, Danny is attempting to smuggle diamonds out of Sierra Leone, a country in the midst of a brutal civil war. Danny finds himself briefly in prison where he meets Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a fisherman who was separated from his family by a brutal rebel attack. Taken by the rebels to search for diamonds, Solomon managed to find and bury a large pink diamond, something Danny Archer now covets. In the midst of this nightmarish war, Danny and Solomon head out, with the help of journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), to find the diamond in the middle of rebel territory. “Blood Diamond” is a violent but powerful film, never holding back on the evil and greed that seems to haunt so much of humanity. Maddy is a counterpoint to Danny’s mercenary greed. A serious and caring woman, willing to sacrifice her safety to get out the pictures and stories of this war, another of Africa’s horrid civil wars in which children (including Solomon’s son) become the unwitting victims of government corruption and murderous rebel violence. Beautifully filmed, “Blood Diamond” follows the lead of films like “Hotel Rwanda” in reminding us of how we westerners tend to ignore the hell that is too often in occurring in Africa. A (3/31/07)

“Happy Feet”-It seems that animation has reached virtual perfection in this charming musical which won the Best Animated Film Oscar. Following on the themes of “March of the Penguins,” the female Emperor penguins go off to seek fish while the males tend to the eggs in frigid winter weather. Unfortunately, the females find few fish and one little penguin is born late after his father drops his egg. He turns out to be Mumble (Elijah Wood), a young penguin with a problem. While all the other Emperor penguins woo the opposite sex with song, Mumble can’t sing. But can he tapdance! Dismissed from the tribe by the elders because of his aberrant dancing, Mumble promises to return after finding out why fish have become scarce and he finds himself with a group of Latino Adelie penguins with a great sense of humor. They are led by Ramon (Robin Williams) who leads them to the spiritual guru of the Adelies, Lovelace (also Robin Williams) and it is Lovelace who demonstrates, by having a potentially life-threatening plastic six-pack holder around his neck, that he’s had contact with aliens (guess who?) who may be the cause of the absence of fish. Mumble decides to find the aliens and plead with them. Except for a few overdone scary sequences in which Mumble and his friends are threatened by birds or other ugly predators, “Happy Feet” is a rather joyous film with some beautiful and hysterical scenes of mass penguin singing and dancing. The cast includes Nicole Kidman as Mumble’s mother; Brittany Murphy as Gloria, the female who seems to adore Mumble despite his lack of a voice; and Hugh Jackman as Memphis, Mumble’s father. Savion Glover is the genius behind the movie’s tap dancing. A- (3/29/07)

“Water”-How does religion treat women? Director/screenwriter Deepa Mehta answers that question with a grim story of what happens to Hindu widows in India. It is 1938. Shockingly, Chuyia (Sarala), an 8-year old girl is told her husband has died. That this child has no recollection of ever being married is beside the point in this culture. She must have her head shaved, wear only white, leave her family, and live as an outcast with other widows in a rundown ashram near the Ganges. She finds herself with a group of women, ranging from the fat, elderly and nasty leader Madhumati (Manorama) to the young and beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray). Kalyani meets Narayan (John Abraham), a wealthy young supporter of Mohandas Gandhi who wishes to marry her. That there is a law allowing this seems no help in light of the religious prejudices of the culture. “Water” is a beautiful, well acted film whose theme is even more shocking when it is revealed that there are still millions of Indian widows living with disdain and poverty. Young Sarala gives an amazing and charming performance in her debut. Lisa Ray is lovely and poignant as Kalyani. Seema Biswas is very appealing and touching as Shakuntala, the widow who still has human yearnings but feels the pressure of the religious and societal mores. A (3/27/07)

“Ice Age: The Meltdown”-This was my first movie on Blu-ray and it’s a pip. The animation is exquisite, particularly in High Definition, and the film is quite funny and might even be considered to be making a point about global warming. It’s the Ice Age, but the ice is melting. Skrat the squirrel is still having a fine time holding on to his acorn. The other animals, including Manny the Mammoth (Ray Romano), Diego the sabre-tooth tiger (Denis Leary), and the bumbling Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo), begin to realize that the wall of ice behind them is melting and cracking and that their valley will soon be underwater. “Ice Age: The Meltdown” takes us on an adventure as the guys seek higher ground. Along the way, they meet Ellie (Queen Latifah), a mammoth who thinks she’s a possum and her two possum “brothers,” Crash and Eddie. One thought that occurred to me is that a lot of the humor was only going to be appreciated by adults. I guess that’s the way the filmmakers make it into a “family” picture rather than one just for kids. I can’t recommend that adults run out and rent this, but I can say that if you like animated films, this one is certainly a lot of fun. B+ (3/25/07)

“The Holiday”-Can two women from very different places (one from LA and one from Surrey, England) and with lousy love lives, find themselves again after exchanging homes for a two-week holiday over the Christmas season? In a film directed by Nancy Meyers (“Something’s Gotta Give”), we learn the rather Hollywoodish answer that they can, of course. Cameron Diaz is Amanda, the owner of a company that produces movie trailers, who lives in an LA mansion, and who has just kicked out her live-in bofriend, Ethan (Edward Burns). Kate Winslet is Iris, a journalist in London who has been unrequitedly in love with Jasper (Rufus Sewell), a jerk who leads her on even after becoming engaged to another woman. The women exchange homes for a holiday, Iris finding herself moving from a country cottage in Surrey to Amanda’s high tech mansion, and Amanda going from ultra-wealth to cutesy-pie fireplace comfort in chilly England. For Amanda, along comes Iris’ brother, Graham (Jude Law), a man with a secret, and for Iris along comes both Arthur Abbott (Eli Wallach), a charming 90-year old ex-screenwriter, and Miles (Jack Black), a movie musical composer. “The Holiday” is very light fluffy fare, but has its moments, especially those provided on the LA side. Kate Winslet is, as always, a pleasure to watch. Eli Wallach, who has been making films since the early 1950s, is a delight as the old cynical Hollywood veteran who befriends and inspires Iris, and, in turn, gets inspired by her. Jack Black is charming and funny in this down-to-earth role as Iris’ potential love interest. “The Holiday “ also has a nice soundtrack with upbeat versions of holiday songs. B (3/23/07)

“Boynton Beach Club”-There’s still life in those old retirees in Florida, according to this film by Director Susan Seidleman, based on a story suggested by her mother who lives in Boynton Beach. Soon after her husband’s death caused by a neighbor listening intently to her cellphone while driving, an angry Marilyn (Brenda Vaccaro) joins a bereavement club in Boynton Beach where she starts a friendship with Lois (Dyan Cannon), possibly the thinnest and most attractive of the retiree set. Also among the members are Harry (Joseph Bologna), a suave 70ish type, hoping to find love, and Jack (Len Cariou), a new member who has joined after the death of his wife of 45 years. Gradually, each finds themselves either coming out of their shells or beginning a new relationship. Jack meets Sandy (Sally Kellerman) and Lois meets Donald (Michael Nouri), a younger working man. They find that romance at this stage of life is not easy, especially when people feel compelled to enhance their resumés, so to speak. “Boynton Beach Club” has some funny moments and is rather surprisingly charming and upbeat. The cast of veteran old-timers is very good, making one wonder what the movie-viewing experience would be like if more filmmakers had the sense to use talented actors such as these even after they reach middle age. B (3/17/07)

