2005 Reviews

Click on any of the following titles to be taken directly to the review. 

After the Sunset



Après Vouz

The Assassination of Richard Nixon

The Aviator

Bad Education

Batman Begins

Beauty Shop

Being Julia

Beyond the Sea


Born Into Brothels

Bride & Prejudice

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Bright Young Things

The Chorus

Cinderella Man




Danny Deckchair

Dear Frankie


Enduring Love

Fever Pitch

Finding Neverland

Flight of the Phoenix

The Forgotten

Friday Night Lights

Grizzly Man

Happy Endings



The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Holy Girl

Hotel Rwanda

House of Flying Daggers

I Heart Huckabees

The Incredibles

In Good Company

In My Country

The Interpreter

Intimate Strangers

Kingdom of Heaven


Kung Fu Hustle

Ladies in Lavender

Last Days

Layer Cake

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Look at Me

Lords of Dogtown

A Love Song for Bobby Long

Mad Hot Ballroom

The March of the Penguins

Me and You and Everyone We Know

Melinda and Melinda

The Merchant of Venice

Millenium Mambo

Million Dollar Baby

Mr. & Mrs. Smith

The Motorcycle Diaries

Must Love Dogs

My Architect: A Son's Journey

My Summer of Love

National Treasure

Ocean's Twelve

Off The Map

Pretty Persuasion





Schultze Gets the Blues

The Sea Inside


Shall We Dance

Shaun of the Dead


Silver City

Sin City

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow


Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring

Stage Beauty

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

Swimming Upstream


The Upside of Anger

Vanity Fair

Vera Drake

A Very Long Engagement

The Village

War of the Worlds

We Don't Live Here Anymore





New York Film Critics Circle Awards for 2004

The New York Film Critics Circle recently announced its awards for 2004 motion pictures. Some of the lead awards are:

Best Picture: Sideways

Best Actor: Paul Giamatti (Sideways)

Best Actress: Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake)

Best Supporting Actor: Clive Owen (Closer)

Best Supporting Actress: Virginia Madsen (Sideways)

Best Director: Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby)

Best Foreign Film: Bad Education

Best NonFiction Film: Fahrenheit 9/11

Best Screenplay: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (Sideways)

Best Cinematographer: Christopher Doyle (Hero)


Top 10 Lists of the Reviewers of the New York Times for 2004

A.O. Scott: Million Dollar Baby; The Big Red One: The Restoration; Moolade; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Tarnation; Goodbye Dragon Inn; Kinsey; Tokyo Godfathers; The Incredibles; Fahrenheit 9/11

Manohla Dargis: Million Dollar Baby; The Big Red One: The Restoration; Sideways; Before Sunset; Collateral; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Kill Bill: Vol. 2; Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence; Time of the Wolf; Blind Shaft

Stephen Holden: Bad Education; Sideways; Maria Full of Grace; Vera Drake; Kinsey; Million Dollar Baby; Bright Leaves; The Door In The Floor; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; The Mother


Roy's 10 Best Viewed for 2004*: Hero; Lost In Translation; Maria Full of Grace; Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World; The Magdelene Sisters; The Barbarian Invasions; Facing Windows; American Splendor; House of Sand and Fog; Fahrenheit 9/11

*Since I see many films the year after their release, some of these are actually from the previous year.

2005 Reviews


My new rating system: A to F.

After several years of using a rating system of stars, * to *****, I've decided to try a more flexible system, using letters A-F. I don't believe any explanation will be needed for those ratings.

Since I see almost all movies on DVD, I'm no longer going to indicate in what circumstances I viewed the film unless it was not on DVD. It can be presumed I saw the film on DVD, unless I state otherwise.

"Grizzly Man"-Timothy Treadwell was an unsuccessful actor, originally from Long Island, who decided that he was going to live with and "protect" the Alaskan grizzly bear, one of the most ferocious and dangerous animals on earth. For 13 years he spent his summers camping with and talking to the bears and other animals in the wilds of Alaska, constantly tempting fate. And he made extensive videotapes of himself talking about and to the bears and foxes. In October 2003, Treadwell's luck ran out. He and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, who had accompanied him despite her fear of bears, were attacked, mauled and eaten by a bear, most likely an older bear from the mountains who was not familiar with Treadwell and his encampment during the summer months. Director Werner Herzog took Treadwell's footage and turned it into this enthralling documentary about this strange young man and the world of bears that he loved, possibly to the point of obsession. Treadwell is seen narrating his story to his video camera and it is chilling to hear him make repeated references to the danger of his situation, knowing that he "could be killed" at any moment. It's almost as if this is what Treadwell wished for. Herzog doesn't hide the tragedy. We learn about it early in the film through footage and interviews with various friends and relatives, and with the Alaskan coroner. Director Herzog not only shows us the beautiful and gripping footage of the Alaskan scenery and these amazing animals, astoundingly docile around Treadwell for so many years, but also those bizarre moments when Treadwell, talking to his own camera, began to delve into his own inner meditations. This is a breathtakingly beautiful and sad documentary and certainly one that you will not forget. Highly recommended. A (12/29/05)

"Must Love Dogs"-This is one of those films that makes you wonder just what the filmmakers were thinking about. Could they have possibly thought they were making a first-rate romantic comedy, or did they know it was simply lackluster fluff? A good cast: Diane Lane, John Cusack, Dermot Mulroney, Elizabeth Perkins, Christopher Plummer, and Stockard Channing. How could they go wrong? Well, a simple-minded and dull plot/script, for one. Diane Lane is Sarah, a fortyish pre-school teacher recently divorced and feeling sorry for herself. Her very large family of brothers and sisters just can't ignore her single status and her dour mood and an ad is placed on an Internet dating site which includes the line "must love dogs." While finding herself intrigued with the divorced father (Mulroney) of one of her charges, but feeling that dating him would be inappropriate, the Internet ad leads to an awkward date with Jake (Cusack), a canoe builder, and borrowed dogs on both sides. The film proceeds with a series of awkward and predictable scenes, even including one in which Sarah finds herself answering her own (single) father's Internet ad (the father played by Christopher Plummer). Diane Lane needs a better agent. She has talent but it doesn't show here. It truly makes one wonder if the person who made up the title of the film was actually trying to tell us something about its quality. C- (12/28/05)

"The Holy Girl"-This Argentinian film, directed by Lucrecia Martel, is not easy to pin down. It's the tale of a group of people living and working at a rundown hotel where a medical convention is taking place. Helena (Mercedes Morán), one of the hotel employees, is a divorced woman with a teenage daughter, Amalia (María Alche), and who is trying her darndest to avoid talking to her ex-husband's new and pregnant wife who calls her continuously only to be rebuffed. Amalia and her friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) are in the process of being indoctrinated in Catholicism. When one of the conventioneers, the quiet Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), presses himself up against Amalia's rear while they both stand in a crowd watching an unusual musician, Amalia, who seems not to be repelled, tells Josefina that she is going to "save" the doctor and then follows him around to his consternation. Meanwhile, Dr. Jano and Helena have become attracted to each other, the doctor not realizing that Amalia is Helena's daughter. "The Holy Girl" is extremely well acted. Young María Alche is particularly luminous as the mysterious young Amalia. But the film seems to fail in its efforts to make a meaningful point. Although the title and situation would have you think that Amalia has become a religious zealot, the religious theme virtually disappears in the second half. I never had the feeling that Amalia was acting with religious fervor, but rather as a typical teenage girl exploring her circumstances and growing sexual interests. Even in the scenes at the beginning of the film, when the instructor Inéz (Mía Maestro) is speaking to the class of girls about religious vocation, Maria and Josefina seem more interested in chatting than in what is being said. However, despite the flaws, I feel that Lucrecia Martel is a director to watch. Here, she has created a film about an unusual and interesting situation with a variety of potential themes. She can only get better. In Spanish with English subtitles. B+ (12/27/05)

"Pretty Persuasion"-We've seen much of this in other films about high school girls. Think "Mean Girls" as the most recent. Hot high school girls (almost all played by actresses too old to be in high school) and among them is one plotting first-rate bitch. This time it's Kimberly Joyce (Evan Rachel Wood), who has grown up in the household of her divorced and miserable racist father (James Woods) who just happens to be married to a woman (Jamie King) not much older than Kimberly. Evan Rachel Wood exudes determined pathological behavior as she takes a new Arabic classmate, Randa (Adi Schnall) under her wings, and, together with her "best friend" Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois), they plot to teach the school's popular English teacher and drama coach, Percy Anderson (Ron Livingston), a lesson he'll never forget in retaliation for academic actions he's taken against all three girls. With the unwitting aid of a lesbian TV news reporter (Jane Krakowski), Kimberly goes about her cold-blooded plot, using each and every person she meets for her evil doings. "Pretty Persuasion," which is loaded with fairly explicit sex talk and fairly obvious, although not quite explicit, sex scenes, is obviously intended to be a satire on the pressures of being a high school girl in a rich celebrity-filled community (here it's Beverly Hills, of course). But ultimately the script bogs down in its overkill and occasional tastelessness. No lessons seem to be learned and this film, which originally seems comedic, takes a serious and tragic turn at the end. The cast includes Selma Blair as Percy Anderson's wife who takes part in a scene with her husband that makes one wonder about Kimberly Joyce's charges against Percy. C+ (12/23/05)

"Serenity"-A reasonably entertaining sci-fi flick, "Serenity" takes us into the future when humans have moved to another solar system and continued their warlike hostility towards each other. In this world, the Alliance of planets have been battling the independent planets (they're the good guys). We find ourselves on a rattling spaceship with a group of "independents," including Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and crew, who survive by interplanetary holdups of Alliance facilities. Unfortunately, they also must deal with a horrifying race of creatures called Reavers who like eating humans and closely resemble the "living dead." But the real prime character in this story, based on the TV series "Firefly," is young River Tam (Summer Glau), sister of the ship's doctor, who was in the process of being turned into a psychic war machine by the Alliance when heroically saved by her brother (in a very clever opening sequence full of surprising segues). She is now somewhat of a mystery and because she is psychic, knows things that the Alliance would rather she didn't. A heartless Alliance operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is searching for her and Captain Mal and his crew must deal not only with the "operative" but also with the Reavers. This sci-fi tale has many of the usual standard features of this genre of film, but the cast, including Gina Torres ("24"), Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, and David Krumholtz (as "Mr. Universe") is appealing and genuinely fun to watch. B+ (12/22/05)

"Ladies in Lavender"- Based on a short story and written and directed by the British actor Charles Dance, not a lot happens in this charming little tale about two spinster sisters, Ursula (Judi Dench) and Janet (Maggie Smith) living on the coast in Cornwall, but there is certainly enough to make some important points about the human condition. One day the two sisters discover a young man who has washed ashore onto their beach with a broken ankle, and they take him in. Soon, it becomes obvious that both, especially Ursula, are enamored of this handsome young man, Andrea (Daniel Brühl), who we learn is from Poland and plays the violin beautifully. They do everything in their power to keep him, almost as if he is a possession, but outside forces ultimately interfere. One is the local doctor, played by David Warner, and the other is a beautiful young foreign visitor, played by Natascha McElhone, whose brother is a famous violinist and she wants to encourage Andrea to meet her brother. There are no action scenes in this film. It is simply a lovely story about emotions that overcome two older women, emotions that we tend to associate with younger people. Charles Dance, in a feature on the DVD, notes that the original short story was about two women in their forties. Dench and Smith, both 70, are miraculous in their ability to portray the feelings of love and tenderness that can affect even someone at their age. B+ (12/11/05)

"Cinderella Man"-I admit that I thought that Russell Crowe and Renée Zellweger had been seen in too many movies lately. Combined with that, I really wasn't in the mood for another boxing film, a sport that is so unpopular these days I challenge most people to tell me the name of the current heavyweight champion. But I was surprised by this excellent film. Directed by Ron Howard, one of the best directors around, "Cinderella Man" literally takes us back to the most painful early days of the Great Depression, when Jim Braddock (Crowe), a failed fighter from New Jersey, with a broken right hand, was struggling to keep his family, including his wife Mae (Zellweger) and their three children, in food, shelter, and heat. Because of his injuries and his poor boxing, Braddock had been banned from the ring by the promoter Jimmy Johnston (Bruce McGill). But with the title of the film as it is and after a rather depressing but effective first half, "Cinderella Man" and Braddock take off in the second half when he is given the miraculous opportunity to rise like a phoenix and recreate his boxing career, all the way to a title bout with Heavyweight Champion Max Baer. The sets and cinematography are out of this world. The sets and scenery have a genuine New York touch about them (although ironically the film was made mostly in Toronto), including the marquee at the third incarnation of Madison Square Garden at 50th St., and Eighth Avenue. Ultimately, however, Director Howard has put together a dynamite cast. As usual, Crowe becomes his character and is right in the middle of the grueling and terrifying boxing scenes. Renée Zellweger is touching and appealing as Braddock's loyal but somewhat suffering wife, especially in the scenes in which she learns that Max Baer has already killed two boxers in the ring. But ultimately, the prize goes to the wonderful Paul Giamatti ("Sideways") as Braddock's trainer/manager Joe Gould. Giamatti provides just the right touch of humor and earnestness to set off the otherwise dismal aspects of Braddock's life at the time. Recommended. A (12/10/05)

"The March of the Penguins"-For some strange reason, this documentary about the Emperor penguin, has been said to be the darling of the Christian Right. One can only wonder about that. Photographed in Antarctica under the most severe weather conditions imaginable, this beautiful documentary shows the astounding centuries old and obviously instinctive custom of the Emperor penguins as they mate by marching inland from the sea, over ice, for 70 miles to a frigid site where they choose mates and produce eggs and hopefully offspring. The penguins go through utter misery in order to reproduce. I was struck by the beauty of the sight of the penguins marching mostly upright and in single-line to their mating site. That they also have to march back 70 miles in order to obtain nourishment in the ocean and that the males suffer almost four months of starvation and freezing misery in order to protect the eggs, are other astounding facts of nature. But for those religious fanatics who think that this film documents "family values," the fact is that the mating is for one season only and that once the chicks are old enough, they have little or no contact with their parents. The cinematography is amazing and Morgan Freeman's narrative is fine. My only minor objection is that the film seems to emphasize the negative, i.e, the struggle to survive, the loss of eggs to the cold, and the loss of chicks to predators and the cold. A little more positivity might have made this a more enjoyable experience. B+ (12/2/05)

"Mr. & Mrs. Smith"-This is a sad excuse for a movie. With stiff performances by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who, despite their real-life romance, seem to have no magnetism together, and a virtually plotless script, "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" leaves us with an empty shell of a movie in which two hired killers try to kill each other. They just happen to be married to each other. This premise could have made for an interesting comedic film. Instead, after a brief introduction to the characters, including how they met and married, and a couple of lame jokes, we soon find ourselves viewing an intermingling of rocket grenades, high-powered rifles, machine guns, and the occasional kiss. Forget it. This is a dud. D (12/2/05)

 "War of the Worlds"-Americans are obviously overly fascinated by horror, supernatural, and aliens. Director Steven Spielberg has demonstrated his interest in this subject before with the amusing "E.T." and the clever, but peaceful "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." This time, however, Spielberg has wrought a genuine monster of a film, one that is so utterly unpleasant as to raise the question of whether it can be called "entertainment." If the film, based loosely on the novel by H.G. Wells, has any point at all, it's told in minutes via the narration by Morgan Freeman at the beginning and the end. We certainly didn't need the film in the middle to understand. And just what does happen in this film? Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a stevedore, finds himself caring for his two children, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning), when their mother and step-father drop them off at his unkempt home in New Jersey as they go off to Boston. Seemingly within minutes of the departure of mother and step-father, bizarre thunderless and incessant lightning leads to the eruption from the ground of an alien tripod machine which proceeds to kill and destroy as many people as possible. While all machines (clocks, cars, etc.) have stopped working, Ray manages to find the one car that works and starts driving towards Boston with his two children. In the process, they are continually attacked by the tripods (yes, there are many) which are being operated by aliens (who supposedly buried them in the earth thousands or millions of years in the past). In the process of running, the somewhat self-centered Ray tries to achieve some sort of peace with his slightly hostile children, but he's usually disrupted by the monsters or other annoying people and visions of the hell that has been created by the aliens (they were Martians in the original). "War of the Worlds" is loaded with holes. Scenes occur which make little or no sense without more development (consider the somewhat strange short-lived reunion of Cruise and his children with a woman friend and her daughter at the boat, and the completely unruffled appearance of the children's mother and her parents at the end). The film is an extremely disagreeable experience. Dakota Fanning is a sole bright spot, acting rather mature for a child supposedly going through a nightmare beyond all reason. Cruise is Cruise. Tim Robbins has a relatively small role as a basement dweller with odd ideas about how to deal with the alien violence. The pleasant Miranda Otto is completely wasted in the minor role as the children's mother. When the film ends, rather abruptly, a sigh of relief can be expected. D (11/22/05)

"Heights"-Another in the genre of films that connect seemingly unconnected people, "Heights" centers around one day in the life of Isabel Lee (Elizabeth Banks), a young photographer in New York City who is soon to be married to Jonathan (James Marsden), an attorney. Isabel has just been fired from her job and calls her mother, Diana (Glenn Close), a famed actress/drama teacher/director, who keeps raising doubts in Isabel's mind about the upcoming marriage. Diana, meanwhile, flirts with almost every available man she sees, and has just become distraught over learning that her husband (in a supposedly "open marriage") has a new girlfriend. One of the young men Diana tries to flirt with is Alec (Jesse Bradford), an actor who has auditioned for her, and who lives in the same building with Isabel and Jonathan. But there is one more vital element and that is the presence of Peter (John Light), an employee of a famed gay photographer (the unseen Benjamin), who is writing an article for Vanity Fair about Benjamin's former lovers. His attempts to find and contact those ex-lovers is the catalyst for the film and its ultimate denouement. Elizabeth Banks, who has always seemed to be secondary and in the background in her films, such as "Seabiscuit," in which she played Marcela Howard, the wife the horse's owner, is simply lovely and powerful as the hopeful but fragile young photographer. Glenn Close gives the best performance she's given in years, turning Diana into a vulnerable prima donna. Jesse Bradford ("Happy Endings") again makes an impression that is hard to forget as the slightly mysterious Alec. This is the kind of film American directors should be making. It's about interesting people, with a taut intriguing theme, and with gorgeous cinematography in a beautiful New York City. We can thank director Chris Terrio for that. This is his first feature film. May there be many more. A (11/18/05)

"Happy Endings"-Directed by Don Roos ("The Opposite of Sex), "Happy Endings" is one of a genre of recent films that reveal a series of seemingly unrelated characters and then carefully knit them all together. Roos accomplishes this in a slightly different manner, using rather humorous titles to tell parts of the tale ahead of time or even to project what will happen to the characters in the future. And it works, especially since the film has an effective cast. Lisa Kudrow, not always one of my favorite actors, is excellent as Mamie Toll, an abortion clinic worker who had been pregnant as a teen (with her step-brother, Charley Peppitone), and had headed out for an abortion. Now in her 30s, Mamie is confronted by a somewhat greasy Nicky (Jesse Bradford), who tells her that he knows that she gave away her child and that he can identify her son, but first she must allow him to make a documentary about her finding her son, so that he can join AFI. With the help of her lover Javier (Bobby Cannavale), Mamie convinces Nicky to make a film about Javier, a massage therapist who gives his rich female clients a little more than they have paid for. Charley (Steve Coogan), who lives with Gil (David Sutcliffe), runs a restaurant where Otis (Jason Ritter) is employed. Otis, a gay in the closet, is also a hopeful rocker, whose band hires Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) as their lead singer. Otis, who is sexually obsessed with Charley from afar, lives with his father Frank (Tom Arnold) who will soon find himself in Jude's clutches. Charley believes that Max, the son of a lesbian couple, Pam (Laura Dern) and Diane (Sarah Clarke), is actually the fruit of his lover Gil's seed, and starts actions that will result in the not always pleasant truth. The characters intermingle and connect in a way to tell a good human story about the uncertainties and vicissitudes of life. Of particular note in the film are Jesse Bradford as the sleazy and somewhat mysterious Nicky, Steve Coogan ("24-Hour Party People") as the sincere but confused Charley, and Bobby Cannavale ("The Station Agent") as the rather hysterical Javier. B+ (11/18/05)

