Roy's 2007 Movie Reviews Continued

This page contains reviews from May 9, 2007 through September 7, 2007

“Hot Fuzz”-Simon Pegg has the knack for British humor. Having been the memorable Shaun of “Shaun of the Dead,” he now turns to the role of an extremely capable and serious British police officer named Nicholas Angel who is so good that his colleagues in London, including the Chief Inspector (Bill Nighy), decide to exile him to a small town called Sandford. But when Nicholas arrives in Sandford, he finds that no one is interested in enforcing the law and everyone has an excuse for ignoring it. In his first night, Nicholas arrests several people, including a drunken driver, Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), who turns out to be not only his police colleague but the son of the local police Inspector Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent), his new boss. As partners, Nicholas and Danny soon become friends, but Danny is unsure of his friend when Nicholas tries to convince everyone that a group of “accidental” deaths are actually murders. The two local detectives, including Paddy Considine as DS Andy Wainwright, look and act more like the Blues Brothers than detectives interested in solving crimes. Simon Pegg is deliciously serious as the highly motivated Nicholas who is seemingly up against the utter legal lethargy of this rural British community. He’s so serious that later in the film, when he drinks a few beers, it’s almost shocking. Nick Frost is also a delight to watch as the bumbling cop whose eyes are ultimately opened wide to the situation in his home town. The absurdity of the ignored lawlessness of the town of Sandford is made even more delightful by a wonderful supporting cast, including Timothy Dalton, Stuart Wilson, Billie Whitelaw, Anne Reid, and other first-rate British actors as various local townspeople. “Hot Fuzz,” both a comedy and police procedural, is made up of that element of British humor that focuses on the absurdities of life and it runs with it. Lots of fun. B+ (9/7/07)

“The Wind That Shakes the Barley”-Damien (Cillian Murphy) is a young Irish medical student in 1920 about to leave home for more studies, when he is confronted by the brutality of the black and tans fighting for the British. With his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney), he joins the Republican forces to battle the British. But when a peace treaty is reached and the Irish Free State is created but is still part of the British Commonwealth and the "free Irish" must swear allegiance to the British monarch, the Republicans split between those who want to continue the fight and those who are happy with the settlement. Damien continues the fight whereas Teddy joins the Irish army and, now split, they have to make decisions that affect the ultimate fate of at least one. Like so many films made in the British isles, the filmmakers seem either to not have much concern for sound quality or intend for the sound to be difficult considering the raucous times. But there are times in this film that with the noise and the heavy Irish accents, titles might have helped American viewers. That said, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” is a painful and touching movie with some very good performances, including that of Cillian Murphy (“Breakfast on Pluto”), Padraic Delaney as Teddy who gives up the battle, Orla Fitzgerald as Sinead, a Republican sympathizer and the woman who loves Damien, and Liam Cunningham as Dan, a fierce Republican supporter. B+ (9/6/07)

“300”-In 480 B.C., Persians led by Xerxes, invaded Greece and met a rather small group of Spartans under King Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae. The Spartans did extremely well in battle, but ultimately were defeated by the much larger Persian force. That’s the story in a nutshell and it’s the story told in this film based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller. It has its moments, but ultimately “300” is a series of extended battle scenes filmed in a unique style to give it a somewhat cartoonish look, and interrupted only occasionally by more normal human endeavors, including the relationship between Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and his beautiful wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), and between Queen Gorgo and Theron (Dominic West), a Machiavellian Spartan politician. Most jarring though are the battle scenes in which monster-like humanoids right out of “Lord of the Rings” appear to do battle with the Spartans, and the almost absurd image of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) as an almost naked, bald, god-like creature covered with gold chains and jewels. Most historical images of Xerxes are that of a king with lots of hair on his head and a very long beard. So much for accuracy. Seen in high-def, “300” is impressive visually, but if the thought of seeing extended battle scenes with creatures and people beheaded is unpleasant, forget it. C+ (9/6/07)

“Fracture”-This is somewhat of a disaster of a police/courtroom thriller. The story is so full of holes, it might as well be swiss cheese. The basic plot is about an aviation executive, Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins), who leaves work, goes directly to a hotel at which his wife Jennifer (Embeth Davidtz), is having an affair with a police lieutenant, Robert Nunally (Billy Burke). He enters their room mysteriously while they’re in the pool, then heads home to wait for Jennifer’s arrival where he greets her with a gunshot to the head. Crawford then cleans himself up and awaits the arrival of the police where he essentially confesses and turns himself in to, of all people, Lieutenant Nunally. We then meet Deputy District Attorney Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling) who has just been hired by a major law firm in a completely different field. But despite already moving into his new law firm office, Beachum rather mysteriously continues on the job as the DDA, and discovers that Crawford pleads not guilty (despite his confession), very self-confidently chooses to represent himself, and wants Beachum to prosecute. The rest of the film was intended to be a cat and mouse thriller between Crawford and Beachum, but is distracted continuously by silly and totally unbelievable side plots, including an amazingly fast affair that Beachum finds himself in with his new boss, the gorgeous Nikki Gardner (Rosamund Pike). There may have been some bad editing, but the segue from Beachum’s meeting Gardner, to sleeping with her, to being invited to her family home for Thanksgiving, is so abrupt as to border on absurdity. Also absurd is the speed of Crawford’s trial which seems to take place only days after his arrest. One of the more interesting aspects of this film is the chance to observe Ryan Gosling, a young actor with a good reputation, in a fairly standard role. Gosling plays Beachum, an LA lawyer, as if he has, inexplicably, somewhat of a southern accent and he never looks comfortable in the role. I’m not yet convinced by this young actor. With a far sharper script, “Fracture” might have succeeded, but unfortunately it simply isn't there. C- (9/3/07)

“Coeurs (American title: Private Fears in Public Places)”-Directed by the octogenarian French director, Alain Resnais, this film, which is based on the Alan Ayckbourn play “Private Fears in Public Places,” looks and feels a lot like a performance on a stage. It takes place mostly indoors in Paris during the winter as it snows continually outside, and involves a group of six people who seem to interact only with themselves. Charlotte (Sabine Azéma), an attractive but seemingly uptight religious woman, works for Thierry (André Dussolier), an older real estate broker who lives with his sister, Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré), who is looking for love by meeting men through ads. Meanwhile, Nicole (Laura Morante), who lives with her fiancé Dan (Lambert Wilson), is looking for an apartment through Thierry’s services, but is frustrated by the lack of cooperation she is getting from Dan, who has been kicked out of the French military and is jobless. Dan spends his time at a hotel bar talking to the bartender, Lionel (Pierre Arditi), who has hired Charlotte to care for his elderly ill father. That the characters interact further is to be expected. “Coeurs” appears to be a film about looking for love or at least companionship and reflects life’s frustrations with both love and loneliness. The film has excellent cinematography and good sets, although, as earlier noted, they mostly resemble the sets on a stage. One big weakness in the film is the casting of the brother-sister relationship. André Dussolier is 25 years older than Isabelle Carré, but looks 40 years older—an unlikely sibling relationship. “Coeurs” also has somewhat of a soap opera feel about it, but the acting is first class. Suffice it to say, this is nothing like Resnais’ New Wave films, such as “Last Year at Marienbad.”(In French with English subtitles) B- (8/31/07)

