Roy's 2007 Movie Reviews Continued

This page contains reviews from September 14, 2007 to December 28, 2007

“Paris, Je T’aime”-The city of love is here the subject of a delightful series of 18 short tales of love and romance in a different parts of Paris. Each tale runs no more than six to seven minutes, and yet each makes a point about varying aspects of amour. It’s impressive to watch how different writers and directors, including the Coen Brothers, Alfonso Cuaron, Wes Craven, Christopher Doyle, Walter Salles, Tom Tykwer, Alexander Payne, Gurinder Chadha, and Gus Van Sant, provide us with so many variations on a theme aimed at exposing the heart of the various Parisian neighborhoods, but also of the life within them. Just to give a few samples, the vignettes range from one about a young actress (Natalie Portman) and her relationship with a blind man who has helped her find her way in Faubourg Saint-Denis, to one about a vampire, starring Elijah Wood (Quartier de la Madeleine). Another is a rather funny portrayal by Margo Martindale of a lonely Denver postal worker touring the 14ème Arrondissement and describing it in her stilted American accented French. Others tell of language communication problems, attraction across faiths, an attempt by a husband and wife to revive their relationship (Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant), the experiences of a young Hispanic worker who must travel across the city to her job (Catalina Sandino Moreno), and the pain of a young mother (Juliette Binoche) upon losing her son. In one of the most telling, “Bastille,” a husband (Sergio Castellito) is about to tell his middle-aged red-coated wife (Miranda Richardson), that he’s moving on to a younger woman (Leonor Watling), when he discovers something important that changes his mind. This is a brilliant conception and is extremely well done and recommended. The characters either speak French (with English subtitles), or English. A- (12/28/07)

“Once”-This unique Irish film is as charming as they come, thanks to the wonderful performances of two newcomers, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Hansard plays an unnamed street musician (known as “the guy”), a guitarist, who lives with his father in Dublin and fixes vacuum cleaners. But he has written some beautiful and heartfelt songs and needs a break. A young Czech woman, known as “the girl,” played by Irglová, happens by, gives him a dime, and asks enough questions to get the musician interested. Seems the musician is trying to get over a lover who has moved to London, and the young woman is married and has a child, although her husband remains in their native country. “Once” is not only about a possible romantic connection, which has an awkward start, but also and primarily about the music which is lovingly performed and heard throughout the film. Ultimately the guy and the girl, who plays the piano and sings, connect to form something of a band to record the guy’s music. The music is absolutely lovely and touching, especially the primary song, “Falling Slowly.” This film, made on a very small budget, is one of those very special indie films that will not be easily forgotten. Highly recommended. A- (12/27/07)

“Lady Chatterley”-If you are at all familiar with D. H. Lawrence’s story, you have a pretty good idea of what goes on here. The young, lovely Constance Chatterley (Marina Hands) is married to a man, Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), who was injured in WW I and cannot walk. Her life on the Chatterley estate has become dull and sexless, but when she goes out walking on the estate she finds the ruggedly handsome gamekeeper, here called Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h) and a wild affair begins in his shack and in the woods. She seems to go there daily without anyone noticing. And for a total of approximately 168 minutes, not much more happens. “Lady Chatterley” has lovely woodsy scenery and some passionate sex scenes with full frontal nudity, but it’s obvious that it’s missing the essence of Lawrence’s writing which also included a more complicated ending. If this film had been made in the late 1960s it would have been a sensation for the sex and nudity. Today, it just seems familiar and somewhat obvious. (In French with English subtitles) C (12/26/07)

“Superbad”-Whether one likes films of this genre depends of course on whether one likes intentionally shocking, raunchy films about the sexual fantasies of teenage boys. This film, which appears in several “best of the year” lists, has its rather funny moments and acting, but come on, it’s really mostly crude and distasteful male teen jokes from the (immature?) minds of screenwriters Seth Rogen (who appears as Officer Michaels) and Evan Goldberg. “Superbad” centers around the relationship of Seth (Jonah Hill), a chubby high school senior, and his thinner best friend Evan (Michael Cera), two buddies who don’t seem to think about anything but their sex fantasies. Needing to get alcohol for a party to which they’ve been invited by a beautiful teen, Jules (Emma Stone) (partying being something they haven’t done much of in high school while obsessing over what could have been), they enlist the help of Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a skinny kid with glasses who comes up with an hysterical Hawaiian driver’s license showing him to be 25 and named “McLovin” (without a first name). When Fogell attempts to buy liquor to please the girls who invited them, all hell breaks loose and Fogell finds himself traveling around town with two wild and crazy cops (Bill Hader and Seth Rogen) who may be more “retarded” than either of the three friends. What ensues is chaos that finally leads the three to the potential promised land. Ultimately, “Superbad” is really about the male-bonding relationship between Seth and Evan (the characters, not the writers). Michael Cera is a charming young actor. Someone to look forward to, especially in the current “Juno.” Jonah Hill is perfect as the fat kid who tries to overcome his deficits. And Christopher Mintz-Plasse is quite funny as Fogell turned McLovin. But the multiple crude and tasteless aspects of the film, including the absurd behavior of the cops, the graphic language, and extensive drawings of male genitals, take it down just enough so that it’s not quiet “superbad,” but more “uncomfortable.” C+ (12/25/07)

“Eastern Promises”-Director David Cronenberg’s filmmaking has always been on the edge, with his career encompassing one bizarre sci-fi/violent film after another. But with “The History of Violence” and now “Eastern Promises” he seems to be concentrating on more mainstream and serious, albeit still violent, films. “Eastern Promises” is a surprise because it involves an unusual community and setting: Russian (using the term loosely to cover those from the former Soviet Union) gangsters in London. Naomi Watts is Anna, a midwife in a London hospital who, although British, happens to be of eastern descent, and who finds herself caring for the baby daughter of a 14-year old eastern European girl who has died in childbirth and left behind a diary that appears to contain some sordid secrets. When Anna decides to discover the girl’s name and hometown, she makes the mistake of placing herself in the middle of a group of very violent characters when she brings a copy of the diary for translation to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a restaurant owner whose son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) is running wild, having just arranged for the killing of another mob member and the disposal of his body with the help of their mysterious driver, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). One quickly gets the feeling that Nikolai is not quite what he seems, but the truth emerges late and only after a brutal naked hand to hand battle which Nikolai fights for his life with two avenging brothers. “Eastern Promises” is eerie and deliberate because it involves a culture with which we are not that familiar, but it is also mesmerizing in its capacity to reveal the passions and weaknesses of these people. Ironically, the main Russian characters are played by Mueller-Stahl, a German; Cassel, a Frenchman; and Mortensen, an American, but all excel. Naomi Watts provides the perfect contrast to these men of violence, as the attractive and sensitive nurse who loves the motherless baby and isn’t afraid to do what’s needed to find the truth. A (12/22/07)

“The Simpsons Movie”-I had never really seen “The Simpsons” on TV and so had little or no understanding of what “The Simpsons” is all about. All I can say about this film is that the animation is well done, there are some very amusing scenes, Homer is a dunce who ultimately turns into a hero (I suspect a common theme), and the film is generally about an evil government dealing with pollution (now there’s a novelty) in the Simpsons’ home town of Springfield in an extremely strange and evil manner. If you’re into “The Simpsons” I’m sure you’ll love this film. If you’re not, it’s a film you can live without. C (12/21/07)