“Casino Royale”-I go back to the very beginning of James Bond films when the original, Sean Connery, was young, handsome, and debonair. Virtually all of the James Bonds that came later fit at least the latter two categories, but now we are presented a James Bond who is virile and handsome but missing that debonair flair. Daniel Craig is a fine and handsome actor and perfect for this “Quentin Tarantino version” of a Bond flick. He’s incredibly tough and gritty, can leap tall buildings at a single bound, and can withstand unbelievable pain only to rise again, looking perfectly fine a few minutes later. But there’s no James Bond charm about him in “Casino Royale.” This James Bond is all business and the story of his eventual overwhelming love for Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) seems jarringly inconsistent with Craig’s version of Bond. Eva Green is a, well, “green” French actress who in my humble opinion lacks the excitement and pizzazz of previous Bond women. She’s attractive but hardly sexy and voluptuous as have been virtually all since Ursula Andress in “Dr. No.” “Casino Royale” also seemed to be one of the most continuously violent Bond films ever. Some of the fight/chase scenes, for want of a better description, go on a little too long but they certainly are spectacular enough to cause one to say “How in the world did they do that?” Fortunately, the filmmakers decided to get away from the cartoonish characters and stories of recent vintage. There’s no supreme evil character, only a bloody-eyed terrorist financier named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikklesen). And there’s no futuristic fortress of power that Bond and his cohorts must overcome to destroy the bad guy. No, here, Bond must simply beat Le Chiffre at poker, if he can. And there’s plenty of beautiful scenery, ranging from the Bahamas, to the Czech Republic, to Venice. Does “Casino Royale” succeed? Well, if you’re looking for the old Bond, no. That’s made clear when Craig’s Bond is presented as somewhat of a novice in the post 9/11 British secret service. M (Judi Dench) has her initial doubts but when she finds that he has broken into her own home and then discovers that he knows her computer passwords, her admiration begins to grow. And I suspect our admiration for this version of James Bond will continue to grow as well. Just don’t expect anyone “debonair.” B (3/16/07)

“Fast Food Nation”-Director Richard Linklater (“Before Sunset”) and screenwriter Eric Schlosser have here told a rather courageous tale (from Schlosser’s book of the same name) about some of the deep dark secrets that are at the heart of what is wrong with this great corporate nation of ours. “Fast Food Nation” explores the exploitation of illegal Mexican immigrants as well as the exploitation and virtual poisoning of the American public by large food corporations selling garbage in the form of fast food. The film introduces us to a range of characters, most of whom will ultimately wind up in the fictional town of Cody, Colorado. Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) is a marketing vice-president of Mickey’s, a chain akin to McDonald’s, which sells a hamburger called “The Big One.” When execs at Mickey’s learn that their raw hamburgers have excessive fecal matter, Anderson is sent to investigate. We also meet a group of Mexican immigrants, including Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), who either work at or are involved with workers at the meatpacking plant near Cody which produces the patties for Mickey’s “Big Ones.” The plant is run by ruthless types who are, big surprise, more concerned with the bottom line than with worker and public safety. They are symbolized by Mike (Bobby Cannavale), a supervisor at the plant who uses and abuses the employees, especially females. Another thread of this tale involves Amber (Ashley Johnson), an intelligent young lady who is employed as a cashier at a Mickey’s but ultimately becomes involved with a student group dedicated to exposing what’s going on with the meatpackers. The cast is excellent and includes Kris Kristofferson as a rancher who has in the past dealt, unfortunately, with the meatpackers; Esai Morales as owner of the local Mickey’s; Ethan Hawke as Amber’s uncle, who has learned a lot since his teen years in Cody; and Avril Lavigne and Lou Taylor Pucci as members of Amber’s activist group. But one of the most interesting portions of the film is when Bruce Willis appears as Harry Rydell, an agent between Mickey’s and the meatpackers, who gets to describe the conservative, all-American, gung-ho, moralistic version of this tale to an unresponsive Don Anderson. “Fast Food Nation” hits some real homeruns in exposing the bad secret that is the American corporate world, especially of fast food. If you watch this film and continue to eat fast food, you’ve certainly missed the point. A- (3/10/07)

“Running with Scissors”-Based on Augusten Burroughs’ memoir of his youth, undoubtedly semi-fictionalized considering the name changes (including his own, as Burroughs was born Chris Robison), this film, written and directed by Ryan Murphy (“Nip/Tuck”), takes us on a bizarre journey back to the 1970s when Burroughs was growing up with a mentally disturbed mother (Annette Bening) and alcoholic and aloof father (Alec Baldwin). Deirdre Burroughs (Bening) is a hopeful but unsuccessful poet who seeks help from an unorthodox psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), who believes in mixing and mingling his patients and his family. We know things are going to be strange when Dr. Finch takes Augusten (Joseph Cross) and his mother on a tour of the room next to his office, a room he describes openly as his “masterbatorium.” But things really go downhill for poor Augusten when he is dropped off to stay at the astonishingly tasteless and junk-filled home of Dr. Finch and his eccentric family, only to find that his mother plans to allow him to be adopted by Dr. Finch. With the wrong cast and director, this film could have really gone wrong. Instead, it’s an entertaining romp through insanity because it has outstanding performances by Bening and Cox, supported by the wonderful Jill Clayburgh as Dr. Finch’s rather mousy wife, Agnes, who comes to life only when necessary; Evan Rachel Wood as Finch’s attractive but depressed daughter Natalie; Gwyenth Paltrow as the somewhat more nuts daughter Hope; and Joseph Fiennes as Neil Bookman, a highly disturbed gay patient of Dr. Finch who starts a relationship with young Augusten and ultimately considers murdering Dr. Finch. B+ (3/9/07)

“Shut Up & Sing”-In 2003, Natalie Maines Pasdar of the Dixie Chicks put her foot into her professional mouth by being honest and telling a British audience that the Chicks felt embarrassed that President Bush came from Texas. The fallout (essentially self-righteous hatred and misguided patriotism) in their country music constituency was initially devastating to their careers, not surprisingly considering the ultra-conservative nature of most of the South. This film by Barbara Kopple, an Oscar winning documentary filmmaker, and Cecilia Peck (daughter of Gregory Peck), shows how the Dixie Chicks and their supporters reacted to the anger of the country music world and then rallied not only to survive but to succeed (subsequent to the end of the film the Chicks won a slew of Grammy Awards). Not only do we hear the first-rate sounds of this group of wonderfully talented young women, but we see the strength and outrage of Natalie Maines Pasdar and the loyalty of sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire to their outspoken lead singer. One individual who stands out is Simon Renshaw, the band’s British manager, who showed toughness and pluck in guiding the Dixie Chicks through this miserable time. My only beef is that I would have liked to have seen each of the women’s husbands (who do appear in the film) comment on their reaction to the experience. B+ (3/7/07)

“The Science of Sleep”-There is no question but that screenwriter/director Michel Gondry sees things differently than most people. He earlier co-wrote and directed “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which should give you some idea of what he’s about. Here we have the rather phantasmagorical story of Stéphane (Gael Garcia Bernal), who arrives in Paris from Mexico after the death of his father, moves into his mother’s apartment, has astonishingly vivid and unusual dreams, and falls for his neighbor, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Stéphane, who is extremely creative (he even invents a one second time-machine) literally lives through his dreams, interacting in the dreams with the characters of the story, including his three strange co-workers in a graphics studio. The animations and graphics are lovely and fascinating, but at the heart of the film is Stéphane and his fear of rejection, a fear that overwhelms his personality. In his dreams Stéphanie loves him and can’t wait to marry him. In the real world, things are not quite the same. Gael Garica Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, with real chemistry, make a pair worth watching even when their destiny is unclear. Others in the cast of note are Miou-Miou as Stéphane’s mother and Alain Chabat as Guy, a somewhat coarse co-worker of Stéphane’s. (Mostly in English, but also in French with English subtitles). B+ (3/4/07)

“Gabrielle”- Based on a short story called “The Return” by Joseph Conrad, this is possibly the most sleep-inducing film I have seen in years. It’s basically a two-person play. Jean Hervey (Pascal Greggory) is somewhat of an arrogant dolt of a husband who seems to believe that there is really no need for intimacy in his relationship with his wife, Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert). Jean is jolted into reality when his wife leaves him for another man, but no sooner does she leave than she returns, saying that had she really loved her husband, she wouldn’t have come back. The rest of the film consists of the two talking out their insecurities. I usually love Isabelle Huppert, but here she seemed overly expressionless. If that was the intent, it was perfect but ultimately dull. The film takes place mostly inside a dreadful dark house with the incongruity of pretty housemaids serving the pair, and is generally difficult to look at. “Gabrielle” consists simply of the conversations of two characters about whom I couldn’t have cared less. (In French with English subtitles) C- (3/3/07)