“The Lives of Others”-Just what is at the core of heartless characters who make up repressive governmental regimes? “The Lives of Others,” a brilliant film that takes place in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1984, explores the nature of such characters and asks if they are capable of changing. With a wonderfully original and intelligent script and astoundingly crisp cinematography, Director/screenwriter Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, tells the story of Gerd Weisler (Ulrich Mühe), a nasty interrogator for the Stasi, the GDR’s secret police. Not only does Wiesler interrogate with little or no feeling for the victim, but he enthusiastically passes on his methods to Stasi students. Weisler is assigned to bug the apartment of Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a playwright who appears to be loyal to the GDR, and his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), and to sit in the attic of their building spying on all of their doings. But when Weisler realizes the true intent of his superior, Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme), and he listens to Georg and Christa-Maria’s conversations, musical interludes, and intimate exchanges, he begins to undergo a transformation that will have significant consequences for the subjects of his spying. “The Lives of Others” deservedly won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and contains memorable performances by Sebastian Koch as the writer who goes along, but after a blacklisted director friend hangs himself, feels he must publish an exposé of the high rate of suicides in the GDR; Martina Gedeck as Koch’s girlfriend who keeps secrets from her lover; Ulrich Tukur as Anton Grubitz, Weisler’s cold-blooded but frustrated superior; and Thomas Thieme as the governmental Minister whose interests go a little beyond protecting the proletariat of the GDR. Most memorable though is the breathtaking performance of Ulrich Mühe, who tragically died recently. Mühe’s transformative facial expressions are something to behold. This is a film not to be missed. (In German with English subtitles). A (8/25/07)

“Firewall”-Harrison Ford looks too old to be a thriller hero and the script is so loaded with thriller clichés that it’s downright dull. Despite a fairly decent cast, “Firewall” limps boringly to its ultimate and totally unsurprising conclusion. The story? Harrison Ford is Jack Stanfield, head of security at a major west coast bank about to merge with another more powerful bank. He finds himself knocking heads with Gary Mitchell (Robert Patrick), a bigwig at the other bank. But before the banks completely merge, Stanfield is introduced to a businessman named Bill Cox (Paul Bettany) who turns out to be a master crook. Cox’s crew invades Stanfield’s home and imprisons Mrs. Stanfield (Virginia Madsen) and their two children while forcing Stanfield to become involved in their plot to steal, via electronic means, millions of dollars from the bank. At the same time, of course, the crooks have a plan to make it look like Stanfield is the real thief. “Firewall” goes through the motions of a thriller; however, the audience winds up suffering from bad guy and cliché fatigue. Cox’s crew is made up of the standard machine-gun wielding leader (Nikolaj Coster Waldau) and a group of cold-blooded buffoons who are ultimately outwitted by Stanfield, with the help of the family dog. Even the high-tech material just isn’t that exciting. Paul Bettany isn’t bad as the crook who seems to have a heart at the same time that he has no compunctions about injuring Stansfield’s children. Virginia Madsen has little to do except look frightened and determined at the same time; Mary Lynn Rajskub (“24”) gets to be the female sidekick of another guy named Jack; and a wonderful actor like Alan Arkin is utterly wasted as the head of Stanfield’s bank who has only a few dull lines. D+ (8/24/07)

“After the Wedding”-Mads Mikklesen, who played the evil Le Chiffre in “Casino Royale,” does a 180-degree turn here to become Jacob, a soft-spoken and caring Danish man dedicated to helping orphans in India. When he is called back to Denmark in hopes of raising funds to continue running his orphanage, the concerns about his return, especially from one boy at the orphanage, are palpable. In Denmark, Jacob finds himself at the home of Jørgen (Rolf Lassgård). an extremely wealthy potential donor who seems to be arrogant and superficial. But then Jørgen strangely invites Jacob to the wedding of his step-daughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen). When Jacob attends the wedding, he is surprised to find himself deeply enmeshed in the family and ultimately faced with a significant life-altering choice in order to gain millions for the orphanage from Jørgen. “After the Wedding” is original and beautifully acted. Mikklesen is perfect as the surprised and perplexed former alcoholic who is sorely tempted by Jørgen’s offer. The supporting cast is outstanding, from Rolf Lassgård as Jørgen, a man with a secret and a desire to protect his family; to Sidse Babett Knudsen as Jørgen’s wife, Helene, a woman with a past; to Stine Fischer Christensen as the daughter who experiences some genuine shocks and turmoil in her life immediately after her wedding. This is a fine film which deservedly received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign language film. (In Danish and some Hindi with English subtitles) A- (8/17/07)

“Avenue Montaigne”-The original French title of this delightful film, “Fauteuils d’orchestre,” translates to “orchestra seats,” and so the American title seems a lot more romantic. Directed by Danièle Thompson and written with her son Christopher Thompson (who also appears in the film), “Avenue Montaigne” is a bright and cheerful film about a group of people going through a variety of ups and downs in their professional and romantic lives. At the heart of the film is Jessica (Cécile De France), a lovely young woman with a sparkling smile on her face, who comes to Paris to find a job and winds up as a waitress in a theater district restaurant which has never previously had other than male waiters. While serving takeout orders and looking for a place to live, Jessica meets and seems to be constantly interacting with a wonderful group of people, ranging from Jean-François Lefort (Albert Dupontel), a concert pianist who loves playing the piano but hates appearing in concert halls, and is making his wife and manager, Valentine (Laura Morante), miserable ; Claudie (Dani), an about-to-retire theater manager who wanted to be a performer but found her real talents lay in being around theater people; Catherine Versen (Valérie Lemercier), a high-strung soap opera star who is about to play a lead in a Feydeau romp and wants to be taken seriously; Jacques Grumberg (Claude Brasseur), a rich elderly art collector who has decided to sell his collection, and Frédéric Grumberg (Christopher Thompson), his son, whose marriage is ending and who wishes his father would not sell at least one item that his mother loved. That father and son have a lover in common makes things even more interesting. With crisp and beautiful cinematography in and about Paris, “Avenue Montaigne” is an upper, an intelligent film that reveals the angst of creative people in a positive light. The cast is outstanding. Cécile De France, seen only recently in a very different role in “Russian Dolls,” is particularly delightul and charming as the cute and bubbly but smart young waitress who ultimately finds love. Also appearing is Sydney Pollack as an American director who initially ignores Catherine but then finds that she may be the actress he’s been looking for. I’d like to see more from Danièle Thompson. (Mostly in French with English subtitles). A- (8/10/07)

“Factory Girl”-Is Edie Sedgwick’s story, somewhat of a minor blip in entertainment and art history, really worth a film? “Factory Girl” does a good job trying but I’m not convinced. Edie Sedgwick (Sienna Miller), was a young art student from a wealthy family who came to New York in the mid-1960s, met Andy Warhol (Guy Pearce), and gained her “15 minutes of fame” as the star of a few of Warhol’s rather bizarre and utterly self-indulgent films. Sienna Miller becomes Sedgwick, a young girl with a disturbing family history of mental illness, hospitalizations, and possible parental abuse, who goes from wide-eyed novice to celebrity to a drug-ridden mess in a very short time. In the process, she hangs around the Factory, Warhol’s east-side studio, which attracted a broad range of creative but strange and possibly disturbed characters. According to the film, her downfall started with drug injections in the rear end, applied by another of the Factory denizens, and a relationship with a mysterious folk singer (Hayden Christensen) who is meant to be Bob Dylan although he is not identified as such. Christensen only occasionally hits the mark as Dylan, but none of the famed Dylan songs are heard. Guy Pearce is effective as Warhol, here portrayed as a cold and egotistical ringleader of a band of weirdos, who seems to fall emotionally for Edie but turns on her as soon as she shows an interest in the mysterious folk singer. Jimmy Fallon is miscast as Chuck Wein, Edie’s promoter, who sucked up to Warhol and ultimately abandoned her. Mena Suvari appears in a minor role as Richie Berlin, one of the Factory girls who became Edie’s good friend. Although the film ultimately drags as Edie goes downhill, “Factory Girl” does a good job of exposing a strange but very brief interlude in art and entertainment history. B- (8/10/07)

“Lonely Hearts”-This run-of-the-mill film based on events from the late 1940s and early 1950s, gives us the tale of Ray Martin Fernandez (Jared Leto), a con man who preyed on widows, and Martha Beck (Salma Hayek), the psychopath who turned him into a serial killer, and the two New York cops (John Travolta and James Gandolfini), who ultimately tracked them down in Michigan and brought them back for a meeting with the electric chair. Unfortunately, the script, written by director Todd Robinson (the grandson of the detective portrayed by Travolta) is fairly uninspired and the acting pro forma. Travolta plays Detective Elmer Robinson like he’s visiting the dentist and James Gandolfini doesn’t do much to make us forget Tony Soprano. Scott Caan is embarrassing as a hothead cop and Jared Leto is utterly miscast, but Salma Hayek provides the one notable performance in this film, doing a fine job of transforming herself from a beauty into an insane killer. Incidentally, the real Martha Beck was 200 pounds and as unattractive as Hayek is beautiful, but that’s the magic of movies. C- (8/70/07)