“Live Free or Die Hard”-Anyone who has seen any of the “Die Hard” series can guess what this film is really about: action, terrorism, violence, technology, special effects, and John McClane (Bruce Willis) to save the day. This time we are treated to an attempt by a deranged computer expert (Timothy Olyphant) and his Asian girlfriend accomplice (Maggie Q) to take down the country to show the Department of Defense that it could be done and to make a few bucks along the way. But the indomitable John McClane gets in the middle of it when he is asked to escort a targeted computer hacker, Matt Farrell (Justin Long), to Washington and the virtual non-stop action proceeds. “Live Free or Die Hard” is one of the most spectacular action films I’ve ever seen. It’s simply loaded with all the electronic toys imaginable, which the characters use with absolute ease (a la “24” but on a much greater scale), and ultra-violence that no human being could possibly escape. Were John McClane a real man, he would have died about 30 times in this film, but, no, he survives every attempt, including having missiles fired at him at close range by a fighter jet. Surprised? Justin Long (The Mac in the Apple PC v. Mac ads) probably has the part of his life, accompanying McClane almost all the way. Timothy Olyphant has a sufficiently crazed look of the megalomaniac on his face, and barely resembles Seth Bullock of “Deadwood,” the HBO part that has made him famous. Mary Elizabeth Winstead does an amusing turn as McClane’s angry, tough daughter, Lucy, who comes to appreciate her father’s talents. If I rated this film purely against other films within its genre of action-thriller-special effects films, I would have to give it an A. But there is, of course, always an element of redeeming social value which is completely missing from films like this. They provide mindless amusement, but when the next spectacular action-thriller-special effects film comes along, they’re usually forgotten. B (12/21/07)

“Antonia”-Four young women in a rough neighborhood of Sao Paulo, Brazil, have been friends for many years and have formed a singing group called “Antonia.” They generally perform rap as backup to local male groups, but occasionally demonstrate their skills at more sophisticated jazz vocals and are growing in popularity. But each of the four, living in a rough world, has a problem that’s disruptive. Lena (Cindy Mendes) is pregnant and her boyfriend wants her to stay away from the group. Barbarah (Leilah Moreno) goes to prison when she accidentally kills a boy who assaulted her gay brother. Preta (Negra Li), who has a child, has angrily dismissed the fourth, Mayah (Quelynah), over her attentions to the father of Preta’s child. Directed by Tata Amaral, “Antonia” is a unique, but much too short tale of how these girls manage to deal with the misfortunes of their existence and attempt to come together again to take advantage of their talents. Leilah Moreno, a singing star in Brazil, especially stands out, demonstrating the beauty and charisma that has obviously made her successful, although all of the young women are obviously musically talented. Thaide, another Brazilian singing star, provides an intense performance as Marcelo Diamond, the man who strives to make “Antonia,” the group, succeed. The sad part is that the film, which is only about 75 minutes long, feels more like a TV pilot than a feature. And in fact “Antonia” became a TV series in Brazil. (In Brazilian Portuguese with English subtitles) B (12/16/07)

“The Bourne Ultimatum”-Paul Greengrass (“United 93”), who directed this film’s predecessor, “The Bourne Supremacy,” has continued the tale of Jason Bourne, the ex-CIA killer with a conscience, with this taut and beautiful chase of a movie. Starting out where “Supremacy” essentially ended, Bourne (Matt Damon) is always way ahead of his pursuers despite the amazing computers and electronic gadgets that seem to allow them to know everything that's happening instantly. One of the things that makes the Bourne series fun is that Jason borders on superhuman. He knows exactly what steps to take to avoid the CIA killers chasing him and he has the ability, when he faces them, to succeed. When a British journalist, Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), publishes a story about Bourne, both the CIA and Bourne know that there must be a leak and they set out to find him. Bourne moves easily from city to city (Moscow, Berlin, London, Paris, Tangiers, and New York, almost all actual filming sites), partially with the aid of the obviously smitten (but silent) Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), continuing to seek to learn the secrets of his life in the CIA. Once again, at the heart of the CIA is a rotten core, including its director (Scott Glenn) and the masterminds of the murderous Blackbriar (Treadstone’s successor), Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) and Dr. Albert Hirsch (Albert Finney). Luckily for Bourne, there is that one intelligent and innocent agent, Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), to realize and reject the evil around her. The film has a satisfying and successful ending and still gives us the hint that there may be more Bourne in our future. The entire cast is effective in this thriller. Matt Damon continues his magic as the indomitable Bourne. David Strathairn demonstrates that he has the depth to portray both a great journalist (“Good Night, and Good Luck”) and a sleazy, murderous CIA official. And Joan Allen and Julia Stiles provide that touch of goodness that prevents us from being total cynics about our government institutions. For thriller lovers, this one is a must. A- (12/15/07)

“Helvetica”-To anyone who loves typefaces (or fonts), this is a film to savor. It’s the story of the 1957 Swiss font Helvetica as told by a variety of type designers and others in the field. This documentary, by Gary Hustwit, demonstrates the pervasive nature of Helvetica, presenting scene after scene of signs and corporate logos using this ubiquitous font. Look around and the very neat and modern Helvetica appears everywhere, including many logos, such as American Airlines and Verizon, and in NYC subway and directional signs. As the film proceeds, one gets the general impression that everyone loves this sans serif font, but a funny thing happens along the way. You start to get the feeling that the darn font has been excessively overused and has become rather boring. Hustwit ultimately presents the rather amusing insights of designers who protest the overuse of Helvetica and would rather dazzle with unusual type creations. One woman designer rather amusingly aligns the font with the Vietnam and Iraq wars because of its use in so many American corporate logos. “Helvetica” is an unusual and interesting documentary that will certainly appeal to anyone with an interest in graphics and typefaces in general. Highly recommended. This review, incidentally, is presented in Helvetica. A- (12/14/07)

“Red Road”-Jackie (Kate Dickie) works for the police in Glasgow, Scotland, watching the rather dirty and rough streets through video screens until one day she notices a man named Clyde (Tony Curran), someone she thought should still be in prison. Jackie, who appears to be living a rather stark lonely life, starts trailing this man and appears to be walking into danger, but we soon learn that the situation may well be reversed. Ultimately, with several hints along the way, we discover the tragic reason why she becomes involved with this man through a sexual adventure. While “Red Road” is an interesting thriller of sorts, it contains a rather shocking sex scene that is surprising coming from a female director (Andrea Arnold) and in retrospect seemed to be a little too graphically detailed. Kate Dickie and Tony Curran do fine jobs of portraying the two people involved in a cat and mouse relationship that has a tragic event as its cause. B (12/9/07)

“Rescue Dawn”-This is Director Werner Herzog’s second movie (the first was a documentary) about Dieter Dengler, a German immigrant who joined the American military to fly in the early 1960s and was shot down over Laos on his first mission. Christian Bale is the tough Dengler who refuses to sign a Pathet Lao statement attacking his adopted country, and finds himself tortured and ultimately imprisioned in a rural camp with five others, including Duane Martin (Steve Zahn), and the somewhat unstable Gene McBroom (Jeremy Davies). “Rescue Dawn” is beautifully photographed in the jungles of southeast Asia, and proceeds to a rather predictable escape. Along the way, however, Christian Bale and Steve Zahn admirably portray men hacking the jungle, seeking food where they can, and attempting to avoid both the enemy and the dangers of the jungle, including snakes. A scene towards the end when Dengler is returned to his ship and greeted by thousands of fellow military personnel is very moving. B- (12/8/07)