“Stranger Than Fiction”-A good cast, humorous script, and interesting premise make a film that is best described as not bad. Will Ferrell is good as a dull, somewhat robotic IRS agent named Harold Crick who one day realizes that he is hearing the voice of a woman narrating his life. While at first it’s annoying to hear this voice (which no one else hears), things become more urgent for Harold when he hears the “narrator” say that his life is about to end. Hoping to find this narrator, he consults a professor of literature (Dustin Hoffman) who provides more in the way of fatalistic thought than real help. Ultimately, Harold sees the narrator, in the form of a writer named Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), on TV and seeks her out. “Stranger Than Fiction” has a big hole in its basic concept. If the writer, Kay Eiffel, is controlling Harold’s life through her writing, wouldn’t she be aware of his hearing her voice and his efforts to find her? Well, I suppose that’s the view of a realist when poetic license is required to enjoy this film. What makes the film succeed is the cast. Ferrell is wonderful at appearing almost mindless until he meets a young woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) he is about to audit, and falls in love. Emma Thompson is truly magical portraying the somewhat crazed author Kay Eiffel who just can’t figure out a way to kill off her hero. Dustin Hoffman is perfectly cynical as the not terribly helpful professor. Only Queen Latifah seems miscast and unnecessary as the assistant sent by the publisher to help Kay end her book. B (3/2/07)

“For Your Consideration”-Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy have together written some of the more humorous films of recent years, including “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind,” making fun of the dog show and folk music world, but this time they hit right at home. “For Your Consideration” is a very funny satire about Hollywood, filmmaking, and the celebrity media. Cast with Christopher Guest’s regulars, including himself and Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Harry Shearer, Jennifer Coolidge, and Parker Posey, this film shows us the creation of a movie called, believe it or not, “Home for Purim,” about a southern Jewish family in the 1940s. The scenery and the script (with occasional yiddish words and phrases thrown in for good measure) of this film-within-a-film are pathetic and the acting stilted, but that doesn’t stop the Hollywood media machine from mentioning at least three in the cast as possible Oscar candidates who begin to take these rumors very seriously. “For Your Consideration” is a romp, skewering the self-centeredness of almost all involved, and the silliness of media celebrity shows, film star interviews, and even film critics with a wonderful Ebert and Roeper takeoff. And let us not forget the ultimate evil of film industry executives who appear here in the form of the wonderful Ricky Gervais as Martin Gibb, head of the studio who, in his subliminal way, successfully pushes the filmmakers into a new approach that destroys the whole essence of the film being made. Also worth mentioning in the cast are Ed Begley, Jr., as a makeup man and big fan of Catherine O’Hara’s character, Marilyn Hack; John Michael Higgins as Corey Taft, a pushy PR man; Bob Balaban and Michael McKean as the scriptwriters; and Jane Lynch who does a perfect take on the female hosts of shows like ET. B+ (2/25/07)

“Babel”-Technically, this is a well made film, except for some of the abrupt segues between segments. The acting is excellent and the cinematography outstanding. Also, the music is very good and appropriate. But the story is somewhat of a conundrum. We have to believe that a Japanese man (Koji Yakusho) chose to go hunting in Morocco, of all places, and gave his rifle to the local guide; that the local guide sells the rifle to another man in the Moroccan desert who just turns the rifle over to his two young sons without any warning or training so that they can shoot jackals; that the seemingly intelligent boys, after arguing about the power of the rifle, choose to shoot at moving vehicles, including a tourist bus, to test the rifle; that, as a result, they wind up seriously injuring an American tourist (Cate Blanchett) from San Diego; and that, at virtually the very same moment, the shooting victim’s housekeeper (Adriana Barraza), who is an illegal alien from Mexico, decides to return to Mexico for her son’s wedding, taking along the victim’s two children because no replacement has arrived to care for the children. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the daughter (Rinko Kikuchi) of the Japanese man who sold the rifle, is a deaf mute and is having somewhat of a nervous breakdown, in the form of highly inappropriate sexual aggressiveness, because of the death of her mother and the coldness of her father. That’s quite a story to accept in one 2 1/2 hour gulp. No question, considering the title of the film, that communication difficulties are at the heart of the film. One of the most telling scenes in this regard is the one in which the Moroccan police come across the two boys and their father attempting to escape. The police simply drive up, get out of their vehicles, and start shooting. No questions are asked. No warning is given. Also at the very soul of the film are a series of bad decisions, so bad in fact that they are difficult to believe. For example, why does the housekeeper think she can return easily to the US from Mexico, if she’s an illegal alien, and why, following the wedding, does she place herself and the two children into a car driven by a drunken nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal)? Also, why does the victim’s husband (Brad Pitt) remain in a rundown Moroccan village when there is a bus that can take his injured wife to civilization, especially considering the pressures to leave being placed on him by other tourists who have their own concerns? So just what are screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro González Iñárritu trying to say here? That people need to think and listen more? Well, okay. Brad Pitt is impressive as the stoic husband of the injured woman. Rinko Kikuchi is wonderful as the young Japanese deaf girl who cannot communicate her frustrations and desires and pleas for help by her sexual behavior. Adriana Barraza is outstanding in the interesting role of the Mexican housekeeper, a lovely lady who ultimately suffers the slings and fortunes of dealing with cold bureaucrats at the US-Mexican border. “Babel” was made by excellent filmmakers, but who needed a tauter and more logical script to convey their themes. B+ (2/24/07)

“The Prestige”-Magic tricks have three parts: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. The pledge: Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two young magician’s assistants in Victorian England. Angier’s wife, Julia (Piper Perabo), is drowned during a magic show, apparently because of a knot placed around her wrists by Borden during the act. Angier wants revenge. The turn: Angier and Borden become magician competitors. Borden, who has married the lovely Sarah (Rebecca Hall) and had a daughter, invents an amazing trick called “The Transported Man” in which he throws a ball from a doorway on one side of the stage and then amazingly appears, virtually instantly, at a doorway at the other end of the stage, to catch the ball. Angier cannot fathom how the trick is done, although a double is suspected, and he invents his own version, using a double. Ultimately, Angier gets the idea that to do the trick right, he requires a special machine made by the Serb inventor, Nikola Tesla (an actual historical figure) (David Bowie) and he travels to Colorado to obtain it. The prestige: Angier now has an amazing act in which, using Tesla’s machine, he outdoes Borden’s Transported Man act. Borden is curious and goes under the stage to see how it’s done. Curiosity often kills the cat and Borden winds up in prison, set to hang for Angier’s death. But this is, of course, a movie about magic and we know that there are going to be twists and surprises. Unfortunately, unlike “The Illusionist,” another recent film about magic during the Victorian period, “The Prestige” goes beyond magic into another unlikely and unbelievable realm (which I’ll leave to the reader’s imagination), a realm beyond illusion. That realm spoiled the film for me. I would have been far more satisfied with a film about magicians trying to outdo each other with fantastic magic tricks of the sort done in recent years by such as David Copperfield. In fact, one of the things strangely missing from this film are real magic tricks left to the viewer’s imagination. We get an occasional explanation for the tricks that are shown, but the explanations are sometimes gruesomely unpleasant. Director Christopher Nolan (“Memento”) can’t be blamed totally for the unsatisfying outcome, as the film is based on a novel by Christopher Priest. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are reasonably effective as the main characters, although Bale seems to be lacking expression and feeling. Also notable in the cast are Scarlett Johansson as Olivia, who winds up working as assistant to both Angier and Borden before she gets turned off by their nasty competition; David Bowie as the mysterious Tesla; Michael Caine as Cutter, the narrator and magic trick creator at the heart of the story; and Andy Serkis as Tesla’s assistant, Alley. “The Prestige” went through all three parts of the magic act, and then blew it at the prestige. B- (2/23/07)

