2006 Reviews

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

Aeon Flux

Akeelah and the Bee

An Inconvenient Truth

The Aristocrats

Ask the Dust

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

The Beat That My Heart Skipped

Bee Season

The Best of Youth

Breakfast on Pluto


Brokeback Mountain

Broken Flowers





The Chumscrubber

The Constant Gardener

The Da Vinci Code



Don't Come Knocking


The Dying Gaul


Everything Is Illuminated

The Family Stone


Friends with Money

Glory Road

Good Morning, Night

Good Night, and Good Luck.

Hard Candy


A History of Violence

Hustle & Flow

The Ice Harvest


Inside Man


Joyeux Noel


Keeping Up with the Steins

King Kong

Kinky Boots

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

The Lake House

The Legend of Zorro

The Libertine

Little Fish

Little Miss Sunshine

The Lost City

Lucky Number Slevin

Madea's Family Reunion

The Matador

Match Point

Memoirs of a Geisha

Mission: Impossible III

Mrs. Henderson Presents


Neil Young: Heart of Gold

The New World

Nine Lives

Nobody Knows

North Country

The Notorious Bettie Page


Oliver Twist

A Prairie Home Companion

Pride and Prejudice

The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio

The Producers


Red Eye


Rumor Has It...


The Sentinel

Separate Lies

Sketches of Frank Gehry

The Squid and the Whale

Superman Returns


Take the Lead

Thank You for Smoking

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada


Tristram Shandy A Cock and Bull Story



The Twilight Samurai


V for Vendetta


Walk the Line

Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Wedding Crashers

The White Countess

Who Killed the Electric Car?

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

The World's Fastest Indian



2005 Acclaimed Films

The New York Film Critics Circle have made the following awards: Best Film ("Brokeback Mountain"); Best Director (Ang Lee for "Brokeback Mountain"); Best Foreign Language Film ("2046"); Best First Film (Bennett Miller for "Capote"); Best Animated Feature ("Howl's Moving Castle"); Best Actor (Heath Ledger for "Brokeback Mountain"); Best Actress (Reese Witherspoon for "Walk the Line"); Best Supporting Actor (William Hurt for "A History of Violence;" Best Supporting Actress (Maria Bello for "A History of Violence"); Best Cinematography (Christopher Doyle, Lai Yiu Fat, and Kwan Pun Leung for "2046"); Best Screenplay (Noah Baumbach for "The Squid and the Whale"); Best Non-Fiction Film ("Grizzly Man" and "White Diamond"-both by Werner Herzog).

The New York Times film critics announced their best of the year as follows:

A.O. Scott: The Best of Youth; The Aristocrats; Darwin's Nightmare; The Holy Girl; Match Point;Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit; Mysterious Skin; The Squid and the Whale; Funny Ha-Ha; and Munich.

Scott's Second Best Movies of the Year: "Capote," "Good Night, and Good Luck.," "Good Morning, Night," "Syriana," "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," "A History of Violence," "Schizo," "Brokeback Mountain," "Nobody Knows," "Look at Me," "Shopgirl," "40 Shades of Blue,""Kings and Queen," "Howl's Moving Castle," "My Summer of Love," "Gunner Palace," "Broken Flowers," "Head-On," "Casanova," and "King Kong."

Manohla Dargis: (In no particular order) "A History of Violence;" "Brokeback Mountain;" Caché;" "Munich;" "Regular Lovers;" "The New World;" "Kings and Queen;" "2046;" "Last Days" and "Princess Raccoon."

Stephen Holden: "Brokeback Mountain;" Caché;" "Nine Lives;" "A History of Violence;""Grizzly Man;" "Downfall;" "Look at Me;" "Junebug;" "Saraband;" and "The Squid and the Whale."

Holden's runners up (listed alphabetically): "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," "Capote," "The Constant Gardener," "Crash," "Good Night, and Good Luck.;" "The Intruder," "Munich," "Mysterious Skin," "Syriana," "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada"


Roy's 10 Best Viewed for 2005*: Ray, Hotel Rwanda, Sideways, Vera Drake, Born Into Brothels, Mad Hot Ballroom, Bad Education, Million Dollar Baby, Heights, My Architect: A Son's Journey

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

2006 Reviews


My rating system: A to F.

I see virtually all films on DVD. If I see a film in a theater, I will so indicate.


"Little Miss Sunshine"-The best thing about this somewhat morose film is the putdown of adolescent female beauty pageants which takes place at the end. However, to get there the viewer must travel a road from Albuquerque to southern California that has quite a few very strange bumps along the way. Greg Kinnear is the father of the almost completely dysfunctional family at the center of this movie. He is Richard, an unsuccessful drip of a husband with a highly questionable scheme to get rich by promoting a nine-step plan to success. Alan Arkin is Grandpa, Richard's cranky, off-color and rather funny father. Toni Collette is Sheryl, Richard's wife, the earnest and hard-working mother of two children, Olive (Abigail Breslin) and Dwayne (Paul Dano), and the sister and caretaker of Frank (Steve Carell). Frank is gay and a leading Proust scholar who has just survived a suicide attempt after the man he loved ran off with Frank's academic competitor. Dwayne doesn't talk, having taken an oath not to speak until he can enter the military and become a pilot. He looks as much like a potential military man as, say, Mick Jagger. But at the heart of the story is Olive, the cheerful 9-year-old daughter who dreams of being a beauty contestant and lucks into an entry into the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in Redondo Beach, CA. Despite lots of misgivings the family takes off for California in an old yellow Volkswagen bus that ultimately will need a running start every time they try to get it going. The problem with "Little Miss Sunshine" is that it isn't quite sure if it's comedy or tragedy. The film is loaded with pitiful moments posing as humor. For example, when the otherwise very serious Frank goes into a store to buy porn at Grandpa's urging, he tries desperately to hide his purchase when he realizes (amazing coincidence) that the man he loves is standing right there waiting to get into a car with his competition, another Proust scholar. There is also real "humor" in the death of one of the characters and the need to steal the body from a hospital and transport it to California. Wow, I rolled on the floor with that one. But "Little Miss Sunshine" does have its moments. Little Abigail Breslin is charming and delightful. She steals the film with her smile, and with her dance number at the beauty pageant which defies description and which also constitutes one of the best condemnations of child beauty pageants that I've seen. B- (12/22/06)

"Sketches of Frank Gehry"-The subject of this wonderful documentary is one of the greatest and most original architects in the world. Born and raised in Toronto, Gehry (originally Goldberg) ultimately moved to LA where he created such astounding wonders as the Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao, Spain, and the Disney Concert Hall in LA. If you aren't familiar with the appearance of these amazing and unusual buildings, check out the photos in the Frank Gehry entry on wikipedia.com. Gehry's friend, director Sidney Pollack, was asked by the architect to do a documentary and Pollack became an active participant. He is often seen camera-in-hand, interviewing the architect about his life and his attitude towards his art and business. Pollack originally scoffed at doing the film, saying that he had never done a documentary and knew nothing about architecture. Gehry replied that that was exactly why he wanted him. Well, like his buildings, Gehry knew exactly what he was doing. Pollack has done a marvelous job of cinematically exploring the what and why of Gehry's creations, but doesn't hesitate to include negative criticism. With the comments of several significant people in the field of business, art and architecture, including the great architect Philip Johnson, the former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, businessman Barry Diller, former agent and Disney exec Michael Ovitz, and the eccentric artist/filmmaker Julian Schnabel, "Sketches of Frank Gehry" beautifully introduces us to a world of creativity that's rarely explored. This first-rate documentary is highly recommended. A (12/16/06)

"Superman Returns"-Let's get to the negative first. Unfortunately, "Superman Returns" seems like a remake of a remake of a remake. There's the hint of the oft-repeated story of Superman's origins, the ice crystals from past films, the threat of Kryptonite, and even the late Marlon Brando as Superman's father, Jor-El. And let us not forget the evil Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) who seems to have the been bad guy in virtually every "Superman" film. But "Superman Returns" has some positives. I found Brandon Routh quite appealing as the new Superman. He certainly looks the part and gives off the old Clark Kent shyness and the ultra-confidence of Superman himself. And I also liked the story of Superman's love life as Superman returns after a five year visit to his native planet (or what was left of it) only to find that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) had moved on, had another man in her life (James Marsden), and had a son, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu). Old Super's disappointment is patent until questions arise as to the paternity of Lois' young son. Parker Posey is fun as Lex Luthor's sidekick/girlfriend, Kitty Kowalski, but even though she obviously gets pissed off at old Lex for his many evil actions, she never really gets to show her stuff. So "Superman Returns" is a mixed bag. Some good, some bad, and always Kryptonite. C+ (12/15/06)

"Who Killed the Electric Car?"-When the state of California ordered the auto companies to make a percentage of cars with little or no emissions, many auto companies, including GM, built electric cars run on batteries and California opened recharging stations for these cars. Many were loaned out, often to celebrities such as Tom Hanks and Peter Horton. This documentary centers around the life and death of the EV1, GM's electric vehicle, which ultimately died a mysterious death when GM and other auto companies rounded up and destroyed all the electric cars (some as recently as 2005). The film, narrated by Martin Sheen, explores the ins and outs of who was responsible for the death of these cars and the advantages and disadvantages of such vehicles, including the effects on the environment. Many of those who were allowed to operate the EV1 are interviewed. The most interesting and enthusiastic individual in the film is Chelsea Sexton, a young lady who was hired by GM to watch over the EV1 vehicles and who, after being laid off upon the mysterious roundup of the cars by the company, became a major advocate for this new technology. B (12/11/06)

"Idlewild"-An old-fashioned 1930s gangster/romance with hip-hop music? Well, that's what we get from Bryan Barber, a director of hip-hop music videos, as well as André Benjamin and Big Boi (Antwan A. Patton), both members of the hip-hop group Outkast. Benjamin plays Percival, a quiet piano player who works in the family mortician business with his self-oriented father (Ben Vereen). His antithesis is his friend Rooster (Big Boi), a singer, husband, lover, and minor gangster during Prohibition who succeeds to ownership of the local club when its sleazy owner, Ace (Faizon Love), and another gangster, Spats (Ving Rhames), are gunned down by Spats' underling, Trumpy (Terrence Howard), with Rooster as an unseen witness. Trumpy then becomes the nemesis of the somewhat carefree Rooster. There has to be romance, of course, and in the middle of all this is the lovely Angel Davenport (Paula Patton), a singing star who has arrived from St. Louis with a seeming chip on her shoulder but who is peculiarly nervous when it comes time to perform. "Idlewild" had a great deal of potential as both a story and musical, but it suffers from some confusing scenes and segues, especially early in the film, relatively weak acting by some of its stars, and a mish-mash of musical numbers that feature some first-rate dance numbers (choreographed by Hinton Battle) but some woeful singing (it's almost impossible to hear the primary singers in a few scenes). Hip-hop is not personally my kind of music, but I'm willing to listen and experience. Outkast's music isn't bad; it's just that the music used in the film is not as good as it should be for the potentially powerful musical numbers the filmmakers wanted to show. Ironically, possibly the best musical number in the film occurs at the end behind the titles when Percival (or André Benjamin) shows off in a powerful 1930s type stage number. Also of note in the cast are Cicely Tyson in a cameo role, Macy Gray as a nasty singer jealous of Angel, Patti LaBelle in a brief role, and Paula Jai Parker as Rooster's frustrated wife. C+ (12/9/06)