“The Namesake”-This is one of those rare films which is better, less corny and more tasteful, than the novel on which it’s based. “The Namesake” is the story of Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn), a young American of Indian descent, who can’t quite decide if he likes the fact that he was named for a Russian novelist until he learns the secret of why he was given that unusual name. Irfan Khan and Tabu give wonderfully moving and sensitive performances as Gogol’s parents, Ashoke and Ashima, who come to America to live in the New York suburbs after an arranged marriage, initially struggling but ultimately succeeding in their relationship. Director Mira Nair tells the tale of the emotional struggles of Ashoke and Ashima to adjust to their life together in the western world, and especially with American-born children who consider India a very foreign land. Director Nair has a great sense of what she is doing and the story, including its high points and tragedies, unfolds easily until one truly has a sense of what this Indian-American family has experienced over the course of a quarter century. B+ (12/2/07)

“Hairspray”-I will begin by saying that I (1) have never seen the original John Waters' “Hairspray” (1988), and thus have nothing with which to compare the current film, and (2) have long been a fan of musicals, both on stage and on film. That said, “Hairspray” is an off-kilter tale about dancing and integration in 1962 Baltimore. It centers on a chubby teen, Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky), who loves to sing and dance and wants a chance to appear on the “Bandstand”-like Corny Collins Show, to be near her dreamboat, Link (Zac Efron). But she has to deal with the current dancers, especially the pushy blonde, Amber von Tussle (Brittany Snow), and her nasty and racist station manager mother, Velma von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), who has yet to come to grips with the coming civil rights era. On Velma’s station, the black kids get to sing and dance by themselves and only on “Negro Day.” With the ultimate support of her parents, the very large Edna (played amusingly by John Travolta—I would much rather have seen the stage original, Harvey Fierstein), and Wilbur (Christopher Walken), a purveyor of off-color magic tricks, Tracy becomes a leader of a civil rights march, along with Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), the adult leader of the black kids, to open up the Corny Collins Show to integration. The music of “Hairspray” unfortunately is hyper and repetitive rock, and there is little memorable about any of it, although there are a few bright moments, such as the duet between Edna and Wilbur in their backyard. The dancing, with the choreography of director Adam Shankman, is fun but relentless, almost as if the film is on a never-ending quest to be qualified for the TV show, “So You Think You Can Dance.” Other notables in the cast are the very cute Amanda Bynes as Penny, Tracy’s loyal friend, who is attracted to Seaweed, one of the young black dancers; James Marsden as Corny Collins; Elijah Kelley as Seaweed; and Zac Efron as Link. “Hairspray” certainly won't go down in history as one of the great movie musicals, but it’s got enough to recommend at least a viewing, especially if, like me, you’ve never seen the original. B (12/1/07)

“Waitress”-Wow, this is not an easy film to review. My heart and my feelings about the film are touched immeasurably by the knowledge and sadness of the tragic death of the writer, director, and co-star, the lovely Adrienne Shelly. She was a talented woman who knew exactly what she wanted and she created an unusual combination of fantasy and realism. The setting is a cafe/pie shop in a small southern town which looks an awful lot like so many of the settings on 1950s TV shows (and not surprising, I guess, that it belongs to Joe, played by the great 50’s TV star Andy Griffith who is there to give advice and more to Jenna (Keri Russell), the young waitress at the heart of the story). The setting is just a little too homey and too perfect. Jenna is the master baker of the cafe’s pies. She’s a beautiful young woman married to a wretch named Earl (played by Jeremy Sisto who seems to be making a career of playing jerks like Earl—see his character Billy Chenowith in “Six Feet Under”) who is so good at pie making that she imagines a new pie for everything that happens in her life, mostly bad unfortunately (but the pies look great). The other waitresses are Becky (Cheryl Hines), the more seasoned of the three, and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly), who thinks she has bad skin and wears silly glasses and decides to have only five minute dates so she can get away fast from any annoying suitors. But into the lives of these three women come unusual men. Jenna is pregnant and falls for her married gynecologist (Nathan Fillion) in a completely inappropriate and medically unethical relationship. Becky manages to keep her relationship secret for most of the film. And Dawn succumbs to Ogie (Eddie Jemison), a character she initially and correctly rejects as weird and “stalkish.” The realism comes in the form of commentary about wife abuse and Jenna’s efforts to get away from her husband and save her life. The performances are excellent, the script is interesting and the whole thing seems to work. And yet, at the end, when Jenna and her young daughter, clad in yellow waitress dresses, start walking down a very yellow-brick road looking path, I had the funny feeling that I had just seen an updated and not completely satisfying version of “The Wizard of Oz.” B+ (11/30/07)

“A Good Year”-Based on the book by Peter Mayle, “A Good Year” is about a money-mad and nasty British stockbroker, Max Skinner (Russell Crowe), who inherits the home and vineyard in Provence of his uncle, Henry Skinner (Albert Finney), a man with whom he spent most of his youth. Needless to say, Max is ultimately transformed into a nice guy (cliché, cliché) after hanging around in Provence and meeting the lovely Fanny Chenal (Marion Cotillard), a woman he almost killed by his sloppy driving. Crowe is awful in the first half of this film as the wacky nasty Max, a part which borders on slapstick comedy, something he’s obviously not good at. Crowe’s presence is more attractive in the second half as the calm and romantic Max, but it’s already too late. This is a surprisingly blah film from a director as talented as Ridley Scott. Worth noting in the cast, however, are Archie Panjabi as Gemma, Max’s funny secretary and fairygodmother; Tom Hollander as Charlie Willis, Max’s lawyer, who tries for a transformation but doesn’t quite make it; and Isabelle Candelier as Ludivine Duflot, the flirtatious wife of the winemaker of the estate, Francis Duflot (Didier Bourdon). There’s some good scenery, some standard stuff from that old reliable Albert Finney, and some charming scenes involving Cotillard (hard to believe that she also plays Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose”). But overall, a good film to miss. C+ (11/29/07)

“Ocean’s Thirteen”-The premise had a lot of potential. Danny Ocean’s (George Clooney) gang is planning a gigantic revenge plot against Willy Bank (Al Pacino), a big-time casino owner who double-crossed one of their own, Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould), causing Reuben to suffer a heart attack. Ocean calls in his buddies, Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon) and Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), and we see the machinations of a complex plan. Joining the crew as usual are Livingston Dell (Eddie Jemison), Basher Tarr (Don Cheadle), Virgil Malloy (Casey Affleck), Turk Malloy (Scott Caan), Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner), and Frank Catton (Bernie Mac), among others. How could they go wrong undoing Mr. Bank, the man who thinks he’s invincible? But the planning and the plotting are slow and plodding. Nothing is a surprise and some of it is downright silly. I started nodding off. Even the denouement, when Bank has been almost bankrupted, isn’t satisfying because the film doesn't make you care. Sorry, gang, no real fun from the Ocean crew this time. C (11/27/07)

“Amazing Grace”-The famed hymn of the title was written by John Newton (Albert Finney), a sea captain who suffered guilt and misery over his involvement in the transportation of slaves. Newton is shown here as inspiring a member of the House of Commons, William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), to begin in the early 1780s, a campaign to rid the British empire of the slave trade. With a wonderful cast, but a somewhat plodding script and pacing, “Amazing Grace” tells the little known tale of Wilberforce’s efforts, with the support of his friend, Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), and later his wife, Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), among others. “Amazing Grace” has somewhat typical “Masterpiece Theater” TV pacing, but ultimately succeeds as a motion picture due to marvelous performances by, among others, Michael Gambon as Lord Charles Fox, Rufus Sewell as Thomas Clarkson (an abolitionist and one of Wilberforce’s strongest supporters and encouragers), Ciaran Hinds (Julius Caesar of “Rome”) as Lord Tarleton, the sneering conservative supporting the trade for Britain’s economic interests, and Toby Jones (“Infamous”) as the Duke of Clarence, son of the king. I was quite impressed with Benedict Cumberbatch as the young, intelligent, supportive, and yet sly Prime Minister Pitt. Romola Garai, always a favorite of mine, is charming and intense as the young and beautiful woman who supports Wilberforce in mind and spirit and eventually marries him. It’s too bad the script wasn’t a little more dramatic. This is a story worth knowing about and a film worth seeing for that alone. B (11/25/07).