"Born Into Brothels"-Some of the best films I've seen recently have been documentaries, films which often serve as a way of educating the viewers and making us feel good about situations that we otherwise would know nothing about or would pity. Zana Briski, the filmmaker (along with co-director Ross Kauffman), is a British-born photographer who decided in the 1990s to enter and photograph the world of the brothels of Calcutta, India, and discovered a whole other world of delightful, intelligent children (of the prostitutes) eager to be loved and to learn. Living in their homes, Briski gave them cameras and taught them about photography, and the kids produced intriguing beautiful photographs that have become collectors items. Briski also decided to help these children get out and get an education with the hope that the girls would avoid joining the "line" of prostitutes. The film takes us through the painful bureaucracy that Briski had to deal with. "Born Into Brothels" reveals a world that I know I've never seen before and surprises us with the charm and eagerness of the kids. Gorgeously photographed, "Born Into Brothels" is the tale of Briski's involvement with these wonderful children and her success with helping most of them. Since the film, Briski has created an organization called Kids With Cameras, dedicated to helping children in similar situations. "Born Into Brothels" won the 2004 Oscar for best feature documentary. Deservedly so! A (11/12/05)

"Last Days"-If I had never read a thing about this film and had no idea that it was "inspired" by the final days of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, I would have wondered what in the world was going on. "Last Days" is a fictional docudrama about a highly disturbed young man named Blake (Michael Pitt) with long blonde hair who wanders the lovely grounds and run-down estate he apparently owns. Initially, we see him meandering through the woods, muttering to himself, and becoming filthier and filthier. He's totally "spaced" and apparently living in a house with some other not clearly identified people, apparent rock group hangers-on, including Luke (Lukas Haas in a lowpoint of his acting career). Soon, via a phone call for which he shows little or no interest and visits from the occasional outside party, we begin to realize that Blake is intended to be a rock star who has either totally drugged himself out or is in a terminal state of mental illness. Directed by Gus Van Sant ("My Own Private Idaho" and "Good Will Hunting"), "Last Days" apparently had no real script and the performers were allowed to ad-lib their "dialogue," if you can call it that. The film has pretensions of art but is rather aimless, apparently intended to document the hopelessness of the main character's final hours. Little happens and most is simply dull to watch. Interspersed with the anomie of the characters, "Last Days" does contain a few humorous scenes. In one, the house is visited by a real yellow pages salesman (the real thing according to the DVD features) who talks sincerely to the completely wasted Blake. In another curious scene, two uptight Mormon missionaries proselytize one of the people in the house. Overall, however, "Last Days" is almost like watching time stand still. C- (11/11/05)

"Après Vouz"-When I think of French films, I think typically of movies loaded with scintillating dialogue about unique aspects of the human condition, whether tragedy or comedy. What I don't think of are hokey, unlikely stories, with dull, vapid dialogue. Unfortunately, "Après Vouz" fits neatly into the latter category. Daniel Auteuil plays Antoine Letoux , the maitre d' in a Parisian French restaurant. One night, when he's late for a date with his girlfriend, Antoine comes across Louis (José Garcia) trying to hang himself from a tree. Instinctively, he saves Louis and invites him home. When Louis tells Antoine that he was bereft over the loss of his girlfriend, Blanche (Sandrine Kiberlain), Antoine, against all likelihood, martyrs himself by devoting almost all of his time and attention to finding Blanche and reuniting her with Louis. In doing so, Antoine totally ignores and ultimately loses his girlfriend, Christine (Marilyne Canto). Antoine does ultimately find not only Blanche, but a job for the disturbed Louis as a sommelier in his restaurant, and this despite the fact that Louis knows nothing about wine. Not surprisingly, since this is somewhat of a romantic comedy, in the process of finding Blanche, Antoine falls for her making for some romantic complications. "Après Vouz" is loaded with humorless scenes of bumbling activity. Watching this film on DVD, I thought of turning it off at least three times, but held on to the unlikely, silly and bitter end. (In French with English subtitles) C- (11/11/05)

"Rize"-This original and unusual documentary is virtually a complement to "Mad Hot Ballroom," reviewed just below. Whereas in the latter, school kids in NY are taught carefully and methodically how to do ballroom dancing, "Rize" is about the completely natural growth of a dancing phenomenon in the homes and backyards of the Los Angeles ghettos of South Central and Watts. Filmmaker David LaChapelle says that he wasn't necessarily intending to make a documentary, but he learned of this dancing craze and he and cinematographer Morgan Susser found themselves capturing some of the most amazing and wonderful dance moves seen in a long time. These dances, known as clown and krump dancing, developed out of an intensive creative urge that clearly relates to the frustrations and dangers of ghetto life. The young dancers seen here, including Tommy the Clown, Dragon, and Miss Prissy, use their bodies for intense and dramatic expression of their feelings about life. The result is a magnificent sight to behold. LaChapelle also interviews several of the dancers who are surprisingly articulate. We thus get a very different and uplifting view of ghetto life than than the stereotypical vision one normally gets from the mass media. If there is a special highlight to be noted, it is the beautiful image of several of the dancers, soaking wet from sweat, viewed upwards against a blue sky, and moving to the inspirational sounds of "Oh Happy Day." This is one gorgeous film not to be missed. A (11/4/05)

"Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith"-So George Lucas first gave us the end of the story [episodes IV (the original "Star Wars") , V, and VI) and then went back to the "beginning" and gave us Episodes I and II to fill in the blanks so that we can see just what led to the events of the film we saw way back in 1977. It has only taken him 28 years to reach Episode III and finally explain how Anakin Skywalker, a young seemingly pleasant Jedi knight, turned into the evil Darth Vader, and became the father of the (later?earlier?) hero, Luke Skywalker . Was it worth the journey? Well, if you like special effects of space ships flying through mazes of massive enemy ships and fighting off little bug-like creatures that eat away at the outer skin of the fighter ship, you will love the opening scenes of this film. But the film then descends into a rather dreary tale about an astonishingly dull and weak Anakin (played in as inexpressive and leaden a manner as possible by Hayden Christensen) who is secretly married to the now pregnant Padmé (Natalie Portman), the former Queen and Senator Amidala. Anakin's dreams of Padmé's death in childbirth make him vulnerable to the evils of the Sith, and lead, at the end, to a rather hell-like scene of battle between the newly developed Lord Vader and his old friend and "brother," Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewen McGregor). Christensen's weaknesses as an actor are emphasized when he is around McGregor who exceeds him in expressiveness by leaps and bounds, literally and figuratively. Portman's minimalist acting as Padmé also doesn't help. But, of course, we learn how the new Skywalker offspring, Luke and Leia, wind up as they do, and see old friends like the heroic Yoda, and good old R2-D2 and C-3PO to provide some cheer while many of the Jedis are being wiped out (so easily?) by the Sith. At last, at the end, the stage is finally set for----yes, the story of the original "Star Wars" seen back in 1977. Yada, yada, yada. B- (11/4/05)

"Batman Begins"-I've never been a big fan of the "Batman" series which always seem to take place in a dreary dark hell of a city known as Gotham. Why anyone would have wanted to live in such a place, even in the comics, is beyond me. But "Batman Begins" is one of the better films of the series, simply because, strangely enough, the characters are less comic-like. In this film, directed by Christopher Nolan (who made the amazing "Memento"), the story of the creation of Batman unfolds. But it unfolds initially in somewhat of a blur as the tale is not easy to follow early on. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who has a morbid fear of bats, witnesses the shooting deaths of his parents, feels guilty for the loss, and finds himself somewhere in Asia where he mysteriously meets Ra's Al-Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), ninjas of a sort, who teach him their evil ways, only to find that he's not interested in their goals but rather in doing away with people like them. He returns to Gotham where, of course, he has lost his fear of bats and has inherited his parents' mansion and perfect butler, Alfred (Michael Caine). He and Alfred gradually build a bat cave, a batmobile, and an outfit and Wayne finds himself with miraculous powers to fly around and destroy the bad guys. Of course, as is almost always the case, the superhero is initally seen as a bad guy, a vigilante who takes the law into his hands and that, of course, is exactly what he is. But in the comics, vigilante superheros are heros and must win the day and save Gotham. Christian Bale is effective as the moody Wayne. Michael Caine provides a humorous and fatherly uplift to the rather dour aspect of Wayne's personality portrayed by Bale. Neeson and Watanabe are wasted in their evil ninja roles. Katie Holmes plays Rachel Dawes, Wayne's childhood friend, who grows into a prosecutor who Batman must save. Holmes, unfortunately, shows little talent for being an inspirational figure. "Batman Begins" certainly gives a good idea about how Batman came about. The question is: do we really care? C+ (10/29/05)

"Melinda and Melinda"-Auteur Woody Allen seems to have his mind on one thing and that is marital infidelity. "Melinda and Melinda" tells a similar tale from two points of view (at a dinner, Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine play writers making up the story as they go along), one humorous and one tragic. In each case, a couple finds that a woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) enters and ultimately disrupts their married life. In the tragic version, Laurel (Chloe Sevigny) and Lee (Jonny Lee Miller) are having a dinner party when old friend Melinda walks in out of the blue and soon finds herself living with them, having returned from a miserable married life elsewhere. In the comic version, Susan (Amanda Peet) and Hobie (Will Ferrell) are having a dinner party when downstairs neighbor Melinda asks for help. The film proceeds to jump back and forth, sometimes in a very confusing manner, between the two Melinda stories. I found myself constantly reminding myself which version I was watching. Needless to say, Melinda disrupts the outwardly happy marital situations and fun ensues. Will Ferrell does a good job of playing the Woody Allen character, but it would be interesting to envision a contemporary Woody Allen film without a Woody Allen character. Chloe Sevigny is excellent as Laurel whose life is disrupted by her old attractive and alluring friend. "Melinda and Melinda" reminds me of the old saw about Chinese food. It seems to be filling you up while you're watching, but you feel awfully hungry not long after watching it. C+ (10/28/05)

"Mad Hot Ballroom"-I attended P.S. 91 in the Bronx during the 1950s and can only imagine what it might have been like had there been a course on ballroom dancing. No, impossible. I cannot imagine it in that uptight decade. But since 1994, many of the public schools in New York City have had ballroom dancing training for ultimate citywide competition and this delightful documentary shows us the route that three schools (P.S. 150 (Tribeca), 115 (Washington Heights), and 112 (Bensonhurst)) took to try to make it to the finals at the magnificent Winter Garden in the World Financial Center (where they were judged by, among others, top dancer/choreographers Graciela Daniele, Ann Reinking, and Charlotte Jorgensen). It's thrilling to see these fifth graders be exposed to creativity that requires effort and motivation. The result, we learn, is that some of these kids who had behavioral problems, straightened out and became motivated by the joy of their efforts to excel. This is a lesson for American education which usually makes the arts the first thing to be cut when budget crunch time arrives. The film, directed by Marilyn Agrelo, not only reveals the inspiring and clever teachers (especially Yomaira and Rodney) and the dance classes that turn awkward young children into competitive dancers (albeit not quite ready for Broadway), but it contains wonderfully humorous insights into the thinking of the kids themselves. For once, New York City looks safe for children. The kids are not troubled and dangerous but rather mostly happy, eager, and full of desire to learn and compete. "Mad Hot Ballroom" ultimately focuses in on the children of one the three schools whose teachers have taught them extremely well and inspired them with, among other things, hot costumes. "Mad Hot Ballroom" is a joy. If you aren't smiling your head off by the end of this film, you're certainly missing something. A (10/21/05)

"Me and You and Everyone We Know"-Written and directed by its star, Miranda July, "Me and You and Everyone We Know," is an absorbing little film about an odd group of neighbors in Southern California. Miranda July is Christine Jesperson, a struggling performance artist and "elder cab" driver who is lonely and wrapped up in her rather amateurish attempts to create art with her video camera. She meets Richard Swersey (John Hawkes of "Deadwood"), a shoe salesman and is immediately attracted and aggressive, but Richard is so numbed by his recent separation from his wife and his difficulties communicating with his two young sons, that he rejects Christine's early advances. Meanwhile, we watch the doings of a variety of people who are interconnected with both Christine and Richard. Richard's two sons, teenage Peter (Miles Thompson) and very precocious youngster Robby (Brandon Ratcliffe), are suffering a form of ennui from the shock of their parents' separation and spend most of their time sending sexually provocative instant messages to a stranger on their computer. Young Robby actually gets to meet, later in the film, the person sending him pornographic instant messages. They meet at a park bench and this is truly one of the most humorous scenes in this somewhat eccentric film when we find out the rather surprising identity of the mysterious message sender. Richard's co-worker, Andrew (Brad William Henke) is socially inept and, when he meets two neighborhood teenage girls (Natasha Slayton and Najarra Townsend), starts placing pornographic messages in his window. The girls, rather than being offended, are instead intrigued and try out their techniques on Peter. "Me and You and Everyone We Know" felt to me like a perfect fit in the genre of films about Southern California (Valley?) angst. I could hardly imagine this group of characters existing anywhere else. It would seem that in Miranda July's vision of the world, everyone is suffering from something, whether it be loneliness, disquiet, or sexual anxieties. Miranda July has definitely made an impact and it will be interesting to see if this is a one shot deal or if she has a lot more to offer in the future. B+ (10/15/05)

"Lords of Dogtown"-In the 1950s I spent two summers in Pacific Ocean Park on the border of Venice and Santa Monica, CA. The POP pier and its attractions were the center of my young life during those months in California. As portrayed in "Lords of Dogtown," by the mid-1970s, the POP pier had become completely run down and had turned into a hot spot for hoods and surfers. Out of this culture came a group of teenage boys who moved from the water to the streets on their skateboards. With the invention of urethane wheels which allowed for far greater flexibility of movement, they changed skateboarding competitions from something resembling figure skating to the sport it is today. Due to a severe drought, the boys were able to try new skateboarding techniques in local (empty) swimming pools and ultimately turned the sport on its head. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke ("Thirteen"), "Lords of Dogtown" centers around the spaced-out owner of a local surfing shop, Skip Engblom (Heath Ledger), and the boys who initially skated as a team for his "Zephyr" shop, including Stacey Peralta (John Robinson), Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), and Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch). With a screenplay written by Stacey Peralta, "Lords of Dogtown" portrays the trials and tribulations of these young men and some of the young women around them (including Nikki Reed of "Thirteen" as Kathy Alva). The film is at times hyper and disconnected, but then again that seems to go with the territory. The acting ranges from over-the-top to practically non-existent. While "Lords of Dogtown" is hardly a great film it certainly provides an education into an unfamiliar culture that was rather unique to its time and place. B- (10/14/05)

"The Bridge of San Luis Rey"-Based on the classic novel by Thornton Wilder, "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" tells the story of a monk, Brother Juniper (Gabriel Byrne), placed on trial by the Inquisition in Peru for attempting to determine whether there was any "divine" connection that led five people to be on the bridge at the same time when it collapsed, sending all five to their deaths in the gorge below. Brother Juniper tells the story of the interconnecting characters, including The Marquesa (Kathy Bates), an old, somewhat dimwitted member of the aristocracy whose daughter has married a member of the Spanish court and has abandoned her for Madrid; Pepita (Adriana Domínguez), a maidservant sent from the abbey to care for the Marquesa by The Abbess (Geraldine Chaplin); Uncle Pio (Harvey Keitel), the head of the local theater; La Perichola (Pilar López de Ayala), the beautiful and talented star of Uncle Pio's acting group who ultimately suffers the worst fate an actress can experience; Esteban (Michael Polish), the survivor of mysterious twins who speak aloud only to each other; the Viceroy of Peru (F. Murray Abraham), head of the Inquisition; and the Archbishop of Peru (Robert DeNiro) who leads the inquiry for the Inquisition. Initially, the tale seems somewhat convoluted and requires patience to learn how events and characters relate. Wilder's tale raises serious themes about the Church and religion, but the impact is weakened by the poor direction of the film which makes it difficult to follow the logic of the story. What's worse is that "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" is marked by some of the poorest acting I've seen in years. Robert DeNiro in particular is atrocious. He sounds virtually amateurish, as if he were reading his lines in a run-through of the script. The performances of Harvey Keitel and Kathy Bates are initially weakened by their harsh American accents, but improve as the film goes along. F. Murray Abraham, on the other hand, is powerful as the wicked and selfish Viceroy. Most impressive are the performances of lesser known actors, including two Spanish women, Pilar López de Ayala and Adriana Domínguez, and Dominique Pinon who plays the Viceroy's fop. C+ (10/13/05)

"Kingdom of Heaven"-In a way, this epic about the Crusades in the 12th Century, reminds me a little of a Reader's Digest condensed book. The filmmakers have taken a complex history involving many characters and events that occurred over many years, and whittled the whole thing down to a relatively simple story occurring over a relatively short period of time. Directed by Ridley Scott ("Gladiator"), "Kingdom of Heaven" takes us back to the Middle Ages when European Christians had decided to take possession of Jerusalem by force, destroying the "infidel" occupants. The Muslims, now led by Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), who is shown as a man of admirable restraint, await their opportunity to retake the walled city. Balian (Orlando Bloom) is a blacksmith whose wife has just committed suicide and whose body has been decapitated by a priest so that she will be headless in hell. Upon meeting his good-hearted crusading father, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), Balian murders the priest and heads off to follow Godfrey and his men to Jerusalem where it is controlled by the Crusaders. Under the leadership of a young Leper king (Baldwin, played by Edward Norton although his face is never seen), Jerusalem is seen as a place of some tolerance. But waiting in the background is the fanatic Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas), married to Baldwin's sister Sibylla (Eva Green), and hoping to destroy the forces of Saladin. This epic film gives us our usual fill of romance and intrigue, but Director Scott and the writer, William Monahan, have also given us a rather benign view of the leading figures and their motivations. Balian, who turns rather quickly from a blacksmith into an sword-bearing knight, is portrayed as virtually agnostic. Godfrey and Baldwin, and Baldwin's adviser, Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), appear to be reasonable individuals. Saladin seems to lack the hate one would expect towards invaders who have taken over his people's homeland. Somehow all of these reasonable people have found themselves in the middle of a war of religious fanaticism. But, of course, there is always Guy de Lusignan to represent the fanatic Christians. When Baldwin dies, Guy becomes the king and leads his followers into a hopeless battle in the desert. Orlando Bloom is pleasant to watch as the almost superhero Balian. Other performances of note are those of David Thewlis and Kevin McKidd as Godfrey's men; Brendan Gleeson as one of Guy's evil fanatics; and the French actress Eva Green as the lovely Sibylla, married to Guy but in love, of course, with Balian.