“Marie Antoinette”-Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, who has taken quite a turn from her last directing effort, “Lost in Translation,” “Marie Antonette” is a sumptuous, gorgeous film about the young Austrian royal who came to Versailles as an outsider, conquered and became queen, and then lost her head in the process. Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) was 15 when she became engaged to the dauphin, Louis-Auguste (Jason Schwartzman), and found herself living in an overly structured life that was far too public (within the walls of Versailles) for her taste. From dressing in the morning, to dining, to the ultimate birth of her first child several years later, Marie Antoinette was exposed to the eyes of far too many, ranging from royals to servants. This film, based on Antonia Fraser’s biography, follows the young queen from her arrival at Versailles to her eventual coronation with her husband, Louis XVI, as Queen of France, following the death of Louis XV (Rip Torn), and ultimately to the downfall of the royal family during the French Revolution. With the exception of Jason Schwartzman who is stiff and miscast as Louis, the cast is very good. Kirsten Dunst is lovely, revealing the joys and frustrations of the young queen, including her inability to get Louis to consummate the marriage for the first several years, and her attraction to Count Fersen, a young Swedish officer. Others worth noting are Steve Coogan as Austrian Ambassador Mercy who serves as advisor to the young queen; Asia Argento as Madame DuBarry, Louis XV’s scandalous lover; Judy Davis as the Comtesse de Noailles; Marianne Faithfull as Maria Theresa, Marie Antoinette’s mother; and Danny Huston as her brother, Emperor Joseph of Austria. What makes “Marie Antoinette” stand out, however, are the amazing costumes and the breathtaking sets and scenery. I was amused by a few scenes in which Sofia Coppola used modern pop music to portray the mood of the young queen and her friends. It was a little too jarring, considering the time and place being presented. However, overall, “Marie Antoinette” is definitely a highly recommended movie-going experience. A- (2/20/07)

“Infamous”-Director/writer Douglas McGrath had the bad luck of directing a film about Truman Capote and the creation of his non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood” just too late to beat out “Capote,” the film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote. The latter got all the attention and the Oscar nominations. And then along came “Infamous” and outdid “Capote” in almost every category, but who noticed? Having lived through the Capote era and remembering the man well, and having read “In Cold Blood” when it was hot off the presses, there is no question but that “Infamous” does a superior job of presenting Capote in his place and time. The setting and sets are more convincing. Capote (played with great accuracy by Toby Jones) here is shown among his wealthy and powerful New York friends, including Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver), Diane Vreeland (Juliet Stevenson), Slim Keith (Hope Davis) and Bennett Cerf (Peter Bogdanovich). Capote’s technique of giving information to get information is beautifully portrayed in stunning ultra-rich sets. But then there are the Clutter murders and Capote consults with his childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock) and off they go to Kansas. McGrath had the smarts to cast the amazing Daniel Craig (aka James Bond) as the killer Perry Smith who develops a love/hate relationship with Capote, wondering whether Capote is taking advantage at the same time that he finds himself attracted to the eccentric writer. Although covering much the same territory as “Capote,” the cast of “Infamous” is superior. It was a pleasure, for example, to see Sandra Bullock finally get a chance to really act and act she does as the soft-spoken Lee who follows Capote with a slight smirk and a glint in her eye until she feels she has to let him do the investigating and writing himself. Toby Jones is absolutely brilliant. In fact, he literally becomes Truman Capote with voice, body language, and attitude. The supporting cast is outstanding and fun to watch, especially as they get to vamp up as the the upperclass set of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Even if you saw “Capote,” and that too was a very good film, I recommend this version if you want to get a better idea about what Truman Capote was all about. A (2/18/07)

“The Departed”-Director Martin Scorsese appears to have a lifelong attachment to the gutter, or maybe those who occupy it. In films such as “Mean Streets,” “Goodfellas,” “Gangs of New York,” and now “The Departed,” Scorsese concentrates on a lower form of vicious human life, one that has virtually no respect for the property and lives of others. I’ll say one thing about this subject matter. It certainly makes for very colorful movie situations and characters, especially when handled by a master such as Scorsese. In “The Departed,” we have the story of the Massachusetts State Police versus a Boston Irish gang led by the tough and murderous Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Costello has nurtured a young man, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), from boyhood until he joins the state police and becomes Costello’s inside man. Meanwhile, the police have taken Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) from the ranks of police academy graduates, to become, unknowingly at the beginning, Sullivan’s counterpart. Costigan, familiar with the neighborhood, is chosen to infiltrate Costello’s gang as a highly secret undercover agent, known only to his two state police handlers, the thoroughly abusive Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), who is the “bad guy” of the pair, and the “good guy,” Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen). Ultimately, both sides discover that there is a mole in their ranks and, of course, Sullivan and Costigan are chosen to learn just who is spying for the enemy. To make it even more dramatic, Sullivan is also chosen by the state police to learn who the mole is in their own ranks, thus giving him power and authority, as the actual mole, to wreak havoc. “The Departed” is beautifully filmed and paced, and is loaded with a wonderful cast, which also includes Alec Baldwin as a high-ranking police officer; Ray Winstone (“The Proposition”) as one of Costello’s more vicious aides; and Vera Farmiga as the lovely police psychiatrist who becomes romantically involved with both Sullivan and Costigan. “The Departed” and Martin Scorsese have been deservedly nominated for Oscars, but the Oscar voters missed the boat when it came to the cast. The only actor nominated, Mark Wahlberg (for best supporting actor), is probably the least deserving of anyone in the cast. He does a rather limited and dull turn as a foul-mouthed, mean-spirited cop. Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio (nominated for another film as best actor) are brilliant. Nicholson has the opportunity to do almost everything for which he is well known and there are even scenes which appear to be homages to past roles, such as “The Joker” in “Batman” and Jack Torrance in “The Shining.” DiCaprio, meanwhile, has become one of the best young actors in America. He is awesome as Costigan, the young man who does dirty deeds for Costello while reporting back to Queenan and the nasty Dignam, but undergoes horrible stress as he has to be on constant alert to avoid being killed. Matt Damon also is outstanding as the two-timing cop who is a master at keeping things under control, especially his bumbling and naive colleagues. The only thing I didn’t like about this film is the ending. It was almost as if Scorsese, after lovingly developing the story, decided to wrap things up in a hurry to get off the set. Aside from that, however, “The Departed” is one of Scorsese’s most memorable films, and that’s saying a lot considering he’s made such masterpieces as “Taxi Driver.” A (2/16/07)

“Kings and Queen”-Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) appears to be a nice but somewhat cold young woman with a young son who has had several relationships. Her first husband, the boy’s father, died in an “accident.” Then she had a relationship with Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), a somewhat nervous cellist, and now she has apparently settled into a loveless relationship with a wealthy man who adores her. Nora goes off to visit her elderly father, Louis (Maurice Garrel), a writer, and almost loses it when she discovers that he is dying of cancer. She calls her flighty sister to come, but she is unresponsive. Ismael, on the other hand, has been hauled off to a mental institution on a “third-party complaint.” He protests that there is nothing wrong, but has to tolerate being talked down to by doctors, such as Mme Vasset (Catherine Deneuve). Fortunately, this institution appears to allow its patients to do whatever they want and he has no difficulty settling into “romantic” relationships, including with the suicidal but friendly Arielle (played with pizzazz by Magalie Woch). This is the basic setup for this film by director Arnaud Desplechin who says that Woody Allen is an influence and who believes his film is partly comic. If so, I missed the point. Nora and Ismael are interesting characters but the circumstances bring them down. When Louis dies, the loving and responsible daughter, Nora, receives a letter from her father so mysteriously unpleasant, and apparently uncalled for, as to spoil the film. At the same time, Ismael, having gotten out of the institution, finds his professional life disrupted by an astonishingly malicious colleague. “Kings and Queen” goes on for 2 1/2 hours. Had it been edited down to a more reasonable length it might have made a positive impact. Instead it simply makes you feel sorry for both characters who deserve better. C+ (2/11/07)