“La Vie en Rose”-The great French singer Edith Piaf (Marion Cotillard) had an up-and-down life, with great misery and great success. Olivier Dahan’s film shows a number of these moments, including Piaf’s rotten childhood with a mentally ill mother and a somewhat abusive father, her life on the streets of Paris, the loss of a child, and the loss of the love of her life. We also see her grow into the singer who became known worldwide for her powerful and exciting voice and who died of liver disease at 48. The problem, though, is that Director Dahan jumps back and forth between moments in time at such a frenzy that it becomes almost impossible to appreciate that Piaf ever really had any success. Marion Cotillard is a revelation as Piaf, changing from a young brash woman of the streets, to a world renowned singer, to a shriveled sick woman about to die. I found it interesting that although Cotillard was fabulous as Piaf in her low moments, she was even more amazing and astoundingly alive in her portrayal of Piaf during the period of her love for the French boxer, Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins). Notable in the cast were Gérard Depardieu in a brief role as Louis Leplée, the man who discovered the singer on the street and gave her the name “Piaf” or “little sparrow;” Pascal Greggory as Louis Barrier, Piaf’s manager; and Emmanuelle Seigner as Titine, a prostitute who became Piaf’s substitute mother in her childhood. “La Vie en Rose” certainly gives us a sense of Piaf’s life, but Dahan’s cuts back and forth in time are too abrupt and too frequent to give us a truly coherent story. B- (11/21/07)

“Ratatouille”-Animated films, like “Cars,” especially as created by Brad Bird and Pixar, have become a significant art form of the early 21st century. But, of course, it’s not just the amazing imagery, but also the script, the voices and the charm of the whole thing. Here, the filmmakers took a chance on a very unusual hero, a rat. But Remy (voice of Patton Oswalt) is no ordinary rat. He’s blue, has pink ears, nose, and paws, and is sort of cute, plus he has a great nose for food and instinct for cooking. Horrified by what his relatives and fellow rats eat, Remy finds himself interested in the career of Chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett), seen on TV over the shoulder of an elderly lady whose kitchen is invaded by Remy and his friends, whose theme is that “anyone can cook.” So, what if Remy’s a rat? With the spirit of Gusteau hanging around, Remy finds himself washed into the drains of Paris right at the foot of Chez Gusteau where he gets into the kitchen and eventually helps the the garbage boy, Linguini (Lou Romano), prepare gourmet meals to the restaurant customers’ delight. How he does it has to be seen. “Ratatouille” is delightful fun for all, with wonderful animated characters, including the lovely young chef, Collette (Janene Garafalo), the overbearing and diminutive head chef Skinner (Ian Holm), and the very tough food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole). A- (11/17/07)

“Talk to Me”-I was disappointed by this film about the outspoken Petey Greene (Don Cheadle), an ex-con shock jock DJ and talk-show host in the late-1960s and into the 1970s on Washington, DC radio and television. After getting out of Lorton prison in Virginia, Greene and his ostentatious girlfriend, Vernell (Taraji P. Henson), approach Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the program director at WOL, about a DJ job at the station which is aimed at DC’s African-American community. Although Hughes is initially completely turned off by Petey’s tough, street-talking demeanor, when the station starts to have problems with a competitor, Hughes has second thoughts and forces the station’s white manager, E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen), to listen to Greene’s patter which gets through to the black community and lights up the phones with incoming calls. Unfortunately, it seems that Sheen’s primary line in the film seems to be “watch the language.” Greene has his finest moment when his talk calms the black community during the riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Ultimately, Greene becomes a stand-up (more commentator than comic) locally and Hughes gets carried away, trying to elevate Greene to national status by an appearance on the Tonight Show. “Talk to Me” is about the relationship between these two very different men, but although Don Cheadle is outstanding in his portrayal of the rough and tumble Greene, the script meanders and it’s hard to get attached to either character. From what I’ve seen of Greene’s story, one would think it would be inspiring to hear of a man going from a prison DJ to a successful real-life DJ, but somehow that doesn’t come across. The story of the conflict with Hughes (uninspiringly played by the otherwise outstanding British actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, who seemed to be concentrating more on his American accent than the relationship between him and Greene) somehow gets in the way. C+ (11/10/07)

“Snow Cake”-This Canadian film is a surprise delight. Typical of recent Canadian films, it’s a sensitive tale about “real” people and their experiences, something often missing from American films which usually aren’t permitted to tell simple human stories. Englishman and ex-con Alex Hughes (Alan Rickman) is driving on his way to Winnipeg to see a former lover. On the way, he meets a spunky young woman, Vivienne (Emily Hampshire), who talks him into giving her a lift to the town of Wawa. While the taciturn Alex is initially not interested in Vivienne’s bubbly gab, it doesn’t take long for him to start enjoying her lively personality. Which is then ended by a horrible accident in which Vivienne dies and Alex walks away almost without a scratch. Alex, who was not responsible but feels guilty, decides to visit Vivienne’s mother, Linda (Sigourney Weaver), and discovers that she is strange, childlike and autistic. “Snow Cake” is the story of Alex’s involvement with Linda, her parents, her next-door-neighbor, Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss), to whom Alex finds himself attracted, and the townspeople in general. It’s also about the secret of why Alex was in prison and how it relates to these current events. “Snow Cake” is full of good performances by experienced actors and some not so experienced. I found Emily Hampshire’s brief portrayal of Vivienne to be memorable. Sigourney Weaver, as the autistic mother of the deceased girl, is also powerful, although the script sometimes falters in its portrayal of her autistic characteristics. B+ (11/9/07)

“Spider-Man 3”-The problem with the Spider-Man movies is that Spider-Man is simply not that heroic and his enemies are too weird to take seriously. In these films, Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), seems to spend more time being moody about his own feelings, his relationship with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), his Uncle Ben’s demise, and his relationship with his friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), than he does thinking about or doing heroic deeds. That would be okay if this were the first of the series, but it’s getting dull already in a film series about a comicbook superhero. Spider-Man seems to win out in the end only by luck or with the help of others. He’s constantly getting banged and pushed around. This third film in the Spider-Man series is so contrived and so full of bizarre and inexplicable creatures that it simply oozes its way to failure. Spidey has to go up against a man made of sand and deal with a weird parasite in the form of an extraterrestrial black oozy spider-like creature which turns him into an angry and nasty Spidey, but only when he’s wearing the black Spider-Man suit into which the creature has evolved. And then there’s the repetition of the romantic problems with Mary Jane, who seems to love Peter one minute and hate him the next, especially after seeing him as Spider-Man kiss a beautiful young woman he has saved (Bryce Dallas Howard). You can’t take Spider-Man seriously, but if this series is to continue, it needs some fresh writing and new ideas. And some real heroics from our hero. C (11/4/07)