The fillmmakers had the opportunity to provide a real commentary on the murderous intent of the Crusaders (at one point a man, possibly a priest, is heard to encourage the Crusaders to murder the infidel in the name of "God") but entertainment, of course, requires entertainment values and "Kingdom of Heaven" ultimately turns into a "real-life" version of "Lord of the Rings." The difference is that here the monsters are human. B- (10/11/05)

"My Summer of Love"-This is a film about class and human needs. Nathalie Press plays Mona, a young woman in rural Yorkshire, who needs some love. She is stuck in a dull home with her ex-con brother (Paddy Considine) who has now turned the pub they live in into a gathering place for Jesus freaks. Mona, who is utterly cynical of her brother's new interests and activities, rides her motorless motorbike into the country only to meet Tamsin (Emily Blunt), a young lady of the upper class on horseback. As the playful Tamsin is home from school and her parents practically leave her alone in the large house in which they live, Mona finds herself utterly attracted to Tamsin and pulled into her environment and life, thinking that she has found love and opportunity where it didn't exist before. She will soon find that expectations and realities are not always the same. "My Summer of Love," directed by Pavel Pawlikowski, is a charming little look into country life and the differences in attitudes between the classes. Both Nathalie Press and Emily Blunt were honored in England for their excellent performances in this delightful film. B+ (10/7/05)

"The Interpreter"-Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), an interpreter in the UN's General Assembly, returns to her booth after hours to pick up some belongings left behind and overhears someone on the floor of the Assembly discussing the apparent upcoming murder of an African tyrant. Ms. Broome just happens to come from that (fictional) African country, speaks its native language, and thus understands what she hears and that she is in danger. We next meet the brooding Secret Service agent, Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), who is just getting over the accidental death of his wife, and his sidekick, the cooler Dot Woods (Catherine Keener), whose job it is to investigate Ms. Broome's claims and protect the African leader, no matter how repulsive he may be. It soon becomes obvious that Keller doesn't quite trust Ms. Broome and that she is more involved and has more knowledge of what is going on than she admits. In many ways, "The Interpreter," directed by Sydney Pollack (who appears as Keller's superior), is an interesting though somewhat contrived cat and mouse thriller. Can Silvia Broome be trusted? Does Keller know what he's doing? Despite a good start, the film ultimately drags and the outcome seems to contradict the very premise of the film. Nicole Kidman, seemingly overexposed in the cinema in recent years, does a fine job as the African-born white woman with a conscience. Sean Penn seems to be too distracted by his morose mood to be effective and ultimately comes across as antithetical to the image of the typical movie federal agent. He's certainly no Jack Bauer. French/Israeli actor Yvan Attal ("My Wife is an Actress") is Philippe, a photographer, who knows the secret of the fate of Silvia's brother, Simon, a revolutionary who has been campaigning against the African leader. The film was shot on location in New York City and in the actual United Nations, giving it a much greater feel of authenticity. B (10/7/05)

"Schultze Gets the Blues"-Schultze (Horst Krause) is one of three friends just retiring as mine workers in eastern Germany. Writer/director Michael Schorr wanted to make it very clear that life is quite dull for these men. The camera lingers on boring landscapes of windmills, train crossings, and slag heaps. Schultze is shown going from one dull activity to another both within and outside his home. In fact, it takes awhile before we actually focus in on Schultze, a somewhat obese single gentleman, who enjoys playing the accordion. One day, listening to the radio, he hears Zydeco music from Louisiana, and starts playing it with inspiration on his accordion, rather than his usual polka music. But when he tries to play the Zydeco at a local music fest, he invites racial slurs. Schultze, however, is inspired to explore and starts thinking of venturing off to Louisiana to learn more about his new musical inspiration. His friends ultimately send him on a trip to a German music festival in New Braunfels, Texas, and Schultze begins a misadventure of discovery when he finds himself in the bayous of Louisiana. "Schultze Gets the Blues" has its moments, but unfortunately drags a little too much and ultimately ends up in Schultze engaging in a mysterious and unlikely solo boat trip. Despite its flaws, Horst Krause is quite charming as the curious Mr. Schultze and this earns this film at least a B (9/23/05) (Mostly in German with English subtitles)

"Fever Pitch"-Nick Hornby's novel about a British football fanatic and his romantic woes (also a film a few years back) has here been turned into a similar tale about a genuine member of the Red Sox Nation in its greatest year. Directed by the Farrelly brothers without the expected tasteless humor, "Fever Pitch" manages to convey the magic, thrill and attraction of baseball and how that attraction can get in the way of a good romance. Jimmy Fallon is Ben, who has owned season tickets near the Red Sox dugout at Fenway Park since he inherited them as a child from his uncle. His life, even his career as a schoolteacher, seems to revolve around his obsession, with Red Sox paraphernalia everywhere and annual spring rites that must be exercised before he and his friends can enjoy the expected painful season. But one day Ben takes a math class to meet Lindsey Meeks (Drew Barrymore), a young mathemetician, and Ben's life takes a turn as he must deal with the ultimate choices between love and Fenway Park. The romance in "Fever Pitch" is a little sappy, but the film genuinely conveys the obsession that many young men feel for the wonderful game of baseball. Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore seem to have some good chemistry although the film contains some unlikely events (such as Lindsey walking off with merely a bump on the head after being hit head-on by a line drive). Since the film takes place during the 2004 baseball season, it has, as one might expect, a very happy ending. B (9/17/05)

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"-In the early 1980's the BBC produced a TV series based on Douglas Adams' wonderful tale of a man who survives the destruction of the earth and manages to travel the galaxy meeting various kinds of unusual characters. This earthling, Arthur Dent, was played by Simon Jones who makes a brief appearance in this updated film version of that series. Adams undoubtedly had some things to say about human nature and bureaucracy, among other things, and the filmmakers of the current version throw in a few references that certainly could be taken to be sarcastic with regard to a certain current familiar world "leader." Arthur Dent, now played in an appropriately droll manner by Martin Freeman ("The Office"), is about to lose his house to bureaucratic road-builders when he is saved by an alien, Ford Prefect (the charming and talented Mos Def), upon the similar destruction of the earth by an alien "construction crew." These aliens are rather ugly creatures who know nothing better than that everything requires forms in triplicate. But the journey takes Arthur and Ford through various adventures, including seeking the meaning of life with the help of the rather two-faced president of the galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox (played with zest and great humor by Sam Rockwell), a depressed robot (played hysterically--the voice, that is--by Alan Rickman), and the one other surviving human, Trillian (the adorable Zooey Deschanel), a young lady who had once offered Arthur a far more simple adventure to Madagascar. "The Hitchhiker's Guide" is a fun combination of philosophy, with a genuine English touch, and sci-fi. B+ (9/16/05)

"Crash"-Having just seen a lighthearted attempt at dealing with race relations ("Beauty Shop"), it was quite a contrast to see this heavyhanded treatment of the same subject. "Crash" is one of a genre of LA/San Fernando Valley films ("Magnolia,""Falling Down," and "2 Days In the Valley" are examples) that seem intent on making Los Angeles appear to be one of the worst places on earth to live. "Crash" brings together people of various races and relations to demonstrate that there's hate (and salvation?) around every corner. Just some examples: Matt Dillon is Sgt. Ryan, a racist LA police officer, who, with little cause, pulls over a well-to-do black couple, Cameron, a TV director, and Christine, his wife (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton) and proceeds to verbally harass Cameron while sexually harrassing Christine, only to find himself the next day saving Christine from the clutches of an overturned automobile close to blowing up; Ryan's partner, Officer Hanson (Ryan Phillippe) is repelled by Ryan's racist behavior and asks to be transferred (over the unlikely but cinematically predictable hostility of a black superior officer played by Keith David) only to find himself first saving Cameron from another unlikely police incident on the following day in which Cameron ultimately chooses to protect the young black man who is trying to steal his car (Ludacris) in angry rejection of the aid of the young white officer, and then racially profiling a young black hitchhiker (Larenz Tate) he picks up later in the film, with disastrous consequences; Don Cheadle is Detective Waters, sleeping with his white police partner (Jennifer Esposito), and unsuccessfully seeking out his messed-up brother (who just turns out to be the hitchhiker picked up by Officer Hanson); the DA (Brendan Fraser) and his up-tight wife (Sandra Bullock) show concern in a white neighborhood over two young black males only to have the two immediately pull guns and steal their Lincoln Navigator; the two young black men (Ludacris and Tate) have just been engaged in a deep sociological discussion of race relations only to turn around and do exactly what they admit whites fear. There's a lot more. Here's another typical heavyhanded combination: a young Hispanic locksmith (Michael Pena) is verbally insulted by the DA's wife after installing new locks at her home; he is then shown having an obviously difficult communication with a gun-owning Persian storekeeper about the need to repair the store's back door despite the new lock that the locksmith has installed, then talking to his young daughter at home about her fear of bullets , and, finally, an absurd and utterly predictable attempt by the Persian man, whose store has now been pillaged through that back door, to kill the Hispanic locksmith, resulting in the endangerment of the locksmith's young daughter. The multiple interactions of the characters in such a brief period of time defies coincidence and logic. It's almost as if the characters in the film make up their own little universe. It's simply too much to accept in a 24-hour period even in an allegory of a film. This exaggeration overwhelms the theme of racial hostility. C+ (9/7/05)

"Criminal"-Based on a recent (2000) Argentinian film called "Nine Queens," this has to be one of the most forced and unlikely caper movies of all-time. John C. Reilly is Richard Gaddis, a ruthless scam artist. One day, while hanging around a casino, he observes Rodrigo (Diego Luna) trying to cheat waitresses, but unsuccessfully. Acting like a cop, Gaddis arrests Rodrigo, takes him outside and then talks him into joining him as a partner in his swindling game. Rodrigo is somewhat reluctant, but gradually gets drawn in as he observes Gaddis' clever but nasty methods of cheating others of their hard-earned cash. Suddenly, while Gaddis is visiting his hostile sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is a concierge at the LA Biltmore Hotel, Gaddis and Rodrigo fall into a deal to sell forged valuable currency to a foreign collector (Peter Mullan) who is in the hotel and must leave the country in order to avoid taxes (as outlined conveniently in the local paper). The story proceeds with the expected twists and turns, doublecrosses, and the ultimate and expected surprise ending. To its credit, "Criminal" uses little or no special effects or technology. It's character based and has some first-rate acting. The problem is that the plot simply contains too many unlikely events and is based on so many assumptions that the plotters would have had to have been mind-readers in order to succeed, as they do in the film. I kept wondering who was going to lose out in the end. When it was over, I decided it was the viewer. C (9/7/05)

"Beauty Shop"-"Beauty Shop" is a comedy, but it ultimately turns out to be a somewhat awkward tale of difficulty in race relations when Gina Norris (Queen Latifah) quits her job as a hairstylist at a fancy Atlanta salon run by a self-centered and arrogant Jorge (played rather amusingly by Kevin Bacon with blonde locks and a strange Germanic accent) and starts her own shop in an African-American neighborhood. Gina, living with a musically talented young daughter (Paige Hurd) and ex-in-laws, buys an old hair salon and transforms it into her own despite hostile employees of the former owner, electrical problems and a city inspector intent on putting her out of business. The shop ultimately becomes a central station for race relations as Gina not only hires Lynn (Alicia Silverstone), a young white Georgia woman as a hairstylist, but also attracts some of Jorge's former rich and white customers, including the naive Terri (Andi Macdowell), and Joanne (Mena Suvari). The heart of the cast are the black members of the staff and surrounding community, including Golden Brooks as Chanel, a hairstylist who isn't afraid to say what she thinks; Alfre Woodard (looking wonderful) as Ms. Josephine, another member of the outspoken staff; Bryce Wilson as James, the only male hairstylist who most think is gay until he shows some punch and woos Lynn; and Little JJ as Willie, a boy who initially gets thrown out of the shop for his insulting language, but ultimately saves the shop due to his penchant for videotaping the rather impressive "bootys" of the neighborhood. The cast also includes Djimon Hounsou as Joe, the piano-playing electrician living above the shop. "Beauty Shop," despite a good cast, never really seems too comedic and somehow merely manages to pass the time of day. B- (9/6/05)

"Sahara"-Based on a Clive Cussler adventure novel, Matthew McConaughey plays Dirk Pitt, a deep sea salvager looking for a lost Civil War ironclad in the deserts of Africa. Make sense? Well, no, but you can't take seriously any of the stories involved in this type of "Indiana Jones" genre. Somehow Pitt and his humorous sidekick Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) find themselves traveling into a West African country dominated by a ruthless dictator, with a World Health Organization doctor, Eva Rojas (Penélope Cruz) who is seeking to find the source of a seeming plague that threatens the population. Of course, the dictator wants Dr. Rojas dead and the the result is a wild and crazy adventure with high speed boat battles and camel adventures, and hints of James Bond music in the background. "Sahara" is mindless fun with a fairly decent cast. McConaughey has the right look for the fearless adventurer and Zahn adds a touch of Hope and Crosby feel that makes this seem, at times, almost like a "Road" picture. Cruz does her job as the sexy doctor who will do anything to save mankind. William H. Macy is the "Admiral," who provides the support for Dirk and Giordino and manages to lose at least one good boat in the process. Also of note is Rainn Wilson ("Six Feet Under") as Rudi Gunn, the scientific member of the "Road" trio, and Delroy Lindo as an agent who really doesn't want to get involved. B- (9/5/05)

"Layer Cake"-It all seems so familiar. The self-assured young gangster who is confident that he knows what he's doing and isn't really a gangster. He's so confident that he brags about how perfect his setup is and that he's thinking of retiring. But he finds himself so entangled in "the layer cake" of the underworld as his situation unravels in a world of multiple switches and doublecrosses. In fact, the switches and doublecrosses come so fast and furious that at times it's almost hard to keep track of what's going on and who's who. But despite the somewhat clichéd theme, the extraordinary cast of British actors turns this film into something beyond the ordinary. Daniel Craig ("Enduring Love") is the handsome and nameless self-assured cocaine dealer who is dragged down, first by his "boss," Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), who demands that he take on the extraordinary task of finding the daughter of his colleague, Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon), and then by Eddie himself who convinces him that Jimmy is working with the police. Jumping back and forth between the fairly unruffled character Craig portrays and some of the bumbling fools and frightening characters who undo his existence, "Layer Cake" is a taut and intriguing film, although the "surprise" ending is somewhat predictable. Others of note are the wonderful Colm Meaney as one of Jimmy's henchmen, and Sienna Miller in a brief role as Craig's character's love interest. B+ (8/28/05)

"Dear Frankie"-Emily Mortimer is Lizzie Morrison, a young mother of Frankie (Jack McElhone), a 9-year-old deaf boy who has been misled by his mother into believing that his absent father is at sea on a ship called the Accra. In fact, the real father is not far off and Lizzie and her mother (Mary Riggans), with Jack, have been running away from the father for good reason, moving from town to town. When Frankie discovers that a real ship named Accra is arriving in the Scottish port where they live, and makes a bet with a friend that his father will come to see him, Lizzie decides to hire someone to play Frankie's "Da." She turns to her friend and co-worker Marie (Sharon Small) and a handsome stranger (Gerard Butler) enters the scene. The stranger is perfect: good-looking, charming and caring of Frankie's needs and desires. While Frankie almost never talks in the film, we hear his narration (spoken by Jonathan Pender) and insight, spoken perfectly in his imagination. "Dear Frankie" is a charming little movie that is stretched a little too thin and has a somewhat unconvincing ending. It's revealed in a feature on the DVD that the story was originally meant to be rather short, possibly no more than 15 minutes in length. Director Shona Auerbach decided to make it into a feature-length tale. And there lies its weakness. But despite its weaknesses, it's a charming tale. Jack McElhone is perfect as the deaf kid who has no intention of becoming a victim. Emily Mortimer is excellent as the young mother who is fed up with men and trying desperately to protect her son, even with lies. B (8/26/05)

"Sin City"-I checked out Frank Miller's graphic comic book novels at the bookstore before watching this cinematic recreation of his stories. There is no question but that director Robert Rodriguez, with Miller's participation, has done a masterful job of putting on film the look and feel of Miller's books. "Sin City" takes us into a different dimension, a world in which there is no daytime and virtually everything is in black and white. Everything except the occasional touch of color. A red dress here, green eyes there, a yellow man, standing out blaringly in a world of ebony and ivory. If movies were strictly to be rated on the basis of technical achievement, "Sin City" would be a leader for an award. But there are those additional elements that are pretty important if one has any gray matter: the theme and the story. "Sin City" is a good subject for consideration of the value of theme and story because the film certainly is an experience to watch. And can the experience be brought down by the ultra-seedy nature of the tale? Or tales. There are basically three primarily elements to the story and they are all graphic and ultra-violent. Bruce Willis is Hartigan, a tough old cop who saves a young girl named Nancy from a monster rapist, and then is framed by the evil powers of society, spending years in solitary confinement, to be saved only by the letters of that young girl. When he finally gets out, he puts Nancy (now 19, an exotic dancer played by the gorgeous Jessica Alba) in danger by looking for her. In the second connected tale, Marv (Mickey Rourke) is an ugly square-jawed tough who falls for a prostitute named Goldie (Jaime King), only to find, in the morning, that she has been murdered in the bed next to him. He vows vengeance and begins a tirade of violence in which he and his victims are shot, stabbed, and garroted in multiples of ten. Finally, there is the tale of the girls of Old Towne, the prostitutes who have had a truce with the corrupt police and with the mob so long as they follow certain rules. When Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro) comes to Old Towne and harrasses one of the girls, the gang of prostitutes, led by Gail (Rosario Dawson) and Miho (Devon Aoki), take care of Jackie Boy and his hoods, only to find to their dismay that Jackie Boy is a cop and that they have violated the rules of the truce. Enter Dwight (Clive Owen), Gail's man, to try and save the day by disposing of the evidence of their rules violation. "Sin City" contains virtually every form of violence imaginable and shown to the ultra-degree. Not surprising for a film from Robert Rodriguez. The story seems to have no purpose other than to show bullets tearing bodies apart and bodies being torn asunder by numerous other means. Even good and evil seem irrelevant in this onslaught. Why we as a society seem so obsessed with mutilation and death that it is acceptable as the entire theme of a film is an issue that requires more than a film review. But nevertheless there it is. Of note in "Sin City" is Carla Gugino, in a surprisingly sexy role as Lucille, a lesbian parole officer. B (8/26/05)

"Look at Me"-Invariably, the French cinema deals with the nitty gritty of daily human life and this film is one perfect example. Directed by and starring Agnès Jaoui, "Look at Me" is about the various power relationships and interrelationships of two French authors and their families. Jean-Pierre Bacri is Étienne Cassard, a leading writer who is married to a young beauty, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts), but virtually ignores her and his grown daughter by a previous marriage, Lolita (Marilou Berry). In fact, his disregard for Lolita borders on the contemptuous. Lolita, who is overweight and self-conscious, believes that all men who seem interested in her are actually interested in the advantages that come with knowing her father. Lolita is a singer and her choral group is being trained for a concert by Sylvia Millet (Agnès Jaoui) who is married to an up-and-coming novelist, Pierre Millet (Laurent Grévill). Sylvia feels the choral group and Lolita are taking up too much of her time until she discovers that Lolita is the daughter of Cassard, her favorite writer. Predictably, her attitude towards Lolita changes drastically and thus we have the theme of the power of celebrity. Needless to say, these two families begin to interact considerably. Meanwhile, Lolita has met a young man who calls himself Sébastien (Keine Bouhiza), but believing he's after contact with her father, she treats him miserably despite the fact that he seems to genuinely enjoy being with her. Written by Jaoui and Bacri, a married couple in real life, "Look at Me" considers the relative value of power versus the need to consider the basic values of life. Bacri does a marvelous job of playing a thoughtless and self-centered, albeit creative, jerk. Jaoui is impressive as the wife of the up-and-coming writer who is initially a little too taken with Cassard's fame. Marilou Berry does an excellent job as the self-deprecating angry daughter who doesn't hate her father, she just wants "to kill him." In French with English subtitles. B+ (8/13/05)

"Off The Map"-This is one of those rare American films that's actually about human feelings and relationships. Directed by Campbell Scott, "Off The Map" is told by Bo, a woman (Amy Brenneman) in the present, thinking back to her childhood. It is 1974 and her family is living on virtually no income on a farm near Taos, New Mexico. Sam Elliott is Charley Groden, the depressed husband who doesn't believe in working for others, sits and stares, and resists the idea of taking medication or getting better. Joan Allen is Arlene, the tough resilient wife and mother who gardens in the nude. Valentina de Angelis is young Bo, their daughter, who seems just a little too quick-witted and sharp-tongued for the locale in which she has grown up. In the midst of this family life is Charley's friend George (J. K. Simmons), who works for Mountain Bell and always seems to be at the family's beck and call. Then, one day, an IRS agent comes calling. He is William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost) who, upon seeing the mind-numbing beauty of the scenery and of the naked Arlene in the garden, immediately collapses (after being stung by a bee) and falls into a virtually permanent and natural relationship with the Groden family. Any thoughts of back taxes are quickly forgetten as William, in a constant state of revery, develops talents as a brilliant artist. Centered around Bo, who is a self-reliant and clever young girl who gets a little carried away, the film contains a great deal of appreciation of nature and human nature. The scene in which a boat arrives on a trailer in this land-locked area, a gift from Bo to her father for his birthday (and charged on her secretly acquired credit card), is beautiful and funny and yet, at the same time, absurd when one considers the financial state of this family. But I can't deny the lovely nature of this Campbell Scott creation although at times the script sounds more like a stage play than a film. In fact, it is based on a play by Joan Ackermann. Joan Allen, as always, excels. B+ (8/12/05)