"Wah-Wah"-British actor Richard E. Grant wrote and directed this fine film which, although fictionalized, is about his boyhood years in Swaziland, East Africa. Told through the eyes of young Ralph Compton (Zac Fox as the young Ralph and Nicholas Hoult as the elder Ralph), "Wah-Wah" begins in the late 1960s as Swaziland is about to be granted independence by the British. Ralph lives with his mother Lauren (Miranda Richardson) and father Harry (Gabriel Byrne), a British official, but their marriage is miserable and when the mother leaves with the husband of Gwen Traherne (Julie Walters), another of the local band of British residents, Ralph begins to feel the misery of life's pains, suffering a noticeable tic. Not long later he decides to leave his father and attend boarding school. When he returns two years later, he finds that his father has been recently remarried to a bright and cheerful American woman, Ruby (Emily Watson), whom his father hardly knew. "Wah-Wah" does an outstanding job of revealing the stresses that the boy feels from the emotional pain that the adults are experiencing, ranging from adultery to fighting to alcoholism. Grant has a lot to say about the snootiness of the imperialist British (especially in the form of Lady Hardwicke, played by Celia Imrie) and the special way the upper class Brits communicate with each other (described by Ruby as "Wah-Wah"). Richardson is powerful as the miserable mother who wants to have her cake and eat it too. Byrne is first-rate as the father trying desperately to keep himself together while his love life is conflicted. Grant has done an excellent job of writing the script and directing his first film, although there are some minor complaints. For example, there are so few Africans in the main part of the film, except as servants, that one would almost forget the film takes place in East Africa. In addition, while Emily Watson is a joy to behold, her American accent is a little painful to listen to. Despite this, however, "Wah-Wah" is a beautifully made film, with a wonderful cast, about the stresses of family life and society at the end of the period of British imperialism. A (12/2/06)

"Keeping Up with the Steins"-I was surprised at how low key this comedy is, considering the potential for stupid slapstick/ethnic humor. Directed by first-time director Scott Marshall (son of Garry and nephew of Penny--and not Jewish), "Keeping Up with the Steins" presents a family, the Fiedlers, who have just witnessed one of the most outlandish Bar Mitzvahs ever seen (riding into the reception area of the temple on the prow of a large model of the Titanic with a beautiful young woman holding on to him, 13-year-old Zachary Stein announces "I am king of the Torah!"), and now feel the pressure to outdo the Steins with the Bar Mitzvah of their own son, Benjamin (Darryl Sabara). Benjamin is scared to death of standing in front of a crowd reciting in Hebrew, but more than that he's concerned about having his grandfather Irwin (Garry Marshall) present. Seems his father, Adam (Jeremy Piven as a Hollywood agent--what else?), hasn't talked to his father for many years since Irwin abandoned him and his mother (Doris Roberts). So Benjamin invites his grandfather two weeks early and we soon see the arrival of hippie Irwin and his girlfriend, Sacred Feather (Darryl Hannah). Now this could have led to a lot of silly hijinks that would have made this just another dumb Hollywood comedy. Instead we get a fairly down-to-earth family comedy about love and forgiveness. Garry Marshall, who has done just about everything in the world of moviemaking, here does a fine job of playing the grandfather with regrets for his youthful indiscretions. Jeremy Piven, who plays a crazed agent on "Entourage," here gets to be a little more subtle in his emotions. Also of note in the cast are Jami Gertz as Benjamin's mother Joanne; Larry Miller as Arnie Stein, the man who comes to envy the Fiedlers for their choice of Bar Mitzvah theme; Cheryl Hines as Casey Nudelman, the Bar Mitzvah planner; and Richard Benjamin (where has he been?) as the self-important rabbi. "Keeping Up with the Steins" may actually be a little too low key, but it still gives off a nice sensation that the filmmakers made wise choices in theme and cast. In that regard, Darryl Sabara ("Spy Kids") does a great job as the Bar Mitzvah boy who makes a very wise choice for his Bar Mitzvah theme. B+ (12/1/06)

"Joyeux Noël"-It is Christmas Eve, 1914, in the trenches of World War I. On one side are the Germans, led by Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl), an officer with some surprises in his background. On the other, are the British and the French. The latter are led by Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet) and the British are inspired by their priest, Palmer (Gary Lewis). One of the Germans is Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann), a famous tenor, who has been joined at the front by his girlfriend and singing partner, Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger). When the British start playing the bagpipes and singing Christmas carols, tenor Sprink joins in, and the soldiers, who had only the previous day been killing each other, come together in peace in "no man's land." They drink, talk, sing and play soccer in a Christmas truce. That this is a violation of their orders is, of course, beside the point. The film seems to be trying to portray the true spirit of humanity among men who otherwise would be killing each other. In a sense, though, this film is really about religious hypocrisy. The enemies, or at least most of them, worship the same "God," sing the same carols, and celebrate the same holiday and yet, despite their beliefs, their "God" allows them to return to the trenches and resume the miserable war, killing each other for little or no reason. The theme is emphasized in an even stronger scene late in the film when Palmer, who led the soldiers in their Christmas eve mass, is berated by a Bishop (played in his usual delightfully evil manner by Ian Richardson). The Bishop, understanding what war is all about, holds a service to inform the British soldiers that they are fighting a holy war and that "God" is only on their side. "Joyeux Noël" is well done and loaded with excellent performances, including those of Benno Fürmann as Sprink; Guillaume Canet as the French lieutenant who must deal with the jingoism of his father, the General (Bernard Le Coq); Daniel Brühl ("Good Bye Lenin!"), as the German officer of a different religious background who loves Paris and is related to the French; and Gary Lewis as the priest who finds that doing his job and bringing people together is simply not allowed when men must kill each other. Diane Kruger ("Troy") is lovely but unfortunately continues to demonstrate that she has little or no idea how to express emotion. The singing scenes are poorly dubbed. Aside from those relatively minor complaints, "Joyeux Noël," a 2005 best foreign language film nominee at the Oscars, is recommended for the issues it raises about humanity and religious hypocrisy. A- (11/25/06)

"An Inconvenient Truth"-I challenge any conservative to see "An Inconvenient Truth" and tell me that we were better off with George W. Bush in the White House over Al Gore. Al Gore appears in this incredible documentary as a highly intelligent, thoughtful, and caring man, a giant with regard to the important environmental issues facing humanity. And Gore does a fantastic job of proving that our future, and especially that of our children and future generations, depends on what we (particularly America) do right now to cut down on the emissions that are destroying the planet's environment. Global warming is THE issue. Issues like abortion, immigration, terrrorism, and Iraq pale when one considers that the planet and its weather patterns are being so drastrically changed for the worse right now by what we are doing to our environment that life as we know it is in jeopardy. "An Inconvenient Truth" consists of a rather technically advanced and detailed slideshow that Al Gore presents to audiences around the world about the history and effects of global warming, interspersed with personal facts about Gore's life. The former VP proves that despite the ranting and raving of deniers, global warming is a fact and a very frightening one at that. In the not too distant future with melting icecaps, significant areas of land, currently populated by millions, would be underwater. Hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons could regularly be as large and damaging as Katrina. Drought and flooding would increase, especially in parts of the world that will have the most difficulty dealing with these problems. The point Al Gore makes successfully is that we are not dealing with a political issue, but rather with a survival issue. This outstanding documentary, extremely well made by Davis Guggenheim, is one that is not to be missed if you care about the future of the planet and life on Earth. A (11/24/06)

"Scoop"-This is the lightest and most enjoyable Woody Allen film in a while. Where his last film, "Match Point," was too serious and annoyingly contrived, "Scoop" is merely contrived in a classic Woody Allen comedic way. And also unlike "Match Point," this time Woody personally appears and is hysterical as Sid Waterman, aka Splendini, a stage magician with a schlock act. With the sounds of Grieg's "Peer Gynt" in the background, a young and beautiful blonde student reporter, Sondra Pransky (played delightfully by the delectable Scarlett Johansson), magically meets the ghost of a recently deceased London reporter, Joe Strombel (Ian McShane). Strombel's ghost gives Sondra a potential scoop on the Tarot Killer, a London serial killer who is murdering young women with short dark hair. Thinking the murderer may be Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), the son of a British Lord, Sondra, with the help of Sid Waterman posing as her father, courageously ventures forth to find the truth and finds a little romance to complicate matters. Unlike so many of the really contrived comedies coming from Hollywood these days, "Scoop" put a genuine smile on my face and made me laugh out loud a few times as a result of Woody's Allen's smart humor. "Scoop" is charming and fun and also contains nice performances by Romola Garai as Sondra's upper class friend, Vivian, and Charles Dance as a journalist who advises Sondra on her endeavors. A- (11/22/06)

"Head-On"-This is a moral tale about German Turks and the pressures brought on by the immigration experience. Cahit (Birol Ünel) is wasted in alcohol and depression after the death of his young wife. So wasted that at one point he crashes his car into a wall "head on" without even stepping on the brake. Miraculously, he has only minor injuries, but finds himself being treated at a mental institution where he meets the similarly suicidal Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), another young German Turk. Sibel is young and lovely and wants to get as far from her rigid, ultra-conservative parents and brother as possible. So she begs Cahit to marry her because he is of Turkish descent. Despite missing his dead wife, and enjoying passionate sex with a friend, Maren (Catrin Striebeck), he marries Sibel to help her obtain freedom from her family. Initially, the marriage is simply for convenience but as one might expect, love enters the picture and creates complications. Although the basic theme sounds depressing, and the story goes a little overboard at times, particularly when Sibel finds herself in Istanbul, "Head-On," directed by Fatih Akin, does a fine job of exploring the pressures of old country values and their conflict with modern life in a western country. Birol Ünel and Sibel Kekelli are impressive as these somewhat lost souls. B+ (11/18/06)