“No End in Sight”-With graphic presentations and interviews with clearly frustrated and angry people who were in the midst of the decision-making about the Iraq war, this incredible documentary, narrated by Campbell Scott, presents the war and the Bush Administration for what they are: utter disasters. The filmmaker, Charles Ferguson, does a brilliant job of summarizing how the US made the ill-fated decision to invade Iraq and, most importantly, the stupid and disastrous decisions made following Bush’s declaration of victory in 2003, including Paul Bremer’s order to disband the Iraqi army. Those decisions led to, among other things, thousands of breadwinner Iraqis being without jobs and played a significant role in the establishment of the insurgency. But there are so many telling points, including that virtually none of the people sent to Iraq by the Bush Administration spoke Arabic or had any expertise in the affairs of the country and people whom they were attempting to control, and that there were seriously inadequate supplies for those sent in, whether civilians or soldiers. One of the interviewees observes that George W. Bush had little or no interest in reading reports which were carefully prepared to advise the Administration. “No End in Sight” provides enlightenment about the lack of planning before the war and the ill-conceived decision-making after Saddam Hussein had been removed from power, and raises the question in the viewer’s mind of whether or not those at the top running the war could possibly have been this stupid, or whether their actions were the result of greed, arrogance, and maliciousness. A (11/3/07)

“The Treatment”-This is a New York-based indie romantic comedy which won “Best New York” at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006, and raises issues about the nature and effectiveness of psychotherapy. Directed by Oren Rudavsky, “The Treatment” stars Chris Eigeman (“Metropolitan” and “The Last Days of Disco”) as Jake Singer, an articulate, intelligent English teacher in a private school in Manhattan who also happens to be completely neurotic about his life and romances. Having been dumped by his beautiful tall blonde girlfriend, the now-engaged Julia (Stephanie March), Jake attends psychotherapy under an overbearing therapist, Dr. Morales (Ian Holm), who seems to be critical of virtually every decision Jakes makes, constantly looking over Jake’s shoulder, literally and figuratively, and prying into inappropriate subjects like the details of Jake's sex life. Jake ultimately finds romance again with a young widowed socialite, Allegra Marshall (Famke Janssen). But after Jake makes a big mistake in the relationship, we wonder whether there will be a happy outcome, especially with Dr. Morales dominating Jake's psyche. Chris Eigeman is almost perfect in this role. He seems to specialize in playing somewhat neurotic, but bright New Yorkers. Ian Holm is effective as the watchdog psychiatrist, and Famke Janssen, although looking a little bedraggled as a young woman raising two kids, is charming as the potential love of Jake’s life. Harris Yulin appears as Jake’s physician father and Roger Rees is appropriate as the somewhat officious head of Jake’s school. “The Treatment” is a relatively unknown film with a variety of virtues that recommend its viewing. B+ (11/3/07)

“Crazy Love”-In 1959, a story hit the papers in New York that was weird and frightening. A beautiful young woman named Linda Riss had been assaulted by having acid thrown in her face, essentially blinding her. The man responsible was a lawyer named Burton Pugach who was convicted and sent to prison. Of the many crazy crime stories that occur over the years, this is one that stuck in my memory and so, when I heard of this documentary about Riss and Pugach, I was very curious to hear the tale from their own mouths. “Crazy Love” is a very well made film about a shockingly bizarre love story. With marvelous photographs of the two as young people, and insightful interviews with friends, family, and Pugach’s biographer, Riss and Pugach initially are seen talking apart about events leading up to the crime and the even stranger events of years later. I had not been aware of the fact that Riss and Pugach, a fairly successful lawyer and nightclub owner, among other things, had had a relatively long-term courtship (even though he was married—obviously part of the problem). Their history together helps explain why, after Pugach was released from prison after 14 years, Riss ultimately agreed to marry him, and they remain married to this day. Listening to the elderly Pugach today, it’s hard to imagine him as the crazed lover who thought of killing the woman of his dreams but ultimately stooped to blinding her. Riss, now around 70 and eternally hidden behind sunglasses, is fascinatingly together as she explains her reactions to these weird and sometimes horrifying events and what ultimately led her to marry and live with the man who maimed her. B+ (10/27/07)

“Mr. Brooks”-This film is so bad that it’s almost fun to watch just to see how wrongheaded the filmmakers can be. In a DVD extra, they talk about the seriousness of their intent, but give me a break. This is a film loaded with mediocre actors mostly out of the past or TV (the often incredibly stiff Kevin Costner, Demi Moore, William Hurt, Lindsay Crouse, and Marg Helgenberger) that is really a ghoulish look at the life and style of an addicted serial killer, Mr. Earl Brooks (Costner), who just happens to be observed, during the committing of murder, by a hopeful young serial killer (Dane Cook) who wants Mr. Brooks to show him the way. And get this: Mr. Brooks has an alter ego named Marshall (Hurt) with whom he has intimate and detailed conversations (no one of course hears him) about the joys and pain of being addicted to killing. Seems Mr. Brooks, a box manufacturer, is “man of the year” in Portland, Oregon, but also the “thumbprint” killer who is being sought out by Detective Tracy Atwood (Moore). But things get complicated, as Detective Atwood is also a multi-millionaire whose second husband (Jason Lewis), with the help of his lawyer-lover, Sheila (Reiko Aylesworth), is seeking many millions in settlement (to her consternation), while the detective is also being sought out by Thorton Meeks (Matt Schulze) a crazed escaped killer and his creepy thug girlfriend. Got that? Incidentally, the film has a technique that is becoming rather annoying in shock films of this sort: the sound reaches a deafening crescendo during the scenes of violence, almost enough to make you jump out of your seat. Hey, maybe that’s not such a bad idea. Jump out of your seat and head for the exit. C- (10/26/07)

“My Best Friend”-There was a time when it seemed that Gerard Depardieu was in every French film. That honor now seems to fall to Daniel Auteuil (“The Valet,” “Caché”) who here appears as François Coste, a humorless antiques dealer who is challenged by his colleague Catherine (Julie Gayet) to produce a real “best friend,” or lose a valuable Greek pot. Seems Coste, who somehow managed to marry (and divorce), have a daughter (Julie Durand), and become successful in business, forgot to acquire any real “friends” and now he’s faced with creating a friend or lose the bet. As luck would have it, he finds himself, in the middle of Paris, constantly in contact with a taxi driver named Bruno (Dany Boon), a man who specializes in trivia and who also seems to be friendless. You can guess what happens, although “My Best Friend” does take a couple of somewhat surprising turns. “My Best Friend” is a somewhat awkward attempt at comedy. It has a few appealing moments, but isn’t really terribly funny, primarily because of Daniel Auteuil’s overexposure. My biggest criticism must be about the filmmakers, including director Patrice Leconte, who didn’t have the originality to seek out a new fresh talent for the role of Coste. As good as Auteuil is, he can’t be the only actor in France. (In French with English subtitles). C+ (10/20/07)

“The Flying Scotsman”-Despite the fact that it fits a little too neatly into the genre of amazing sports hero films, “The Flying Scotsman” is an appealing look at the real-life tale of Graeme Obree (Jonny Lee Miller), a world champion bike-racing Scot. After failing at running a bike shop and working as a bike-riding deliveryman, Obree decides to build an unusual racing bike from spare parts and his wife’s washing machine, and goes on to the expected amazing feats with the help of his friend and manager, Malky (Billy Boyd) and Obree’s wife, Anne (Laura Fraser). There’s nothing really surprising in this film. It just has some appealing characters and some great competitive bike-riding scenes, if you like that sort of thing. Miller is very good as Obree, a man who fights off some very serious depressive symptoms in order to succeed. Boyd is delightful as the enthusiastic Malky. But as often is the case, one of the most impressive performances comes from Brian Cox as Douglas Baxter, a man who initially knows nothing about bikes but ultimately becomes Obree’s supporter, both athletically and emotionally. B (10/19/07)