"Kung Fu Hustle"-There's plenty of ultra-kung fu with a touch of comedy thrown in, swords and people flying, characters being mowed down, even a magical musical killing machine, and attempts to make this look like "Kill Bill" or a sequel to "House of Flying Daggers," but there is little or no story and no charm. Ultimately, "Kung Fu Hustle" is mindless and empty violence. And dull at that. D- (8/12/05)

"Downfall"-Having just viewed "Alexander," a film about one conquering maniac, responsible for the deaths of thousands, I moved onto the tale of the ultimate megalomaniac, Adolph Hitler. I'm not quite sure why the producers felt the need to make this film, but it portrays the last days of Hitler in his bunker in March and April 1945. The film is based on the story of Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), one of Hitler's secretaries who claims (the real Traudl Junge, who died in 2002, appears as an old lady in an introduction) that she didn't really know what was going on in the concentration camps and later couldn't "forgive" herself for what she did. Of course, it is virtually inconceivable that someone that close to Hitler and his daily correspondence from 1942 to 1945 could not have known what was happening to Europe's Jews. In an interview in September 2000, Junge revealingly described Hitler as "kind, paternal and fond of gossip." And I found it more revealing in the DVD's interviews that some of the actors, including Ms. Lara and Bruno Ganz (who plays Hitler), seemed uncomfortable and almost embarrassed to have played these roles. Bruno Ganz is made to look a lot like the real Hitler, but the character seen on film comes across as far too human to be believable. Hitler no doubt had his human moments, as difficult as it is to imagine, but Ganz's face and expressions seem too warm and caring about others, certainly consistent with Ms. Junge's view of "Der Fuhrer." Hitler has an occasional blowup in which he resembles the Hitler we know well from his charismatic filmed speeches to adoring and saluting throngs, but Ganz almost immediately falls back into the portrayal of a soft-spoken, broken man who looks and sounds like someone who wouldn't harm a flea. Oh, the script manages to have Hitler make one or two simplistic vile references to Jews, but overall one would have no idea what these people had been up to. On the other hand, "Downfall" is an effective portrayal of the miserable end of these miserable people. Especially chilling is the cold-blooded murder by Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) of her own five children. In fact, Magda is portrayed as so cold-blooded that one could almost imagine her as the leader of the Nazis. The acting is effective. The sets and costumes are realistic. My complaint is with the humanizing of these mass murderers. B- (8/5/05)

"Alexander"-I viewed Oliver Stone's so-called "director's cut" on DVD. This film tells Alexander's story as close to the facts of history as one is likely to get. Growing up with the background of intrigue between his father the king, Phillip of Macedonia (Val Kilmer) and his mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie), Alexander (Colin Farrell) develops into a megalomaniacal leader of the Macedonian/Greek armies and sets out on a conquest of the world that takes him and his weary troops first to Persia where he overcomes Darius of Babylon and then as far east as what is now India and Pakistan. Ultimately losing his beloved horse Bucephalus in a battle against Indian troops armed with elephants, Alexander also begins to lose the support of his own troops who desire to return to Macedonia to see their families after so many years of war. Stone tells Alexander's story through the narration of Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), once one of Alexander's faithful, and now the ancient leader of Egypt. Jumping back and forth in time in order to lead the viewer by the nose through the logic of Alexander's being and motivations, Stone takes us from Alexander's early education with Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) through his ultimate death at age 33, possibly at the hands of his generals although that is certainly not made clear. Stone does not hesitate to show Alexander as a likely homosexual who desired his friend Hephaestion (Jared Leto) more than his Persian wife, Roxane (Rosario Dawson). The story of Alexander is truly epic but unfortunately Stone has made such a mishmash of the tale that it turns into a gigantic bore. I was shocked at the poor sound. So much of the narration and dialogue is drowned out by background noise, including music and general clamor, that at times one seems to be listening more to the noise and not to the words. Stone insists on going back and forth in time. One minute we are at a battle in India and the next it is 10 years earlier in Macedonia, the director's method of explaining the significance of later events. While each jump back in time helps to explain later events, a more linear telling of the tale without the excessive noise and pomp might have made this a far more effective and dramatic tale. Stone overwhelms the senses and undoes his own film. "Alexander" is somewhat enlightening to one who might not know the history of Alexander the Great, but it's certainly a tough haul to find out how the story ends. C+ (8/5/05)

"The Upside of Anger"-This domestic tale is based on an absurd premise. Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) is a married woman with four late-teen or college-age daughters who lives in the Detroit suburbs. When her husband disappears one day, she assumes he has run off with his Swedish secretary but no one bothers to call the police, check the closet to see if any of his belongings are missing, or call the secretary to try to reach him. And when he doesn't call for almost three years, none of the members of the family ever questions the "fact" that he's run off. Meanwhile, Terry, who has, according to her youngest daughter Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood), always been nice, turns into a bitter and angry woman who takes to drink. Conveniently, along comes neighbor and former baseball player Denny Davies (Kevin Costner, in at least his third iteration as a baseball player of one sort or another), who does a radio talk show (about anything but baseball), is a lush, and is interested in Terry. What follows is the tale of an angry "wronged" woman who takes out her bitterness on almost everyone she has around her or meets. Can Denny tame her? Can he control himself? Will Terry's lovely daughters do what she wants and respect her crisis? The latter include Erika Christensen ("Traffic") as daughter Andy who doesn't want to go to college and gets a job and a middle-age creepy boyfriend/producer at Denny's radio station; Keri Russell as a daughter who wishes to be a dancer despite her mother's cynicism and becomes sick due to stress; and Alicia Witt as Hadley who goes off to college and simply wants to settle down with the father of her unborn child. Joan Allen is perfect as the tense, uptight, and angry Terry who, of course, mellows as the story progresses (the "upside" of anger). Kevin Costner is better than usual as the somewhat disheveled and slightly addled ex-ballplayer. The creepy "misunderstood" boyfriend/producer is played by Mike Binder ("The Mind of the Married Man" TV series) who turns out to be writer and director of the film. Ultimately, "The Upside of Anger" is the downside of a rather weak plot situation with somewhat unrealistic characters and situations. C+ (7/30/05)

"My Architect: A Son's Journey"-In 1974, a leading American architect, Louis Kahn, just home from India, suffered a heart attack at age 73 in a bathroom in Penn Station, NYC, and died alone. Despite his stature as an American architect, Kahn was bankrupt and had crossed his address out on his passport, thus failing to be identified for several days. His son, Nathaniel Kahn, who was then 11, knew his father but not well and now, as an adult, decided to set out on a filmmaking journey to discover what he could of this man. This Oscar-nominated documentary beautifully and lovingly tells a great deal about a rather mysterious man. Kahn, who was born in Estonia and suffered burns to his face as a child, was married and had a daughter, Sue Ann Kahn. He also had two other children outside of his marriage, a daughter, Alex Tyng, by an architect in his firm, Anne Tyng, and Nathaniel by a landscape architect he worked with, Harriet Pattison. By interviewing many people who knew Louis Kahn, including Vincent Scully, I. M. Pei, Robert A. M. Stern, Philip Johnson, and Frank Gehry, we learn that to some Kahn was a warm charming man and to others he was distant, a nomad who seemed to live more off work than his personal relationships with the women and children of his life. Somehow he kept his three families apart, although they all seemed to know of each other. Nathaniel Kahn does a magnificent job exploring his father's creations, ranging from some rather ugly reinforced concrete buildings to the majestic capitol of Bangladesh, the beautifully lit Kimbell Art Museum in Dallas, and the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA. Kahn, who taught at Yale, also was the architect on two buildings of which I'm quite familiar, the Yale Art Gallery and the Yale Museum of British Art in New Haven, CT. This is an extremely impressive and fascinating exploration of a man's life from the point of view of the son who wished he had known more of his father. This documentary should not be missed. A (7/24/05)

"In My Country"-This film, also known as "Country of My Skull," is about the reconciliation of blacks and whites in South Africa after the fall of the Afrikaans government and the beginning of the new South Africa under Nelson Mandela. Amazingly, despite the monstrous behavior of the South African government against the blacks under Apartheid, the new government decided to excuse those guilty of the crimes as long as they agreed to speak openly about them and show that they were acting under orders from above. Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche) is an anti-Apartheid Afrikaans radio reporter whose job it is to cover the "Truth and Reconciliation" hearings and it's not long before she meets the cynical Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson), a Washington Post reporter who is shocked at the lack of punishment for those who murdered and tortured South African blacks. Along with Anna's sound man Dumi (Menzi Ngubane), Anna and Langston travel from hearing to hearing listening to tales of horror and woe. Meanwhile, Whitfield finds himself interviewing one of the most murderous officials of the old government (Brendan Gleeson) who provides a significant clue that will incriminate higher ups and cause havoc in Anna's own family. Some have criticized the romance that develops between Anna and Langston as a weakness of the film, but in fact it provides a welcome contrast to the serious and depressing nature of the subject matter. I found "In My Country" effective in its telling of the tale of the rather astounding reconciliation that occurred after the rise of the Mandela government. Both Juliette Binoche and Samuel L. Jackson do a fine job in roles that require somewhat of a rollercoaster of emotions. Notable is Menzi Ngubane as Dumi, a happy character who will meet an unfortunate fate. B+ (7/23/05)

"A Very Long Engagement"-With echoes of "Paths of Glory," the Stanley Kubrick film about the cold-blooded nature of French officers during World War I, "A Very Long Engagement" centers around a similar tale of a group of French soldiers who are seemingly unfairly sentenced to die for mutilating themselves to get out of battle. Instead of being shot, they are forced helpless out of the trenches into "No Man's Land" where it is expected they will die in the crossfire. But unlike Kubrick's great anti-war film, Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet ("Amelie") has created a rather strange and tiresome romance. One of the five soldiers is Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) whose handicapped fianceé, Mathilde (Audrey Tautoo), is convinced that he has somehow survived and she begins a long search that takes her well past the end of the war. Despite getting off to a good start and including some genuinely humorous scenes, "A Very Long Engagement" quickly descends into a wearisome and confusing detective story in which Mathilde; a private investigator she hires (Ticky Holgado); and Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard), the lover of one of the five, all seek out the culprits and the truth, and the end is not terribly surprising. Audrey Tautoo, who was wonderful in "Amelie" is beautiful and charming as the determined Mathilde. One pleasant surprise is the appearance of the French-speaking Jodie Foster as Elodie Gordes, the wife of one of the five who tells her tale to Mathilde. Filmed in a golden hue, and using some of the clever techniques of "Amelie" this Jeunet effort is overblown and ultimately dull. A pity. (In French with English subtitles). C+ (7/16/05)

"Million Dollar Baby"-Clint Eastwood is clearly one of the best and most sensitive directors around and "Million Dollar Baby," which won all kinds of Oscars, is a truly outstanding film. Eastwood, Hilary Swank, and Morgan Freeman make a triumphant troika of American actors who really know how to play roles to the hilt. The story is simple. Eastwood is Frankie Dunn, an old-time boxing trainer who often waits just a little too long to let his good boxers get a shot at a title. So when his best boxer leaves (and wins a title under a new manager), Dunn finally succumbs to the pleas of a young woman boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank), to become her trainer. Under the watchful single eye of Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris (Morgan Freeman), an old-time boxer who now is the caretaker of Dunn's gym (and who lost the vision in one eye in a fight when he was managed by Dunn), Fitzgerald, seemingly an old novice at 31, blossoms and develops into a first-round knockout artist. Most important, Dunn, who initially wants nothing to do with training "girls," starts to become emotionally attached to Fitzgerald, who represents in his mind a substitute for his daughter who will not respond to his letters. The performances of Eastwood, Swank and Freeman are equally stunning. As many probably already know, "Million Dollar Baby" has a plot change that transforms the film from a simple boxing story into something very different. As it has undoubtedly been a well-kept secret to many, I won't reveal it here. Suffice it to say that Clint Eastwood has produced a champion of a movie. Not to be missed. A (7/15/05)

"Bride & Prejudice"-Director Gurinder Chadha ("Bend It Like Beckham") has turned Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet into Lalitha Bakshi and the result is a rather humorous light-hearted Bollywood/Hollywood musical version of "Pride and Prejudice." Lalitha is played by the exquisite Aishwarya Rai, possibly the top actress in India's Bollywood movie industry. Lalitha lives with her parents and three sisters in a nice middle class home in Amritsar, which the film portrays as somewhat of an Indian backwater. The somewhat goofy Mrs. Bakshi (hysterically played by Nadira Babbar) wants, of course, to marry off her daughters to men of means. Along come the wealthy and handsome Balraj Bingley (Naveen Andrews), his sister Kiran (India Varma), and a rich American friend, William Darcy (Martin Henderson), a handsome hotel magnate, to attend a wedding. In typical Austen style, Balraj falls hard for Lalitha's sister, Jaya, and then mysteriously changes his mind and leaves. Meanwhile, Lalitha has gotten a very poor impression of poor Mr. Darcy who is clearly enchanted with the intelligent and gorgeous Lalitha. Enter the handsome but slyly irresponsible Johnny Wickham, who attracts Lalitha, and we have the makings of a funny Indian interpretation of the Austen classic. "Bride & Prejudice" employs light-hearted and rhythmic Indian songs and dances (and very colorful costumes) to advance the narrative which takes us all the way from Amritsar to Hollywood, where Lalitha sees Mr. Darcy in his natural setting, an extremely expensive Beverly Hills hotel and meets his obviously unhappy mother, played by Marsha Mason. Lalitha's early negative impression of Darcy is reinforced when she learns that it was Darcy who discouraged Balraj from marrying Jaya. Gurinder Chadha has a delightful sense of humor which comes through loud and clear in her films about the problems of Indian families who have the instinct to employ the classic societal ways, especially when it comes to marriage, but who must adapt when they encounter or live amidst western cultures. "Bride & Prejudice" is not a great film, and it's not exactly Jane Austen, but it's a great deal of fun to watch how everything turns out okay in the end (including one non-Austen twist on the story). B+ (7/8/05)

"Zelary"-This Czech film was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar and deservedly so. It tells the tale of Eliska (Anna Geislerová), a young nurse who is part of the resistance against the Nazis in 1943 Prague. When the Gestapo begins to close in and her lover disappears, she escapes with a patient whose life she has just saved by donating blood. The man, Joza (György Cserhalmi), takes her to his remote village in the mountains where she is to become his wife and live without electricity or plumbing. Eliska, now known as Hana, initially is miserable and resistant, but ultimately falls for this much older quiet and decent man, and begins to find herself feeling good about her new life and her new friends. "Zelary" (the name of Joza's mountain village) is a beautifully filmed and lovely story about the growing affection between these two very different people. But taking place during the Nazi occupation, "Zelary" also becomes a tale of irony as unfortunate violence befalls the people of the village when the "liberating" Russians appear in April 1945. In Czech, with English subtitles. A- (6/25/05)

"Hitch"-Alex Hitchens (Will Smith) hitches people. Get it? Hitch is a date doctor, a guy who behind the scenes shows men how to relate to women they are interested in so that the women will realize how much they care about them. And with Will Smith playing the part, it's not surprising that Hitch is a self-confident charmer. Hitch appears to have taken on the ultimate case when he agrees to help the nerdy, bumbling Albert (Kevin James) catch the rich and beautiful Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta), the blonde beauty who seems way out of Albert's league. Along the way, Hitch finds himself falling for a tough gossip reporter, Sara (Eva Mendes), a man-hater if there ever was one. And, of course, Sara, not knowing Hitch's profession, just happens to be following the doings of Allegra Cole and discovers what Hitch is up to, or at least thinks she has. Hitch, Albert, Sara and Allegra interact in a fairly predictable but pleasant comedy that shows off lower Manhattan in its finest glory. Filmed in the streets of New York, the town looks so beautiful it's almost hard to believe it's the real thing. As usual, everyone lives in a gorgeous home. New York City rents are no problem for these people no matter their occupation. Kevin James is quite funny as Albert. I had a problem with Eva Mendes who makes Sara so unpleasant that it's hard to imagine anyone, especially Hitch, falling for her. Otherwise "Hitch" is a light couple of hours of fun. B (6/24/05)

"Swimming Upstream"-Tony Fingleton, who wrote this screenplay about his youth, overcame a disturbing family situation to become one of the top swimmers in Australia in the early 1960s. This interesting biographical film portrays Harold Fingleton (Geoffrey Rush) as a disturbed alcoholic father who favors some of his children over others, particularly Tony. Although apparently desiring athletic champions, the father is miserable when it is Tony who ultimately excels in the backstroke to become an Austrailian champion and Olympic hopeful. Geoffrey Rush is, as always, powerful as the father who seems to have unfathomable issues, other than the obvious alcohol abuse. Judy Davis is intense and perfect as the mother, Dora Fingleton, who must suffer through her husband's rages in order to encourage her children. Jesse Spencer is effective as Tony, the son who wants his father to be proud of his accomplishments but never seems to please him. "Swimming Upstream," being about real life, has somewhat of an unexpected ending, but it does a fine job of showing how a young man can rise above the problems of his early youth to excel on his own. B+ (6/18/05)

"Beyond the Sea"-Not surprisingly, the biggest, but not only, defect in this film is age. Kevin Spacey's age. Bobby Darin was 22 when he debuted in 1958 on Dick Clark's show, and 37 when he died of a heart condition in December 1973. Kevin Spacey, who plays Darin at all adult ages, is 45 and it shows. That isn't to say that Spacey, with a nose prosthesis, doesn't look a lot like Darin. And that isn't to say that Spacey, with surprising talent, doesn't sing and perform a lot like Darin. But when he tries to be the young Darin who wooed American teens with songs like "Splish Splash" and "Dream Lover," and then wooed and won "Gidget" herself, Sandra Dee, he looks out of place, like the middle-aged man he is, and not like the young Darin who was actually doing those things. And then there is the virtually clichéd if not hackneyed method Spacey, who also wrote and directed the film, uses to tell Darin's life story: the surreal look-back by a departed Darin who communicates with his childhood self (played earnestly and well by William Ullrich) from a soundstage where the sets are located. One similar approach was seen most recently in "De-Lovely," the biopic of Cole Porter with Kevin Kline. On top of that, when the film finally does reach Darin's untimely demise, Spacey pays a little too much homage to "All That Jazz," Bob Fosse's fictionalized and overdone biography, with a post-mortem dance scene. "Beyond the Sea" contains a disclaimer that the story is not true in all aspects. In other words, and we didn't really have to see the disclaimer for this, the film takes license with Darin's real life. Darin, for example, was married to Sandra Dee for less than seven years, divorcing in 1967. And yet the film makes it appear that Darin was married to Dee through the bitter end. There is no mention of Andrea Yeager, Darin's second wife.