"The Da Vinci Code"-There's really no point to discussing the plot and theme, which is known to the millions who have read Dan Brown's book, but I will say that this film is about a Harvard professor of religious symbology, Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) who is invited to a murder scene at the Louvre, and becomes embroiled in both a murder investigation and a religious plot involving a search for the "holy grail" and the "true" nature of Jesus. To those unfamiliar with the plot, the nature of the holy grail is somewhat of a surprise and Dan Brown's intricate plot is pretty clever, whether it has a basis in historical fact or not. Ultimately, "The Da Vinci Code" as a film is a pretty standard thriller and has to be judged on its cinematic merits. First of all, it's directed by Ron Howard ("Cinderella Man" and "A Beautiful Mind") who usually hits the jackpot. He didn't here. The film begins in Paris in the murky night and seems never to emerge from the darkness even when the characters go inside. I wouldn't call the cinematography scintillating. Second, although it has a pretty good cast, they never seem to be enthused about their material. Can't really complain about Tom Hanks as Langdon. He's just about right. Or about Audrey Tautou ("Amélie") as Sophie Neveu, the French police officer who alerts Langdon to the danger he's in, joins in the chase, and finds herself right at the heart of it. Or about Ian McKellen as Leigh Teabing, the eccentric British expert on the "holy grail." Or even Jean Reno as Captain Fache, the French detective with a secret tie to the conspiracy. But, collectively, they all seem to be doing not much more than going through the necessary motions. And I can complain about Paul Bettany as the albino, Silas. He's too thin, good looking, and certainly not sinister enough for the part of the murderous monk. While it avoids confusing the audience with its somewhat complex conspiracy, "The Da Vinci Code" ultimately plods its way through to its conclusion, or should I say conclusions because every time one thinks the story is over, it's usually not. C+ (11/17/06)

"Cars"-This is without a doubt one of the most truly spectacular animated films ever made. A story about characters who are all motor vehicles of one sort or another can be called "realistic" because of the brilliant animation that makes the scenery and details look "real" at the same time that we know it is pure movie magic and fantasy. From the opening race track scenes to the charming southwestern locale of Radiator Springs, "Cars" introduces us to a bunch of enjoyable characters and a plot designed to show that there's more to life than self-serving greed. Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) is a slick selfish rookie red racecar who is ignominiously dropped off his van, Mack (voice of John Ratzenberger), while on the way to California to compete in a major race. He finds himself in trouble with the law in Radiator Springs, a town along the old Route 66 which was long ago abandoned by tourists when the Interstate was built not far away. The judge, Doc (voice of Paul Newman), an old Hudson with a secret, initially decides to let him go after Lightning destroys town property, including its road, but Sally Carrera (voice of Bonnie Hunt), the town lawyer in the form of a little blue sports car, convinces Doc to make Lightning repair the road and he's forced to do so while accompanied by an old rusted tow truck, Mater (as in Tow Mater) (voice of Larry the Cable Guy). "Cars" contains a series of delightful features, including the voices of Bob Costas (as Bob Cutlass) and Darrell Waltrip (as Darrell Cartrip) playing the perfect race track announcers, and the appropriate appearances of Tom and Ray Magliozzi of NPR's "Car Talk" as the owners of Lightning's sponsor. "Cars" not only has all this, but it also has some downright funny scenes and characters, including the hippy Fillmore (voice of George Carlin) and Lightning's agent Harv (the voice of Jeremy Piven (who plays a similar agent on "Entourage"). "Cars" is directed with zeal by John Lasseter ("Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2") who said (in a feature on the DVD) that this film brought together his parents' respective interests in art and cars. He has undoubtedly made his parents proud. A (11/9/06)

"The Lost City"-Andy Garcia, star and director, was born in Cuba and is sincerely enthusiastic to demonstrate that the revolutionary takeover of Cuba in 1959 by Fidel Castro was as evil on the Marxist-left as Batista's regime was on the ultra-right. "The Lost City" shows Havana as it was prior to Castro, a city of somewhat decadent entertainment. Garcia plays Fico Fellove, the owner of an Havana nightclub, and the elder of three brothers from a very well-to-do family. Fellove watches as his two younger brothers become involved in the revolution, while he ultimately falls for the beautiful widow of one of his brothers, Aurora (Inés Sastre). Despite Garcia's enthusiasm for his theme, "The Lost City" goes wrong in a variety of ways. Mostly, it suffers from the poor acting of Garcia who must have been so distracted by his directing efforts that he forgot he also had to provide some emotion and depth to his role. The film also contains a rather bizarre unnamed character played by Bill Murray, a sidekick and Greek chorus who stands out in a sport jacket and Bermuda shorts. Murray plays the role in his standard low-key style, but here it simply doesn't work, serving to make his scenes appear dull and silly. Dustin Hoffman has a minimal and ineffective role as Meyer Lansky, the gangster. Garcia's plot is dense and difficult to follow and the movie is simply too long. One of my biggest complaints about "The Lost City" is that the characters speak mostly in English, some with Spanish accents (Sastre, a native of Spain) and others with American accents. Having the natives of Havana speak in Spanish would have added an important element of authenticity. I should note that Tomas Milian does a fine job as the father of the Fellove clan who must watch his family gradually disappear as a result of the revolution. C+ (11/4/06)

"Mission: Impossible III"-Tom Cruise is once again Ethan Hunt, a special IMF agent who always seems to get into a lot of trouble and who this time endangers the life of his new bride, Julia (Michelle Monaghan). The bad guy, Owen Davian, is played with appropriate nastiness by the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose talent is totally wasted in this role. And that's about it for the plot. What really makes "Mission: Impossible III" are, of course, the special effects which never seem to end, whether visual or aural. From a thrilling opening with weapons ablazing and helicopters arotoring to an amazing escape by Davian on an ocean waterway to the ultimate conclusion atop skyscrapers in Shanghai, Cruise and his little gang perform acts that clearly would place them in the superhero category. No normal human being could possibly survive. A true Mission Impossible. Hunt's MI support group is portrayed by Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Maggie Q. Also appearing are Keri Russell as an ill-fated agent and Billy Crudup as one of the honchos back at HQ. Simon Pegg ("Shaun of the Dead") brings humor to the part of the British tech specialist, Benji Dunn. Since it really has no plot worth mentioning, this film serves one good purpose: to test your video and audio. B (11/3/06)

"Take the Lead"-This might be called "Dancing with the Star," and the star is Antonio Banderas as Pierre Dulaine, a ballroom dance instructor who decides to teach the craft to a group of tough New York City high school kids. The kids are initially unimpressed, of course, especially when they hear music by Gershwin and refer to it as "noise." Dulaine initially has his hands full inspiring them. But what gets them going is Dulaine's decision to bring one of his students, Morgan, a sexy slim blonde (Katya Virshilas) in a tight black skirt, to perform one of the hottest tangos this side of Argentina. What makes "Take the Lead" particularly charming is the cast of kids, led by Rob Brown as Rock, a confused and embittered but good-looking young man; Dante Basco as Ramos; Marcus T. Paulk as Eddie; Jenna Dewan as Sasha; and Lauren Collins, as Caitlin, a rich girl who is happier with the tough high school kids than with her own group. Also notable in the cast is Alfre Woodard as the principal, initially resistant but soon convinced by Dulaine's irresistible charm. The film is loaded with clichés and has few surprises, but the dancing is fun to watch and the cast makes it worthwhile. B- (10/28/06)

"Hard Candy"-This indie film about the subject of pedophilia gives us a jolting surprise, but the story is hard to describe without giving it away. Suffice it to say that this movie concerns a 30ish male photographer named Jeff (Patrick Wilson) who has been communicating by IM for three weeks with a 14-year-old girl named Hayley (Ellen Page). They agree to meet at a local coffee hangout. When they meet, Hayley is obviously extremely precocious and flirtatious and although Jeff seems resistant, he doesn't protest when Hayley admits she's a little "insane" and invites herself to his home. At his home, the two begin drinking, and things start getting a little antsy. Ultimately, though, events don't proceed as one might expect. In fact, events become so bizarre that one might actually think of this film as perfect for Halloween. This is not a typical film about a child molester. In fact, it's downright shocking. Ellen Page is astonishingly sharp as the quick-witted Hayley, a young woman who knows exactly what she's getting herself into. In fact, she's so sharp and quick-witted that it essentially undermines any credibility the story may have had. Patrick Wilson does a fine job as the seemingly nice photographer with lots of secrets soon to be exposed. Directed by David Slade, "Hard Candy" is, except for the brief appearances of two other characters, including one by Sandra Oh, a two-character film. Page and Wilson are dynamic and the film certainly raises lots of questions, but it's not easy to watch. If you have a queasy stomach, forget it. If you like very edgy indie films with good acting, try this. B (10/21/06)

"A Prairie Home Companion"-Anyone familiar with Garrison Keillor's longstanding Saturday night radio show on NPR will feel right at home with this entertaining film with a wonderful cast and a great director, Robert Altman. Keillor and his co-scriptwriter, Ken LaZebnik, apparently decided to show off the old radio routine in a film and add a story for fun. And so it is the last performance of "A Prairie Home Companion" on the fictional WLT ("with lettuce and tomato"). The axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) is on his way to close down the show and its home, the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, MN, and a mysterious woman in white (Virginia Madsen) is wandering the theater, initially observed only by the theater detective, Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), one of Keillor's best-known radio characters. Characters enter and leave, talk to and over each other and wander around in classic Altman style. And while all of this is going on, the radio show is proceeding too with its cast that couldn't be beat. The Johnson Sisters, Yolanda and Rhonda (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), cowboys Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), and Chuck Akers (L.Q. Jones) are all there to sing and entertain, along with some of Keillor's real life regulars such as Robin and Linda Williams, and Jearlyn Steele. Needless to say, Streep (with a perfect Minnesota accent), Tomlin, Harrelson, and Reilly steal the show with incredibly witty Johnson Sister routines about their life and their mother, plus the expected off-color songs from the raunchy cowboy duo. Lindsay Lohan is also there as Lola Johnson, Yolanda's darkly poetic daughter. And, of course, out front is Keillor, going about his business in his normal dry way, hardly ever showing expression but always ready with a wonderful story or hysterical pseudo-commercial. In other words, if you like wonderful actors, good humor, and a great old-time radio show, this film can't be beat. A- (10/14/06)

"Thank You for Smoking"-Life is dangerous. As pointed out by the ultimate lobbyist, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), there are lots of popular things that potentially kill besides cigarettes (think cholesterol-causing cheese and airplanes). And he gleefully points this out in testimony before a Senate committee, led by Vermont Senator Ortolan K. Finistirre (rather weakly portrayed by William H. Macy). Eckhart does a fine job as Naylor, a smooth talker who talks himself into almost being killed by anti-tobacco terrorists, only to find his career reinvigorated by his smart mouth. Based on a novel by Christopher Buckley, "Thank You for Smoking" is a little too sincere to be taken as real satire. We've heard just these kinds of arguments from the real tobacco lobbyists who support an industry that has led to untold numbers of deaths. What's the difference between cigarettes, on the one hand, and, on the other, Vermont cheese which, if over-consumed, can lead to high cholesterol, and Boeing airplanes that can crash? Well, whereas the latter are necessary for other purposes, such as eating and traveling, cigarettes serve no purpose whatsoever other than to provide poisonous pleasure much the same as illegal drugs. And there's one other difference. Whereas cheese and Boeing airplanes can't kill anyone other than those who choose to use or abuse them, cigarettes can. But this point is never made in the film.