“The Hoax”-In the early 1970s, a writer named Clifford Irving created a fake “authorized” autobiography of Howard Hughes and came very close to having it published by McGraw-Hill. This film is said to be based on Irving’s book of the same name about the events surrounding his fraudulent book, but Iriving himself (see has ridiculed and denied the portrayals and events shown in the film, including a significant element of the story, the mysterious arrival at Mr. Irving’s suburban home of a box, postmarked Las Vegas, NV, of Hughes’ internal documents. Despite excellent performances by Richard Gere as the smooth, self-confident Mr. Irving, and Alfred Molina as his nervous and sweaty assistant, Richard Suskind, “The Hoax” is so full of nonsense that the viewer has no idea where to begin to believe elements of the story. Irving was obviously a master fake (CBS nominated him as “best actor of the year”) and is portrayed as someone capable of lying, believably, about anything, including to his wife Helga (Marcia Gay Harden) about an affair with Nina van Pallandt (Julie Delpy). Significantly, the film makes no mention of Irving’s home on the island of Ibiza, his past marriages and children, or much of anything about Baroness Nina van Pallandt who was an important element of the scandal that broke in the media. “The Hoax” also tries to make it appear that Hughes, who was in federal legal trouble, actually contributed to Irving’s book in order to guarantee a better legal deal from Richard Nixon and that the pending publication of the book led to the Watergate break-in. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, “The Hoax” raises the question of whether, like Irving’s book, it’s more fiction than fact. C+ (10/19/07)

“The Page Turner”-Is revenge as satisfying when it happens more by accident than design? “The Page Turner” is the tale of a young piano student, Mélanie (Déborah François), whose tryout for a prestigious music academy is rudely interrupted by one of the judges, Ariane Fouchécourt (Catherine Frot), a famous pianist, thus causing Mélanie to lose her concentration and fail. A few years later, Mélanie, now a beautiful young woman, is hired by Ariane’s husband Jean (Pascal Greggory) to serve effectively as a temporary nanny for the Fouchécourt’s young son at their distant country home while Jean is away. Ariane, a pianist in a classical trio, who does not remember Mélanie’s audition, soon finds that Mélanie knows music well and makes her her musical page turner at the piano. In fact, Ariane, who is suffering from some nervousness after a serious auto accident, begins to become more and more dependent, including emotionally, on Mélanie, thus offering her the opportunity for revenge. Déborah François is lovely as the young woman given the golden opportunity to get back at her thoughtless tormenter, but is unfortunately a little stiff and awkward in her portrayal of the angry young woman. Catherine Frot does a fine job of portraying the vulnerable pianist Ariane who sets herself up for a fall. (In French with English subtitles). B (10/14/07)

“28 Weeks Later”-In the original, Danny Boyle-directed “28 Days Later,” a film I reviewed almost exactly 4 years ago, the rage virus took over England, spreading rapidly as people turned into blood-spewing raging monsters after being infected by other victims. The current film, directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, takes place 28 weeks later when it has been determined that all of the rage virus victims are dead and England simply needs to be cleaned up. Robert Carlyle stars as Donald Harris, a man who has survived while believing that his wife (Catherine McCormack) was a victim, and he is now an official at a US military encampment in the middle of London aimed at restoring life to England. Harris’ two children arrive from another country and join him, but soon get antsy about not being allowed to visit their family home in London. Alas, the two children, Tammy (Imogen Poots) and Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton), leave the encampment under cover and, not surprisingly, their actions unleash once again the horrid virus through an unexpected source. “28 Weeks Later” is full of a little too much blood and gore, but has its redeeming message of potential viral horror as well as special visual effects (such as aerial views of an utterly abandoned London, some of which is ultimately fire-bombed) and sound effects which are pretty awful and frightening. Noteworthy performances come from Jeremy Renner as Sgt. Doyle, an army sniper turned hero, and Rose Byrne as Maj. Scarlet, a medical officer who discovers an important secret about the virus. B+ (10/13/07)

“The TV Set”-This is another somewhat annoying attempt by the entertainment industry to ridicule itself. “The TV Set,” which really would have been better as a TV show rather than a feature film, stars David Duchovny as Mike Klein, a writer who has come up with a proposed TV series based on his experiences following the suicide of his brother. Pitching the idea to studio figures, including the mindless studio head, Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), and the more sympathetic former BBC executive Richard McAllister (Ioan Gruffudd), Mike (whose wife Natalie--Justine Bateman--is pregnant and concerned about family finances) finds his idea being changed into something he no longer recognizes. In other words, junk. “The TV Set” is one of a genre of films made that would convince any sane person never to even make an attempt to enter the movie-TV business. Undeserved egos abound. Small-minded, arrogant, rude, condescending, and patronizing are just a few of the terms that occur as one watches poor Mike grovel at the feet of idiots running the studio. The film cries out for a scene in which Mike finally erupts telling everyone what he thinks of them. But apparently in the TV biz, you don’t do such a thing if you want to continue making junk programs. Written and directed by Jake Kasdan, “The TV Set” cast includes Judy Greer as Mike’s manager, Alice, who is more concerned about getting the show, any show, on the air to make money than about Mike’s concerns; Fran Kranz as Zach Harper, an egotistical and stupid actor of limited talent; and Lindsey Sloan as Laurel Simon, a young actress who looks good, is initially attracted to Zach, but who quickly realizes that he isn’t worth her time. As a made-for-TV movie, “The TV Set” might have gotten a higher score, but as a feature film, it’s got too many limitations and a not particularly inspiring performance by David Duchovny, an actor whose success I’ve never understood. As a result it deserves no more than a C+ (10/12/07)

“Surf’s Up”-Well, Bro, welcome to the world of surfers, er, penguin surfers. Starring the voices of Shia LeBeouf as Cody Maverick, a young penguin surfer from Antarctica, Jeff Bridges as Big Z, a past star of the surfing firmament and the ultimate “dude,” and Zooey Deschanel as Lani, a lifeguard Cody meets at the Big Z Memorial in Hawaii, “ “Surf’s Up” is a beautifully animated film with some of the standard themes of children’s films. This one, with reminders of the recent outstanding animated film “Cars,” is especially strong on loyalty, determination and grit, refusing to give up despite difficulties that stand in the way. The animation is so good these days that it almost doesn’t need mentioning, but the shots of a sun-drenched Hawaiian beach and tube surfing are breathtaking and the clever related music (“Wipeout”) fits right in. Other actor voices of note are James Woods as Reggie Belafonte, the Don King of the Big Z Memorial, and Jon Heder as Chicken Joe, the only non-penguin in the bunch. B+ (10/11/07)