“Flags of Our Fathers”-We all know that war is hell but watching modern cinema technology recreate the horrendous battles of war never ceases to be an overwhelming experience. As I watched the battle sequences from February and March 1945, on the volcanic Japanese island of Iwo Jima, in this stunning film by Clint Eastwood, I kept imagining (as I did when watching earlier films such as “Saving Private Ryan”) that being in the midst of such a battle is undoubtedly the ultimate nightmare for any human being unfortunate enough to be there. And so it is for some of the men who took part in the flag raising on top of Mt. Suribachi that was immortalized in Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph. Eastwood tells the story of the six men in the photograph as well as their compatriots fighting this miserable death-dealing late-war battle. There were the survivors who were brought to the US, initially by FDR and then greeted by the new president, Harry Truman, in order to rally the public to buy war bonds : John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) who heroically treats other wounded soldiers and who survives to suffer post-traumatic stress dreams in his later life; Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), the American Indian from Arizona who couldn’t take being called a “hero” and ultimately died young in an alcoholic stupor; and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), who was merely a runner behind the scenes but was immortalized by being in the photograph. And then there were those who lifted the flag and died shortly thereafter on the island, including Harlon Block (Benjamin Walker); their leader, Mike Strank (Barry Pepper); and Franklin Sousley (Joseph Cross). “Flags of Our Fathers” is about how truth can be turned into mythology and how heroes of whatever sort can be manipulated sometimes beyond reason. Unfortunately, "Flags" is not a perfect film. For some reason, Eastwood begins with a series of confusing scenes and jarring segues, jumping between the ancient and modern identities of the characters without clearly establishing who they are. By the end of the film, I still wasn’t sure of the identities of some of the people, especially in the modern scenes of aged participants being interviewed about past events. The cinematography by Tom Stern, on the other hand, is gorgeous, especially the muted colors emphasizing the historical and distant nature of the events at issue. Despite the weaknesses, the film’s strengths and the battle sequences make this an unforgettable experience. A- (2/10/07)

“Hollywoodland”-Whereas “The Black Dahlia” used a real incident, the murder of Elizabeth Short, to tell a silly fictional story, “Hollywoodland,” in the same location but a few years later, uses a fictional plot device to tell a real story, and an interesting one at that. In the early 1950s, George Reeves (Ben Affleck), an actor who had been in “Gone With The Wind” and had had several other minor roles in Hollywood films, was cast as Superman, initially in a film and later in the famous regular TV series. In the midst of all this, he started an affair with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of a powerful and older MGM executive named Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). Toni Mannix, also a few years older than Reeves, basically kept him, providing him with whatever he needed, including a house, and Eddie Mannix seemed to look the other way. Later, Reeves, who was not overly happy with his Superman career, dropped Toni for Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) to whom he became engaged. One night in 1959, shortly before he was supposed to marry Lemmon, Reeves died of a gunshot wound to the head iin his bedroom while Lemmon and others were partying in his living room. But did Reeves commit suicide, as was the official verdict, or was he murdered? That question brings the fictional detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) into the picture. Simo is also struggling with his career and his private life, having been divorced from the mother (Molly Parker) of his young son. He is hired by Reeves’ mother, Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith), to learn the truth and immediately suspects murder. Simo’s life and investigation thus becomes the plot device to reveal what was going on with Reeves who never appears, according to the filmmaker, in any undocumented scenes. Through Simo’s investigation and imagination, “Hollywoodland” lays out all the possibilities, ranging from suicide by a despondent Reeves, to an accidental shooting by Lemmon, to murder (by Eddie or Toni Mannix, or both?). Ben Affleck does a fine job of re-creating the tight-jawed Reeves who will be remembered always, by those who saw the original Superman show, with his Clark Kentish glasses and the big S on his chest. Adrien Brody is excellent as the struggling detective caught up in the manipulations of others. Diane Lane ages well and realistically as Toni Mannix. Bob Hoskins does an excellent job of portraying the mysterious power of the execs of Hollywood’s studio days. Other notable performances are by Joe Spano as Eddie Mannix’s right hand man, Jeffrey DeMunn as Art Weissman, Reeves’ agent, and Robin Tunney as the frustrated Leonore Lemmon. Unlike “The Black Dahlia,” this is one account of Hollywood’s heyday worth watching. B+ (2/9/07)

"The Black Dahlia”- It is Los Angeles. 1947. A woman’s mutiliated is body found in a field: a mysterious murder to this day. A perfect subject for novelist James Ellroy, whose own mother was murdered, and whose fictional version of the death of wannabe actress Elizabeth Short has, unfortunately, been made into this mish-mash of a film. Centered around two LA cops, Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and his partner, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), “The Black Dahlia” takes us on a convoluted and utterly hokey film noir journey. With flashbacks showing the murder victim (played by Mia Kirshner), Bleichert and Blanchard stumble around with a bunch of weird and unlikely people, including the rather bizarre Linscott family, led by Madeleine (Hilary Swank, in a rare femme fatale role), and insane mother Ramona (Fiona Shaw). Add to this sexy Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), a red-lipped herring if I ever saw one, and you have a tale that ultimately is so silly as to make one want to say “who cares?” Director Brian De Palma, whose best days seem to have been in the late 1970s and early 1980s with such films as “Carrie,” “Dressed To Kill” and “Blow Out,” is not back. C- (2/4/07)

“Red Doors”-I suppose it could be said that almost all families portrayed in movies are dysfunctional. Some, of course, are more dysfunctional than others and some are simply fun to watch. “Red Doors” is the tale of a Chinese-American family living in New York City and its suburbs and they are an absolute delight to see in this wonderful indie film. Mr. Wong (Tzi Ma) has just retired and is depressed about his suburban life. He constantly thinks about suicide but is always interrupted. Mrs. Wong (Freda Foh Shen) is in some sense a regular suburban housewife with three daughters but she would like to see her daughters show some interest in the old world culture. The eldest daughter, Samantha (Jacqueline Kim), has a good job and is engaged to the young man she lives with. But it’s obvious that something is bothering her, especially after she runs into an old boyfriend. The next youngest, Julie (Elaine Kao), is a medical student. When a movie star, Mia Scarlett (Mia Riverton, who is also one of the producers), comes to do research at Julie's hospital, a friendship develops which taxes poor Mrs. Wong’s view of life. And last but not least is the youngest, Katie (Kathy Shao-Lin Lee), a hip-hopping free spirit constantly on the verge of getting in trouble due to her rather bizarre manner of flirting with a classmate who lives nearby. Written and directed by the very talented Georgia Lee (who was an apprentice to Martin Scorsese on “Gangs of New York”), “Red Doors” doesn’t have a run-of-the-mill narrative. Instead, we simply watch the characters do things and interact and it soon becomes obvious what an interesting group they are. The cinematography and music are also lovingly done. The cast is superb. Highly recommended. A (2/2/07)

“Sherrybaby”-Sherry Swanson (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has just been released on parole from a New Jersey prison after a little over two years on a drug-related robbery charge. She looks hopeful about starting a new life and seeing her young daughter, Alexis (Ryan Simpkins), who has been living with her brother Bob (Brad William Henke) and his wife, Lynette (Bridget Barkan). But it doesn’t take long for her to discover that she is now treated as less than a full human by those around her, including her parole officer (Giancarlo Esposito) and her family. Bob loves his sister, but is protective of his wife who sees herself as Alexis’ mother and tries to turn the young girl against her real mother. In a rather disturbing scene at a birthday party for Alexis, we learn about the painful secret behind the relationship of Sherry with her father (Sam Bottoms) which undoubtedly has contributed to her disturbed outlook on life. Sherry is fighting a strong desire to return to drugs, but fortunately she meets Dean Walker (Danny Trejo), a native American and ex-addict, who, while barely knowing Sherry, shows more concern and compassion than anyone close to her. “SherryBaby” is not the most original situation I’ve seen in films, and it certainly isn’t a fun time watching this film, but it has a good script and an amazing performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal. In fact, Gyllenhaal is brilliant as a woman who has to fight every negative impulse in order to survive. Brad William Henke and Danny Trejo stand out in supporting roles. B+ (1/28/07)