“Shooter”-There was a time when a story about evil government agents doing dirty deeds seemed utterly unrealistic, if not at least cinematic fun. In light of recent events, however, this view now seems utterly naive. “Shooter” aims to take advantage of that situation and contains some pretty cynical comments about the current presidential administration. Based on the novel “Point of Impact” by Stephen Hunter, a co-screenwriter of the film, “Shooter” presents us with a Marine marksman, Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg), who, after losing his spotter, Donnie Fenn (Lane Garrison), during a questionable raid in Ethiopia, is now living with his dog in the mountains of Wyoming. But, of course, along come government agents, including the highly questionable Colonel Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover), who far too easily convinces Swagger that he is needed back east to help prevent a presidential assassination by a marksman just like him. It never occurs to Swagger to ask how Johnson knows about the assassination plot and its details, and succumbs to the ploy. Not surprisingly, when a shooting actually occurs, Swagger is set up as the killer (with allusions to Oswald and the JFK assassination). Mark Wahlberg is very good at going through the physical motions of running despite having been shot, overpowering an FBI agent, Nick Memphis (Michael Peña), and escaping in general. Ultimately, “Shooter” takes us to various scenic locations, including Kentucky where Swagger meets up with Donnie Fenn’s beautiful widow, Sarah (Kate Mara). Sarah nurses Swagger back to health and joins him in his search for the truth. “Shooter” is loaded with holes, but when it comes to this genre most viewers usually know to ignore these and apply “poetic license.” The film is chock full of action, high-powered rifles, explosions, a rather appropriate, if not illegal, ending, and some unfortunate bad acting. This has to be the low point of Danny Glover’s career. He looks like he wasn’t even trying. Ned Beatty, who plays a corrupt US Senator, has also had better moments in his acting career. Michael Peña, on the other hand, is charming and funny as the embarrassed FBI agent who discovers the truth and winds up joining Swagger’s efforts to find out who was really responsible for the shooting. Also of note in the cast are Elias Koteas, a Robert DeNiro lookalike, as a sadistic government agent, and Rhona Mitra as a helpful FBI agent. B- (8/4/07)

“Russian Dolls”- In 2002, “L’Auberge espagnole” told the story of Xavier (Romain Duris), a young man who didn’t quite know what he wanted, whether it came to his future career or his romantic adventures. He had left his girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautoo) behind and headed for Barcelona where he lived and was involved with a group of young people from a variety of countries. “L’Auberge espagnole” revealed the pains and pangs of young love and lust, and “Russian Dolls” covers similar territory for a now 30-something who simply doesn’t know how to connect, either with himself or others. The film picks up Xavier’s tale several years after Barcelona, and several of the same people are still in Xavier’s life. Almost all seem to be struggling with problems similar to his. Xavier is now a writer assigned to draft the screenplay of an ultimately cliché-ridden romantic film. Xavier spends time with Martine and her young son and admits he loved her, but there’s no longer a spark. He winds up temporarily living with Isabelle (Cécile de France), a lesbian, and dissembles by introducing Isabelle to his insistent elderly grandfather as his girlfriend. When he’s invited to Russia to attend the wedding of his British friend William (Kevin Bishop) and his Russian ballerina girlfriend, Natasha (Evguenya Obraztsova), Xavier goes with Wendy (Kelly Reilly), Williams’s sister who is also a writer, with whom he seems to have fallen in love after Wendy had finally thrown out her last luggish boyfriend. But it doesn’t take long for Xavier to be distracted by a call from Moscow from Celia (Lucy Gordon), a beautiful model who wants him to join her there. Years ago, there was a song from “Finian’s Rainbow” which seems to sum up Xavier’s problem with these words: “when I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near.” “Russian Dolls” gets off to a somewht confusing start, jumping around in time and place, but ultimately we get the idea that Xavier is still struggling at 30 to figure out who he is and how he should behave. That he’s not alone in this is an important theme of the film. The cast does a fine job. (Mostly in French with English subtitles, but also with some English) B+ (8/3/07)

“The Secret Life of Words”-A man, Josef (Tim Robbins), is seriously injured in a fire on an offshore oil rig. An attractive but extremely reticent and partially deaf young woman named Hanna (Sarah Polley) works in a factory and is encouraged to go on vacation by her superior. Although she attempts a vacation, she ultimately winds up volunteering to be Josef’s nurse and finds herself aboard the oil rig with a handful of men and a goose. Directed by Spanish director Isabel Coixet, “The Secret Life of Words” explores the difficulties of communication between a seriously injured man with burns who has been temporarily blinded by the oil rig accident and who wants to know more about his quiet and very serious nurse, and the woman who has obviously closed up after suffering immense pain in her past. Robbins and Polley are outstanding in these difficult roles which involve little more than dialogue. The film is ultimately a commentary on the horrors of war (in this case the war in the Balkans) and the ability of humans to survive the worst nightmares. My only criticism is the use of a rather strange and mysterious childlike narrative voice which appears at the beginning and end of the film and gives it an unnecessary other-worldly flavor. B+ (7/28/07)

“Zodiac”-is based on the book of the same name by Robert Graysmith, played in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal. Graysmith was a cartoonist at the SF Chronicle back in 1969, when a northern California serial killer who called himself “Zodiac” started sending letters with coded messages to newspapers, including the Chronicle. Along with Chronicle writer Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), Graysmith becomes somewhat obsessed with the story, and continues to follow and investigate long after the police had given up. In its running time of 2 1/2 hours, “Zodiac” does a workmanlike job of showing how the Zodiac killed, exploring other possible Zodiac crimes, and meditating on Graysmith’s obsession over many years, one which, among other things, destroyed his second marriage. The film is loaded with names, including Mark Ruffalo as Dave Toschi, the SF police detective who at one point was suspected of writing one of the Zodiac’s letters, Brian Cox as the pompous Melvin Belli, Philp Baker Hall as a handwriting expert with a drinking problem, and Anthony Edwards as Toschi’s partner. Chloë Sevigny (“Big Love”) is wasted in a lifeless role as Graysmith’s second wife who feels that her entire marriage is an extended date on one subject: the killer. “Zodiac” isn’t boring and yet there is also little in the way of excitement as it plods through the tale of Graysmith’s single-minded desire to learn the identity of the killer. The film’s style is typified by a multitude of captions indicative of the passing of time. Robert Downey, Jr., is typically eccentric as Avery, and Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Graysmith as a man without “a life” other than his interest in the Zodiac. C+ (7/27/07)

“The Dead Girl”-Following a line of genre films in which stories about a variety of people are connected by a thread, in this case the murder of a young woman, “The Dead Girl” begins with the tale of Arden (Toni Collette). Arden has been verbally brutalized by her abusive obese and elderly mother (Piper Laurie) and appears to be living in a daze. But one day, while out for a walk, she finds the body of a young murder victim and this traumatic experience inspires her to leave home and take a chance with a brash young man (Giovanni Ribisi) who finds her attractive. Written and directed by Karen Moncrieff, “The Dead Girl” also gives us the tales of Leah (Rose Byrne), a young woman who works at the morgue and thinks the body is that of her own sister who has been missing for some time; Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt), a frustrated woman whose husband is constantly leaving home for no apparent reason, and who makes a surprising discovery; Melora (Marcia Gay Harden), the mother of the dead girl who also makes discoveries, but these are about the lifestyle of her runaway daughter; and Krista (Brittany Murphy), a young reckless prostitute who dreams of giving her own young daughter what she missed when she was a child. Filmed in a muted, almost sepia colored vision, “The Dead Girl” is a quietly effective character study with some very good performances, including those of Kerry Washington, Krista’s rundown prostitute roommate; and Mary Steenburgen as Leah’s obsessed mother. B+ (7/20/07)