“Evening”-In the current state of our society, movies about human beings, love, and romance are almost automatically given the title “chick flicks,” as if men have no interest whatsoever in such affairs. Well, if this is a “chick flick,” it has a memorable story and an incredible cast. Based on the novel by Susan Minot and with a script by Minot and Michael Cunningham (“The Hours”), “Evening” begins in the present with the elderly Ann Grant Lord (Vanessa Redgrave) on her deathbed, being watched over by her daughters, the unsettled Nina (Toni Collette) and the more domestic Constance (Natasha Richardson). Ann appears to be having thoughts and dreams about her past, mentioning names, such as “Harris” and “Buddy,” that are unfamiliar to Nina and Constance. “Harris,” she says, was the first mistake of her life. Director Lajos Koltai does a fine job of switching between past and present, revealing the young Ann Grant (Claire Danes) in 1953, attending the wedding of her best friend, Lila Wittenborn (Mamie Gummer), at the Wittenborn family’s gorgeous seaside mansion in Newport, RI. Despite being fawned over by the obviously smitten Buddy (Hugh Dancy), Lila’s brother, Ann finds herself attracted to one of the guests, Harris Arden (Patrick Wilson) and also suspects that Lila, who is to marry a young man named Carl, is in fact in love with Harris. “Evening” takes us on an emotional tour of love and regret, but, ultimately, the theme, the setting, and the florid music become a bit too schmaltzy. Despite that, though, the cast makes up for other weaknesses. In how many films does one get to see Meryl Streep (as the elderly Lila) play a touching scene with Vanessa Redgrave? And how often does one get to see Glenn Close (as Lila’s upper class mother) do a scene of hysteria following a tragedy? “Evening” was made by a group of very talented people. It’s certainly not a complete success (including the fact that it fails to provide any explanation for the event—the “mistake”—at the very heart of the story), but with this cast and the gorgeous sets and cinematography, you can’t go too wrong. B+ (10/6/07)

“Jindabyne”-I’ve always wondered why so many films cast British actors to play Americans. At least they usually try to sound like Americans. In this Australian film directed by Ray Lawrence (“Lantana”), the main characters are played by the Irish-born Gabriel Byrne as Stewart Kane, and the American actress Laura Linney as Kane’s wife, Claire, neither of whom pretend to have Australian accents. In fact, there is a minor attempt to explain that Kane and his mother came from Ireland but no explanation for Linney’s American accent. “Jindabyne” takes place in a remote town in southeastern New South Wales, and begins with the tragic murder of a young aboriginal woman. When Kane and three friends go on a fishing trip into the Snowy Mountains, they find the young woman’s body in the river and leave it there tied up while they continue to fish over the next couple of days. That this act of indifference towards a human being eventually leads to significant ramifications is the essence of the story. The ramifications include the gamut of domestic/marital problems and racial hostility. Laura Linney, one of our best actresses, plays Claire as a serious, moody, angry woman who has had a previous emotional breakdown and is thought of perpetually by her friends as somewhat “off.” She is laden with anger and guilt over her husband’s deed and wants to make amends but only seems to make things worse. Gabriel Byrne does a fine job as a man with a lot of reasons for guilt and defensive anger who caters more to his nosy and pushy mother than to his wife. The cast also includes Deborra-Lee Furness as Jude, a friend with her own emotional difficulties, involving anger and frustration at her somewhat strange granddaughter because her own daughter (the girl’s mother) is dead. “Jindabyne” does a good job of raising issues of morality, guilt and love, and especially the consequences of thoughtless acts. B (10/5/07)

“Next”-Based on a story by Philip K. Dick, “Next” involves a “mini-time-travel” premise that is hard to visualize and accept. As a result, the story itself, as in so many films of this genre, is full of gaps in logic and consistency. Nicolas Cage is Cris Johnson, aka Frank Cadillac, a small-time Las Vegas magician, who has the power to see two minutes into his own future and to use that power to change the events he has seen, and thus to elude people and dangerous objects, such as bullets. But for some inexplicable reason, he has seen further into the future when it comes to meeting the beautiful Liz Cooper (Jessica Biel) who, upon meeting him, immediately invites him to come along on a drive to Arizona where she is a teacher on an Indian reservation. But Johnson has a reason besides Liz’s beauty to go with her: he is being sought out and chased by FBI agents, led by Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore) who thinks he can help find a nuclear bomb imported by terrorists to blow up Los Angeles. Without any understanding of Johnson’s “powers,” Ferris spends more time chasing Johnson with gun drawn than thinking about the terrorists. And as is so typical of films of this nature, the climax of the film turns out to be a refutation of Johnson’s own understanding of his powers. Did I mention “gaps” in logic? “Next” contains a lot of CGI special effects, some of which are so amateurish as to be disconcerting. The “next” time you want to see a film based on a Philip K. Dick story, rent “Blade Runner.” C- (10/5/07)

“Perfect Stranger”-What is it with Halle Berry? She wins an Oscar and goes on to a career of Grade C movies like “Catwoman,” and “X-Men.” “Perfect Stranger” fits rights in, presenting Berry in the contrived role of Rowena Price, a reporter who has just quit her job in anger, but goes right on working with her co-worker, computer tech Miles Haley (Giovanni Ribisi), to investigate the murder of Grace (Nicki Aycox), an acquaintance from her old neighborhood who had just recently told her about a kinky email correspondence with the married ad executive, Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis). That Rowena looks angry and disturbed with Grace rather than interested in the story Grace describes, is at the very heart of the film. But “Perfect Stranger” contains so many plot holes and unlikely situations that it degrades into a story that is happily over sooner than later. Even the last second “surprise” is presented so poorly that it’s almost missed. In addition, Bruce Willis seems to be playing a caricature of himself, even down to an unlikely smirk during a murder trial. C- (9/29/07)

“Black Book”-Despite being full of unlikely situations, “Black Book” is an intriguing film about a Jewish woman, Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), in The Hague (the Netherlands) in late 1944 who finds herself joining the Resistance after her family and other wealthy Jews are mowed down and robbed of their valuables by the Nazis while trying to escape to liberated territory. Once in the Resistance, she is asked to start a relationship with Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), a Gestapo officer she had met on a train, in order to help free some of the Resistance fighters held by the Nazis and facing execution. One of the unlikely events is that dark-haired Rachel, now a blonde known as Ellis de Vries, falls in love with Müntze who quickly guesses that she is Jewish and yet does nothing. The magic of love and sex? Ultimately, “Black Book” is a mystery story about just which member of the Resistance is a traitor who endangers the lives of most of the members. The film contains some very good performances, including that of the appealing van Houten who suffers more than her share of indignities; Sebastian Koch (“The Lives of Others”) as the strangely soft-spoken and non-threatening Gestapo officer, Müntze; Thom Hoffman as Hans Akkermans, a leading member of the Resistance; Derek de Lint as Gerben Kuipers, the Resistance leader who wishes to save his son from the Nazis; Waldemar Kobus as Franken, the Gestapo officer who thrives on killing and partying; and Halina Reijn as Ronnie, the somewhat goofy young woman Ellis works with at the Gestapo headquarters and who provides Franken’s pleasures. Beautifully filmed and with a rather taut script, “Black Book” is said to be “inspired” by real events but it requires a lot of poetic license. Still, a film worth seeing. (In Dutch, German, English and Hebrew). B+ (9/28/07)