Despite its flaws, "Beyond the Sea" has some merits. Darin's dynamic performance style is well displayed as performed by Spacey, in a variety of nightclub numbers, including the title song and "Mack the Knife," two of Darin's biggest hits. Kate Bosworth ("Blue Crush") does a very nice job as the somewhat innocent Dee who ultimately finds drink a rewarding pastime as she suffers Darin's obsession with his career. Darin's entourage is also loaded with talented people, including Bob Hoskins, as Darin's brother-in-law, Charlie Maffia (who, he finds, was actually his stepfather when Darin's "sister," Nina Cassotto Maffia (the excellent Caroline Aaron), reveals to Darin that she was actually his mother and not his sister); John Goodman as Steve Blauner, Darin's agent (to this day); and Peter Cincotti as Dick Behrke, Darin's bandleader. Finally, Greta Scacchi is perfect as Sandra Dee's over-the-top controlling mother. When she tries to protect Dee from Darin, one keeps thinking that she's protecting Dee from an older man (Darin was only six years older than Dee) and therein again lies a serious flaw in Spacey's conceit in making this film with himself as the star. B- (6/3/05)

"The Aviator"-Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) was one of those bizarre larger-than-life figures who comes along every once in awhile. He made and spent tons of money (initially inherited from his father), creating and buying corporations, building airplanes and expanding the air industry, directing and producing a couple of out-of-the ordinary movies in the early days of the cinema, making love to gorgeous movie starlets, and ultimately descending into a hell of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Martin Scorsese is one of those movie directors who wants to be larger-than-life and who has taken to making epic films, such as "Gangs of New York" and now "The Aviator." It's not surprising that he usually doesn't win the Oscar for these films as he becomes just a little too zealous in overpowering his audience. Instead of telling Howard Hughes' strange-enough story in a more direct manner, Scorsese chose to tell this tale in a choppy, pompous, almost surreal style that becomes so dominant that it almost buries the story beneath. After an initial scene in which the young Hughes is being bathed by his mother while she indoctrinates him into a fear of some unknown illness (an unlikely cause of his later obesessive-compulsive fear of dirt and bacteria), we are thrust into the middle of the making of Hughes' 1930 film "Hell's Angels," about the early years of aviation in battle and one of only two films that Hughes directed (the other being "The Outlaw" with Jane Russell). With intense rapid-fire action and dialogue, the viewer is placed in the unenviable position of trying to figure out just what is going on, just who are these characters, and just what are they talking about. With virtually no introduction other than a golf game, Hughes becomes involved with the magnificent Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), almost as if their relationship just was. Hepburn is portrayed as a "star" and yet she didn't make her first film until 1932, two years after the debut of "Hell's Angels." "The Aviator" emphasizes, of course, Hughes' involvement in the air industry, portraying the dirty battle between his own domestic TWA, and the international Pan-Am of Juan Trippe (Alex Baldwin). Leonardo DiCaprio does a wonderful job, morphing from the young good-looking Hollywood lothario to the older even more obsessed and obviously mentally ill airline honcho. In one powerful scene right out of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," Hughes is seen verbally destroying, in his own Senate hearing, a corrupt Senator from Maine (Alan Alda) who has been bought and paid for by Trippe and Pan Am. "The Aviator" concentrates on Hughes' life through the late 1940s, but nowhere do we see his Communist-mania of the 1950s and his ultimate 14-year marriage to actress Jean Peters. By the time the film ends, one would think that by the late 1940s, Hughes had already gone so far off the deep end that he could no longer have a real life.

Cate Blanchett is magnificent as the beautiful young self-confident starlet from Connecticut, Katherine Hepburn. Kate Beckinsale is fine as Ava Gardner, a later love interest for Howard Hughes, although she bore little or no resemblance to the Ava Gardner I remember. John C. Reilly is present as Noah Dietrich, Hughes's right-hand man, but never really gets a chance to shine. Ian Holm is humorous as a weatherman with a German accent who also becomes one of Hughes' regular aides. Gwen Stefani has a brief role as Jean Harlow. Harlow's reputation may never recover. There are lots of interesting airplanes and one spectacular scene of Hughes' crashing his plane into the roofs of red-tiled Beverly Hills homes. "The Aviator" definitely has its ups and downs. B+ (5/27/05)

"The Sea Inside"-Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar last directed a ghost story, "The Others," with Nicole Kidman. In "The Sea Inside" he turns his attention to a far more serious subject, the question of whether a quadriplegic should have the right to end his own life with the necessary help of others. Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardem) has been, for more than 25 years, in a bed unable to move anything below his neck. Once a handsome and virile young man, he suffered this misery after diving into the sea near his home, only to hit shallow water and a miserable fate. He now lies in bed, refusing to get around in a wheelchair, but taken care of by supportive relatives: his brother, sister-in-law, nephew, and his father. With the help of advocates from support groups, including Gené (Clara Segura), and Julia (Belén Rueda), a very sympathetic attorney with her own degenerative condition that may lead her to the same fate, Sampedro brings a legal action to allow him to be euthanized. When this fails, he turns to his friends, including Julia and then Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a woman from a nearby town who has emotionally attached herself to Ramón. Ramón's brother, however, is adamantly opposed to anyone killing himself in his home. Javier Bardem is brilliant in this difficult role as a man who lies in bed 24 hours a day and considers it hell. Belén Rueda, a former model, is extremely effective and touching as the sympathetic and almost loving Julia. The look of love and affection she gives Ramón in one scene is heartbreaking when we know that Ramón has no way to return even a touch. "The Sea Inside" deals with a potentially ultra-depressing subject with great warmth and humor. Highly recommended. In Spanish with English subtitles A (5/21/05)

"Kinsey"-In "Too Darn Hot," Cole Porter wrote "According to the Kinsey report, ev'ry average man you know, much prefers to play his favorite sport when the temperature is low..." Well, in "Kinsey" the temperature is definitely a little hotter than that. Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson) was a biology professor at Indiana University, the product of an oppressive minister-father (John Lithgow). Somehow, considering the sexually repressed nature of the era (primarily the 1940s), Kinsey managed to get funding for an amazing study of human sexuality that revealed that far more is going on below the surface than people ever imagined from their outward actions and appearances. "Kinsey" presents a close look at that astonishing accomplishment and demonstrates how it began and how the participants became virtually obsessed with what they were doing, ultimately to the point of interfering with their own lives and romantic relationships. Despite some graphic scenes, "Kinsey" presents the surprising events around the sex study in as straightforward a manner as possible. The film raises the issues of the day, questioning whether Kinsey was approving of all that he discovered. It contains a scene in which Kinsey and one of his staff members interviews a man one can only describe as a sexual "degenerate" to show that even Kinsey could abhor what he was hearing. It ends with an upbeat interview with a woman (Lynn Redgrave) who shows Kinsey how his study has enhanced her life by encouraging a loving lesbian relationship. Liam Neeson is powerful as the scientifically-obsessed biologist who gets much too close to his own subject. Laura Linney is, as always, delightful and intelligent as Mrs. Kinsey (Clara McMillen), a woman who supported her husband even when the study began to interfere with their own lives. The supporting cast is excellent, including especially Peter Sarsgaard who feared not engaging in a scene of full-frontal nudity. Timothy Hutton and Chris O'Donnell are also fine as members of Kinsey's team. Others of note are Oliver Platt as Indiana University president Herman Wells, and Tim Curry in the ironic role (for him) of an uptight colleague who opposed Kinsey. A- (5/20/05)

"Enduring Love"-Based on the Ian McEwan novel, "Enduring Love" begins with an extraordinary scene in a beautiful open field near Oxford, England. Joe (Daniel Craig) and Claire (Samantha Morton) are having a picnic, seemingly alone. Joe is just opening a bottle of champagne when a hot air balloon suddenly descends and crashes along the ground behind them, a young boy aboard. When Joe runs to help the boy's grandfather stop the balloon, they are joined by several other men, one from a stopped car and others who seem to appear from nowhere. The balloon ultimately surges into the air from a gust of wind. Most of the men let go, but the last man to hold on, a physician, lets go of the rope too late only after the balloon is high in the air and plunges to his death. Despite this promisingly beautiful and horrifying start, the film unfortunately plummets into a morass of a story about a stalker and the unlikely reaction of the stalker's victim. Joe, a writer and college lecturer, soon finds that one of the men who appeared from nowhere, Jed (Rhys Ifans), is obsessed with him. Jed knows his phone number and where he lives and works. Joe obviously is disturbed but plays down the disturbance when around Claire, a successful sculptress, and their friends, Robin (Bill Nighy) and his wife, Rachel (Susan Lynch). Gradually, however, Jed's homosexually-tinged obsession begins to wear at the fabric of Joe's sanity. Instead of taking the logical action of contacting the police, Joe allows Jed to coninue to bother him. And who suffers more? Claire, of course, upon whom Joe seems to take out all of his frustrations, thus endangering their relationship. Therein lies the weakness of this tale as it heads for a predictable conclusion. Well, not totally predictable, but the more upbeat portion of the ending seems hastily put-together to make the viewer happy. And if you don't watch the credits, something I imagine most people don't, you'll miss a final scene of some importance. The cast is good although Samantha Morton seems wasted in the role of a woman with little or no expression. Rhys Ifans is all too typically eerie as the crazed Jed. Of note in the cast is Helen McCrory as the widow of the dead physician who, finding a picnic lunch and bottle of wine in his car after his death, believes her husband was at the field with his mistress. C+ (5/20/05)

"The Merchant of Venice"-The plot and anti-Semitic overtones of this Shakespearian drama are obviously well known and have been since it was written in the 16th Century. To sum up, however, the story takes place in Venice in 1596 where Jews must reside in a locked ghetto and wear a red hat for identification when outside the borders of the ghetto. Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) is in love with the wealthy Portia (Lynn Collins). He needs the aid of a friend, Antonio (Jeremy Irons), so that he can travel to and win Portia who lives in distant Belmont. Antonio agrees to be guarantor of a loan Bassanio makes from Shylock (Al Pacino), a Jewish moneylender. Shylock insists that if there is a default on the bond, the penalty is a pound of flesh from Antonio, Shylock's method of gaining revenge against Antonio, who has insulted and spat upon Shylock for his moneylending. Antonio, confident in his business ventures, agrees. Meanwhile, back in Belmont, Portia is dealing with the will of her father that she marry the man who successfully opens one of three locked caskets, watching as undesirable suitors open the wrong ones. After Bassanio successfully chooses the right casket and marries Portia (and Bassanio's friend Gratiano (Kris Marshall) marries Portia's maid Nerissa (Heather Goldenhersh)), all learn that Antonio's ship has gone down at sea and Antonio will default on Shylock's loan. Shylock, having lost his daughter Jessica to a Christian and hating Antonio, plans to wreak his revenge by obtaining Antonio's pound of flesh, but ultimately Portia, disguised as a male judge, appears before the Duke (Anton Rodgers) and cleverly stands in Shylock's way, ultimately bringing him to his figurative and literal knees.

This film version of Shakespeare's play is rather sumptious in sets and costumes. The acting is superb. And it once again raises the question of just what Shakespeare intended with regard to the Jews of his day. The Christians are shown as nasty hypocrites who will not engage in moneylending for profit (called usury) and revile and spit upon the Jews for, among other things, engaging in this practice (after banning them from practically everything else), although having no compunctions about borrowing from them. Shylock is portrayed as obsessed with his wealth but willing to sacrifice to gain revenge, and his revenge is treated as lacking mercy (Portia: "The quality of mercy is not strain'd, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath"), another irony since revenge by Christians is hardly a novelty, a point well-raised by Shylock ("If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.") And, of course, we also see the contradiction between Shakespeare's consideration of the Jew as a human being ("Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that") and as a vengeful and evil merchant who is hated by the throng and ultimately destroyed by the cleverness and law of the Christians. Through Portia's clever verbiage, the Christians not only deprive Shylock of his revenge but of virtually everything else in their own ultimately successful revenge. "The Merchant of Venice" is a powerfully thought-provoking story and this film, directed by Michael Radford ("Il Postino"), well explores those themes by bringing the tale literally to life. Al Pacino is brilliant in a role for which he was born. Lynn Collins is a revelation as the beautiful and clever Portia. Joseph Fiennes, who seems eternally destined for costume dramas, is powerful as Bassanio and Jeremy Irons does his usual first-rate job as the surprisingly soft-spoken Antonio. Heather Goldenhersh ("Nicholas Nickleby" and currently a Tony award nominee for "Doubt") is wonderful as Portia's maid Nerissa. A (5/14/05)

"The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"-Wes Anderson ("The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Rushmore") is an eccentric writer/director who can't tell a straightforward story. Therein lies his uniqueness. This film, starring Bill Murray as a somewhat Jacques Costeau-like Steve Zissou, head of Team Zissou, is certainly one of a kind. The Zissou team has just completed its latest documentary about a seafaring expedition in which Steve and his friend Esteban have found a creature Steve calls a "Tiger Shark." In fact, the Tiger Shark found and ate Esteban and Steve is now planning to get revenge, but first he needs to raise funds. Along comes Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), an airline pilot from Arkansas, who may or may not be Steve's son, and donates over a quarter of a million dollars to and joins Team Zissou. But Mrs. Zissou (Anjelica Huston) is not happy and soon departs, especially after the arrival of a young attractive and pregnant reporter, Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett). Among the various characters are Willem Dafoe as Klaus Daimler, a Zissou insider who is very protective of his turf, and Zissou's biggest rival, Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), head of Team Hennessey. When Zissou charts a route through "unprotected waters," we know that something exciting will happen. Bill Murray has perfected his deadpan routine, seen before, but always priceless. Owen Wilson does a fine job as the "son" who wants a father and eagerly joins in. Cate Blanchett here puts on a little of her Katherine Hepburn routine, to be seen soon after in "The Aviator." This is a strange, sad and yet funny film and well worth a look. Oh, one last thing. Many years ago, a young actor named Bud Cort played in a couple of classics, including "Harold and Maude" and "Brewster McCloud." I don't think I've seen him in years. But he shows up here as a brave bank financial agent whose job it has been to watch over Team Zissou. The sets are wonderful, especially the cutaway ship, the Belafonte. The animation (of sea creatures) is perfectly intemingled with the real actors. A fine film with a good cast by a diretor/writer who wants to be and is an original. A- (5/13/05)

"In Good Company"-Wow, this a stinker. Dennis Quaid plays Dan Foreman, head of ad sales at a major sports magazine. It looks like he's bored after many years on the job and is just going through the motions. Meanwhile, his wife, played by the completely wasted Marg Helgenberger (who deserves better) is pregnant in middle age and with two almost grown daughters. Suddenly, the magazine is sold to a cynical corporation owned by a slick-talking bullcrap artist named Teddy K (Malcolm McDowell) and Dan's job is taken over by a 26-year-old upwardly mobile young executive named Carter Duryea (Topher Grace). But Duryea soon reveals that he's scared "s--tless" and has no idea what he's doing. Despite being urged to fire Dan, he keeps him on as his "wingman" but fires several of Dan's assistants and friends. This pleasant little situation is made slightly more complicated by the fact that Carter meets and quickly falls for a beautiful young tennis player who has visited the office (Scarlett Johansson) who just happens to be Dan's college age daughter. After finding out his wife is pregnant and that he's been demoted, Dan is more depressed and cynical than ever going through virtually the entire movie with a scowl on his face. Meanwhile, Topher Grace, whether intentionally or not, plays Carter as a bumbling, inadequate, stammering fool. He can't hold onto his bride (Selma Blair) of less than one year and can't even drive a Porsche out of a dealership without having it seriously damaged when the wheels hit the street. So what's left of this mess? Well, Scarlett Johansson, who is always a delight. She reminds me of the young Lauren Bacall. Beautiful, sexy, confident and with that wonderful deep voice. She alone raises this otherwise unpleasant film to the level of C- (5/13/05)

"The Chorus"-"Les Choristes," the French title, is the story of a former musician who arrives as the new prefect at a miserable school for tough young men in 1949. Despite insults and discouragement from the nasty and oppressive school head, Rachin (François Berléand), the prefect, Clément Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot), slowly but cleverly gains the trust of the unruly boys, discovers some talent for singing, and turns them into a rather happy chorus. In the midst are two young men, Pépinot, just out of infancy but soon Mathieu's little protegé, and Pierre Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier), a handsome boy with obvious anger and frustration, but an angelic voice and musical talent that Mathieu recognizes will lead him on to bigger and better things. The story is told in the present through Mathieu's memoirs read by the adult Morhange and Pépinot. "Les Choristes" is ultimately somewhat of a cliché. How many times have we seen stories about teachers miraculously turning tough and angry young men into peaceful and enthusiastic students? Nevertheless, despite this, "Les Choristes" has its charms. Gérard Jugnot is excellent as a mild-mannered but clever balding middle aged man with a talent for getting the best out of his students. He is also quite touching in the scenes in which he yearns, silently and unrequited, for the single mother of one of the boys. In French with English subtitles. B+ (5/7/05)

"Bad Education"-Pedro Almodóvar is a truly great director. His films, such as "Talk To Her," and "All About My Mother," no matter what the subject, have been original and scintillating and "Bad Education" fits right in. Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez) is a young gay film director, somewhat like Almodóvar himself. He is suddenly confronted with a young man who says he is Ignacio Rodriguez (Gael García Bernal), a lover from Enrique's school days. Ignacio is an actor and claims to have written a story called "The Visit" which tells of the days when Ignacio and Enrique were mates at a Catholic school in Spain under the direction of Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho). Noticing that the young man doesn't really remind him of Ignacio, Enrique does some investigating and discovers that things aren't quite as claimed. "Bad Education" becomes an almost Hitchcockian mystery but is also a commentary on homosexual relationships in a Catholic environment. Almodóvar explores the nature of reality, friendship, and gay relationships in his native Spain. Mexican actor Gael García Bernal ("The Motorcycle Diaries" and "Y tu mamá también"), who has previously played virile heterosexuals, here is magical in his portrayal of, among others, Zahara, an ultimate drag queen. As in all Almodóvar films, the cinematography is exquisite. This is certainly an excellent education about a controversial and complex subject. In Spanish with English subtitles. A- (5/6/05)

"National Treasure"-Nicholas Cage stars as Ben Gates, the scion of a family that has long believed in a missing national treasure with roots in the founding fathers and the freemasons. Ben undertakes an attempt to solve clues left behind in the early days of our country and winds up discovering a major clue on a ship buried in Arctic ice, only to be attacked and almost killed by his mutinous cohorts, led by Ian Howe (Sean Bean). And so the race is on. But would you believe it leads to the Declaration of Independence? The Declaration appears to have secret code on it. Ben undertakes to solve the clue through legal means before Howe and his gang can steal it. But when government agencies, including the Archives, decide that he's nuts, he decides he must steal it himself to protect it from Howe. Swept up in this race is Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), the beautiful archivist; Ben's assistant, Riley Poole (Justin Bartha); and Ben's utterly cynical father (Jon Voight). "National Treasure" is pure unadulterated fluff, like being in a video game with living characters. It's quickly forgotten but fun if you enjoy seeing how the clues are solved, where they lead, and what trouble will ensue. The casting is fine with the exception of Diane Kruger as Ben's newly developing love interest. Kruger is beautiful but dull, lacking virtually any charisma or charm a la her performances in "Troy" and "Wicker Park." If you want fluff for a couple of hours of entertainment, this is it. Otherwise, stay away. B (5/6/05)

"The Assassination of Richard Nixon"-Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn) is a miserable man and so is this film. Sam is unsuccessful at work and at love, and just about everything else. His wife (Naomi Watts) and kids don't really want him. He's had a fight with his brother and left his job as a tire salesman and now he is miserably ensconced as a furniture store salesman, a job that violates the very essence of his being. Why? Because he believes, or thinks he believes, in utter honesty. What Sam really is is emotionally disturbed and this film follows his deterioration as he begins to obsess over Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal which is on every TV he sees. Sam also dreams of beginning a mobile tire store on a bus with his friend (Don Cheadle), but the SBA isn't impressed. Things go from bad to worse and so does this film which appears to have no redeeming social value, unless you can consider it an unremittingly depressing case study in mental illness. When Sam shoots his wife's dog, a creature he seems to love, I turned this film off. D (4/30/05)