“Sweet Land”-Based on a short story by Will Weaver called “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” “Sweet Land” is a beautiful portrayal of the experiences of a young German woman, Inge (Elizabeth Reaser), who is brought to Minnesota as a mail order bride by young farmer Olaf (Tim Guinee) just after WW I, and discovers the prejudices and hostilities of the local community, including its self-righteous and hypocritical preacher, Minister Sorenson (John Heard). The film gets off to a slightly confusing start as it begins with Inge’s death in old age and the painful decision of her grandson, Lars, whether or not to sell the farmland that she and Olaf nurtured for so many years. But Lars remembers the touching and vivid story told to him by his grandmother (Inge is played by Lois Smith as an older woman), just after Olaf’s death, of her problematic arrival, the way she and Olaf were initially treated with hostility by the local community, and their struggle to survive and inevitable acceptance as a couple. “Sweet Land” is exquisitely photographed by David Tumblety and contains a first-rate script and direction by Ali Selim. Elizabeth Reaser is quite touching as the young Inge, who must deal with the shock of her arrival in a new place and country while also having difficulty with the language and local customs, but deal she does. In fact, she does a wonderful job of portraying the spunk and struggle of this young woman to make her way and ultimately marry Olaf. Tim Guinee also is excellent as the initially reticent Olaf, a man who isn’t comfortable with the situation he has gotten himself into, but ultimately grows and matures with the circumstances as well as his observations of Inge’s obvious appeal. Other memorable performances come from Alan Cumming as Olaf’s friend and neighbor, Frandsen; Alex Kingston as Brownie, Frandsen’s outgoing wife and the mother of nine children; and Ned Beatty as the banker who attempts to foreclose on the farm of his cousin Frandsen and proves that banking and farming don’t mix. A- (7/14/07)

“Crónicas”-John Leguizamo stars as Manolo Bonilla, a Miami reporter who, while covering the story of a serial killer of children in Ecuador, stumbles onto the likely identity of the killer. With his crew, including his producer Marisa Iturralde (Leonor Watling), the wife of the host of the Miami news show he appears on, Manolo finds himself being sought out by a man who had been attacked by a crowd after accidentally killing the brother of one of the serial killer’s victims just after the latter’s funeral. The man, Vinicio (Damián Alcázar), being held in prison after the accident, tells Manolo that he has met the “monster” and can provide details about him in return for Manolo broadcasting a sympathetic portrayal of Vinicio in order to help him get out of jail. John Leguizamo does a fine job as a popular and up-and-coming reporter who struggles with his conscience when he suspects that Vinicio may well be the killer. The question that faces him is whether he goes for the confession and the story or informs the police of his suspicions. The integrity of the media becomes the central issue of this film which effectively raises questions about the ethics of reporters and the news media in general. (Primarily in Spanish with English subtitles) B+ (7/8/07)

“Breaking and Entering”-Anthony Minghella is a filmmaker of extraordinary talent, with films ranging from “Truly Madly Deeply,” to “The English Patient,” to “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” He is currently making “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” which promises to be a wonderful take on the extraordinary series of books about the “traditionally built” Botswanian detective and philosopher, Precious Ramotswe. But in the meantime. Anthony Minghella has made this very interesting if not completely successful film which covers a variety of themes, including parental love, marital infidelity, the difficulties of youth, and the problems of urban decay. Jude Law is quite effective as Will Francis, a partner in an architectural firm doing major improvements in the rundown King’s Cross area of London. Will lives with Liv (Robin Wright Penn) and her problematic young daughter Bea (Poppy Rogers) who is obsessed with gymnastics and may be autistic. Because of Bea’s problems, Will and Liv have grown apart. Immediately after delivery of a large number of Macintosh computers, the offices of Will and his partner Sandy (Martin Freeman) are burglarized by a group of Bosnians living in London, including expecially an acrobatic youth named Miro (Rafi Gavron of “Rome”). Miro takes Will’s personal laptop and some toy figures used in the architectural business home where he lives with his mother, Amira (Juliette Binoche), a widow who works as a self-employed tailor. When Will sees Miro trying to once again break into his facility, he follows him home, but rather than simply calling the police, Will decides to investigate by himself. When he decides to bring business to Amira, he begins a relationship with her that promises to complicate things, morally, ethically and otherwise. “Breaking and Entering” contains some delightful performances. Juliette Binoche, as always, is brilliant as a Bosnian woman with a great deal of conflicts in her life. She is one of the finest actresses in film today. Robin Wright Penn does a fine job as Liv, a woman so distracted by her daughter’s problems that she may be about to lose the man in her life. Ray Winstone appears as a tough London detective who seems to have solved the burglary. One of the best performances in the film is that of the very talented Vera Farmiga (“The Departed”) as Oana, a blonde curly-haired prostitute with an Eastern European accent, who hysterically wiggles her way into Will’s car and his life. “Breaking and Entering” deals with a few too many issues and has a few too many scenes in which characters do unlikely things to make it completely effective, but the performances and the themes certainly make it a film I can recommend. B+ (7/7/07)

“Fay Grim”-Several years ago, director Hal Hartley made a film called “Henry Fool,” which was about a strange, seemingly delusional character named Henry Fool, who enters the lives of the Grim family and inspires young Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) to become a poet, enchants Simon’s sister Fay (Parker Posey), and then escapes under strange circumstances. As has been said elsewhere, the concept of a sequel to this somewhat talky indie film seemed highly unlikely, but Hal Hartley has created “Fay Grim,” in which Parker Posey stars as Henry Fool’s ex-wife. Fay is inspired by a CIA agent named Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) to search for Henry, a character who now seems to have been involved in world espionage and terrorism and may well have been telling the truth in the previous film. “Fay Grim” is a more entertaining film than the earlier “Henry Fool,” partly because it begins with flair and humor, but ultimately it descends into a seemingly typical espionage thriller in which the plot becomes convoluted, makes little or no sense a great deal of the time, and includes the standard violence to be expected in such a story. One of the problems (or is it a virtue?) of Hartley’s films is that they tend to look slightly amateurish and contain obviously intentionally stilted dialogue. “Fay Grim” is no exception, but it has its moments, especially watching Posey who is beautiful and delightfully mysterious as Fay, who starts out as an innocent and turns smart and deadly towards the end. The film also includes notable performances by James Urbaniak as Simon; Jeff Goldblum as Fulbright; Liam Aiken as Ned, Fay’s teenage son; Chuck Montgomery as Angus, Simon’s publisher, and Elina Löwensohn as Bebe, a young Russian woman. Thomas Jay Ryan again appears, briefly, as Henry Fool. B- (7/6/07)

“Miss Potter”-Beatrix Potter was an amazing woman in the late Victorian era who came from wealth but resisted the pressures of family (particularly her mother), to marry an appropriate gentleman and spend the rest of her life maintaining his home. Renée Zellweger is quite delightful as Beatrix, who had been making up enchanting stories about animals since childhood along with absolutely gorgeous watercolors of her creatures, including Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, and Squirrel Nutkin. When, in her mid-30s, she convinced book publisher Frederick Warne & Co., to publish her book, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” she not only meets and falls for the youngest member of the firm, the enthusiastic, charming, and supportive Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), but ultimately becomes independently wealthy in the process. One normally wouldn’t expect a young actress from Texas to play a British character such as Potter, but Renée Zellweger carries it off perfectly, literally becoming her character. She is especially effective in the private moments when she interacts with her characters, who briefly come to life in limited animation. Ewan McGregor also is a pleasant surprise as the quiet and handsome, but ill-fated Norman Warne. The cast also includes the great Emily Watson as Warne’s unmarried sister Millie; Barbara Flynn as Beatrix’s tyrannical mother; and Bill Paterson as Beatrix’s somewhat more understanding father. A significant portion of the film was made in the gorgeous Lake District of England, an area whose preservation was in substantial part the result of the vision of Beatrix Potter who used her wealth to buy and preserve thousands of acres of farmland. A- (7/5/07)