In real life, lobbyists like Naylor have more power over public affairs than the millions who vote for public officials. They spread their nasty products and encourage public officials to support them with votes and money. So it's not surprising that Naylor hangs around with lobbyists for alcohol (Maria Bello, totally wasted in this part) and handguns (David Koechner). "Thank You for Smoking" laid a gigantic egg as far as I'm concerned. If it was intended to be humorous, it's not. If I ever saw an ad for just about everything that's wrong with the corporate world and the dealings of many government officials who fall for the propaganda coming from corporate lobbyists, this is it.

With regard to the cast, this film also contains a monumental miscasting and plot weakness. Naylor is seduced by a reporter for the "Washington Probe" named Heather Holloway, who is writing an article about him, and he knows it. We are supposed to believe that Naylor, who is incredibly clever in debating those who oppose big tobacco, would suddenly give away all his secrets to a reporter simply because he is having sex with her. And who plays this seductive reporter? Well, Katie Holmes, an actress who looks about as wholesome and pure as an actress can get. C (10/9/06)

"The Lake House"-This is a time travel flick, a genre I generally enjoy because of the "what ifs" involved. "The Lake House" begins with Dr. Kate Foster (Sandra Bullock) moving out of a lovely glass house on a lake near Chicago with her dog Jack and, in departing, leaves a letter in the mail box for the next occupant. We then see Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves), a young architect/condo developer, arriving at the house (which was built by his architect father), meeting the same dog, and finding Kate's letter. The problem is that Kate is in 2006 and Alex is in 2004, and was at the house before Kate. The two, after realizing what's going on with their magic mailbox, begin to communicate via the mailbox, actually witnessing the rise and fall of the box's red flag by the other. Without going into more detail (there are a lot of puzzling scenes), the time travel aspect of the story is chock full of holes, even apart from the primary hole of time travel (which is one hole viewers gladly ignore for the sake of entertainment). The other holes and connected coincidences, and especially the ultimate time travel climax, overwhelm the film and make it impossible to suspend disbelief. It also doesn't help that both Bullock and Reeves, who have appeared together before ("Speed"), are not much more than pretty presences. Christopher Plummer seems to have made a late in his career decision to play the same uptight self-centered and self-righteous character in every film (see, for example, "Inside Man" and "The New World"--here, he's Wyler's architect father). Shohreh Aghdashloo. wonderful in "House of Sand and Fog" and "24," here has little to do as an older physician working with Kate. "The Lake House" starts out with an intriguing situation, but ultimately flops. C (10/8/06)

"The Notorious Bettie Page"-Directed by Mary Harron ("I Shot Andy Warhol"), "The Notorious Bettie Page" is a light and fluffy memory about one of the leading pin-up models of the 1950s and 1960s. Starring Gretchen Mol as Bettie Page, we see a young beautiful woman from a religious family in Tennessee move to New York and be talked into posing for photographers, initially dressed but gradually sans clothes. And later, urged on by the well-meaning Paula (Lili Taylor) and Irving (Chris Bauer) Klaw, she poses in "S & M" photos which by today's standards were incredibly innocent. Gretchen Mol, a blonde in real life, looks astoundingly like the real dark-haired Bettie Page, who is still around today in her 80s and who has said she's more famous now than she was then. Harron never makes Bettie's pinup life look truly unpleasant except when she waits painfully in the halls of Congress waiting to be called by the committee of Sen. Estes Kefauver (David Straitharn). One of the more charming features of this film was the clever idea to shoot most of it in black and white to remind us of the black and white days of the 50s. But whenever Bettie goes to Miami to be photographed by the famous pinup photographer Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson), the film changes into a look of somewhat misty and aged color (and old color stock was in fact used). Written and produced almost exclusively by women, "The Notorious Bettie Page" is a rather enlightened look at the 50s pinup industry. I'm sure Bettie Page is quite proud of the way she comes across in this film. Mol, incidentally, does a fine job, taking on a rather courageous role that requires her, I imagine, to expose more than she would have liked. B (9/30/06)

"Nobody Knows"-This is an interestingly controversial Japanese film, not so much because of its subject matter but rather because of its style and theme, or lack thereof. It's on A.O. Scott's best film list for 2005. It would not be on mine. I've read various views, the most interesting of which attacked those who object to this film on the grounds that they can't deal with a serious subject. Well, there is a difference between a serious subject and a deadly one. Said to be based loosely on true events, "Nobody Knows," directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, is about a mother and four children living in a small apartment in Tokyo. Obviously, the landlord didn't allow so many children, so the mother and older son sneak in the other three and they are required to stay inside permanently, yes permanently, never to even to go on the balcony lest they be seen. Gradually, the mother Keiko (You), who has had the children by different fathers, drifts away, ultimately abandoning them totally. The older son takes on the responsibility of caring for his siblings with the minimal food, supplies, and money left behind. But things deteriorate and the children are finally left living in ultra squalor, without electricity and having to get water from the park. That's pretty much the film, which lasts, agonizingly, for 2 1/4 hours. Does it have a theme? Well, other than survival, the outcome of which is unclear at the end, the biggest theme that came across to me is that of the astounding indifference of the outside characters to the fates of the children and the children to each other. The older son hints to people about the travails of himself and his siblings and no one does anything. The landlady drops by, dog in arms, to question the fact that the rent hasn't been paid, sees the squalor, and inexplicably simply walks away. When the youngest child suffers a major accident the others do essentially nothing. They don't scream, they don't shout for help. Nothing. If that's the theme Koreeda intended, it certainly comes across. But by the end of this film, the point has been made over and over and over and this viewer simply wanted to scream. (In Japanese with English subtitles.) C+ (9/29/06)

"Good Morning, Night"-In 1978, the Italian prime minister, Aldo Moro, was kidnapped and murdered by the Italian Red Brigades. "Good Morning, Night," directed by Marco Bellocchio, is a story focusing on the kidnappers and, to some extent, the triviality of their daily lives and the emptiness of their ideas. Maya Sansa ("The Best of Youth") is Chiara, the lone woman among the terrorists. She keeps the apartment, listens to the news, and goes to work while Moro is locked up in a secret room. The others, including the leader Mariano (Luigi Lo Cascio, also of "The Best of Youth") seem aimless and full of unrealistic propagandistic conceptions about class warfare. After they kidnap Moro, the terrorists are shocked that there is no uprising among the "working class." Meanwhile, Chiara has second thoughts but seems able only to dream about what she might do. Maya Sansa is lovely and touching in the part of Chiara and Luigi Lo Cascio is once again a real presence as the single-minded Mariano. But "Good Morning, Night" doesn't seem to have much to say about an important subject, although it would certainly be another bit of evidence in support of Hannah Arendt's concept of the "banality of evil." (In Italian with English subtitles). B- (9/22/06)

"Lucky Number Slevin"-Within 15 minutes of the start of this film, at least 10 people have been murdered, ranging from a shooting in a parking lot to a man being killed by a baseball thrown at his head. A man in a wheelchair (Bruce Willis) sits next to a young man in an empty waiting room, tells him a story about a fixed horse race in 1979 and a family that got tragically involved, and then kills him. Next, we see another young man (Josh Hartnett) arrive in NY, be mugged, then mistaken for a friend at whose apartment he's staying, and finally dragged away by gangsters. Two crime bosses (Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley), former allies but now longtime enemies, separately threaten the young man (who calls himself Slevin) and order him, despite his claims to mistaken identity, either to commit murder or come up with thousands of dollars. With the help of a newfound girlfriend (Lucy Liu), Slevin acts with amazing calm considering the threats. Mysteriously in the background is Willis' character, the killer known as Mr. Goodkat. And following it all are the police, led by Detective Brikowski (Stanley Tucci). As it turns out, of course, as is true in most films of this genré, things aren't quite as they appear. "Lucky Number Slevin" has a combination of violence and some raw sex and still received an MPAA rating of only "R." Amazing. If you can tolerate the violence, the film is a pretty decent thriller with a surprise ending. If watching one person after another die turns you off, and it should, stay away. B- (9/16/06)

"Akeelah and the Bee"-Following a little too closely on the heels of "Bee Season" and "Spellbound," this film is about an 11-year old African-American girl with a knack for spelling who is feeling somewhat out of place among her classmates at the Crenshaw Middle School in LA. She's not in a good situation until the school principal, Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong), encourages her to join the school spelling bee with the hopes that she'll represent the school in the regional bee. Despite an initial lack of encouragement from her mother (Angela Bassett) and the professor whom she hopes will help train her (Laurence Fishburne), Akeelah, not surprisingly, goes on to great success. "Akeelah and the Bee" is a cliché whether it's about spelling or sports: the story of the underdog who is pushed into training and ultimately rises to the occasion. What makes this film a little special is the performance of young Keke Palmer, an extraordinary young actress (see "Madea's Family Reunion"), who projects every emotion, facial expression, and attitude that's needed for her to become Akeelah. It also has the underlying theme of the "father/daughter" relationship as Akeelah has lost her father and Dr. Larabee (Fishburne) has lost a daughter. Their developing relationship is portrayed in the classic sense of tough love turning into real love. In summary, "Akeelah and the Bee" is something we've seen before in many other forms, but the performances still make it worth seeing. B (9/15/06)

"Kinky Boots"-Based on the true story of the transformation of a British men's shoe factory from the production of standard men's shoes to boots for drag queens, "Kinky Boots" is somewhat of a comedy-drama. Joel Edgerton is Charlie Price, a young man who inherits his father's shoe business, something his fiancé (Jemima Rooper) had hoped he would leave far behind. But Charlie is hooked when he meets a drag queen/cabaret performer named Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and entices him to be his designer. The charm of this film comes from the cast. Ejiofor, otherwise known for more masculine parts ("Dirty Pretty Things" and "Inside Man") is absolutely marvelous as the drag queen with a new career, and Sarah-Jane Potts is delightful as Lauren, the laid-off factory employee who sparks the idea for change in Charlie's mind and ultimately becomes the spark in his eye. B+ (9/9/06)