"A Love Song for Bobby Long"-This is a surprisingly tender film about a young lady, Pursy Will (Scarlett Johansson), who finds herself living in a dilapidated house in New Orleans with two alcoholics after her 40-year old mother, Lorraine, has died. Lorraine was a singer who drank too much. She allowed two men, Bobby Long (John Travolta) and Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht), to live rent-free in her house. When Pursy finds, too late for the funeral, that her mother has died, she leaves her abusive boyfriend in Panama City, FL, and returns to New Orleans to occupy her mother's house only to find that Bobby and Lawson are there and claim that Lorraine left them a two-thirds interest in the house. "A Love Song for Bobby Long" contains some clichéd situations (you know the house will become bright and beautiful after the arrival of the young and lovely Pursy, and there are just a few too many colorful characters around) and predictable moments, but overall the film is quite moving as Pursy, Bobby, and Lawson develop a close relationship that serves the needs of all. Scarlett Johansson is an impressive young actress, and deservedly received a Golden Globe nomination for best actress. With her slightly husky voice and ability to portray strength and vulnerability, she becomes the young Pursy who, having been abandoned by her mother, is obviously very slow to get close to others. Gabriel Macht is very affecting as Lawson, the former assistant to Bobby Long, once a college professor, who, despite his alcohol abuse, is trying to write a book about his former mentor. John Travolta is poignant as the somewhat seedy alcohol-driven ex-professor who seems able to communicate only by quoting from literature. The beautiful city of New Orleans plays a major role in this film. Director Shainee Gabel filmed it on location in order to gain the ambiance of this amazing place. B+ (4/23/05)

"House of Flying Daggers"-Director Zhang Yimou was once known for serious films about Chinese culture, such as "Raise the Red Lantern," but recently became interested in the martial arts and directed "Hero," one of the most beautiful and exciting films I've seen in years. And yet "Hero" got little attention in the United States when compared with "House of Flying Daggers." Now that I've seen both, I don't understand why. Whereas "Hero" had an intriguing and fairly complex "Rashomon"-like plot, was gorgeous beyond belief, and was fairly original in concept, "House of Flying Daggers" seems like a tepid copy with a mediocre plot. Not that "Flying Daggers" doesn't contain exquisite cinematography, an exciting musical soundtrack, and simply magnificent scenes of martial arts aerodynamic acrobatics, but the tale it tells is one that ultimately lets you down. "Flying Daggers" takes place in 9th Century China. The House of Flying Daggers is a group of rebels against the government of the Tang Dynasty. The old leader of the Flying Daggers has died, leaving behind a blind daughter, and government soldiers want to find and hunt down the new leader. A local captain, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), after consulting with his cohort, Leo (Andy Lau), seeks out a possible Flying Daggers member (the old leader's daughter?), Mei (Ziyi Zhang), a blind performer at a local brothel. Soon, the two are closely connected as they are arrested, escape, and ultimately find themselves battling against other government troops who don't know Jin's real identity. Mei seems to be falling for Jin, but is sufficiently aloof to make it unclear just what their real relationship may be. "House of Flying Daggers" starts out with a political theme and contains all the expected twists and turns of plot one might imagine in a political thriller, but then something happens and the film changes into somewhat of a soppy love story, ending with a monumental battle of wills, between Jin and Leo, the two men who love Mei, that begins in a setting of gorgeous fall colors and ends in a driven snowstorm. "House of Flying Daggers," like "Hero," is a fantasy and I was able to accept all of the magic that occurs, from people arising after being seemingly dead to men flying through bamboo trees, to knives taking miraculous journeys from hand to target. That's certainly one of the virtues of the film. But this magic works only when it is combined with a truly taut and exciting plot. Unfortunately, "Flying Daggers," for all its beauty and magic, seems nothing more than a glorified and somewhat banal romance. In Mandarin with English subtitles. B (4/22/05)

"Birth"-A strange 10-year-old boy walks into a ritzy New York apartment off Central Park and tells a woman named Anna and her relatives that he's the woman's husband who dropped dead while jogging in Central Park 10 years earlier and that he loves her. What kind of a reaction do you think such a boy, in real life, would get? Well, I would think that in most sane households, the kid would be returned to his parents and a suggestion made that he get some therapy. The problem here is that the boy, with little cause (he knows a few details of his so-called prior life but is otherwise awfully mum), is all too easily accepted as if he were the man he claimed to be. He seems to come and go as he wishes. His mother barely seems to notice his absence even though he has disturbingly told her that he's not her child anymore. And so this film, directed by Jonathan Glazer ("Sexy Beast"), tries to be both a bizarre paranormal-mystery and somewhat of a character study of an immensely insecure and disturbed woman who wills herself to believe that the boy is the man he claims to be. The boy, Sean, is played with great tranquility by Cameron Bright. The woman, Anna, is played by Nicole Kidman, this time with short hair and a vulnerability that rubs the wrong way. The best performance in the movie is by Anne Heche as Clara, Anna's former sister-in-law, who provides the ultimate secret that solves the mystery of just what is going on. Heche seemed like just about the only real person in the film. But even when the mystery is solved, the story seems full of inexplicable holes. Others of note in the cast are Lauren Bacall as Anna's mother; Arliss Howard, as Anna's brother-in-law; and Danny Huston as the man engaged to Anna but who has the bad luck to have a 10-year old boy as a rival. Weak film. C (4/22/05)

"Hotel Rwanda"-Don Cheadle has always impressed and here he gets the chance of an actor's lifetime to play a serious role and he excels. Cheadle becomes Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a fancy Belgian hotel in Rwanda in 1994 in this film based on a terribly sad and yet uplifting true story. Rusesabagina caters to visiting Europeans and other whites. He knows how to care for his guests and makes friends among the powerful and he'll need some help when the powerful Hutus, of which Rusesabagina is one, send out militia to kill as many Tutsis (they call them "cockroaches") as possible in revenge for the days when the Belgians, then running Rwanda, elevated the Tutsis to power. Rusesabagina's own wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okenedo), and her relatives are Tutsis but this has little to do with Rusesabagina's basic humanity as he does everything in his power to save as many people as possible, including his family, his staff, and hundreds of refugees who descend on the hotel during the Genocidal attacks of the Hutu militia. "Hotel Rwanda" tells a great deal about the failings of humanity and the way the west handles issues in Africa, but also about how some can rise to fight off brutal conditions. When the Hutu attacks become overbearing with thousands being slaughtered by the machete-bearing Hutus, the western whites leave and the west sends little or no help. Rusesabagina has the aid only of one UN officer, Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), a man frustrated by his role which is, as he describes it, to be a "peacekeeper not a peacemaker." The UN troops are not allowed to fire their weapons. Cheadle and Okenedo are wonderful as a couple under astounding stress who struggle to survive and help. Rusesabagina fortunately had enough supplies and money to put off Hutu murderers with bribes, but ultimately they needed the aid of the UN to evacuate and save themselves and over a thousand people. "Hotel Rwanda" is a beautifully humane film about an extremely serious issue highlighting one of the great weaknesses of mankind (it's violent nature). Highly recommended. A (4/15/05)

"Ocean's Twelve"-I can just imagine the screenwriters sitting around trying to think up a plot for a sequel for Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his gang of thieves. Someone says: "Hey, let's have Julia Roberts play Danny's wife, Tess Ocean, who makes believe she's Julia Roberts during a robbery to distract attention." What a great idea. "And let's get director Steven Soderbergh back and a great cast loaded with stars." But, unfortunately, the whole thing sinks into its own quaqmire of nothingness. As my wife said to me, these kinds of films are "all style and no substance." The problem here, though, is that there no substance AND no style. The script sounds like it was hashed together on the run. The actors look like they were phoning in their performances. As "Monty Python" might have put it, this is a "dead parrot." What's the plot? Well, I'll give you a general idea. Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), the victim of the Ocean gang's first big heist, knows that they did it and knows where they all are. Even though he's been recompensed by insurance, he wants Danny and the gang to return all the money plus interest or face death. This comes to several million dollars that the gang doesn't have. And so they head off for Europe to try to pull off some jobs and raise enough money. While there they come up against the former girlfriend (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), one of the gang, who is a Eurocop although she has some flaws in her own character and a shady background, and against one of the top thieves in the world called the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel). Ultimately, the Night Fox, being jealous of Ocean, makes a deal with Ocean that will save their lives. The only thing is that they have to beat him out for a prize object of theft that is extremely well guarded. Actually, the plot description doesn't sound half bad, but Soderbergh directs with a surprisingly heavy touch, the film drags, the plot is silly and the denoument is almost an afterthought that seems completely inconsistent with the rest of the story. The cast, which includes the usual suspects, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Carl Reiner, Elliot Gould, and Matt Damon, also includes some first-rate European actors, including Cassel, Robbie Coltrane, and Eddie Izzard. But all this talent can't put Humpty Dumpty back together again. "Ocean's Twelve" is a mistake. C- (4/15/05)

"Sideways"-Director Alexander Payne has a European director's sensibility in making this delightful film about the road trip of two friends to the Santa Barbara, CA, wine country. Why? Because the film moves gently along and we actually learn about the true natures of the characters, their desires and their feelings. In fact, one could almost compare "Sideways" to a good glass of wine because you can slowly and deliberately savor its full-bodied aroma, roll it around on your palate and notice the romantic nuances, the full and ripe characterizations, and the hint of a bitter acidic flavor. Paul Giamatti is Miles Raymond, a somewhat depressed schoolteacher and struggling writer from San Diego who has a hard time getting out of bed and facing life. He has to be jump started into a promised road trip with his former college roommate, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), an actor who is engaged and scheduled to be married the following weekend. They set out for a week of wine and golf in and around Los Olivos, Buellton and Solvang, but it soon becomes apparent that Jack has other ideas and would like a week of somewhat more sensual activities. With Jack's interests centered on women, they soon meet and get together with two locals, Maya (Virginia Madsen), a divorcee waitress Miles has met before and liked, and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a single mother who works in the wine-tasting room of a winery and is soon extremely attracted to Jack. The cast is out of this world. Paul Giamatti is magnificent as a recently divorced man who can't quite face bringing some new joy into his life. He suppresses the joy by obsessing over wine. Thomas Haden Church is also delightful as the thoughtless, self-centered and child-like Jack who cares little for other's sensibilities. Virginia Madsen, a woman of real beauty if not utter glamor, turns Maya into a truly lifelike woman who has had her bad luck but has the backbone to deal with whatever comes along. Sandra Oh is charming and funny as Stephanie, a woman who gets carried away with her new-found "love." This film, its cast, and director deserve all the accolades they have received since it opened. This is filmmaking at its finest. A (4/9/05)

"Spanglish"-The premise is simple. John Clasky (Adam Sandler) is one of the best chefs in America, has his own restaurant but fears it will be overwhelmed by a likely four star rating, and is a very nice guy. He is married to Deborah (Téa Leoni) who may be the most hyperneurotic character to be seen on the screen in a long time. He has a slightly overweight but intelligent young daughter, Bernice (Sarah Steele) and he also lives with his wise (in her old age) mother-in-law, Evelyn Norwich (Cloris Leachman), who was once an alcoholic/promiscuous singer. The Claskys live, of course, in a beautiful home in LA and they need a housekeeper. And so they hire a young and beautiful Mexican woman, Flor Moreno (Paz Vega), who has only recently illegally crossed the border with her teenage daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce). It doesn't take long for Flor, who doesn't speak English, to become part of this family but it isn't until the Claskys rent a summer home on the beach in Malibu and insist that Flor live with them for the summer that they learn about Cristina's existence. And then all of Deborah Clasky's ultra-neurotic behavior hits home and Flor's worst nightmare comes true as she sees her daughter begin to change due to Deborah's interference. "Spanglish" isn't a bad film, but it's marred by Téa Leoni's character who is so utterly unpleasant to watch that it interferes with the enjoyment of the film. Director James L. Brooks ("Terms of Endearment") could have toned Deborah down and still had an effective story. Adam Sandler is pleasant in this low key part where he doesn't have to be silly. Paz Vega, a Spanish actress ("Sex and Lucia" and "The Other Side of the Bed"), is lovely and charming as the independent Flor. But it is Shelbie Bruce as the intelligent young Cristina (telling the story through a Princeton University application letter) who truly steals the film. A scene in which Cristina serves as interpreter between her mother and John Clasky, acting against her own interests, is a prize. Cloris Leachman also does an excellent job as the mild-mannered Evelyn who has been around the block and sees that her daughter is headed for a fall. B (4/8/05)

"Vera Drake"-Mike Leigh is one of the best directors in filmmaking. His films are always taut, serious, and beautifully made and are usually about the British workingclass. Other than "Topsy-Turvy," about Gilbert and Sullivan, all of his recent films, such as "Naked," "Secrets and Lies," and "All or Nothing," concern the nitty gritty of the life of so many living in England at or just above the poverty line. "Vera Drake" introduces us to a British family in 1950 living in a basic walk-up apartment. The husband, Stan (Phil Davis), operates a garage with his brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough). The wife, Vera (Imelda Staunton), is an extremely outgoing and popular domestic, who cleans upper class homes. They have two children, Ethel (Alex Kelly), who is an introvert and completely opposite of her extroverted mother, and a son, Sid (Daniel Mays). The family struggles along their daily lives, interacting with each other, friends and family, including Frank's wife, Joyce (Heather Craney), who is obviously uncomfortable in the Drake family's humble surroundings. In order to encourage her daughter Ethel's social life, Vera invites Reg (Eddie Marsan) for dinner, a move that works well. But behind this facade of normality is Vera's secret: that she has for many years been performing abortions, or, as she describes it "helping young women." The communication difficulties of these people, especially with regard to controversial subjects, is almost painful to watch. When Vera is ultimately arrested because one of her "young women" has almost died, the change in her face from happiness and contentment to excruciating sadness and pain is almost palpable. Staunton's moving portrayal convinces us that Vera actually went about her illegal activities in the innocent belief that she was helping others and would never get into trouble. Once in police custody, Vera can barely explain herself to the police detectives (Peter Wight and Martin Savage), using extremely vague and general euphemisms to describe her activities. "Vera Drake" is a tragedy, but one that raises and considers current issues. The cast is superb and Imelda Staunton was certainly deserving of her Oscar nomination. This is not a happy film to watch, but it is fascinating and brilliant. A (4/2/05)

"Closer"-Directed by Mike Nichols, "Closer" is not so much a story with a beginning and an end as it is a commentary on unsettled love and lust. We are in London and introduced to four characters, as in a play (and indeed it is based on a play by Patrick Marber who also wrote the screenplay). Dan (Jude Law), a writer of obituaries, meets Alice (Natalie Portman), a stripper from America, after she is almost seriously injured in an accident. They start living together. Dan, now a novelist, is photographed by Anna (Julia Roberts), an attractive American professional photographer. That Dan is living with Alice doesn't seem to stop him from flirting with Anna, overheard in part by Alice. We then meet Larry (Clive Owen), a dermatologist with a penchant for kinky things, who falls for Anna but later eyes Alice. "Closer" is about the uncertain interactions of these four people who do everything to screw up their own lives. None of the characters is endearing, which makes the film somewhat unique as there really is no one to root for. Each of the stars is effective in his or her own way and Mike Nichols' direction is, as always, masterful. The result is a very good film of a play. A- (4/1/05)

"After the Sunset"-Director Brett Ratner isn't exactly famous for Oscar-worthy movies and "After the Sunset" shows why. This diamond thief caper is about as limp as you can get. In fact, just about the only things worth looking at in this movie are the scenery and Salma Hayek. Pierce Brosnan is Max Burdett, a clever diamond thief, who, with the aid of his girlfriend Lola (Hayek) pulls a fast one on FBI agent Stan Lloyd (Woody Harrelson), stealing a major diamond right from his lap, and leaving Lloyd's FBI career in shreds. When Max and Lola retire to a nice Caribbean island, Stan shows up one day wondering if Max is planning to steal another major diamond which is being displayed on a cruise ship in the local port. "After the Sunset" is a strange combination of caper film, buddy film, comedy, and romantic angst, but ultimately ends up being little or nothing. There's almost nothing in the way of suspense and the humor is embarrassing, including a scene in which a bunch of people walk into a hotel suite only to find Stan and Max sharing a bed. Don Cheadle, a wonderful actor, has an almost useless minor part as a local gangster who asks Max to help him steal the diamond so that he can "help" the needy people of the island. Some Robin Hood! Salma Hayek is beautiful and charming and deserves better. See this film at your own risk. C (4/1/05)

"Being Julia"-Knowing my own inclinations, a film about the British theater would seem to be utter perfection. Unfortunately, this one goes wrong, especially in the first half of the film, partly because the star, Annette Bening, simply doesn't have a convincing British accent and doesn't look comfortable in her part. Bening plays the self-centered Julia Lambert, a 1930's star of the British stage, who is married to her producer, Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons). Their marriage, however, allows for a lot of leeway and Julia is soon in love with a young American, Tom Fennel, who has appeared out of the blue for no apparent reason other than that "he wants to learn the business." That Fennel is played by Shaun Evans, a young British actor with, in real life, an incredibly thick British accent from Liverpool, is one of the ironies of the making of this film. Another is that it is directed by István Szabó ("Sunshine"), a Hungarian, and filmed in part in Budapest. This eastern European "accent" on the film clearly weakens the necessary British touch. Back to the story, Julia, who is a rather dynamic, egotistical but somewhat insecure redhead and, if her acting can be judged from the early portions of the film, not a terribly sensitive actress, starts an extremely unlikely affair with Tom, a singularly dull young man as portrayed by Mr. Evans, and one whose motivations are never made clear. Is Tom sincere in his affection for Julia or is he simply using her? Julia also has a longtime close friendship with Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood), which makes it very difficult to believe, later in the film, that she is totally surprised by his homosexuality. The first half of this film sags, but serves to set-up the substantially funnier second half. Julia discovers that both Tom and her husband are quite "interested" in a young blonde actress, Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch). Julia, seemingly against character, willingly encourages Avice's participation in a significant role in her next play. But, of course, it soon becomes obvious that Julia is up to no good, resulting in the rather hysterical vengeful conclusion of the film. Annette Bening looked like she was struggling with her part in the first half, but finally got the knack for the vastly superior second half (and it must be noted that Bening's laugh is among the best in the movies). Jeremy Irons is delightful as the cheerful and somewhat oblivious Gosselyn. Others of note in the cast are Michael Gambon, as the ghost of Julia's first drama teacher; Juliet Stevenson, wonderful as always, as Julia's maid and dresser; Miriam Margolyes as Gosselyn's worried co-producer; and Tom Sturridge as Roger, Michael and Julia's understanding son. Lucy Punch is excellent and funny as the young ingenue Avice. Shaun Evans is woefully miscast in the part of a young man who would have an older star like Julia panting over him. "Being Julia" has some delightful moments but only after it overcomes its first half. B+ (3/26/05)

"Finding Neverland"-Is there much of a story in the origins of Sir J. M. Barrie's play "Peter Pan?" Well, the filmmakers would have you think so. Barrie (Johnny Depp), who appears to be utterly bored with his wife Mary (Radha Mitchell), has written a mediocre play produced by Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) and it soon fails despite Frohman's best efforts to encourage the audience. Barrie goes to the park with his sheepdog and meets Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four sons, including Peter (Freddie Highmore) and George (Nick Roud). Peter, who has not gotten over his father's recent sudden death, is extremely cynical about Barrie's theatricality in the park but Barrie, nevertheless, remains attracted to the widow and her little entourage. Before long, Barrie becomes virtually a fifth child in the Davies family, engaging in fantasy play (such as cowboys and indians) with the boys in the family's backyard. Every once in awhile we see Barrie taking notes but he won't reveal what he is writing. Since Sylvia is obviously attracted to J. M., the situation is perfect except for the existence of Mrs. Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), Sylvia's mother, who attempts to discourage the married Barrie's somewhat scandalously zealous attention to her daughter and her family. Suddenly, Sylvia coughs. And we all know that a cough in a movie is always more than just the result of a cold. Sylvia descends and Barrie's play "Peter Pan" emerges out of virtually nowhere (okay, the notes obviously). Since Barrie has promised Sylvia he will take her to Neverland, it's fortunate that she is still alive when the play is performed right in the living room of her home. Johnny Depp, an otherwise admirable actor, shows little emotion in this part. Despite playing with the boys, he seemed rarely to change the expression on his face. Kate Winslet, as always, totally becomes the character she is playing. Dustin Hoffman is amusing as the surprised producer who finds that his playwright has finally produced a masterpiece. Julie Christie, once a darling, is now quite good as the tough grand old dame. The young actors playing the Davies boys are quite charming. "Finding Neverland" unfortunately never scintillates. It tells its story in a workmanlike manner and leaves us at that. B (3/25/05)