“Night at the Museum”-Ben Stiller is, as usual, a pleasant but not particularly funny straight man to a bevy of unlikely characters from history who come to life at night in the museum in which he is the new night watchman. Interestingly, the funniest scene in the movie shows Stiller as Larry Daley, a career failure, interacting with a nasty employment counselor played by Stiller’s real-life mother, Anne Meara. He suggests that they have a connection. She denies it. Larry is a man desiring to impress his young son (who lives with Larry’s ex-wife and her successful husband), but must first deal with the scary nighttime doings imposed on him by the three elderly outgoing watchmen, played with pizzazz by Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs. “Night at the Museum” has little substance but a lot of special effects. Obviously intended for children, I wonder sometimes if films like this don’t insult the intelligence of young people. When I was young, in the early 1950s, I remember being taken to and enjoying serious adult films, along with intelligent children’s films like “Hans Christian Andersen.” “Night at the Museum,” I suspect, isn’t likely to entrance most kids who see characters like these regularly in their video games. C (7/5/07)

“Lord of War”-I had missed this 2005 film but decided to watch it on Blu-ray and was surprised to find it to be one of the most effective tales of individual and governmental immorality I’ve seen. The theme is “evil prevails,” something we see every day in our newspapers and on TV news. Ukrainian immigrant Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), who has grown up with his restaurant-owning parents and brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) in Brighton Beach, NY, decides that his fate is to become an arms supplier to the world. With Yuri narrating the details of his life as a gun runner, we see him block whatever guilt he has to become a master of cold-blooded immoral and unethical dealings. Yuri sells arms to some of the worst murderous governmental leaders (such as a president of Liberia who is nothing more than a warlord) and so-called freedom fighters in Africa, while being tracked down by interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke). At the same time, using his ill-gotten gains, Yuri has managed to acquire the wife of his dreams, Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan), a model he coveted since his Brooklyn days. Ava looks the other way initially, not wanting to know how Yuri acquires such riches, but when she finds the painful truth, Yuri’s world appears to be tumbling down. The denoument of the film, while a perfect ending for a thriller, seems genuinely to reflect the icy nature of the doings of world leaders. Written and directed by Andrew Niccol (“Gattaca”), “Lord of War” says a great deal about why the news of the day deals so frequently with violent death in world conflagrations. Nicolas Cage is extremely effective as the amoral Yuri. Recommended. A- (7/4/07)

“Black Snake Moan”-One of the mantras one hears from some of those involved in making “Black Snake Moan” (see the DVD features) and its viewers, is that it should not be taken literally. Well, that’s a very defensive position because while they would like this film to be considered symbolic or some kind of an allegory, the fact remains that whether taken literally or not there isn’t much more there than an unlikely story. The wife of Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a black southern farmer, has just left him for his brother and he is in misery. Rae (Christina Ricci), a young white woman who seems to live and die for sex, thinks she has just lost her husband (Justin Timberlake) to the military and goes off in a nymphomaniacal fit. Ultimately, she winds up beaten and lying in the road near Lazarus’ house. Lazarus takes her in, cleans her up, and decides that he is going to cure Rae of her illicit desires, but he does this by chaining her up while she remains in her skimpy underwear. The preposterous nature of this situation is typified by Lazarus leading Rae around by the chain in his vegetable garden, while she remains in her underwear, and telling her that no one will see. And yet, in a just a few short scenes later, at least two people arrive at the house who could easily have witnessed this bizarre behavior which would have obviously landed Lazarus in a great deal of hot water. Craig Brewer, director and writer, who made the fine “Hustle and Flow,” goes very wrong with this tale of miraculous transformations (Lazarus arising?) that occur to both main characters, as in so many other films, within the approximate two-hour length of the film. Christina Ricci really isn’t a bad actress and needs to start finding some serious worthwhile roles. Not recommended. C- (7/3/07)

“Catch a Fire”-A relatively unheralded film, “Catch a Fire” turns out to be an effective tale of the oppression of black South Africans under apartheid and the resulting transformation of a quiet apolitical young man into a freedom fighter. Written by Shawn Slovo, whose parents were white anti-apartheid leaders in South Africa, and based on real events, “Catch a Fire” is about Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), a supervisor at a power plant who is wrongly accused of a terrorist act at the plant by Colonel Nick Vos (Tim Robbins). Ultimately, when Chamusso’s wife, Precious (Bonnie Henna), is also beaten by the police, Chamusso who had been a quiet, law-abiding soccer coach, joins the ANC and plots against the white South African apartheid government. Derek Luke does a fine job of portraying the emotions of Patrick, a young man who goes from non-involvement, to anger, rebellion, and ultimately forgiveness. Tim Robbins is surprisingly (only because he usually doesn’t play the “bad guy”) good as a cold-blooded detective who performs the good buy/bad guy routine all by himself. “Catch a Fire” is directed by the excellent Phillip Noyce (“Rabbit-Proof Fence” and “The Quiet American”) and probably failed commercially because of its weak title and the fact that apartheid, thankfully, is no longer a major issue of our time. B+ (7/1/07)

“Come Early Morning”-Written and directed by Joey Lauren Adams (“Chasing Amy”), “Come Early Morning” does a fine job of exploring the doings of Lucy Fowler (Ashley Judd), a young southern woman with a good job, a nice pickup truck, a pleasant roommate (Laura Prepon), and a dedication to her relatives, but with a very distant and emotionless father (Scott Wilson) and a big problem relating to men. Lucy seems to find men enjoyable only when she’s had her fill of beer, although a new man in town, Cal Percell (Jeffrey Donovan), inspires the rarity of a non-alcoholic kiss. Ashley Judd is very effective in the part of Lucy, a young woman with lots of potential but a deep psychological scar that plays a big role in her daily life. The film contains fine performances by Jeffrey Donovan as Cal, a pleasant young man interested in Lucy but not willing to take her extra baggage; Stacy Keach as Lucy’s co-worker; Diane Ladd as Nana, Lucy’s relative caught in a bad relationship; Scott Wilson as Lucy’s father, a man who has apparently had the life figuratively beaten out of him; Laura Prepon as Lucy’s sensible roommate; Tim Blake Nelson as Lucy’s uncle; and Ray McKinnon (“Deadwood”) as a preacher of a newfangled holy roller church. B+ (6/23/07)

“Trust the Man”-The banal title is a hint that this film by director Bart Freundlich, starring his wife, Julianne Moore, is going to disappoint. Possibly intended to be a Woody Allen-type comedy of New York couples and their relationship difficulties, “Trust the Man” unfortunately goes in lots of bad directions. The gist of the plot: Tom (David Duchovny) is married to actress Rebecca (Moore), soon to star in a new play on Broadway. Despite Tom’s desires, they haven’t had sex in a long time. Her brother and Tom’s best friend, Tobey (Billy Crudup), has been living with Elaine (Maggie Gyllenhaal) for several years but Elaine wants to get married and have a family and Tobey is too busy moving his virtually unused car from one side of the street to the other. With a script that contains unlikely sexual conversations akin to the explicit scripts of “Sex and the City,” and sufficient unpleasant references to bodily functions, “Trust the Man” leads the characters in expected directions. Tom finds himself attracted to the beautiful mother (Dagmara Dominczyk) of one of his child’s classmates, and Elaine leaves Tobey for a foreign gentleman who is described, during a very loud post-breakup argument between Tobey and Elaine, as being a jerk but well endowed. The film ultimately ends with an astoundingly harebrained happy ending. Decent cast, bad film. C (6/22/07)

“Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus”-The real Diane Arbus was an astonishing photographer of mid-20th Century life. Some of her photographs were of people out of the mainstream of society, and many others were of rather ordinary subjects made fascinating by her perspective. Unfortunately, this film fantasy has little or nothing to do with the real Diane Arbus. Instead, “Fur” stars the very unlikely Nicole Kidman as someone named Diane Arbus who looks dazed most of the time while the Nemerovs, her parents (Harris Yulin and Jane Alexander), are portrayed as tough New York fur sellers, and her husband, Alan (Ty Burrell), is busy with his assignment of taking banal fashion shots for the Nemerovs. One day, “Diane” sees a man (Robert Downey, Jr.) whose head is totally covered by an unusual mask, move into their apartment building with even more unusual possessions and she finds herself fascinated to the point of obsession. She visits the man with the purpose of taking his portrait, but never seems to get around to it. The man, Lionel Sweeney, has an extreme bodily hair problem, but this does not stop “Diane” from her fascination, almost to the point of ignoring her family. Lionel proceeds to introduce her to a completely new set of characters, some of whom might have appeared in the real Diane’s photos. But this Diane is seen mostly carrying a Rolleiflex with one flashbulb, which never seems to be used. “Fur” has its moments. The sets and costumes are well done and eerie enough. But the point of the film is lost (it is supposed to be a fictional homage to Diane Arbus, but a story about the real Diane Arbus, whose life was undoubtedly fascinating enough and ended tragically with her suicide at age 48 in 1971, might have been more entrancing and worthwhile). C+ (6/17/07)

“Breach”-This taut little “thriller” is the story of the undoing of Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent who was one of the worst traitors in American history, having sold untold amounts of information to the Soviet Union and, later, Russia until his arrest in early 2001. Told from the point of view of Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), an FBI employee, who was assigned to be Hanssens’s clerk but also to spy on him, “Breach” reveals the seemingly contradictory nature of a traitor who is outwardly a “good family man” and a very religious Catholic. Chris Cooper does a fine job of portraying Hanssen, an opinionated and pushy man, who, in the midst of his traitorous behavior, attempts to impose his religious views on O’Neill and his East German-born wife, Julianna (Caroline Dhavernas). Because “Breach” is based on fact, it seems to have fewer of the usual thriller twists and turns, but there are certainly enough. Laura Linney is excellent as a tough, single-minded FBI agent who guides O’Neill’s involvement with the very dangerous Hanssen, although the script doesn’t require the subtlety of acting that Linney is capable of providing. Kathleen Quinlan appears as Bonnie Hanssen, a loyal and religious wife who isn’t aware that her husband is taping their sexual activity. Dennis Haysbert (“24”) makes a brief appearance as the agent who ultimately brings Hanssen in. B+ (6/16/07)

“Deliver Us From Evil”-This Oscar-nominated documentary is about a very painful subject to many Catholics: the Catholic Church’s failure to deal with the problem of pedophile priests. The film centers around some of the victims of Father Oliver O’Grady, who preyed on small girls and boys in central California during the 1970s and 1980s. We hear the stories of the victims and their families, all good Catholics, who trusted this outwardly charming priest. O’Grady eventually went to prison and, upon release, was deported to Ireland where he was at least initially free to prey on more children. At the heart of the film is the issue of the Church’s reaction to this problem: unfortunately, and typically, avoidance. We witness court depositions of Church officials, including Roger Mahony (now Cardinal of Los Angeles), and we hear repeated denials of knowledge despite the fact that O’Grady was moved him from parish to parish when his crimes became known. It’s fascinating to watch a man like O’Grady who, while admitting what he did, is in significant self-denial about the seriousness of his actions, thinking that all he need do is write letters of apology to his many victims. The hero of the film is Father Tom Doyle, a priest who has been attempting, so far without success, to get the Church to face the serious issue of pedophilia among Catholic priests. “Deliver Us From Evil” is most fascinating when it explores the extent of this problem in the Church, the reasons why the Church refuses to act, and the history of priesthood celibacy in the Church. In the end, it’s hard to imagine that any Catholic who watches this film could believe that “morality” emanates from the leaders of the Church. A- (6/15/07)

“Freedom Writers”-The plot of this film is an old cliché: the teacher/dance instructor/principal who comes to a school or class which is loaded with tough, seemingly unteachable and unreachable minorities (here Hispanic, African-American, and Asian) and encourages them to view their lives from a completely changed point of view. We’ve seen it all before. But sometimes we need to be reminded that the job of a teacher of problem kids should not be babysitting, but rather inspiration. The real-life heroine of this tale is Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) who taught at a high school in Long Beach, CA, just after the Rodney King riots in the early 1990s. When she walked in she was an innocent young white female with a sweet pearl necklace and the class, loaded with bitter kids, many belonging to violent gangs, gave her as little attention as possible. But if the film is to be believed, she fell into a method of approaching her English class by teaching them about the Nazis and the Holocaust, and having the kids write diaries of their own experiences and feelings, and they listened. Not only she did take the class to the Holocaust museum to learn about hatred among groups and a gang that operated on a far higher scale (the Nazis), and had them read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” she brought Miep Gies (Pat Carroll), the woman who protected Anne Frank in Amsterdam, from Europe to speak to the class. Hilary Swank does an excellent job of turning from an inexperienced and naive young woman to a tough, enlightened teacher who must deal with the ultimate bureaucracy of the school system and the angry bureaucratic teachers, especially Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton) and Brian Gelford (John Benjamin Hickey), who think the kids are hopeless and desire to be able to teach the bright kids only. The cast of high schoolers is led by April Lee Hernandez as Eva, a bitter Hispanic teen since her father was wrongfully beaten and arrested by white cops; Mario as Andre, a young man who has to fight the temptation to return to the streets; and Jason Finn as Marcus, who slowly but surely turns from a bitter, tough kid who doesn’t even get along with his mother, into one of the most inspired teens in the class. Also of note in the cast are Patrick Dempsey as Erin’s husband who, as she spends more and more time with her class, feels left out in the cold; and Scott Glenn as Erin’s father, a former Civil Rights activist who is initially cynical about her choice of a career. Cliché or not, “Freedom Writers” provides inspiration about human potential and is quite a good film. B+ (6/9/07)

“Venus”-This has to be the best film Peter O’Toole has made in years. Written by Hanif Kureishi (“The Mother” and “My Beautiful Laundrette”) and directed by Roger Michell (“The Mother” and “Notting Hill”), this humorous poignant film about aging and lust in the “golden years,” presents O’Toole as Maurice, an elderly actor in need of a prostate operation, but one who still has his eyes focused on women. Maurice hangs out with Ian (Leslie Phillips) and Donald (Richard Griffiths), aging friends, at the local coffee shop, and learns that Ian’s niece, Jessie, is coming to stay with him as somewhat of a nursemaid. Ian envisions a sweet young lady taking care of all his needs. But he soon finds that Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), a member of the modern generation, isn’t quite what he expected. When Maurice meets Jessie, a young woman about 50 years his junior, something akin to a romance develops. Well, not quite a “romance,” but definitely a connection that provides Maurice with some excitement in his life and Jessie with an opportunity to learn and mature. O’Toole is at his best as a man whose sexual desires can no longer be satisfied, and Jodie Whittaker is a delight as the tough young lady with a lot to learn about human relations. Phillips and Griffiths (“The History Boys”), a couple of old pros, are delightful as Maurice’s entourage. Vanessa Redgrave appears as Maurice’s former wife, Valerie. As one might expect, in just a few short scenes, Redgrave provides a performance that makes you want to scream with delight. She’s a master. This film is charming, insightful, and highly recommended. A (6/8/07)

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”-In Blu-ray this film’s special effects and sound are spectacularly presented. I wish I could also say that the film was even close to being as enjoyable as the first “Pirates” film of a few years back, but this one has virtually no story worth mentioning and is extremely tedious. It lasts 2 hours and 30 minutes, which seemed like forever. Oh, Johnny Depp is back and having fun as the bedraggled Captain Jack Sparrow who is trying to find the chest that contains Davy Jones’ beating heart, but most of the rest of the cast, including Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, looked bored as they had to fight endlessly against the cursed crew of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and his pet sea monster. Although an occasional interesting scene would interrupt the battles, the latter would soon return to provide utter boredom. Don’t bother with this one. C- (6/4/07)