“The Valet”-This is an enjoyable French comedy, written and directed by Francis Veber (who, among many other things, wrote the screenplay for “La Cage Aux Folles”). The plot? Pierre Levasseur (Daniel Auteuil) is a billionaire married to Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas) but having an affair with a gorgeous supermodel, Elena Simonsen (Alice Taglioni), and promising that he will seek a divorce. When Pierre’s wife sees a photo of him on the street with Elena and another man, François Pignon (Gad Elmaleh), who just happens to be passing by, Pierre tells his wife that Elena was with the other man, and decides to hire François to live with and make believe he is Elena’s boyfriend. Elena agrees to go along after demanding a money deal that she believes will guarantee success and Pierre’s divorce. The problem is that François is merely a parking valet, is madly in love with Émilie (Virginie Ledoyen), and isn’t convincing Christine that he’s really in a relationship with Elena. “The Valet” is funny, charming and loaded with good performances, especially by the magnificent and warm Alice Taglioni as the tall blonde Elena who has every man’s jaw dropping when she walks by. Richard Berry is effective as Pierre’s lawyer and the guiding light behind the awkward plot to convince Christine that Pierre is not involved with Elena. Finally, Dany Boon is perfect as François’ down-to-earth roommate and co-worker who is dumbfounded by François’ seeming amazing success with gorgeous women. (In French with English subtitles) B+ (9/22/07)

“Days of Glory (Indigènes)”-From Director Rachid Bouchareb, this is another of the fine films that received a nomination for best foreign language film Oscar. This one tells the rather unique tale of four men from the French colonies in North Africa (including Morocco and Algeria) who eagerly joined the French forces against the Nazis in World War II, fought with passion, and, as Arabs and despite their success, were generally treated as second class citizens by the French. “Days of Glory” concentrates on Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), a diminutive soldier initially scared to death who helps win a major battle and then is treated like a servant by the troop’s Sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan); Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), a tall handsome man who falls in love with a French woman in Marseilles after the troops arrive there, but whose later letters to her are censored and destroyed by the French officials; Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), the natural leader of the Arab soldiers, who, despite outstanding efforts in the war, is passed over for promotion; and Yassir (Samy Naceri), a man who is unsuccessfully protective of his younger brother. “Days of Glory” is a powerful film about how humans can be talked into risking their lives for their country and then treated with injustice despite their heroism. The scene of the final battle in Alsace is truly memorable. (In French with English subtitles) A (9/16/07)

“Disturbia”-is an obvious homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” which had James Stewart stuck inside his home due to a broken leg, believing he sees a murder in a neighboring house while watching with binoculars, and supported by the beautiful Grace Kelly. Here, Shia LaBeouf is Kale Brecht, a teenager suffering house arrest after punching his high school Spanish teacher who unknowingly raised a painful personal subject to Kale. From his upstairs bedroom window, Kale has an interesting, almost comical view of the neighborhood, including his lovely new teen neighbor, Ashley (Sarah Roemer, a Cate Blanchett lookalike), who soon realizes she is being watched and seems to like it. Ultimately, Ashley and a school friend, Ronnie (Aaron Yoo), join Kale in spying on Mr. Turner (David Morse), a neighbor they suspect of being a killer. Needless to say they use virtually every piece of technology at their disposal, including video camera, cell phone, and computer. “Disturbia” has its clichés of the genre, but ultimately succeeds because of the quality of the cast and the refusal of the director, D.J. Caruso, to fill the film with nonsensical horror film shtick. Shia LaBeouf is a rising star, a young man with talent, charm, and panache, who is currently making the latest “Indiana Jones” film for Steven Spielberg, and here he is effective as a good teen caught in a bad situation. Sarah Roemer is a pleasant and attractive surprise as the beautiful neighbor who immediately recognizes Kale’s best attributes, and Aaron Yoo is quite funny as Ronnie, the sidekick who does a lot of the dirty work for Kale. Carrie-Anne Moss (“The Matrix”) is fine in a limited role as Kale’s mother, but it is David Morse who provides the eeriness in the film as the very scary neighbor, Mr. Turner. “Disturbia” is one of the best of the genre of scary movies involving teens. B+ (9/15/07)

“Away From Her”-Written and directed by the wonderful young Canadian actress, Sarah Polley, and based on a short story by Alice Munro, “Away From Her” is a moving examination of the pain of love and loss when one spouse of a long-married couple starts to fade from Alzheimer’s. Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent) have been married for over 40 years, and are living in a lovely snowbound part of Ontario, when Fiona, gradually forgetting basic things, decides it’s time to live in a facility for people with Alzheimer’s. Grant understands but resists and when Fiona, having moved into the facility, transfers her love and affection to another resident of the facility, a wheelchair bound Aubrey (Michael Murphy), Grant has difficulty accepting and experiences resentment. But gradually we see how he realizes that the relationship of Fiona and Aubrey has nothing to do with his marriage to Fiona, and has all to do with her illness. The pain of loss and loneliness is palpable, especially when Grant meets Aubrey’s wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), who has taken Aubrey out of the facility, and Grant tries to convince her to put him back for Fiona’s sake. Although the story is inherently depressing, the theme and the performances by the excellent cast make this an extraordinary film worth seeing. The ever beautiful Julie Christie is astonishing at portraying the mixed emotions of a woman who knows that she’s heading for oblivion. Gordon Pinsent is perfect at demonstrating the difficulty of acceptance and the pain of loss, although I wish he had occasionally taken off his coat at the facility. Wendy Crewson is perfectly condescending as Madeleine, the rather patronizing head of the Alzheimer’s facility, but it is Kristen Thomson as Kristy, the head nurse, who virtually steals the film with her delightful performance as a caring, thoughtful, and perceptive woman who enlightens Grant about Fiona, her situation, and possibly even his marriage. A- (9/14/07)

“Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”-I read the novel by Patrick Süskind years ago and disliked it, finding it an absurd waste of time. So what should I have expected from the movie made from the novel? Well, fortunately, it only takes 2 plus hours to watch the film and so it’s definitely not as intolerable as the book. And it is a rather strange sight to see. Told through a narrator (John Hurt), “Perfume” gives us the rather bizarre story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), born to an uncaring mother in the mud in 18th century Paris, growing up in utter filth and with hard labor, and discovering that he has an extraordinary sense of smell, beyond that of any other human. Grenouille, who can seemingly smell things miles away, ultimately decides to learn how to preserve scents and finds himself apprenticed to a perfume maker, Baldini (a rather comical performance by Dustin Hoffman who speaks English in the film until he’s had enough and then screams out, repeatedly and in a rather silly manner, “basta!”). Baldini teaches Grenouille some of the art of making scents through distillation, but it’s not enough for the persistent Grenouille who wants to capture the aromas of beautiful women. And when he leaves for the city of Grasse to learn the art of enfleurage, Baldini joins a cast of characters who meet their deaths immediately after parting with Grenouille (although amusing, I saw no point to this). Back in Paris, Grenouille had followed and accidentally killed a young woman whose aroma enticed him. So, upon arriving at Grasse, Grenouille begins his task of acquiring the scents of young beautiful women by killing them and performing enfleurage (a system involving use of animal fat rubbed on the surface of their bodies and hair). The murders are shown as tastefully as possible, considering the circumstances, but there is one young extraordinarily beautiful young woman who Grenouille wants and who is seemingly unavailable. She is Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood), the daughter of Antoine Richis (played rather stiffly by Alan Rickman), one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Grasse. “Perfume” is loaded with imagery, a great deal of which is extremely unpleasant, emphasizing the filth and stink of 18th century France. While the viewer cannot smell the aromas involved, Tom Tykwer’s imagery is almost enough to give one an idea of just how offensive it was to breathe in those days. The climax of “Perfume” is an unexpected and drawn-out scene of wild abandonment by the people of Grasse after being exposed to just a few whiffs of Grenouille’s human perfume. While “Perfume” tells a rather original tale, it’s also an unpleasant fantasy, something I’m not certain that anyone really needed to see. C+ (9/14/07)