 "The Sentinel"-This thriller gets off to a pretty good start by making the simple act of the president departing from the White House by limousine as exciting as one might expect from say, a "thriller." Michael Douglas is Pete Garrison, a veteran Secret Service agent who was shot during the attack on Ronald Reagan. Now he's an old veteran but with some questionable habits, including an impossible love affair. When Garrison is given a hint from a snitch that there is a plot to kill the president and it involves a Secret Service agent, Garrison goes into full investigative mode. But after another agent is murdered, Garrison learns that he himself is the target of the investigation. And the chief investigator is his old friend and now enemy, David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland), who has long believed that Garrison had fooled around with Breckenridge's wife. Alongside Sutherland is his rookie aide, Jill Marin (Eva Longoria), seemingly added pretty much for the scenery (made clear when one agent is shown to be carefully watching Marin's rear, literally and not figuratively). "The Sentinel" is good up to a point. As long as it's a mystery, it's taut, well-filmed, and exciting. Only when it ultimately descends into a chase/shoot 'em up, as do most of such films, does it bring itself down to the level of mundane. And it is also has several plot holes that are never clearly explained (such as the true role of the snitch, and why Garrison takes a phone call while standing in front of a hotel, and sits waiting for hours in a coffee shop that turns out to be a dropoff point for a drug cartel). Douglas is fine, as usual, as Garrison, and Kiefer Sutherland manages to avoid most thoughts of "Jack Bauer," except when he's entering a room with his gun drawn in the standard "24" position. Also of note in the cast is Kim Basinger, as the president's wife. B- (9/8/06)

"Brick"-The idea of a high school detective thriller sounded appealing. And so it was, up to a point. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is very good as Brendan, a loner mourning the loss of his relationship with Emily (Emilie de Ravin) who has moved on to other men and drugs. When Emily mysteriously calls him and expresses fear, Brendan decides to find out what's going on. With the help of The Brain (Matt O'Leary) who seems to have no point in life other than to help Brendan, our hero gets more and more enmeshed in the dealings of The Pin (Lukas Haas), the local high school drug kingpin, and his henchmen, including Tugger (Noah Fleiss), whose favorite activity seems to be head-butting. With the film done in classic film noir style, director and writer Rian Johnson ultimately goes a little too far. The dialogue, for example, is so convoluted as to be almost incomprehensible. The story gets more and more complex, almost as if we were watching an adult thriller of international intrigue. These are supposed to be teens. Frankly, it's hard to imagine teens talking even remotely like these kids. When the film ended I still was unclear as to just what had occurred. Also worth noting in the cast is Nora Zehetner as Laura, a mysterious young woman who seems to be in the middle of everything. Rian Johnson gave it a good shot and almost succeeded. B- (9/2/06)

"Friends with Money"-I wonder how many people went to see this Jennifer Aniston film thinking they were going to see a comedy, only to find that this is a fairly dramatic tale of a rather miserable group of Southern California friends. Aniston's character, Olivia, is the sole unmarried among a group of friends made up otherwise of three married couples. One pair, Franny and Matt (Joan Cusack and Greg Germann), are loaded but living a fairly humdrum suburban existence. Another, Jane and Aaron (Frances McDormand and Simon McBurney). are successful businesspeople but McDormand's character, Jane, is going through menopause and is angry and bitter, and refuses to wash her hair, while her husband, a shampoo manufacturer (get the irony?) may be bisexual. The third couple, Christine and David (Catherine Keener and Jason Isaacs), are a screenwriting pair who quickly realize that the better days of their marriage are behind them. Meanwhile, Olivia, seems a little dazed, having quit her job as a schoolteacher to become a maid, or "housekeeper" as she condescendingly informs the maid at the home of her really wealthy friends, Franny and Matt. Director Nicole Holofcener ("Lovely and Amazing") is exploring and deconstructing the life of upper middle class people (especially women) in Los Angeles. The problem is that these people are unhappy, self-centered, and unpleasant enough to make watching the film feel like we're joining them. The acting, by the way, is very good. B- (9/1/06)

"The Beat That My Heart Skipped"-It's been my observation that most of the time European films are remade into American films. This is one in which the situation is reversed. Based on a 1978 American film called "Fingers." starring Harvey Keitel, "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" is a French film with a rather unpleasant and unlikely story. Thomas Seyr (Romain Duris) is a real estate thug, following in the footsteps of his father (Niels Arestrup). Seyr and his cohorts engage in violent acts, such as forcing tenants out of their homes by releasing rats or by other methods of terror. But Seyr has a soft side, being the son of a woman who was a concert pianist. Somewhere along the line, Seyr learned to play classic piano and, after an unexpected meeting with his late mother's former agent, he has thoughts of returning to that field. While he continues his thuggish activities, somewhat reluctantly, Seyr hires Miao Lin (Linh Dan Pham), a Chinese concert pianist who cannot yet speak French, to guide him in his efforts to audition for his mother's former agent. The biggest problem with this film is that Seyr is never sympathetic. Even when playing Bach, the film let's you see the rotten part of his character. When he's not being brutal, he's seducing the wife of his not terribly innocent friend's wife and discouraging his father from a loving relationship. I found myself watching with some interest but with no feelings of empathy or sympathy for Seyr.. Of note in the cast is Emmanuelle Devos as Chris (the father's girlfriend) and Aure Atika as the seduced wife. In hearing and reading about "Fingers," and without having seen that film, it sounded to me like one that didn't need to be seen let alone remade. (In French with English subtitles) C+ (8/26/06)

"Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress"-This film takes us back to the Mao cultural revolution. Taking place in 1981, we immediately meet two young men from the city who are forced to be "re-educated" in a small ignorant mountain village where the "chief" is obsessed with making sure that everything Mao said is carried out to the fullest. When the boys arrive, Luo (Kun Chen), immediately falls for the pretty granddaughter (Xun Zhou) of the local tailor. Meanwhile, the other, Ma (Ye Liu), attempts to charm the powers-that-be and the locals with his violin. The boys, coming from a more sophisticated society where people actually have read books other than those written by the leaders of the Revolution, manage to find copies of several classic western novels, including those of Balzac, and they decide to educate the little seamstress by reading to her, in secret, the western novels. As one might expect, this results in some profound changes in the characters, especially the seamstress, which we ultimately learn about when, many years later, Ma, now a member of a classical musical quartet, learns of the flooding of the mountain village by a new dam on the Yangtze and thinks back on the days of his "re-education." "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" provides some insights into what was happening in China when Mao led it almost to disaster. The film appears to be based somewhat on the actual life experiences of its writer/director Sijie Dai (In Mandarin and French with English subtitles). This is certainly not a film for everyone. It is recommended only to those who enjoy the experience of learning about other utterly different cultures and cultural experiences. B+ (8/25/06)

"Don't Come Knocking"- I had the good fortune recently to see Wim Wenders' excellent 1984 film "Paris, Texas," about a man found wandering in the Mojave desert who has been missing for four years. This man is brought back to Los Angeles by his brother who, with his wife, has been treating the missing man's young son as their own. The man, returning to a semblance of life, realizes his love for his son and decides to seek his missing wife, the mother of their son. Ultimately, we learn just what happened to this couple and why they had abandoned each other and their child. The film, starring Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell and Nastassja Kinski, was based on a screenplay by the American playwright and actor, Sam Shepard, and contained themes of alienation and search for identity. "Don't Come Knocking" returns to very similar themes just over 20 years later. This film is again directed by Wim Wenders ("The Buena Vista Social Club") and based a screenplay by Shepard. This time the film stars Shepard himself as Howard Spence, a fading cowboy actor with a notorious reputation for carousing and getting into trouble, who simply rides away from a film set in the Utah desert. He returns home to Elko, Nevada to see his mother (Eva Marie Saint), whom he has not seen for many years, only to discover that many years earlier he had fathered a son in Butte, Montana, while making a film. Spence is metaphorically lost and aimless but decides to take his late father's old blue car ("Paris, Texas" was also loaded with blue cars) and drive to Butte to discover his past. There, he not only finds his old girl friend Doreen (Jessica Lange) and his bitter son Earl (Gabriel Mann), but makes another unexpected discovery. "Don't Come Knocking" is beautifully photographed, as was "Paris, Texas," giving a clear and crisp vision of the look of the American west. The film contains excellent performances, including those of Tim Roth, as an insurance investigator from the film production, trying to track Spence down and return him to the set, Sarah Polley as a mysterious young woman carrying her mother's ashes in an urn, and Fairuza Balk as Earl's somewhat wacky girlfriend. Whereas the music in "Paris, Texas" was provided by the twangy guitar of Ry Cooder, "Don't Come Knocking" has the haunting sounds of T-Bone Burnett. This is a little-known film that deserves to be seen. A (8/19/06)

"Ask the Dust"-Based on the 1930s novel by John Fante about depression-era Los Angeles, "Ask the Dust" is a good old-fashioned human drama about down-and-outs with dreams. Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) is a first generation Italian-American writer from Colorado who has had a story published in H.L. Mencken's "American Mercury." He comes to live in a rundown area of LA called Bunker Hill. Bandini wants to write and dreams of having experiences to write about, but he lives in a boarding house, can barely pay his way, and wishes he could connect with one of the many beautiful blondes on the streets of Hollywood. Instead, he finds himself drawn to Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek), a dark and sensuous Mexican waitress. Camilla, of course, has her own dream of marrying a wealthy American. "Ask the Dust" is not only about life in Depression-era LA, but also about racial and ethnic prejudices that were so much more blatant in those days (the hotel desk clerk announces that it does not allow Mexicans or Jews). Directed by Robert Towne (who wrote the screenplays of "Chinatown" and "Shampoo"), "Ask the Dust" is beautifully filmed with sets that clearly reflect the seedy LA of its day. Colin Farrell (sans Irish accent) and Salma Hayek do a fine job of portraying these characters, struggling with the problems of 1930s life and their own weaknesses and prejudices, although they never achieve the "heat" that one would expect from this relationship. The cast also includes Donald Sutherland as Bandini's alcoholic neighbor; Idina Menzel ("Rent") as Vera Rivkin, a Jewish woman from Long Beach who drops, out-of-the-blue into Bandini's life and then gives him posthumous inspiration for a story; and Justin Kirk as a bartender/writer who advises Bandini on how to win Camilla. B (8/12/06)

"Inside Man"-Spike Lee directs an unorthodox and yet mainstream bank robbery film. Different. A group of masked robbers dressed in painter outfits, walk blithely into a baroque downtown Manhattan bank branch and take over. Under the leadership of Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), the little gang moves their hostages around the bank, makes them put on similar outfits and masks, and mysteriously takes their time about whatever they are up to. Meanwhile, two detectives, Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), appointed to be hostage negotiators, find themselves somewhat helpless as the robbers show utter lack of concern for the fact that the bank is surrounded by well-armed cops. Russell, in fact, blithely asserts that he will simply walk out of the bank to freedom. "Inside Man," it soon becomes obvious, is not about a standard bank robbery. It isn't long before we see Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), chairman of the bank, hiring the cool, clever and competent Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to protect the contents of a safe deposit box at the branch under siege. And it isn't hard to figure out just what's inside that safe deposit box. Certainly, Dalton Russell knows exactly what he's looking for. With a few nods to the issue of race relations, "Inside Man" is otherwise a fairly unique heist film, although it unfortunately takes so much time about getting to where it wants to go that by the end it has turned into somewhat of a yawn. Also in the cast is Willem Dafoe as the police captain in charge of operations around the bank. Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster can play parts like this in their sleep. Their performances are pro forma, demonstrating nothing unique about their acting abilities. Clive Owen, who, being masked, is rarely seen, is very effective as the chilling and articulate thief. Perhaps the best performance in the film is that of the very humorous Florina Petcu as an Albanian sexpot brought in to translate what the cops are hearing from inside the bank. B (8/11/06)