“Army of Shadows”-This bright 1969 French film, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, was released for the first time in the United States in 2006, and tells the story of the lives of a group of members of the French Resistance in World War II. Phillippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is arrested and brought to a prison camp, but he soon makes a clever escape and joins his resistance colleagues, including Jean (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and Mathilde (Simone Signoret). “Army of Shadows” follows this group of resistance fighters as they plot to deal with the Nazis occupying Vichy France. As one would expect, Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, and Jean-Pierre Cassel provide crisp, insightful performances as people who must lead their daily lives while hoping to avoid discovery by the Nazis and the French collaborators. Their activities involve dangerous plane trips to and from England and, ultimately, having the painful task of killing those of their own who have been compromised. An excellent reminder of the wonderful French cinema of the 1960s. (In French with English subtitles) A- (6/3/07)

“The Painted Veil”-Based on a novel by Somerset Maugham, this film is a fairly run-of-the-mill romance in a beautiful and exotic setting. In London, Kitty (Naomi Watts) meets Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton), a bacteriologist, who almost instantaneously asks her to marry him and move with him to Shanghai. Despite having just told her overbearing mother that there is no need for her to rush into marriage, she accepts Fane’s offer in order to spite her mother. But she appears to have spited herself when she arrives in China, has an affair (easily discovered by Fane), and is taken by her now bitter husband to a rural Chinese village where there has been a very serious outbreak of cholera. Although the story proceeds somewhat predictably, the film has some very good performances, including that of Watts as a woman who appears to have acted in haste and placed herself in a miserable and dangerous situation; by Toby Jones (“Infamous”) as Waddington, a local British official with a beautiful young Chinese lover; and by Diana Rigg as a nun who serves as a substitute mother-advisor to Kitty Fane. Liev Schrieber is Charlie Townsend, a man who appears briefly in Kitty’s life but has a tremendous unwitting effect on her future. The Chinese scenery is gorgeous. B- (6/1/07)

“The Fountain”-Director/screenwriter Darren Aronofsky (“Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream”) sees things a little different from most people and this vision translates into films like “Pi” which are dense and virtually undecipherable. “The Fountain” isn’t quite that bad, but it is a hodgepodge of visuals that make little or no sense other than hitting home the obvious theme of obsessive love and the hope for eternal life. The primary story is that of Dr. Tom Creo (Hugh Jackman) who is seeking a cure for brain cancer and just happens to be married to Izzi (Rachel Weisz) who is suffering from that condition. While Creo seems to be racing around maniacally to seek a cure, he finds an unfinished book written by his wife that tells a story called “The Fountain.” It is the story of a conquistador (Tomas, played of course by Jackman) who is sent by Queen Isabella (Weisz—who else?) to seek the Mayan tree of life in the New World. Interspersed with these two stories, in scenes that seem to lack logic and cohesion, is a futuristic (?) image of a bald Creo riding through space in a glass ball with the dying tree of life towards a star that was supposedly holy to the Mayans as a place of rebirth. Was this the result of a discovery made by Creo while experimenting with animals? Maybe. Throughout the primary and futuristic tales, we see Izzi appearing to tell Creo to “finish it.” What’s missing from this film is any character development so that one might care whether Izzi survives or whether Creo finds eternal life. “The Fountain” seems, alternatively, to be weak sci-fi or insipid fantasy. In either case, it’s highly mediocre and left me yawning. C- (5/30/07)

“Letters from Iwo Jima”-Following up on his tale of the 1944 battle of Iwo Jima as told from the point of view of American soldiers and the taking of the classic Iwo Jima flag-raising photograph (“Flags of our Fathers”), Clint Eastwood has outdone himself with this magnificent film about the same battle from the viewpoint of the Japanese. What makes this film special is Eastwood’s attention to the human element: the Japanese culture of pride which drove many to ritual suicide when they believed they were defeated, the realistic fears of the soldiers, and ultimately their humanity, including the discovery by some that the American soldiers were much like them in terms of family, fears, and desires. “Letters from Iwo Jima” centers around a handful of characters, including the Japanese commander, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), a modern man who had lived in America and was seen as weak by some officers because of his methods and his refusal to impose brutality on his men; Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a soldier who just wants to survive and is almost done in by his refusal to worship the obsessive nationalism of some of the officers; Shimizu (Ryo Kase), Saigo’s friend and cohort; and Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a former Olympic horseman who, like Kuribayashi, is more concerned with his men than with tradition. With occasional flashbacks to the pre-war lives of these men, “Letters from Iwo Jima” provides important insight into the nightmare of war and its effect on the people who are forced to fight each other despite so many similiarities in their humanity. (In Japanese with English subtitles) A (5/26/07)

“The Good German”-Director Steven Soderbergh clearly had in mind a noirish “Casablanca”-type black and white film about Germany at the time of the Potsdam Conference. The film, though, looks muddy, more brown and white than black and white, and is loaded with stilted, almost comedic performances. George Clooney is Jake Geismer, a reporter who had lived in pre-war Berlin and now arrives back in time for Potsdam. But he’s really more interested in finding his former lover, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett). He’s assigned a driver, Patrick Tully (Tobey Maguire), who turns out to be a crooked black market sleaze and who just happens to be living with Lena, a woman who needs papers to get out of Germany because she has a secret. When Tully is attacked by an American looking for Lena’s husband, Emil, the plot thickens. Well, actually, the plot gets more watery than thick. For me, it turned into more of a “who cares?” than a “who dunnit?” Clooney is expressionless and leaden as the lead. Maguire is clearly trying too hard to be the opposite of his usual nice guy persona. The best performances in the film are by Cate Blanchett as the mysterious, unromantic Lena, and Robin Weigert (“Deadwood”) as her cohort, Hannelore. C+ (5/25/07)

“Smokin’ Aces”-This could well be one of the single worst films of its genre ever made, with as dull a scenario, and as densely paced as one could possibly imagine, plus scene after scene of gratuitous violence. The “Cosa Nostra” is being defeated by the FBI and they are closely following one of the last of the breed, Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin). Two agents (Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta) hear, or think they hear, that Sparazza wants a Reno magician, Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven), killed and his heart brought to Sparazza. They hear mention of the “Swede” and assume he’s a hit man unknown to the FBI. Unfortunately, the FBI agents aren’t the only ones who hear about this proposal and soon Israel, holed up in a penthouse of a scenic Reno hotel, is the target of a large group of killers, including the Tremor brothers, three of the scuzziest characters I’ve ever seen, one of the most revolting quickchange artists ever (Tommy Flanagan and Joel Edgerton), and two other beautiful hired killers (Alicia Keyes and Taraji Henson). And the result is one of the silliest, most confusing, and most absurd bloodbaths I’ve ever seen. After the majority of the film’s characters are killed off, Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia), a bigwig at the FBI, provides the surviving Agent Messner (Reynolds) with an explanation for events that is so utterly hokey as to deserve an award for nonsensical movie plot explanations. Ben Affleck, as a short-lived bounty hunter, and Andy Garcia, are as stilted as ever in their performances. Jeremy Piven, hysterical as the agent Ari Gold in “Entourage” on HBO, is totally wasted as the morose and sweaty Israel. This is a must-miss. D- (5/24/07)

“Seraphim Falls”-It’s 1868 and the scene is set in the mountains of the western US. A trapper named Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) who has been peacefully cooking a meal in the snow is shot and immediately leaves everything behind and runs off, downhill, to escape. Coming after him are five men led by Carver (Liam Neeson). The majority of this film consists of Carver and his men (being knocked off one at a time) chasing after the skillful Gideon through snow, plains and desert. “Seraphim Falls” is essentially a good old-fashioned western, although pretty much a one trick pony. The plot is the chase and we do eventually learn, with minimal hints along the way, why Carver is so bent on killing Gideon. While pretty realistic most of the way, the film takes a wrong turn at the end when it introduces characters, played by Anjelica Huston and Wes Studi, in the most unlikely situations. Pierce Brosnan provides a surprisingly effective performance as the gritty and tough Gideon, a former Union Army officer. B- (5/20/07)