“This Film Is Not Yet Rated”-Filmmaker Kirby Dick decided to investigate the MPAA rating system which anonymously applies the ratings from G to NC-17 to motion pictures. Interviewing a variety of film people, including Kimberly Peirce, director of “Boys Don’t Cry,” and even a couple of former MPAA raters who have come out from hiding, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” provides a good look at the semi-fascistic nature of Jack Valenti’s rating system. Originally announced as intended to provide parents with a guideline for their children’s viewing, the MPAA rating system became over the years a system of killing many movies. If a film gets an NC-17, it’s got a good chance of never being seen in a theater because of the audience limitations. And what usually results in an NC-17? While the MPAA claims that violence is looked down upon, the reality is that sex is the primary subject of disapproval, especially anything unusual and non-heterosexual. While a serious film for adults with sex scenes may well get an NC-17, an orgy of tasteless sex (including a scene such as a man masturbating with a pie as in “American Pie”) will often get only an “R” rating, especially if made by an established studio. Using a rather amusing female detective and her daughter to investigate, Dick finds and outs the names of several raters. And we learn that although the MPAA raters are supposed to be limited to those with children under 17, this is not always the case. One of the more telling discoveries made by Dick and his crew is that representatives of the Episcopalian and Catholic churches sit in on (and may well participate in) decisions on movie rating appeals. Ultimately, Kirby Dick makes a good case for the fact that the MPAA rating system is intended not so much to protect average parents (just who are these average parents that the MPAA often refers to?), but rather to protect the established movie studios from any government interference. “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” is an enlightening and entertaining documentary. B+ (1/27/07)

“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”-This unusual Romanian film came to my attention when it appeared on the best film lists of several reviewers, including A.O. Scott and Stephen Holden of the NY Times. The director, Cristi Puiu, says that he based this documentary-like film on an actual occurrence. If so, I pity poor sick elderly people in Romania. Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) is a 62-year-old retired widower living alone in a dreary and dirty apartment with his three cats. Despite a history of ulcer surgery, he drinks too much. When he realizes that he has a terrible headache and is throwing up, he calls for an ambulance which doesn’t arrive until his neighbors intervene. When the emergency nurse, Mioara Avram (Luminita Gheorghiu), finally arrives, she believes he has cancer and takes him to a hospital emergency room. Unfortunately, there has been a major bus accident that night and the hospital facilities are crammed. But Mr. Lazarescu and the poor Mioara not only have to deal with the lack of space at the hospital but also with the miserable natures of many of the hospital personnel and doctors who range from egotistical and self-centered to utterly bureaucratic. To them, Mr. Lazarescu is no longer a human being but just another job, and a drinker at that, something to examine (at their leisure) and pass on, not only to other personnel but to other hospitals. Poor Mioara winds up spending hours with Mr. Lazarescu, as he deteriorates, trying to find someone who will treat him. In one of the more telling scenes, Mioara has been forced to take Mr. Lazarescu to another of several hospitals after cat scans have shown that he has a subdural hematoma (as well as severe cirrhosis) and needs emergency surgery. Despite this, the last hospital sent them on their way due to the crowded conditions. When she brings the patient into the next hospital, the doctors insist on taking their bloody time and refuse to listen to Mioara’s pleas. In fact, they are more interested in emphasizing their status within the hospital than in listening to nurse Mioara’s important information. They express outrage that she has the nerve to tell them anything. Ultimately, they simply waste Mioara’s time and Mr. Lazarescu’s health. “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” which runs about 2 1/2 hours, is not an easy film to watch. At the beginning, I wondered just what Mr. Puiu had in mind. But it didn’t take long to figure out that this was a moral tale about humanity and how some have it (Mioara) and many have lost it. (In Romanian with English subtitles). A- (1/27/07)

“Conversations with Other Women”-A man (Aaron Eckhart) sees an attractive woman (Helena Bonham Carter) at a hotel wedding and starts a flirtatious conversation that ultimately leads upstairs. With minimal interruption, that pretty much describes what you will see on the screen, although there is a switch. The entire picture is shot splitscreen. Although initially jarring, this not only provides more views of the characters and their expressions, but also allows the filmmakers to show more about the couple than is initially apparent. By watching images of their younger selves, we learn that this couple has a history, although currently the woman is married and lives in England and the man has a girlfriend who is a dancer on Broadway. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that their history is significant. What makes “Conversations with Other Women” special is that the two actors are able to carry it off. With an entertaining and often humorous script, Eckhart and Bonham Carter make you believe that you are indeed a fly on the wall in a hotel room that is turning alternately hot and cold. B+ (1/23/07)

“The Illusionist”-Since the time as a child I saw a magician throw a flower into the air which turned into a bird, I’ve been fascinated by magic. Who isn’t? “The Illusionist” presents us with the turn-of-the-century story of Eisenheim (Edward Norton), a young master magician in Vienna who finds himself the subject of hostile interest by the nasty Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). At the heart of the tale is Sophie (Jessica Biel), the young royal who was Eisenheim’s socially forbidden childhood friend, and who is now on the verge of becoming engaged to the Crown Prince. Needless to say, Eisenheim meets Sophie again when she takes part in one of his stage presentations and their love for each other re-emerges. This, of course, leads to the hope of freeing Sophie from Leopold’s evil grasp, but a hope that is interrupted by tragedy. Photographed in often muted colors, and containing a mesmerizing score by Philip Glass (“The Hours”), “The Illusionist” offers magic and romance, although the basic premise of the story is weakened by the rather unlikely nature of the Crown Prince’s unusual hostility towards the magician even before Sophie re-enters Eisenheim’s life. Edward Norton does a workmanlike job as the intense and mystical magician and the beautiful Jessica Biel is surprisingly appealing as the young royal who doesn’t care about her social status. Paul Giamatti is, as always, first rate as the inspector who wants to advance, but is torn by his suspicions and desire for integrity. “The Illusionist” has a magical, albeit somewhat predictable “surprise” ending. That it’s full of holes, doesn’t take away from the illusion. B+ (1/20/07)

“Three Times”-Standing in great contrast to his “Millenium Mambo,” a film I did not like, filmmaker Hsiao-hsien Hou this time presents three breathtakingly simple romantic stories which take place in Taiwan at very different times in the last 100 years. In each, the woman is played by Shu Qi (“Millenium Mambo”) and the man by Chang Chen (“2046”), both providing wonderfully subtle performances. The stories stand in utter contrast to each other in the portrayal of changing culture and communication. The first takes place in 1966, a simple and innocent era, in and around a pool hall. A young man meets and is attracted to the young hostess, but he must leave for the military and promises to write. When he returns she is gone and he starts a journey to find her, relying on the letters they have exchanged. The second story takes place in 1911 in a brothel. Society and dress are very formalized, but it’s obvious that a married diplomat and a courtesan are attracted to each other. The woman, admiring the man’s generosity, hopes to become his concubine and a letter at the end confirms her fate. The style of this era is presented brilliantly in the form of a silent film in which verbal communication is read through titles on the screen while a haunting piano piece plays in the background. Hsiao-hsien Hou then jolts us back to reality with the final story that takes place in Taipei in 2005. A young woman, living with another woman, finds herself romanced by an attractive man with a motorcycle. This unusual romantic triangle centers around the modern forms of communication: technology, in which cell phones and computers play the primary role. No one would imagine writing a letter. “Three Times” is a slow, deliberate gorgeous film that requires patience and observation but is worth it for anyone who likes to be challenged in watching cinema. (In Mandarin and Taiwanese with English subtitles) A- (1/19/07)