"Bright Young Things"-Based on the Evelyn Waugh novel "Vile Bodies," this film, directed by Stephen Fry (who also did the screenplay), is about aimless young Brits in the 1930s who seem to spend most of their time frivolously partying and occasionally doing drugs. Adam Fenwick-Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore) has returned from overseas with a draft of his new novel called "Bright Young Things," the name applied to his group by the newspapers, only to have it confiscated by a British customs officer upon arrival at Dover. Virtually penniless and owing money to his publisher, newspaperman Lord Monomark (Dan Aykroyd), Adam arrives at the hotel where he stays and quickly wins a thousand pounds from Ginger Littlejohn (David Tennant), a wealthy guest, which he needs if he is to marry Nina Blout (Emily Mortimer). Nina loves Adam but insists that her husband have money. But in a moment of seeming naivete, Adam immediately hands the money over to a major sitting in the hotel lobby so that he can bet it on a longshot in an upcoming horse race. When the major (Jim Broadbent), leaves without further word, Adam believes he's seen the last of his money and he returns to Nina and the frivolous life of partying in which his peers engage. This sets the stage for a series of significant events in the lives of the various characters, including Nina's ultimate turn toward Ginger for his wealth, and Adam's departure for war against Germany. Although "Bright Young Things" is not perfect, with a few somewhat confusing and aimless scenes, the film contains a series of outstanding performances by a group of young and old British and American actors. Peter O'Toole has a humorous scene as Nina's father, perfectly willing to give Adam money for the wedding, as long as he can cash a check signed "Charlie Chaplin." Stockard Channing is Mrs. Melrose Ape, a religious fanatic with an entourage of angelic young women. Dan Aykroyd does his perfect impersonation of an overbearing boss whose demands bring pain and suffering to many, including Simon Balcairn, played touchingly by James McAvoy. Jim Broadbent is delightful as the elusive major who may or may not have Adam's money; Bill Paterson and Imelda Staunton ("Vera Drake") are appropriately severe as the prime minister and his wife whose home (10 Downing St., you guessed it) is invaded by one of the young rascals, Agatha, played wonderfully by Fenella Woolgar ("Stage Beauty"), a young actress we have been seeing in more and more British productions. Others of note are Michael Sheen as Miles, an out-of-the-closet homosexual, who ultimately pays the price for Britain's archaic laws of the day, and Harriet Walter, as Lady Maitland, who refuses to allow Simon Balcairn, a gossip columnist, to come to her party and suffers the consequences. Finally, Stephen Campbell Moore and Emily Mortimer (daughter of British writer John Mortimer, author of "Rumpole of the Bailey") are touching as the leads. This is a worthwhile film, despite some flaws. B+ (3/19/05)

"Alfie"-Taut, funny and well-acted, "Alfie" is an updated remake of the 1966 original which starred Michael Caine. The scene has moved from London to New York City where Alfie (Jude Law) is a limousine driver who seems to spend more time using his limo for pleasure than business. He's a cad, a charmer who enjoys his relations with women, using them until they start to ask for more or simply become boring and repetitious. Alfie never seems to fear being alone, at least at the start. He's got a single mother girlfriend, Julie (Marisa Tomei), he can drop in on when he so desires and a bored married woman, Dorie (Jane Krakowski) he can enjoy in the back seat of the limo. But things are starting not to go Alfie's way, including a medical scare that produces a rather amusing scene with Dr. Miranda Kulp (Jefferson Mays), a physician with a foreign accent and questionable sexual orientation. Alfie meets an older woman who may be a female version of himself, played by Susan Sarandon, and he takes up with a young blonde he meets in the street, Nikki (Sienna Miller), who provides him with companionship over the holidays but also lots of travail. Worst of all, due to his weaknesses he places himself seriously in the middle of the relationship between two of his best friends, Lonette (Nia Long) and Marlon (Omar Epps). "Alfie" is a smart, clever and humorous film, portraying an Alfie who is a lot more sensitive to what he has done both to others and himself than the original portrayed by Michael Caine. This is one of Jude Law's finest performances. He takes to this character beautifully and does a wonderful job of revealing the joy and angst over Alfie's life and activities by talking directly to the viewer. The cast is excellent. Sienna Miller is impressive in her first significant role as Nikki, Alfie's slightly disturbed live-in lover. Nia Long is lovely and touching as a woman who doesn't realize that she has exactly what she needs right at hand until it's almost too late. The film also contains a nice brief portrayal of an older man, Joe (Dick Latessa), who becomes Alfie's friend and advisor. A- (3/18/05)

"The Incredibles"-Animated films continue to progress to the point of astonishment. And every once in a while an animated film arrives which contains themes about genuine human (or superhuman) concerns. "The Incredibles," an Oscar winner, is one of those. From a technological point of view, this Brad Bird/Pixar production is simply breathtaking. The scenes, sets, and characters are realistic enough to almost make you forget you're watching animation, but just animated enough to remind you that you're not watching actors. And the tale is full of genuine pathos and marvelous characters. Bob Parr (Craig Nelson) is Mr. Incredible, a superhuman who, along with his fellow superbeings, including his friend, Lucius Best or Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), gets into such legal trouble that he is ultimately forced to retire and is placed in a government relocation program. Parr, whose wife Helen (Holly Hunter) was Elastigirl, a woman with super flexibility, moves with his family from location to location after repeatedly accidentally revealing his superpowers. After 15 years, he's just a miserable insurance adjuster for a nasty insurance company and Helen is at home caring for their three children, Dash (he can run like lightning), Violet (she can disappear and create force fields) and Jack Jack, an infant with as yet unrevealed superpowers. Bob is miserable and when he is contacted by a mysterious woman, Mirage (Elizabeth Pena) about re-entering the world of superbeings, he reacts with joy, although he hides it from his wife. Needless to say, all havoc breaks loose when Bob finds himself facing a once annoying character from his superbeing days, Syndrome (Jason Lee), now a spectacular super-nemesis. "The Incredibles" explores themes of human or superhuman potential and a multitude of family issues in a most ingenious and lighthearted manner. Of the various actor voices, I found the females most compelling, especially Holly Hunter as Helen (Elastigirl) and Sarah Vowell as Violet. Craig Nelson's voice was also very effective and almost unrecognizable as Mr. Incredible who ranges from ultra-macho to downtrodden. The film also contains a marvelous character named Edna "E" Mode (voiced by Brad Bird) who appears to be a rather hysterical takeoff on the late, great movie costume designer, Edith Head. If there is anything to criticize in this wonderful animated film by the director of "The Iron Giant," it is the use of the not terribly original James Bond-style island empire villain. I will admit, however, that I was amused by the James Bond-style background music. Highly recommended. A- (3/17/05)

"Stage Beauty"-We are in London in the mid-17th Century. King Charles II (Rupert Everett) is on the throne and, in theaters, female parts are still being played, by law, by men only. One of these actors is Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) who has honed his art throughout his life to the point that he is extremely popular as Desdemona in "Othello" and thrives on his fame and the adulation of the public. But two things go very wrong for Ned. He has a nasty run-in with Sir Charles Sedley (Richard Griffiths), a man of influence in the court and the theater, and his dresser, Maria (Claire Danes) is hoping to emulate Ned's Desdemona. When they all come together at court, Charles II, partly under the influence of his aggressive mistress, Nell Gwynne (Zoe Tapper), decides to change the law and mandate that female parts henceforth are to be played only by women. Combined with a beating Ned takes at the hands of a group of Sir Charles Sedley's thugs, Ned finds himself on the outside looking in and Maria gets her chance to act. "Stage Beauty" is both a love story between Ned (a bisexual) and Maria and a wonderful tale of thatrical history. When the film begins, the stage acting is extremely artificial. Every emotion requires specific hand movements and even something as serious as death is portrayed without real drama. But as women enter the field of acting, we see an attitude change on the stage, made most dramatic at the end when an extremely realistic death scene in "Othello" has the audience literally on the edge of its seat. Although Billy Crudup doesn't have a pronounced British accent, he and Claire Danes do a wonderful job as evolving characters of the theater. Crudup is remarkable in his female getup as a man who has literally spent his life learning to be a woman. And Claire Danes, for the first time, truly stands out, reminding me of Gwyneth Paltrow in "Shakespeare In Love." Her earnestness, sincerity and excitement in the role are palpable. The cast is loaded with wonderful performances, including Everett as the king; Tom Wilkinson as Betterton, head of Ned's stage company; Hugh Bonneville ("Iris") as Samuel Pepys; Ben Chaplin as the Duke of Buckingham, one of Ned's "friends" (this is by far the best performance I've ever seen from Ben Chaplin--a revelation), Richard Griffiths as the pompous Sedley; and Zoe Tapper as the clever and enthusiastic Nell Gwynne. Recommended. A- (3/12/05)

"Flight of the Phoenix"-Looking for a particularly insipid, poorly acted thriller? Well, this is the film for you. Dennis Quaid is Frank Towns, a pilot for an oil and gas company, who brings his aircraft into the Mongolian desert to pickup the crew of a failed well, led by Kelly (Miranda Otto). Frank is nasty and sarcastic and tells the crew to get ready to leave immediately, but not long after being airborne, they find themselves in a monstrous dust storm and, of course, the plane crashes into the desert with all but one surviving. Now faced with high temperatures, minimal water and food, and hostile Mongolian smugglers, the crew (losing one at a time) must figure a way out of the desert because, like "Lost" on TV, no one appears to be coming for them. When Ian (Hugh Laurie), the nasty company executive who was on the plane says that the well was cancelled because of the company's cost-benefit analysis, one of the crew shocks him by pointing out the same logic is likely to be used by the company in bothering to attempt a rescue. Thank you George W. Bush and your fellow Republicans for this kind of thinking. Among the survivors is a strange blonde man, Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi), who just happened to show up at the wellsite in the middle of the Gobi desert and had to be picked up along with the crew. While Frank doesn't like him much, Elliott has the one brilliant idea for survival: to take one of the wing sections of the plane and make a new plane for an attempt at escape. While the premise doesn't sound bad, the execution of this film is miserable. Somehow, despite some very good actors and personalities, including Quaid, Otto, Laurie, and Ribisi, "Flight of the Phoenix" falls on its face. The actors look like they really didn't want to be there (it was filmed in the desert in Namibia) and the script and situation is downright dull and impossible. C (3/11/05)

"Millenium Mambo"-I had read some favorable reviews of this 2001 film from director Hsiao-hsien Hou and so I thought I'd give it a chance. Well, I found myself watching a film about a young lady named Vicky (Qi Shu) who has come from the country to the big city in Taiwan and found herself living with an unremittingly useless and abusive boyfriend named Hao-Hao (Chun-hao Tuan). Does she leave him? Sure, but she seems to always go back no matter how useless he is. All he has to do is ask. Vicky narrates from 10 years in the future, looking back on 2001. This is intended, apparently, to be some sort of commentary on the state of affairs at the turn of the new century. Is this a Taiwanese effort to recall the aimless days of the French "New Wave?" If it is, it doesn't compare. Vicky starts to hang out in nightclubs and meets Jack (Jack Kao), described in the reviews as a gangster, but frankly I didn't realize that from watching the film. Jack turns out to be a fairly nice guy who treats Vicky more like a daughter or friend than a lover. Somewhere along the line they visit the snow country of Japan and we see an aimless scene (like so many in the film) in the snow. And that pretty much sums up our tale. "Millenium Mambo" contains excruciatingly dull scenes filmed as darkly and obscurely as possible. By the time the film ends, I had a feeling of relief that this experience was over. Some reviewers saw greatness in this film. Yes, it's great if you like films about aimless characters straining to find some (any) meaning in life in their dull routines. (In Mandarin with English subtitles). C- (3/4/05)

"I Heart Huckabees"-I wondered what the title of this film meant and now I know: not much. Starring a dreary, unattractive Jason Schwartzman as Albert Markovski, a young man who is interested in the environment but decides to seek help from "existential detectives" (played by Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin as the husband and wife team, Bernard and Vivian), this eminently forgettable film takes us on an unwanted journey to nowhere. The poorly served cast includes Jude Law as Brad Stand, an executive of Huckabees, a nasty department store chain, who becomes competitive with Markovski over his environmental organization and also seeks existential aid; Naomi Watts as Huckabees star model (who is also Stand's wife) but who is being pushed out and is thoroughly confused about her role in life; Isabelle Huppert as a competitor of the Hoffman-Tomlin team who takes a diametrically opposed stance on existence but winds up seemingly in agreement with Bernard and Vivian at the end; and Mark Wahlberg as another of the existential seeking clients. Does this movie have a point? Maybe, but I missed it. Is it fun to watch? No. Should you seek it out? Why? Should it exist? Now that's a serious question. D (2/25/05)

"Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring"-This is a contemplative zen-like tone poem directed by Ki-duk Kim who also stars in the film. The entire movie takes place on a Korean lake surrounded by moutains. There is minimal dialogue. In the middle of the lake is a floating temple accessed only by a rowboat or, later, in winter, by walking on ice. In the first segment of the film, the temple is occupied by an older monk and a young boy apparently studying to be a monk. But the young boy is nasty to other living creatures and is taught a lesson by the older monk. In "Summer," the boy, now a teenager, is introduced to sex. A young girl arrives with her mother so that she can be cured from an illness. Before long, the boy convinces the girl to go ashore for sexual adventures and the boy becomes smitten with the girl. When she is determined to be over her illness, the girl must leave and the young boy becomes frustrated to the point of distraction. As each segment of this film unwinds, we see more of the human frailties that can exist even in a budding buddhist monk. This film is mesmerizing, as it takes us on a journey not only through the seasons of weather but also the seasons of life. Yeong-su Oh is powerful as the older monk who ultimately knows when his time has come and Ki-duk Kim is impressive as the boy now grown into his final season who has returned to the temple from the rigors of the outside world and takes the place of the older monk. (In Korean with English subtitles) B+ (2/25/05)

"The Motorcycle Diaries"-Director Walter Salles, who made the wonderful "Central Station," here tells the charming true coming-of-age tale of the youthful adventures of Ernesto Guevara (Gael García Bernal). It was 1952, and Guevara was then a student from Buenos Aires, who joined his good friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna) on an adventure from Buenos Aires north to Chile, Peru, Colombia, and ultimately to Venezula. Based on diaries written by Guevara, the film shows the two starting out almost comically, having numerous accidents, only to ultimately bid goodbye to their old cycle when it completely fails. The two proceed on their journey on foot, hitchhiking, and finally by raft through the gorgeous scenery of the Andes and along the western and northern portions of South America. When Guevara and Granado reach a pre-arranged visit to a leper colony in Colombia, the beginnings of Guevara's concerns about injustice are revealed. The visit to the leper colony is indeed the highlight of the film, where Guevara and Granado grow from joking adventurers to serious young men aware of the burdens of the world. Gael García Bernal ("Bad Education" and "Y tu mamá también") is truly earnest as the future "Che" Guevara, a leader of the Cuban revolution with Fidel Castro. I was also impressed by the performance of Rodrigo De la Serna as the sidekick Granado. Also of note is Mía Maestro (currently seen in the TV series "Alias") as Chichina, Guevara's youthful love who likely is ultimately abandoned for the revolution. B+ (2/18/05)

"Shall We Dance"-This is a mediocre remake of a fine Japanese film released in 1996. The basic story concerns lawyer John Clark (Richard Gere) who, on the way home from workon the El in downtown Chicago, notices a dance studio and an attractive dance instructor (Jennifer Lopez) looking out the window. Being somewhat bored with his suburban life and wife (Susan Sarandon), Clark takes the step of stopping off and joining a dance class. By the time he has completed his dance instruction, the instructors have, believe it or not, turned Clark and his fellow classmates (Bobby Cannavale and Omar Miller) into champion dancers ready to engage in ballroom dancing competition. Sure. Meanwhile, of course, Mrs. Clark has hired a private investigator to find out if her husband is having an affair. All this winds up with a silly performance at a dance competition and a sappy happy ending. Stanley Tucci plays Clark's partner who also happens to be involved in dance and wears an astoundingly silly wig. Lisa Ann Walter, as a slightly overweight dance competition wannabe, does a serviceable Bette Midler impersonation. This is another film that I recommend be missed. Incidentally, the trailer for the original 1996 Japanese version is on the DVD of this remake. I recommend the original as a much superior film. C- (2/12/05)

"P.S."-If it weren't for Laura Linney's wonderful presence in this film, it would have been a total and unmitigated disaster. This film has a rather silly and unlikely story. Laura Linney is Louise Harrington, a director of admissions at Columbia University who is divorced but still friendly with her professor husband, Peter Harrington (Gabriel Byrne). When Louise receives an application for admission from a young man and artist named F. Scott Feinstadt (Topher Grace), she begins to behave like a crazed teenager. Since Louise's teenage love was a boy named Scott Feinstadt who was an artist and who died in an auto accident, Louise freaks out and contacts the new Scott for an immediate interview. The new Scott, apparently, is almost exactly like the old Scott, even though the film contains no apparent supernatural aspects. What makes this film even more absurd is that Louise's longtime friend, Missy Goldberg (Marcia Gay Harden), arrives from California to check out Scott (she also dated the original) even though she is now a mother living 3,000 miles away. Both women manage to make complete fools of themselves over this young man. Meanwhile, Scott is obviously enjoying the attentions of two attractive older women, although certainly he is confused by their eagerness. This is nonsensical romance carried to an absurdity. Laura Linney, working with a weak script, glows as always and Marcia Gay Harden and Gabriel Byrne are fine with the limited material with which they have to work. Same goes for Topher Grace. Miss it. C (2/11/05)

"Vanity Fair"-William Makepeace Thackeray's classic English novel tells the tale of a poor young woman's attempts to rise in the social fabric of English society in the early 19th century. Director Mira Nair ("Monsoon Wedding") seems to fall into the fate of some recent Merchant-Ivory films by emphasizing the costumes, architecture, and color of the period rather than the characters and the theme. "Vanity Fair" is about the "vanity" of a whole generation of people whose lives revolve around inherited money and power, and resulting social class. But that theme doesn't truly come through in Nair's film. Reese Witherspoon plays Becky Sharp, the daughter of a poor artist and French opera singer, who is more educated and literate than those of the upper classes with whom she socializes, but her abilities in singing, speaking French, and making clever and humorous conversation, help little in her upward striving. Reese Witherspoon is always a delight to look at, but the problem here is that she never becomes Becky Sharp. She shows little subtlety or expression and appears always to be the smiling and cheerful Reese Witherspoon (think Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde"). Witherspoon is simply too upbeat, even when soaking wet in a heavy rain. "Vanity Fair" does have positive features. There are enough elements from Thackeray's novel to keep the viewer's attention on the story. Nair directs some excellent performances, including Bob Hoskins as Sir Pitt Crawley, a somewhat rumpled but pleasant member of the aristocracy; Eileen Atkins as Matilda Crawley, a woman who at first appears to have sense but ultimately is a snob like the rest of her class; Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as the nasty and ill-fated George Osborne; Jim Broadbent as Osborne's snooty merchant father; Geraldine McEwan as the nasty and snoopy Lady Southdown; James Purefoy as Rawdon Crawley who marries Becky but feels betrayed by her real desires; and Gabriel Byrne as the sleazy Marquess of Steyne, who first meets Becky as a child when he buys her father's art and then, when she's an adult, tries to buy her affections. A young actress who has impressed me in the past, Romola Garai, is a little disappointing as Becky's childhood friend Amelia Sedley, who seems never to learn from any experience. And another of my favorites, Rhys Ifans (recently seen in "Danny Deckchair"), who is wonderful in funny, warm, and eccentric parts, here gives a somber, almost expressionless performance, as William Dobbin, the man who dotes on Amelia only to be ignored and see her marry his nasty friend George Osborne. B (2/5/05)