“Pan’s Labyrinth”-There is nothing like originality, and director/writer Guillermo Del Toro (“The Devil’s Backbone”) has provided it here in this brilliant film about the Spanish Civil War. It is 1944, and young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travels with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) into the woods to live with her new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a brutal fascist in Franco’s army. When she arrives, obviously unhappy, Ofelia, an intelligent young lady, meets a fairy and finds herself drifting into a world of fantasy, communicating with the fairies and, once inside a nearby labyrinth, with Pan (Doug Jones), a large and somewhat overbearing faun who tells her that she is really a princess who has returned after many years and must prove herself by accomplishing three difficult tasks before the next full moon. Since she is miserable under the malevolent Vidal, Ofelia decides to follow Pan’s instructions, although one vital mistake almost destroys her. Captain Vidal is portrayed as a cold-blooded murderer who is interested in his wife, Ofelia’s mother, primarily for the child she is bearing. At the same time, the anti-Franco Republicans have spies in the army’s headquarters and are attempting to destroy Vidal from the nearby hills. “Pan’s Labyrinth” magnificently combines this reality and fantasy to contrast the evil that was present in Spain and throughout Europe during WWII, with the good that existed in the form of freedom fighters and innocent children. In her challenges, for example, Ofelia must conquer a gigantic and repellant frog which lives in and almost destroyed an important tree (Spain?), and a pale man (also Doug Jones) with eyes in his hands, representing to me the gluttony of the fascists and their blindness towards the pain they inflict on the populace. “Pan’s Labyrinth” has a brilliant cast, including Ivana Baquero’s amazing performance as the frightened but wide-eyed Ofelia; Sergi López's awesome performance as a man of utter evil; Maribel Verdú (“Y tu mamá también”) as Mercedes, Vidal’s mysterious assistant, and Álex Angullo as Dr. Ferreiro who serves Vidal without enthusiasm. This is without a doubt one of the best and most creative films seen in many a year. Do not miss it. (In Spanish with English subtitles) A (5/19/07)

“Music and Lyrics”-This romantic comedy opens with a very funny takeoff on music videos as it presents the 1980s pop group “Pop” which included co-lead singer Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant). With Grant providing one of his funniest performances, “Music and Lyrics” reveals Fletcher to be a performing has-been who is close to total failure. Even Knotts Berry Farm is canceling out on him. But he lucks into the arrival at his door of a substitute plant care lady, Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore), finds that she’s smart and can write lyrics, and encourages her to join him to write a song for the leading pop star of the day, young Cora Corman (Haley Bennett). “Music and Lyrics” produced a few good laughs and the romance, as corny as it is, was charming considering the stars. Drew Barrymore may never quite live up to her family’s acting stature, but she’s fun to watch in a simple role such as this. Grant, who does his own singing, steals the film. B- (5/18/07)

“Half Nelson”-I really don’t like films about drug addicts and drug dealers for the simple reason that they are often predictable and dull. “Half Nelson” isn’t completely predictable, but it is rather dull. Ryan Gosling does a fairly good job of playing a Brooklyn schoolteacher named Dan Dunne who acts like he’s providing inspired education but doesn’t seem to be saying much when he does speak to his often dazed class. Dunne also provides less than inspiring basketball coaching. But what he’s really good at is smoking crack, something he does right on the school grounds and is ultimately discovered by young Drey (Shareeka Epps). Drey, whose father is absent and whose mother has a good job but not enough time for her, becomes interested in what makes Dan tick, while at the same time she is being pursued by Frank (Anthony Mackie), a local drug dealer. Dan, ultimately hypocritical, tries to keep Frank away from Drey, while using his merchandise. “Half Nelson” gives us a glimpse of Dan’s addictive parents (Deborah Rush and Jay Sanders) in order to provide some explanation for his anomie-inspired life, but ultimately the film is over-laden with crack smoke and comes out of it only to provide us with an out-of-character upbeat scene at the end. Shareeka Epps gives a promising performance. C+ (5/16/07)

“Deja Vu”-If you like sci-fi, time travel, and/or slick special effects, this is for you. Starring Denzel Washington as Doug Carlin, an earnest, charming, and goodlooking (what else?) ATF agent, “Deja Vu” has some spectacular special effects, especially effective if you get to see it in Blu-ray. The plot involves a terrorist explosion on Fat Tuesday of a New Orleans ferry on the Mississippi carrying U.S. Navy personnel. When Carlin later finds the body of Claire Kuchever, a beautiful woman (Paula Patton) who looks like she died in the ferry explosion, but actually was murdered earlier in the day, Carlin starts to investigate and discovers that the FBI has a special satellite imaging technique allowing them to view things that happened 4 1/2 days earlier, exactly as they happen. Well, you can get the idea that Carlin will hone in on what happened to the beautiful Claire, discover the terrorist, and try to go back and stop Claire's death and the ferry disaster. It is, of course, a time travel flick! For what it’s worth, you do get a bang for your buck, “Deja Vu” is a B-. (5/13/07)

“Little Children”-Director and screenwriter Todd Field (“In The Bedroom”), gets this film off to an insightful and witty start about the secret lives of people living in a suburban community. The town is obsessing somewhat over the prison release of Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley) following a conviction for exposing himself to a minor. There are posters everywhere reminding parents of McGorvey’s presence and at least one retired cop, Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), has appointed himself to head a committee to rid the town of McGorvey. The film centers on Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet), a young mother who seems not to relate in the least to her husband, a businessman growing obsessed with an Internet sex site, and Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) a husband and law graduate who has failed two bar exams and has become caretaker to his young son, while his somewhat distant wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), is busy making documentaries. They all live in a beautiful community and have lovely homes, but something is seriously missing from their lives. While playing with her daughter at a local playground and attempting to ignore the silly banter of three other mothers, Sarah becomes intrigued with handsome young Brad who arrives with his son. After a playful kiss intended to jokingly confuse the three other mothers, friendship ensues. Field’s script reveals the obsessions and ennui of the characters, ranging from Brad’s fascination with young skateboarders when he is supposed to be studying for his third bar examination, and Hedges’ failure to acknowledge his own misdeeds while obsessing over those of McGorvey. “Little Children” is a masterful portrayal of suburban secrets until the very end when characters, unfortunately, begin to do things that are unlikely and out of character. For example, Sarah, with thoughts of leaving home, takes her daughter to the playground in the dark. When she sees and recognizes the sex offender, McGorvey, who has just lost his “mommy,” sitting on a swing and weeping, she walks over to him and leaves her daughter behind on a swing. Good for the plot but I doubt there is any normal mother on earth who would act this way in real life. There are just a few too many such scenes, especially as the film reaches its climax. Kate Winslet is, as always, masterful and lovely as the young unsettled mother. Patrick Wilson does a fine job as the indecisive young husband. Jackie Early Haley (“Breaking Away”) is downright eerie and yet sympathetic as the sex offender who in one memorable scene slips into a swimming pool full of children and creates panic among the parents. Jennifer Connelly doesn’t get to do much, but exudes the coldness that leads her husband astray. Finally, Phyllis Somerville is wonderful as McGorvey’s loving mother who wants her son to be good. B+ (5/12/07)

“Le Petit Lieutenant”-Nathalie Baye plays police Commandant Caroline Vaudieu, a woman with an alcohol problem and a past haunted by the loss of a child. Although reminiscent of British Inspector Jane Tennison of the “Prime Suspect” series, Vaudieu doesn’t go off the deep end into a bender when confronted with the mortal pains of police work. She is initially happy to work with a new young lieutenant, Antoine Derouère (Jalil Lespert), who has chosen Paris as his workplace rather than Le Havre where his young wife Julie chooses to live and work. Although director Xavier Beauvois’ film seemingly emphasizes these human aspects of the police characters at the heart of the film, the story ultimately is a rather straightforward and somewhat dull police procedural involving two bodies found in the Seine and a group of Russian immigrants behind the crime. “Le Petit Lieutenant” contains what should be a moving and shocking tragedy, but I found it to be just a ho-hum portion of the story. Nathalie Baye is a fine actress, but couldn’t save this one. (In French with English subtitles) C (5/9/07)