“The House of Sand (“Casa de Areia”)-apparently was born both of the vision of an old photograph of a woman fighting to protect her house from sand dunes and from the classic Japanese film, “Woman in the Dunes.” The film begins in 1910 with an eerie scene of a train of wagons, pack animals and people crossing stark and beautiful white sand dunes. They are led by white haired and bearded Vasco (Ruy Guerra), later referred to as “crazy” by his wife, who somehow had a dream of living in an unattractive lagoon area near the dunes, Brazilian land that he had actually purchased. It doesn’t take long for most of the other men to abandon Vasco, his pregnant wife Aurea (Fernanda Torres), and his mother-in-law, Dona Maria (Fernanda Monenegro of “Central Station”), and not long after that Vasco is accidentally killed. Aurea and Dona Maria find themselves alone in this wasteland, except for a group of nearby descendants of runaway slaves who have never lived anywhere else. While both women initially dream of leaving, their hopes always fade for a variety of reasons and “Casa de Areia,” with brilliant cinematography, takes the characters, including Aurea’s daughter Maria, through almost six decades of living in this desert near the sea. One of the most unusual and interesting features of this film is the family relationship in both story and casting. Fernanda Torres, in real life the daughter of Fernanda Montenegro (and also wife of the director Andrucha Waddington), effectively switches roles with her mother. When 30 years have passed, Aurea is now played by Fernanda Montenegro and the younger Maria by Fernanda Torres. In effect, they’ve also reversed their outlook on living in this desert of dunes. There are, of course, others in the cast, including Massu (Seu Jorge), one of the slave descendants who ultimately plays a major role in Aurea’s life, and Luiz, a Brazilian officer who appears in 1919 (Enrique Díaz), giving Aurea hope, and then reappears in 1942 (Stenio Garcia), giving the younger Maria a chance to leave. With powerful performances by Torres and Montenegro, “Casa de Areia” is a very rare cinematic experience. (In Brazilian Portuguese with English subtitles). A- (1/14/07)

“Quinceañera”-Lots of indie films are made and quickly discarded or at least wind up on IFC. Once in awhile, an indie comes along that reminds us of what filmmaking at its best is about: humanity. This delightful film is about Hispanics of Mexican ancestry in Echo Park, Los Angeles, who celebrate the coming of age of their daughters at age 15. Loaded with very real characters, “Quinceañera” tells the story of a 14-year old girl, Magdalena (Emily Rios), who, upon finding herself pregnant and rejected by her preacher/police officer father, goes to live with an elderly uncle, Tio Tomas (Chalo González), a man who refuses to be judgmental. Already there is another rejected cousin, Carlos (Jesse Garcia). Tio Tomas has lived in his home, downstairs from his landlord, for 28 years and has turned his garden into a magical world of plants and art. When Carlos begins a friendly relationship with the new landlords, a gay couple, the world of Tio Tomas is unfortunately permanently changed. “Quinceañera” has almost no violence and, although there is sex (an important part of the story), it is presented tastefully. I particularly liked Jesse Garcia’s performance as Carlos, a young man who initially seems like a worthless soul, but whose virtues are soon joyfully revealed. Chalo González is memorable as the warm-hearted Tio Tomas. “Quinceañera” is a perceptive vision of life in a busy LA neighborhood, and the problems of prejudice and cultural traditions that affect us all. A- (1/12/07)

“The Last Kiss-The remake of a 2001 Italian film that probably didn’t need to be remade, “The Last Kiss” is about romantic difficulties that can occur at any stage of a relationship. Zach Braff is Michael, an architect in Madison, WI, who is living with his beautiful, charming and pregnant girlfried, Jenna (Jacinda Barrett). The guy has everything, but doesn’t know it, and finds himself flirting with a young University of Wisconsin beauty, Kim (Rachel Bilson). Michael has three male friends all of whom are going through one or another kind of romantic angst. One, Izzy (Michael Weston) thinks he still loves his old girlfriend, but she rejects him and he plans a roadtrip. A second finds the perfect lusty romance but the young lady makes the mistake of trying to introduce him to her parents. The third, Chris (Casey Affleck) is miserably married and wants out. But just to show that the film isn’t only about 30-year-olds, the plot also includes the marital strife between Jenna’s parents, played by Blythe Danner and Tom Wilkinson. “The Last Kiss” is a decent workmanlike film that covers a few interesting issues with humor and pathos. The cast is good, although Zach Braff is often expressionless and fails to demonstrate motivations for some of his behavior. Special mention goes to Casey Affleck as the married man with a burden and Jacinda Barrett as the pregnant young lady in love who is ready to toss her boyfriend out when she discovers his interest in another woman. B- (1/8/07)

“The Devil Wears Prada-While watching this film, I kept thinking I was watching an episode of TV’s “Ugly Betty.” The situation is so similar that it either makes you think ripoff (by one or the other) or it convinces you that the world of fashion must really be like this. In this version, the protagonist, Andy Sachs, is played by Anne Hathaway who, despite being slim and lovely, is constantly derided at “Runway,” the fashion magazine, as fat and, well, ugly. There’s also a shrew in charge. Unlike Wilhelmina Slater the comic book-character played by Vanessa Williams in the TV show, “The Devil Wears Prada” has the real thing. Meryl Streep is simply fantastic, as always, as the nasty, thoughtless, demanding, and extremely serious Miranda Priestly. She hires Andy as her second assistant despite her utter disregard for Andy’s experience, appearance, and lack of fashion sense. Andy, who starts out as a rebel, uninterested in fashion, soon learns under the virtual around-the-clock pressure that she must conform or fail. The problem with “The Devil Wears Prada” is that while it has an interesting premise, the denouement is quite predictable, and in between the film presents a series of repetitive scenes in which Andy is pushed around until she makes a sudden change, to the dismay of her boyfriend, played by Adrien Grenier (“Entourage”), and friends, into Miranda’s fashion ideal. Emily Blunt (“Our Summer of Love”) is first-rate as Emily, the first assistant who mirrors and obeys Miranda the best she can. Stanley Tucci does a fine job as Nigel, the art director, who thinks he knows everything about the business, but discovers otherwise at the end. B- (1/6/07)

“Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont-This is a fantasy, but a fantasy so delightful because it is beautifully acted by an incredibly talented cast. Mrs. Palfrey (Joan Plowright) is an elderly widow who wishes a little more independence from her family. She comes to London to stay at a hotel, the Claremont, that’s a little seedier than she expected but, as it turns out, safe and comfortable for her needs. In the dining room where everyone sits at their own assigned regular table, Mrs. Palfrey meets a group of elderly eccentrics played by a cast of brilliant British actors, including Anna Massey, Millicent Martin, Georgina Hale, Marcia Warren, and Robert Lang. Everyone knows that Mrs. Palfrey is expecting a visit from her grandson Desmond, but while waiting interminably, she suffers a fateful fall in the street and is helped by an astoundingly pleasant and charming young man named Ludovic Meyer (Rupert Friend) who ultimately is mistaken by the Claremont residents for the unseen grandson. Joan Plowright is literally mesmerizing as the classy older woman who develops a close and touching friendship with this young man who gladly serves as substitute grandson. Rupert Friend (“Pride and Prejudice”) displays charisma that should lead him to far bigger roles. I call this is a fantasy because in the society in which we live it’s hard to imagine as real the ultra-warm relationship that develops between two people of such different generations, but we accept it because it feels so good, especially when Ludovic finds a beautiful girlfriend (Zoe Tapper) who fits right in and accepts Mrs. Palfrey. B+ (1/5/07)

“Heading South”-Lawrence Cantet’s “Vers le Sud” takes us back to a very dangerous Haiti in 1978. In a powerful opening scene, a woman approaches a man in an airport terminal who is apparently a chauffeur awaiting an arrival, and urges him to take her 15-year old daughter. She explains that her husband has disappeared and that if this man, a stranger, doesn’t take the girl, “they” will eventually kill her and take the daughter. The man refuses but anyone with a sense of history understands that “they” are the secret police of Baby Doc Duvalier, the dictator of Haiti. This establishes the setting and the background mood for the primary theme of the film. The story takes a very different turn because the man, Albert (Lys Ambroise), is actually from a resort hotel and he is there to pick up a white American woman guest named Brenda (Karen Young). Brenda is one of several middle aged white women who come to the hotel primarily for the thrill of having relations, sexual and otherwise, with the local handsome young Haitian men who hang around the hotel’s beach. Besides Brenda there is Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), a 55-year-old French professor at Wellesley, who is the ringleader of the group of women by dint of an overpowering personality, and the more benign, pleasant. and slightly chubby French Canadian, Sue (Louise Portal). Cantet’s film explores a variety of subjects, including the colonial mentality, racism, loneliness, lust, poverty, and the dangers of living in a dictatorship. At the heart of the film are the needs of these single middle-aged and somewhat sad women who find satisfaction in their fantasy relationships with the poor young Haitian men, including particularly the handsome and reckless Legba (Ménothy Cesar). The film contains powerful performances by the always dynamic Charlotte Rampling (“Swimming Pool”), Karen Young (“The Sopranos”), and Louise Portal (“The Barbarian Invasions”), especially when each woman describes who she is and why she is there. “Vers le Sud” is at times difficult to watch because of its painful subject matter, but ultimately it’s an important exploration of a subject that is rarely touched on in film or conversation. (In a combination of English and French with English subtitles) B+ (1/1/07)