"The Libertine"-Johnny Depp brilliantly plays John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, a rather debauched, raunchy, and self-destructive member of the 17th century court of Charles II (John Malkovich). Wilmot is presented as a miserable man who tells the viewers from the start that he isn't nice and that we are unlikely to like him, and he's right. The second Earl of Rochester was apparently a fairly decent poet, although that's hardly clear from this rather murky production. Instead, we see Wilmot abusing virtually everyone around him, including a woman he had once kidnapped but who later became his wife, Elizabeth Malet (Rosamund Pike), and making little or no effort of friendship with Charles, a man with life or death power over him. In one historically questionable scene, Wilmot is presented as being the acting tutor of Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), his lover and a great British actress of the day. Ultimately, Wilmot descends into a youthful syphilitic demise that isn't very pleasant to watch. John Malkovich, not one of my favorite actors, is perfect as Charles. Best thing he's ever done. Francesca Annis, a fine actress, has a small role as the Countess, Wilmot's mother. Films about historical characters usually have a purpose. Despite the excellent acting performances of Depp, Morton, Pike and Malkovich, I couldn't imagine what inspired the filmmakers to tell the story of this rather useless character from British history. C+ (8/5/06)

"V for Vendetta"-This is without a doubt the best film I've seen made from a comic book or graphic novel. With a spectacular cast, including John Hurt as the Big Brotherish British chancellor, Adam Sutler; Tim Pigott-Smith as Sutler's henchman, Creedy; Stephen Rea as a police inspector (along with his aide played by Rupert Graves; the wonderful Stephen Fry as an hysterical TV comedy show host; and Sinéad Cusack as a pathologist with a past, "V for Vendetta" wonderfully tells us the story of V (the masked Hugo Weaving, essentially never seen), a man seething with anger from the past who has waited years to plan and carry out a revenge attack on those in the government who wronged him and others. When he decides to begin his explosive vengeance on November 5, Guy Fawkes Day, he accidentally comes across Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), a young woman with her own past, who finds herself becoming an important part of his plot. The actions of the government in "V for Vendetta," while possibly more fascistically advanced, brings to mind a certain current Administration and its methods. "V for Vendetta" is not only well acted, but beautifully filmed. Highly recommended. A (8/4/06)

"Ushpizin"-We are in Jerusalem and Succoth, the holiday that reminds Jews of the temporary nature of life, is just about to begin. Moshe Bellanga (Shuli Rand) and his wife, Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand), are Orthodox Jews hoping to have a child. They are down to their last shekel and praying for a miracle. Their prayers seem to be answered when a substantial amount of money is amazingly slipped under their door and two escaped convicts arrive to occupy their sukkah (hut or temporary home) as "ushpizin" or guests, a part of the holiday. Moshe and Malli hope that their arrival will help them with "God" in their quest for an offspring. One of the two ushpizin is a childhood comrade of Moshe's from his pre-religious days, and Malli is initially unaware of their seedy background, although she soon discovers that they are capable of some serious mischief. Giddi Dar, the director, has been described as a secular Jew, but he has presented, in a script written by the star, Shuli Rand, a humorous fable about the practices of people whose life revolves utterly around their religious beliefs. Neither cynical nor worshipful, "Ushpizin" presents an opportunity to learn about the lives of people very different from our own. (In Hebrew with English subtitles). B+ (7/29/06)

"The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio"-Based on a memoir by Tuff Ryan, about her family when she was a teenager during the 50s and early 60s, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" stars Julianne Moore as Evelyn Ryan with Woody Harrelson as the father, Kelly. The Ryans have 10 kids and live in a dull midwestern town (a town sign saying "a nice place to live" is made fun of by Mrs. Ryan as "a nice place to leave"). Mr. Ryan is a struggling machinist with a big alcohol and temper problem and related money difficulties. Mrs. Ryan is an eternally optimistic soul who engages in a variety of commercial jingle-writing contests with extraordinary success, bringing in money and prizes enough to help the family survive. Julianne Moore, who seems to be overly attracted to parts as housewives of the past (consider "The Hours" and "Far From Heaven"), performs her role as an ultra-stereotype of a perfect 1950s housewife. She's comes across as a cartoonish combination of the mothers in "Leave it to Beaver" and "Ozzie and Harriet." Evelyn Ryan is simply too perfect throughout most of the film until her husband's misbehavior and profligate spending lead her almost to a nervous breakdown and the family to the edge of losing their home. Fitting the title of the film, the home is saved by Evelyn's literary skills in a Dr. Pepper contest. Woody Harrelson, unfortunately, looks silly with the hairpiece they have on him, and never quite seems real as the pitiable Kelly Ryan, a man scorned by his own family. Laura Dern appears as another stereotypical 50s housewife obsessed with winning commercial contests. "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" has its moments, but overall, despite its attempts at pathos and humor, it's just a little too corny for its own good. C (7/28/06)

"Little Fish"-Despite an excellent cast, including Cate Blanchett, Sam Neill and Hugo Weaving, this Australian film is about as dense and murky as a film can get. Blanchett, normally a luminous star, is brought down to earth as Tracy, a former drug addict, who continues to be surrounded by relatives and friends involved in or on the edge of the drug business. "Little Fish" follows her around as she struggles to deal with the weaknesses and stupidities of her brother (Martin Henderson), friend (Weaving), and boyfriend (Dustin Nguyen). Sam Neill is The Jockey, a bigtime drug dealer. The title appears to relate to drug users, equipment used in the drug business, and Tracy herself who is seen on a variety of occasions swimming laps for no purpose that seems to move the story along. Not recommended. C (7/26/06)

"Tsotsi"-Based on a novel by the South African writer Athol Fugard, "Tsotsi" tells the story of a young township thug (the definition of "tsotsi"), played with great subtlety by Presley Chweneyagae in his first film. After taking part in a couple of violent acts, Tsotsi (he keeps his real name from his friends) walks up to a wealthy home in the suburbs, shoots the woman standing at the gate, and drives off in her car only to find her baby in the back seat. Herein lies the heart of the tale and also its weakness. Although we later see that Tsotsi was abused as a child, the idea that a disturbed thug, after committing so many heinous acts, would take the child home and try to care for it is a little hard to swallow. But this film is about rebirth and the child serves to bring out whatever humanity Tsotsi has left. The transformation is moving, even if one must suspend some level of disbelief. The director, Gavin Hood, has used genuine locations, including the townships and suburbs of Johannesburg, to give the movie a deep sense of the reality of life for those living in the townships in modern-day South Africa. The cast is very good, including Terry Pheto as Miriam, a young mother to whom Tsotsi turns for feeding and care of the baby; Kenneth Nkosi as Aap, a slightly clueless member of Tsotsi's gang; Mothusi Magano as Boston, a gang member with some education; Zenzo Ngqobe as Butcher, the malicious gang member; and Rapulana Seiphemo as John Dube, the father of the baby, who manages to keep his cool during his suffering. Also in the cast is Zola, a South African singer, who provides the music and a very good turn as Fela, one of the local gang leaders. (Primarily in Zulu, Xhosa, and Afrikaans with English subtitles) . B+ (7/22/06)

"Glory Road"-If this were the first film of its genre ever made it would be a truly outstanding film. However, this story of an inexperienced basketball coach who is given the job at a less than stellar college in west Texas (Texas Western, later known as UTEP) in the mid-1960s, recruits little known black athletes from the east, and puts together a championship team of historic proportions, is so full of clichés that it might have been made from an old script of who knows how many films about miraculous sports teams and their victories. In addition, it appears that even if the story had been told straight, exactly as it actually happened, it would still be inspiring and exciting. Unfortunately, the filmmakers, in typical Hollywood fashion, decided to change things, making it appear that Haskins did everything from recruitment to winning the NCAA within one year when in reality it actually occurred over a period of about four years. But putting these negatives aside, "Glory Road" is still an exciting and inspiring film about the first team to win the NCAA championship with an all black starting five in the championship game against Adolph Rupp-led Kentucky at College Park, MD. Rupp, incidentally, is portrayed brilliantly as a nasty son-of-a-you-know-what by Jon Voight. And it is an important film about the civil rights era and the misery that black athletes were put through by racists in order to achieve their dreams. Josh Lucas, finally getting a real part, is wonderful as the inspired, tough and human coach, Don Haskins, who went from coaching a girls high school team to bringing about this tremendous sports and social first, ultimately making it to the basketball Hall of Fame. The film contains notable performances by Derek Luke ("Friday Night Lights") as Bobby Joe Hill, the star of the team; Mehcad Brooks as Harry Flournoy; Damaine Radcliff as Willie Cager, a player with heart and, unfortunately, a cardiomyopathy; Al Shearer as Nevil Shed who went from the streets of New York to the desert of El Paso; Austin Nichols as Jerry Armstrong, one of the white players who had to stand aside for history; and Schin A. S. Kerr as the big guy, David Lattin. If you like sports films, you can't help but enjoy and be inspired by this film. B+ (7/15/06)

"Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story"-Laurence Sterne's classic 18th Century novel "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" is said to be impossible to turn into a film. The filmmakers of "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" appear to have dedicated themselves to proving not only that Sterne's novel could not be filmed but also that their own story was impossible to turn into a cogent script. Steve Coogan plays himself, Tristram, and Tristram's father, Walter, in an attempt, I suppose, to demonstrate the complications of filmmaking. Coogan, who has been in such diverse films as "24 Hour Party People" and "Around the World in 80 Days," is crisp and articulate as Tristram whose difficult birth and unfortunate priapic accident with a window are portrayed lovingly, if not repeatedly. When he becomes Steve Coogan, however, he looks sullen and appears to be mumbling, especially when running between his girlfriend Jenny (Kelly McDonald) who has come to the film site "just to have sex" and Jennie (Naomie Harris), his attractive assistant, who seems to interest him more than Jenny, the mother of his child. The silliness of this situation should give you some idea of what is going on in this film. The filmmakers of the film within the film come up with the idea of adding Gillian Anderson as Widow Wadman, a character they'd previously omitted, and, via cell phone, Gillian Anderson is committed within five minutes only to have the co-star, Rob Brydon, playing himself and Toby Shandy, express doubts because, frankly, he has the hots for Gillian Anderson and is afraid he'd blush in any intimate scenes. Apart from a couple of articulate scenes during the film within a film, including one with the wonderful British actor, director, and writer Stephen Fry, the vast majority of this film is, to put it mildly, a bunch of "cock and bull." If you choose to see this film, watch for the wonderful Shirley Henderson ("Topsy-Turvy") as the hysterical maid Susannah, especially during Tristram's birth, and a cameo by Jeremy Northam as the director. Overall, my recommendation is to stay away. C (7/14/06)