"Ray"-I'll come right out and say it. Jamie Foxx is simply brilliant as Ray Charles, the legendary rhythm and blues singer and piano player who was a major star for decades. Directed with warmth and intelligence by Taylor Hackford ("Proof of Life" and "An Officer and a Gentleman"), "Ray" is a magnificent tale about a young man from northern Florida who is born into poverty, suffers from two tragedies as a child, including losing his eyesight at the age of 7, and overcomes all to exit that world so that, with his great musical talents, he can excel beyond his wildest dreams. Interweaving the story of Ray's professional experiences with those of his childhood, we begin to see what made this flawed man into such an amazing talent, a man with soul and his own inimitable style who could sing R & B, gospel and country, and succeed at whatever he tried. Ray Charles Robinson (shortened to his first two names in order to avoid confusion with the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson) is initially somewhat naive in the business part of his occupation, but before long he begins to assert himself, ultimately insisting that he be paid in $1 bills so that he can't be cheated. Ray's ascent in the musical world begins when his contract is purchased by Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) and Atlantic Records. With the support of Ertegun and Jerry Wexler (Richard Schiff), Ray Charles begins to create the classic songs that made him famous. But Ray is a weak man, weak for women and drugs. Despite being married to the prim and proper Della Bea (Kerry Washington), a gospel singer from Houston, Ray descends into womanizing and heroin use that almost winds up costing him his freedom. Jamie Foxx simply becomes Ray Charles. His expressions and mannerisms are uncanny. This is one of the best performances I've seen in years. The supporting cast is outstanding, including the newly discovered Sharon Warren as Ray's laundress mother; Regina King as Margie Hendricks, one of the Raelettes who becomes Ray's road "wife;" Clifton Powell as Jeff Brown, Ray's head musician who ultimately loses out when stronger personalities take over Ray's career; Bokeem Woodbine as Fathead Newman, a significant member of Ray's band; Aunjanue Ellis as Mary Ann Fisher, another of Ray's singers and mistresses who is pushed out when the Raelettes come on the scene; and Curtis Armstrong as Ahmet Ertegun, the man from Atlantic Records who made Ray famous. The musical scenes are out of this world. When Ray is on stage with the Raelettes singing "Hit The Road Jack," you know exactly why this man starred for decades and is a legend. This is a great film. A+ (2/4/05)

"Friday Night Lights"-Are those of us in the blue states prejudiced when we tend to think of Texas as being a land of guns, beer, pickup trucks, religion and football? "Friday Night Lights," directed by Peter Berg and based on the true story told in the book of the same name, certainly supports that view, especially the latter. It's 1988 and we are in Odessa, TX, a relatively small west-Texas town surrounded by dust and oilwells and not far from Midland (Bush country). Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) is the fairly low key coach (somewhat unusual for this genre of film) of the Permian High School Panthers, aka Mojo, who have a multi-million dollar football stadium because football IS religion in Texas. We are introduced to a group of the players on this team who, it is made quite clear by the parents and other adults surrounding them, are expected to be "perfect," win all of their games and the state championship. Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) is the humorless quarterback who looks like he has a ton of bricks on his back. Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) has a miserable father (Tim McGraw) who won't let him forget that he can't hold onto the ball. Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) has incredible natural talent and a cheerleading uncle (Grover Coulson) who fails to provide the adult support Boobie needs when injury strikes. "Friday Night Lights" is one of the best football films I've seen. Not only beautifully filmed, it emphasizes the characters and the terrible stress placed on these young 17-year old men, in a world where there seems to be nothing but football. In this red state, these are the real "values" people seem to care about. Billy Bob Thornton has the unusual task of playing a coach who, rather than act like a tyrant to his players in a place where that's expected, is actually quite human. When one father (McGraw) comes onto the practice field to berate his son, the coach simply watches, because this is the way things are done in Texas. One of the funniest scenes is in the Gaines home. Mrs. Gaines (Connie Britton), sensing that things are not going that well as the Panthers struggle, suggests that their next coaching stop be in Alaska. As in most sports films, no matter how revolted the viewer may be about the winning-obsessive culture being portrayed, at the same time one can't help but become a fan, rooting for these players as they face the ultimate showdown. A- (2/4/05)

"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow"-It's 1939, the "Wizard of Oz" is playing at Radio City Music Hall, and Gwyneth Paltrow is Polly Perkins, a reporter attached at the hip to her camera. No danger will stop Polly from picking up her dropped camera. Suddenly, New York City is attacked by a horde of futuristic robotic monsters and large generators are stolen. Sky Captain (Jude Law) flies in for the rescue in his magical airplane that also serves as a submarine. And all this is done to music that sounds an awful lot like the themes from "Star Wars." With sepia-colored images and surrealistic backgrounds, "Sky Captain" kept reminding me of other films, including "Star Wars," "Batman," and the James Bond films. There's an evil empire out there under the direction of a German scientist, Totenkopf (played by Sir Laurence Olivier in archival footage) that swoop through the darkened and oppressive streets of this fictional New York City and Sky Captain and Polly must rally the forces to destroy the bad guys at their island fortress or the world will perish. Meanwhile, our heros are aided by a British troop on a flying landing strip, under the leadership of Franky (Angelina Jolie). This is truly childish, mindless trash, with themes and concepts copied from so many other films. There is almost nothing original in this film other than the fact that the actors apparently did the entire thing in front of a blue screen. "Sky Captain" is about as empty as the scenery the actors had when shooting. D (1/30/05)

"The Forgotten"-I'm forced to say the obvious. This is a movie that should be forgotten. Julianne Moore is Telly Paretta, a woman whose young son has died in a plane crash. She sees a psychiatrist (Gary Sinise) and looks longingly at photos and videos of her son, only to begin to notice, shockingly, that the images and memories of her son are disappearing except in her own mind. The psychiatrist and her own husband (Anthony Edwards) deny there was ever a son, but she knows. She goes to see Ash Corell (Dominic West), a former hockey player and father of a girl who was also on the plane. At first, he denies the existence of the children but is sparked into a memory that convinces him to join Telly in a search for the children. Not a bad setup, but wow does this film go wrong. Suddenly, national security agents are involved, chasing Telly and Ash down and a strange figure appears everywhere watching everything they do. "The Forgotten" has an incredibly sketchy plot with an utterly absurd and all too facile ending. The filmmakers had the gall to put an alternate version on the DVD. I watched the end of that version. Slight differences but the same result. Why an actress of Julianne Moore's talents and stature would make such a film is beyond me. D (1/29/05)

"The Village"-I went into this film having read very critical reviews, especially critical of the ending. Not being a big fan of M. Night Shyamalan's previous films, I wasn't expecting a lot. Now, having seen the film, I believe the negative criticisms of the ending were wrong for the very simple reason that the critics were attacking the absence of a typical M. Night Shyamalan ending. Director and writer Shyalmalan managed to make a movie that appears on the surface to be similar to his prior films in theme and style, but turns out to be quite different. It should be apparent that it's difficult to write a review of this film because the value of the film revolves around the theme which results from the surprise ending. Obviously, it would be unfair to describe the ending. And it can be said that even if the ending turns out not to be a total surprise, "The Village" manages to be a film that has something to say about human nature, hope, and power. The story is set in 1897, and we are in a strange rural village surrounded by woods. Under the direction of a group of elders, led by Edward Walker (William Hurt), the residents believe that they cannot cross a boundary line near the woods or they will risk the dangers from a strange group of monsters known as "Those We Don't Speak Of." In living in this manner, the residents have no contact with the outside world. But Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) believes that it is necessary to cross the woods to the mysterious "towns" to get medicine and supplies and makes a request to the elders to do so. He's turned down and when he risks a walk into the woods, the town is frightened by a visit from the alien characters. Ultimately, when a main character is seriously injured, Walker allows his intelligent blind daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) to take the walk that was forbidden to Lucius, to the horror and shock of the other elders. While the film is not exactly scintillating, it has a very good cast, including Cherry Jones, the New York stage actress, as one of the elders; Adrien Brody as the very strange Noah Percy; Brendan Gleeson as another of the elders; Sigourney Weaver as Lucius' mother, Alice Hunt; and Judy Greer as Ivy's sister Kitty. But it is Bryce Dallas Howard, Ron Howard's red-headed daughter, who really stands out. Her performance is intelligent and it's hard to take one's eyes off this lovely young actress who comes from true movie-making genes. B+ (1/28/05)

"Silver City"-Director John Sayles ("Sunshine State") almost always has a political purpose to his films and "Silver City" is the most obvious in that regard. This one is intended to be both a putdown of George W. Bush and the politics of cynicism that lie at the base of far too many political campaigns and politicians, especially of the right. Chris Cooper is wonderful as a Bush-like character named Dickie Pilager (how appropriate), the scion of a rich, powerful Colorado family who is running for governor and has trouble stringing any coherent sentences together. The film begins with Pilager accidentally and comically finding a dead body (of a young Hispanic male) in a lake while filming a political spot under the direction of his campaign director Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss). Raven, wondering whether the discovery of the body was purely accidental or possibly politically motivated, and in hopes of covering up the incident, hires a detective agency run by Grace Seymour (Mary Kay Place) to check up on and warn off three people who have reason to oppose Pilager's candidacy. Put in charge of this job is Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston), a former reporter with integrity who had been previously setup and disgraced ending his reporting career. O'Brien, whose current live-in girlfriend has just moved out of their apartment without notice, seems down on his occupational and romantic luck, but is very serious about his work and begins to try to figure out who the dead man was and why he was in the lake. Needless to say, O'Brien begins to unravel a cynical anti-environmental plot of business and political interests to build a community on a site (Silver City) which is loaded with toxic waste and there just happens to be connections to virtually all of the main characters, including the ultra-rich businessman, Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson), whose power lies behind the powerful Pilagers. The film has somewhat of a documentary look in its grain and lighting and John Sayles tells his story slowly and deliberately. Danny Huston is particularly effective as the earnest O'Brien who has little to lose. Others of special note in this film are Darryl Hannah as Pilager's rebellious and angry sister, Sal Lopez as an Hispanic hired by Huston to help investigate among the illegal aliens used by the rich and powerful for their dirty work, and the very appealing Maria Bello as Nora Allardyce, O'Brien's former lover and a reporter who has made the seemingly strange choice of dating a corporate henchman (Billy Zane). Also in the cast in smaller roles are Thora Birch, Tim Roth, Miguel Ferrer, Michael Murphy and Ralph Waite. While "Silver City" ultimately is not a great film, it is one well done piece of political commentary. B+ (1/15/05)

"Shaun of the Dead"-The British often have a somewhat twisted sense of humor and "Shaun of the Dead" certainly represents a good example. Putting on the cult classic "Dawn of the Dead," writers Simon Pegg (also star) and Edgar Wright (also director), start out with a simple romantic tale about Shaun (Pegg), a young guy who lives with his childhood friend Ed (Nick Frost), someone who hasn't yet matured beyond age 8, and is being dragged down socially by this friendship. Shaun's girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) is just about fed up with Shaun's inability to do anything beyond the standard evening at the pub, and Shaun is having problems with his mother (Penelope Wilton) and his step-father (Bill Nighy). Just as he resolves to straighten out his life, get Liz back, and improve his relationship with his mother, London is enveloped by a plague in which the dead arise and return, wanting to take the living with them. Suddenly, this tale about a simple romantically-challenged schlemiel turns into a zombie film in which Shaun, Ed, Liz, and friends struggle for survival amongst the living dead. One of the filmmakers is quoted on the DVD as saying that this is a comedy AND a zombie film, not a "comedy zombie film." Yes, it's a weird combination. Ultimately, the comedy alone might have worked. The characters and the script are funny. The zombie part starts out like a joke and then seems to turn deadly unfunny and goes on much too long. Does it have a happy ending? Guess. B (1/14/05)

"Danny Deckchair"-My first reaction to this film was that the Aussies were doing it again: a genuinely funny and charming romantic comedy with a twist (somehow the wonderful Aussie film "Starstruck" came to mind). And then I learned that it was written and directed by Jeff Balsmeyer, an American. So be it. However, that didn't change my reaction to this truly original and charming film about a slightly eccentric Sydney cement worker, Danny Morgan (Rhys Ifans), who realizes that his girlfriend Trudy (Justine Clark) has been dissing him and flirting with a TV personality, Sandy Upman (Rhys Muldoon), costing him a well-planned vacation. Danny decides to do something different at a backyard barbie and attaches helium balloons to his patio chair only to find himself floating away high above Sydney to the shock and dismay of Trudy and their friends. Danny ultimately crashes into the very distant backyard of Glenda Lake (Miranda Otto), a parking officer in the rural Australian town of Clarence. Miranda Otto is absolutely lovely and glowing and so it's a little difficult to believe that local townspeople would be shocked that her character has a man in her house, but Glenda hides Danny's method of arrival from them and Danny begins to become a part of this idyllic community, something he has yearned for in the crowded big city, and a part of Glenda's life. Rhys Ifans and Miranda Otto are magical together, giving off a genuine sensation of attraction and romance. The supporting cast is funny and charming. Justine Clark is hysterical as the girlfriend so caught up in her rising career that she ignores her boyfriend, endangering their relationship. This is a film worth watching for its joie de vivre. A (1/8/05)

"Troy"-Based somewhat loosely on Homer's "Illiad" and other mythological versions of the Trojan Wars, "Troy" attempts to tell the story, in as simplistic terms as possible, of how Paris (Orlando Bloom), a prince of Troy, steals Helen (Diane Kruger), the wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta (Brendan Gleeson), and succeeds in uniting the Greek forces behind Agamemnon (Brian Cox) and his leading warrior, Achilles (Brad Pitt). Thus united, supposedly to avenge the loss of Helen, the Greek forces (a thousand ships) descend on Troy, located on the eastern side of the Aegean. There, led by Priam, King of Troy (Peter O'Toole) and Paris' older brother Hector (Eric Bana), the defense of Troy begins. There is no certainty among historians and archeologists as to whether the Trojan Wars actually occurred. The story comes primarily from Homer's epic poem and similar tales, all involving intimate and specific involvement of various Greek gods, including Zeus and Aphrodite. In the legendary tales, many of the characters themselves, including Achilles, are descended from gods or god-like creatures. But in Wolfgang Petersen's film, the gods are missing, all the characters are human, and the 10-year Trojan Wars are seemingly reduced to a few weeks. Brad Pitt as Achilles is appropriately Greek-godlike in his appearance, stiff though his acting is. His Achilles hates Agamemnon and fights on his side reluctantly until Hector makes the fatal mistake of killing Achilles' cousin Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund). "Troy" is certainly an epic, with an intriguing and mostly talented cast, but the battle scenes of hordes of soldiers attacking a fortified walled city reminded me of similar scenes in so many other recent films, including the "Lord of the Rings" series, especially with cast members Orlando Bloom and Sean Bean (Odysseus). It was intriguing to see Peter O'Toole return in the kind of role that would have been very popular many years ago in the heyday of movie epics. Brian Cox and Brendan Gleeson are perfectly sinister as the avenging Greek kings. One of the weakest performances, however, is that of Helen, the woman known for the "face that launched a thousand ships." Diane Kruger ("Wicker Park") certainly has a pretty face but seemingly no personality behind the face. And certainly not enough to inspire a war costing thousands of people their lives. "Troy" does a workmanlike job of telling its tale, but in oversimplifying this complex and epic saga of war, loyalty, and betrayal, it does its audience a disservice. B- (1/7/05)

"Intimate Strangers"-In so many ways, this is a classic French film. Consisting mostly of bright and lively dialogue, "Intimate Strangers" is appealing because the situation is enigmatic and the actors are just right. A woman named Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) enters a building in which none of the offices is labeled and asks for directions to a psychoanalyst's office. She winds up, however, in the office of a tax lawyer named William (Fabrice Luchini) where she starts to tell him about her marital problems. William is so shocked by the unfolding details that he fails to inform Anna about his actual profession and continues to listen with fascination and possible adoration. What makes it utterly offbeat is that Anna continues to visit William even after learning that he's not the doctor she originally thought he was. With advice on the side from his former lover, Jeanne (Anne Brochet), who seems to be around William often enough that one begins to wonder about her feelings towards him, William continues to have meetings with Anna in which they discuss her problems. It's apparent that William is attracted to Anna but he is utterly incapable of taking the first step. In fact, he seems so inhibited that it's hard to imagine that he had had a relationship with someone as hip and relaxed as his ex-lover, Jeanne. Sandrine Bonnaire and Fabrice Luchini are charming and do a wonderful job of bringing to life these two rather strange characters. Michel Duchaussoy is perfect as Dr. Monnier, the psychoanalyst Anna was supposed to have seen, as he makes rather funny comments about his profession upon being consulted by the perplexed William. You must like loquacious French films to want to see this film. But if you do, it's one of the cleverest to come along in a while. (In French with English subititles) A- (1/1/05)

"Wimbledon"-I admit that I'm a sucker for certain kinds of fantasy films. No, not that nonsense like "Lord of the Rings," about absurdist creatures in utterly unbelievable situations and battles. I'll admit I'm a sucker for sports and romance fantasies and "Wimbledon" fits the bill. And it's not even the silliness of an aging player fighting for the Wimbledon title (the winners these days are usually the youngest players on the court), but the attraction of two people combined with a competitive sports situation filmed in a real location makes "Wimbledon" an enjoyable movie to watch. I've never played tennis in my life, and yet, like golf, I enjoy watching it when a major title is at stake simply for the fascination of watching competitive spirits at work. So Wimbledon is a place of legend, and this movie lets you see a little of what life is really like for the players and fans at Britain's major. Plus, we have two attractive stars. Paul Bettany is Peter Colt, who ranks 116th in the world and really has no likely chance to win this tournament. But he meets and falls for the young up-and-coming American star, Lizzie Bradbury, played with charm and pizzazz by Kirsten Dunst, who, with the urging of her overbearing father (Sam Neill), plans to win it all. Peter is inspired by his new love (wouldn't it be nice if things were that simple?), and Lizzie finds herself distracted, to her father's frustration. The combination of tough tennis play and romance, combined with a little family humor on the side (Peter's family is played by the excellent and funny Eleanor Bron as his mother, Bernard Hill ("Lord of the Rings") as his father, and James McAvoy as his bike-riding brother who always bets on his brother's competitor), makes this a film worth a viewing, especially if you like a sports fantasy combined with a little romance. The film wisely uses real-life tennis commentators and players, such as Mary Carillo, Chris Evert, and John McEnroe to give it more of a realistic flavor. B+ (12/31/04)

"We Don't Live Here Anymore"-The story outline would make this film sound morose, and yet it's not. Two couples, Jack and Terry Linden (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern) and Hank and Edith Evans (Peter Krause and Naomi Watts), are friends living in the Northwest. Jack, a college teacher, seems miserable in his marriage and is having an affair with Edith. Hank, a writer struggling to get anything down on paper and to publish, acts almost as if his wife doesn't exist. Both couples have children who suffer from the miseries of their parents. Jack dislikes Terry's care of their home and children, and Terry resents the lack of love, both emotional and physical, from her husband. Edith believes Hank doesn't love her and is happy to have her regular dalliances with Jack in the woods. The cast is first-rate and the movie compelling, based on stories by Andre Dubus (who wrote the story upon which "In The Bedroom" was based). It's hard to imagine two couples doing to each other what these couples do without ultimate violence. Jack and Hank are friends and jog together; Edith and Terry are friends and see each other regularly. In fact, these people, together and apart, are around the others a little too much for comfort. Overall, "We Don't Live Here Anymore" delves civilly into the inner beings of these characters to examine some real problems in the marital state. Each of the stars of this film proves that they are there because they deserve to be. B+ (12/30/04)



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