"Factotum"-This is another of those movies that raises serious questions about why some films are made. Based on a novel by Charles Bukowski, "Factotum" is about a smart-aleck alcoholic loser who thinks he's a writer. While the film shows little or nothing of the writing efforts of Hank Chinaski (Matt Dillon), other than sending completed stories off in the mail to magazines, it does show lots of anomie-like behavior. Chinaski gets jobs, loses jobs, drinks, curses, drinks some more, gets a job, loses the job, and drinks some more. In between drinks, he occasionally connects with alcoholic females, including Jan (Lili Taylor) with whom he has a fairly serious relationship, if a relationship between two self-destructive people can be considered serious, and Laura (Marisa Tomei), with whom he has a shorter fling. In one scene, Chinaski (said to be an alter ego for Bukowski), visits his parents for a place to stay for a couple of days. Unable to control his behavior, he ultimately curses his way into being kicked out the door by his own father. Matt Dillon is okay as long as his character requires little more than sleepwalking, but when he has to narrate from Bukowski's story, his reading frankly sounds amateurish. Marisa Tomei provides a little spark as another drinker who introduces Chinaski to a more interesting set of people. What is most bizarre about this rather off-putting film is that it was directed by Bent Hamer, a Norwegian ("Kitchen Stories"). One suspects that the communication on this set wasn't always so clear. One also wonders why a movie set in Los Angeles was filmed entirely in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Finally, even the title (and this isn't the fault of the filmmakers) seems wrong. A factotum is a servant or employee who has a wide range of capacities or duties. Bukowski applied it to a man who simply couldn't hold a job. C- (12/30/06)

"Miami Vice"-It occurs to me that a film that has an Irish actor (Colin Farrell) playing a Miami cop, another Irish actor (Ciarán Hinds) playing an FBI agent named Fujima, and a Chinese actress (Gong Li) playing a Cuban is already off to a very strange start. But the biggest problem with director Michael Mann's "Miami Vice," is that it barely resembles the TV show on which it was based and instead has a murky and convoluted plot that is fairly easy to follow in its general outline, but is almost impossible to understand in its details. To make things worse, it's hard to decipher a lot of the dialogue. The plot essentially involves Detectives Sonny Crockett (Farrell) and Rico Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) discovering a serious leak in FBI intel resulting in several deaths of agents. In order to get to the heart of this crime, Crockett and Tubbs become undercover agents to investigate a Latin American/South American drug cartel led by Arcángel de Jesús Montoya (Luis Tosar) with the aide of José Yero (John Ortiz) and de Jesús Montoya's Chinese-Cuban girlfriend, Isabella (Gong Li). Crockett and Tubbs do such a good job of impersonating drug dealers that Crockett finds himself in an affair with Isabella who takes Crockett for a little boat ride to Cuba for drinks and dancing. I was disappointed in the cinematography of this film, expecting it to be gorgeous when it was instead, loaded with night scenes, rather muddy. While Colin Farrell is right at home as a charming tough cop, Jamie Foxx, whose acting talent was proven in "Ray," looked lost. As for Gong Li, one of China's greatest actresses, I can't imagine what possessed the filmmakers to cast her in this useless and rather silly role in which she had obvious difficulty with language, whether Spanish or English. C+ (12/28/06)

"Wordplay"-If you've ever found yourself addicted to crossword puzzles, especially those in the New York Times, this pleasant documentary is for you. Centered around Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle maven of the Times, "Wordplay" takes us into the lives and minds of people who are not only obsessed (in a good way) with crosswords, but also have the incredible brainpower to create them, and to complete them in an extremely rapid manner. Including interviews with puzzle fans such as Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, and Ken Burns, "Wordplay" also follows the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, an event started by Will Shortz and held each March at the Marriott Hotel in Stamford, CT. We are introduced to some wonderful participants from all over the country and watch as they compete tooth and nail to win and to have a great deal of fun along the way. B+ (12/27/06)

"The Proposition"-If it takes place in Australia, is it a "western?" With a cast of Australian, British and American actors, "The Proposition" is about the savage life of the Outback in the late 19th century. Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) is an Englishman who has been brought in to run the local police. After the brutal rape and murder of a local family by a gang of brothers a few days before Christmas, Arthur Burns (Danny Huston), Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), and young Mike Burns (Richard Wilson), Stanley has the latter two under custody. Hoping to create peace, Stanley offers Charlie Burns a proposition that will win him no friends among the locals. If Charlie kills his older brother Arthur, whom Stanley describes as a "monster," by Christmas, he and Mike will be set free. Otherwise, young Mike will be hanged. Charlie sets out and the question is, of course, whether he will do Stanley's bidding. "The Proposition" is, among other things, about the difficulties of life in the Australian Outback for the British who emigrated there as well as for the locals who can become undone by the heat and the environment. In the middle of all of the stresses and strains, is Stanley's attractive and well-dressed wife, Martha (Emily Watson), who wants to know more about what's going on, but is usually kept in the dark by her husband. Martha is an object of sexual fantasy for many of the local men, including the members of Stanley's own police force. The film is also about race relations and the hostilities of many whites towards the Aborigines, some of whom cooperate with the whites, and others who are rebels. While "The Proposition" has a wonderful cast, including also John Hurt as a bounty hunter, and an intriguing and unusual plot and setting, it also has some glaring weaknesses, including the utter lack of explanation for the motivations of some of the characters. For example, Arthur Burns is something of a poet in addition to being a brutal killer. He's also Irish. Is he motivated to kill only the British and the police? Or is he just a psychopath who has managed to get his brothers into a great deal of trouble? And ultimately the reasons for Charlie's final decision as to the proposition are muddied by the fact that the conditions have already become undone. Still, a very unusual and interesting film. B+ (12/26/06)

"United 93"-Paul Greengrass, the British director who did the powerful real-lifelike "Bloody Sunday," about the massacre at an Irish civil rights march in 1972, here turns his talents to this vivid, harrowing recreation of the likely events that occurred on September 11, 2001, aboard United Airlines Flight 93, the San Francisco-bound plane that ultimately crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Using mostly unknown or little-known actors, all of whom do a magnificent job (they seem as natural as real life and, in some cases, the actual participants in the events do a wonderful job of portraying themselves), "United 93," shows us just what it was like in the FAA control rooms as the air-traffic controllers realized the nightmare that was unfolding, and what it might have been like inside the hijacked plane for the doomed passengers and crew. The experience is mesmerizing in its realistic horror. It literally takes us from the hotel room of the terrorists before their departure for the airport to the moment of ultimate disaster, without any of the standard Hollywood techniques and clichés. The viewer watches the events occur naturally, made more awesome by knowing the actual fate of those portrayed on the screen. Some commentators have claimed that this film isn't political, but the FAA and military scenes reveal the inability of the FAA personnel to contact the president, the vice-president, or military personnel with any authority to act, and the utter frustration of those military personnel who were aware of what was going on and could do little or nothing. By the time any significant decisions were made, the events of 9/11 were essentially complete. "United 93" also raises questions about the choices of filmmakers and movie viewers. Why, for example, are we so fascinated by death, violence and horror, whether real or fictional, subjects that seem to be at the heart of most films these days? The movie listings are loaded with horror films. "United 93" tops them all because this horror really happened. I initially resisted watching "United 93" because of the subject matter, but finally broke down and watched it due to the fact that it was named best film by the New York film critics and also due to a personal recommendation. The experience of watching this film turned out to be about what I expected, although it is extremely artfully done. But as I watched, the thought occurred: did we viewers really need to experience vicariously what happened aboard United 93? A (12/25/06)

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