"Caché"-Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche play Georges and Anne Laurent, a couple with a young son, who find themselves suffering terror when mysterious videotaped views of their home and their comings and goings, are left at their door in plastic shopping bags. Along with the tapes come what appear to be child-like drawings of a young boy either bleeding from the mouth or neck. Ultimately, one of the tapes leads Laurent, a TV personality, to the door of an Algerian man named Majid, someone he knew as a child and about whom he guiltily dreams. I won't reveal more about the plot, but I will say that the theme of "Caché" appears to concern the French attitude towards outsiders and Algerians in particular. Auteuil and Binoche are perfect at displaying the fears and stresses that come when a mysterious implied threat invades their home. The film contains one scene involving the Laurent's son, Pierrot, that could only be described as a red herring. It appears to add nothing to the film and is never explained. "Caché," directed by Michael Haneke, is otherwise intelligent and Hitchcockian in its portrayal of growing terror and the effect it has on its victims. An American film would have provided a clear and unambiguous ending. In classic European fashion, this film ends with some ambiguity because the filmmaker has respect for his audience's intelligence. In French with English subtitles. B+ (7/7/06)

"Madea's Family Reunion"-The imprint of Tyler Perry is everywhere in this film. Star (in three roles). Writer. Director. Executive producer. Perry, originally a playwright, is now a film auteur and worth watching. "Madea's Family Reunion" is a comedy and a drama, in which the comedy moves the drama along extremely well. Dealing with a whole gamut of issues that are important to African-Americans as well as humanity in general, "Madea's Family Reunion" concerns the importance of family, the tragedy of abuse (child abuse and the abuse of women by men), the need for good foster care, overbearing parents, and concerns about the loss of dignity in modern culture. Tyler Perry plays an old woman, Madea, the grandmotherly matriarch of a large Atlanta family. One doesn't get the sense of a male in drag, but rather Perry's performance provides an interesting and extremely funny portrayal of a smart old lady with some very good advice to give. He also plays Madea's somewhat raunchy white-haired husband, Joe, and her lawyer son, Brian. The themes revolve around relationships, including those of the overbearing Victoria (Lynn Whitfield) who is doing everything she can to marry her daughter Lisa (Rochelle Aytes) to a wealthy and abusive businessman (Blair Underwood), a man she doesn't love; Lisa's half-sister Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) who has two children but does not trust men (for a reason that will come out in the film), including the handsome and charming bus driver, Frankie (Boris Kodjoe), who also has a child and is doing everything he can to convince her that he's the right man for her and worth trusting. The film is loaded with excellent performances, including those of Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson as elderly aunts at the family reunion, and young Keke Palmer as a tough foster child taken in by Madea on court order. "Madea's Family Reunion" has its share of corny and slightly raunchy moments, but overall it's an impressive film dealing with human issues in an uplifting way. I look forward to more from Tyler Perry in the future. B+ (7/6/06)

"The Matador"-Pierce Brosnan (aka "James Bond") here plays completely against type as Julian Noble, a lonely, somewhat sad hit man who has lost his nerve. In an original comedy written and directed by Richard Shepard, Noble, in between murders, seeks out a friend at a bar in Mexico City and finds himself becoming emotionally attached to struggling American businessman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) who is worried that his business failures will harm his marriage to his wife Bean (Hope Davis). "The Matador" manages to portray an angst-filled assassin in as light a manner as possible thanks to Brosnan's first-rate efforts portraying Noble's descent from a tough hardened killer to one experiencing sniveling uncertainty. The comedy continues when months later Noble arrives at the Wrights' Denver home to seek Danny's help in pulling off a very important murder. Pierce Brosnan is particularly effective in portraying the uncertainties of this "poor" professional killer and especially funny in a few lust-filled scenes, including one in which he demonstrates his ultimately unrequited interest in Mrs. Wright. Hope Davis, as always, is wonderful as the suburban wife who, rather than being uptight and straightlaced, actually gets a kick out of hosting an assassin and can't wait to ask if he'll show her his weapon. B+ (7/5/06)

"Neil Young: Heart of Gold"-Directed by Jonathan Demme, this documentary begins with an introduction to Neil Young's troupe, each having the opportunity to say something about the experience of playing and working with Young. Ultimately, though, this film is a beautiful rendition of a 2005 concert Young gave at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, introducing music from a new album called "Prairie Wind." In addition to his regulars, joining him was the great Emmylou Harris. Director Demme concentrates lovingly on the performers, especially Young, with minimal camera movement. The cinematography is gorgeous, the sound magnificent. While the newer songs are pure Young, the concert later turns joyfully toward the great songs of Young's early years, including "Heart of Gold" and "Old Man." Worth noting and watching is Young's interaction with an important member of the troupe, his wife Pegi. If you know and love the sound of Neil Young, you won't want to miss this concert. B+ (7/1/06)

"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"-Sometimes a motion picture is so bad that you can only wonder what the filmmakers had in mind. "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is one of those. Apparently, the thought was to create a humorous takeoff of film noir, but instead the script is pathetic and the acting borders on atrocious. Robert Downey, Jr., in possibly the worst performance of his career, is Harry Lockhart, a thief and burglar who, while on the lam from the cops, walks into a movie tryout, gets offered a part, and finds himself in Hollywood. Harry provides a rather unfunny narration while trying to show how he and an old childhood friend, Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), meet again in Los Angeles in the midst of multiple murders and evil doings. The story makes little or no sense, a great deal of the acting is shrill, and ultimately the whole thing collapses in on itself. Val Kilmer undertakes the rather bizarre role of a character named Gay Perry and looks like he just walked out of an amateur night tryout. Corbin Bernsen offers little as a power figure who is at the heart of all the evil doings. Shannyn Sossamon is lost in the role of a pink-haired woman who becomes one of several murder victims. There is nothing to gain by trying to describe the rather absurd plot of this awful film. Miss it. D- (6/24/06)

"Syriana"-This is a somewhat complex non-linear story that takes awhile to gel, but gel it does (or at least most of it). George Clooney stars as Bob Barnes, an overweight and out-of-favor CIA agent, who stumbles onto a geopolitical plot to help a gigantic crooked oil company, Connex, gain a major oil base in the middle east. Although fiction, "Syriana" is based on the non-fiction books of ex-CIA agent Robert Baer and must be viewed in that context. The film is magnificently photographed in a variety of locations and contains several outstanding and subtle performances. Christopher Plummer is perfect as Dean Whiting, the establishment mover and shaker whose job it is to smooth the way for Connex. Jeffrey Wright is, as always, wonderful as Bennett Holiday, Whiting's agent and tool. Matt Damon fits right in as Bryan Woodman, a businessman who thinks he can make it by advising the benevolent middle eastern Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) who is, unfortunately, out of favor with his father, the emir; his younger brother, the soon-to-be new emir; and the US government whose interests are in helping a gigantic American oil company rather than doing what is best for the people of the unnamed middle eastern country. Amanda Peet also appears as Woodman's wife, and is touching, portraying a woman who suffers a tragic loss as a result of her husband's business pursuits. In an interview on the DVD, George Clooney says that the film is not political. But this seems to be a politically correct comment for movie PR purposes. "Syriana" is an indictment of the policies of big government and major corporations which go beyond simple power and greed into a whole new dimension of evil. The film contains side stories that unfortunately add to the initial complexity. Some belong and some don't. One that belongs is the tale of two fired oil company employees who find themselves caught up in the world of terrorism. One that should have been cut is the conflict between Bennett Holiday and his father which seems to add nothing to the overall theme. Despite that,"Syriana" is highly recommended. A (6/23/06)

"The World's Fastest Indian"-There are people in the world who want to do things that almost no one else on earth would even consider. At an early point in the film, Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins), an eccentric 60ish New Zealander with an affinity for speed and his 1920s Indian motorcycle, tells young Tom (Aaron Murphy), his next-door neighbor, that if you don't live out your dreams, "you might as well be a vegetable." This film, based on the unusual true-life tale of this resolute Kiwi, demonstrates that if someone really puts his mind to it, he can live out even an amazing crazy almost impossible-to-believe dream. It is the 1960s and Munro has dreamed of setting a land-speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats with his ancient cycle. How he manages to do that is the subject of this ultra-road tale which takes us on his journey by ship to Los Angeles, his misadventures in Hollywood, his difficulties on the road to the salt flats, and how his charm ultimately wins the day in Utah. One of the surprising things about Anthony Hopkins is how, despite limitations in his acting style, he manages to convince the viewer that he is in fact the character he plays. Burt Munro is certainly a charmer, maybe almost to the point of being a little too much to believe. As directed by Roger Donaldson, "The World's Fastest Indian" shows that, with minimal exception, Burt makes friends almost immediately and is able to use those friends to advantage when needed. And what a group of friends he makes, including the lovely Fran (Annie Whittle), his girlfriend in Invercargill; the very funny transvestite motel clerk, Tina (Chris Williams), in Hollywood; Ada (Diane Ladd), whose beat-up car wrecks attract him but whose home and bed welcome him; and Jim (Christopher Lawford), a racer of influence who takes to Burt and helps get him a place in the Bonneville racing lineup! And these are only a few of the people that find Burt Munro eccentric, interesting and attractive. Anthony Hopkins, with the support of an excellent and enthusiastic cast, does a fine job of making Burt's dream seem truly important. B+ (6/17/06)

"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada"-Directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones as Pete Perkins, a Texas border cowboy who befriends a Mexican "wetback" cowboy named Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo), "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is a fascinating contemplation of a variety of subjects. These include friendship, the ennui of life in utter dullsville, and the concerns of the problems at the border between the US and Mexico. With a variety of flashbacks, the film tells the tale of the arrival and death of Melquiades Estrada, and the efforts of Pete Perkins to find and punish the killer and to carry out his promise to Melquiades to bury him, should he die on the American side, in his hometown in Mexico. What seems the main theme of the film, at least to me, is the utter absence of any form of real mental stimulation in this part of the Southwest near the border. An elderly blind man who speaks no Spanish (Levon Helm) asks to be shot when found at his remote home doing nothing but listening to Mexican radio. A young wife of a new border patrol agent falls into a life of TV watching, sexual dalliances and mall shopping. A local waitress, married to the cafe owner, has affairs seemingly with everyone in sight. A border patrol agent carries his Hustler magazine with him on patrol. Tommy Lee Jones is his usual impressive self as the obsessed, somewhat crazed Pete Perkins. Julio Cesar Cedillo is a delight as the ill-fated Melquiades. Other first-rate performances are provided by Barry Pepper as the new border patrol agent, January Jones as his young bored wife, and especially by Melissa Leo as the waitress, Rachel, whose easy ability to go from man to man symbolizes the absence of other activities. Also of note is Dwight Yoakum as a police officer trying to keep everything quiet in an already very quiet place. "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" has a few unpleasant scenes, including the handling of a dead body, but ultimately is a fresh look at the problems of life on the border. A- (6/16/06)

"Everything Is Illuminated"-Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, "Everything Is Illuminated" stars Elijah Wood as a character named Jonathan Safran Foer who has slicked hair, big glasses, and wears a suit and tie no matter where he goes. Jonathan is an American Jew whose dying grandmother has given him a photograph of his grandfather, Safran, standing in a field with a woman back in their native Ukraine, and informed him that the woman saved his grandfather from the Nazis during WW II. Jonathan, a collector of memorabilia and minutiae, especially about family events, decides to go and seek out the woman. He soon finds himself in the good (?) hands of his tourguide, Alex (Eugene Hutz), a smooth young resident of Odessa who wears gold chains around his neck and is a master of English malaprops. Jonathan, for example, is Jonfen. Alex encourages his elderly and somewhat nasty grandfather (Boris Leskin), who seems to find it easy to make derogatory comments about Jews, to drive the car as they look for the town where the Foers came from. Oh, also along for the ride is a rather scroungy dog named Sammy Davis Junior, Junior. This is one very funny and tender trip that Alex, the narrator of the story, calls the "rigid search." This rigid search takes us and the characters on a trip across the Ukraine which ultimately succeeds, in a way. Eugene Hutz, who also sings in a Ukrainian rock group called Gogol Bordello (heard in the closing credits), is wonderful and funny as the "smooth-talking" but sincere Alex. Boris Leskin is just right as the gruff, seemingly anti-semitic grandfather who has a secret. Laryssa Lauret is tremendously affecting as the elderly woman they find who knows all the secrets. "Everything Is Illuminated" is a delight. B+ (6/9/06)

"The Dying Gaul"- The premise of this film is, in a way, its own downfall. Robert Sandrich (Peter Sarsgaard), a gay writer who has recently lost his lover, has written a screenplay about two gay men. Jeffrey Tishop (Campbell Scott), a movie producer, wants to buy the screenplay but tells Sandrich that the public won't attend a downer film about gays and insists that he change it to a story about heterosexuals. Despite his misgivings, Sandrich complies in light of the large amount of money involved. Meanwhile, Sandrich is invited to join Tishop and his wife, Elaine (Patricia Clarkson) at their beautiful hillside/poolside house and a triangle soon begins when the bisexual Tishop approaches Sandrich and, separately, Elaine treats Sandrich with great warmth. "The Dying Gaul" (the name of Sandrich's screenplay, by the way) soon becomes a rather fascinating although confusing computer chat game that winds up in tragedy. Ultimately, I believe this film failed commercially because it is a downer and especially because it is, unfortunately somewhat confusing. On DVD, it's easy to stop and go back to look at the chatroom scenes again. Even that doesn't always clear up either the confusion or the wonderment at how the characters manage to confuse and toy with other. Campbell Scott, unfortunately, seems to be stuck in a single performance. His somewhat stiff acting style is similar from film to film. On the other hand, Peter Sarsgaard and Patricia Clarkson are dynamic as, respectively, the gay writer in the middle and the wronged wife. "The Dying Gaul" has lots of defects but is still worth a look for anyone who likes this sort of three-way character interaction. B (6/3/06)

"Rumor Has It..."Hollywood has a strange idea of what's funny. It seems to recycle bad situations over and over until the result can be deadly dull. This dud is directed by someone who once knew better, Rob Reiner of "When Harry Met Sally" and "This is Spinal Tap." Well, this is no "Spinal Tap." Jennifer Anniston (who better soon get someone to give her some recommendations on good parts) is Sarah Huttinger, an obit writer in NY who returns for her sister's wedding to her hometown of Pasadena, CA,with her fiancé, Jeff (Mark Ruffalo). Sarah, who appears to have some cold feet about her engagement, doesn't tell anyone about it, and also seems to feel extremely uncomfortable around her own family, including her father (the always reliable Richard Jenkins), grandmother ("Don't call me Grandma") (Shirley Maclaine), and sister Annie (Mena Suvari, looking more like an 18-year old blonde teenybopper than the far more mature mid-20s actress seen recently in "Six Feet Under"). Sarah gets the idea in her head that her family was the basis for the story of "The Graduate" written by Charles Webb (a "friend of the family") and figures out that a certain Beau Burroughs (Benjamin Braddock, get it?) made it with both her grandmother and her late mother (just before her mother's wedding). So, what does Sarah do? Like any normal young woman, she chases down Mr. Burroughs, now an extremely wealthy businessman near San Francisco, to find out if he could be her real father. And fun ensues. Or doesn't. The cast of "Rumor Has It..." looks like they weren't having a good time, finding themselves in forced and silly situations. The script is silly and dull. Mark Ruffalo, who was wonderful in "You Can Count On Me" seems to have been findng, like Jennifer Anniston, a lot of dud roles recently (such as "In The Cut" and "Just Like Heaven"). Kevin Costner, as usual, speaks in a monotone, and just doesn't seem to have the charisma needed to attract a young woman who knows he's already slept with her mother and grandmother. To sum up, miss it. C- (6/2/06)

"The Best of Youth"-Starting out a movie that is six hours long takes a little effort. But is it worth it! It doesn't take more than a few minutes to be totally captivated by the story of the Carati brothers from Rome, Nicola (Luigi La Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni). It is 1966. They are seemingly serious students, but it soon becomes apparent that Matteo is unsure of what he wants out of life. After volunteering at a mental hospital, he naively removes a young patient, Giorgia (Jasmine Trinca), to save her from electroshock therapy, and plans to take her back to her father, never considering that her father may not want her back. Nicola and Matteo, who had planned to go to Norway with friends, ultimately fail in their endeavors with regard to Giorgia and only Nicola makes it to Norway. The two brothers, now separated, take very different paths in life with Nicola, the warmer of the two brothers, ultimately starting a relationship with a young left-leaning pianist, Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco), he has met during salvage efforts to save the wonders of Florence following the floods of 1966. Nicola becomes a psychiatrist (and ultimately treats Giorgia) and he and Giulia have a daughter, Sara. Matteo, on the other hand, is clearly missing an important element in his psyche and decides to join the police in order to have his life subject to rule and direction. "The Best of Youth" is the lovely story of the Carati brothers, their relatives and friends, and of Italy over a 37-year period from 1966 to 2003. The family's events fit neatly into the flow of the country's events, ranging from the flooding in Florence, the rise of the Red Brigades (and the involvement of a family member in terrorist activities), and the mafia attacks on judges in the 1990s. The film is blessed with scenery (including Rome, Turin, Tuscany, and Sicily) and wonderful characters whose lives intertwine with the events and with each other over the many years the film covers. Although "The Best of Youth" contains an occasional contrived and unlikely situation (such as an extremely hesitant relationship between a man and a woman who clearly are attracted to each other and which goes on for far too many years), overall the filmmakers make it easy for the viewer to want to keep watching (and hoping that the film won't end). Others who are notable in the cast are Valentina Carmelutti as Francesca, the younger Carati daughter; Maya Sansa as Mirella Utano, a woman who plays an important role in the lives of both Matteo and Nicola; Adriana Asti as Mrs. Carati, the boys' mother; and Camilla Filippi as Sara, Nicola's spunky and independent daughter. If you're put off by the thought of a six-hour film, then think of it like a TV miniseries to be broken into two hour segments which is simple to do when watching on DVD. It was originally filmed to be just that, but was instead first released in theaters as a motion picture. Don't miss it. (In Italian with English subtitles). A (5/28/06 and 5/29/06)

"The Twilight Samurai"-Somehow I managed to miss this wonderful 2002 Japanese film until now. Hiroyuki Sanada ("The Last Samurai" and "The White Countess") is Seibei Iguchi, a low level samurai in 19th Century Japan. But he's not like any samurai you've ever seen before. Seibei is essentially a family man with two young daughters and an elderly mother with dementia. He's just lost his wife to illness, and labors essentially as a clerk in the food warehouse of the local clan lord. Known as "Twilight" to his more raucous and rowdy colleagues, Seibei goes home each night to his family and seems to want little more in life than to enjoy seeing his daughters grow. But ultimately, he finds himself forced to show a little of the real samurai by fighting the abusive ex-husband of Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), his childhood friend. Tomoe is clearly attracted to Seibei and spends as much time at his home as possible, playing with his daughters and cleaning, but when Tomoe's brother, Iinuma (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), offers her hand in marriage, the humble Seibei, fearing that Tomoe will hate living in his humble surroundings, declines. "The Twilight Samurai" is a sensitive and human film about a subject that is usually portrayed as it was in the more jingoistic Hollywoodish "The Last Samurai" or in classic Japanese films such as "The Seven Samurai." Hiroyuki Sanada does a magnificent job of portraying the feelings of this humble "petty" samurai. Rie Miyazawa is lovely as the caring and attentive Tomoe. This is one samurai film that should not be missed. A (5/27/06)

"Transamerica"-Felicity Huffman gets the performance of a career out of playing transsexual Bree Osbourne (previously Stanley). Bree hasn't gone through the operation yet and just when he/she is about to, a previously unknown son intervenes and Bree flies off from LA to NY to get to know Toby (Kevin Zegers), a young male prostitute who wants to know his real "father" since his mother has died. Somehow Bree manages to convince Toby, who has acting aspirations, that she's a church lady and that he should accompany her on a road trip across the United States back to LA. "Transamerica" is a charming, funny, low-key tale of that trip back west. We don't get much of the usual awkward set-ups that one would expect in a film with this subject. That's not to say that Bree is home free as a male turned female, but the embarrassments are short-lived and we ultimately find ourselves at the home of Bree/Stanley's real parents in Phoenix. That Bree's mother is compulsively controlling is not so surprising and Fionnula Flannagan is outstanding as the impossibly hostile mother, Elizabeth, who disses Toby until she discovers that he's her grandson and doesn't know it. "Transamerica" also contains a delightful appearance by Graham Greene, as a Navajo in New Mexico who puts Bree and Toby up for the night and finds the still male Bree so pleasant he encourages "her" to return. Felicity Huffman is a revelation. Although obviously female she manages to give enough of an impression of a male consuming lots of female hormones, that her performance is memorable. This is one road trip I'm glad I was on. A (5/26/06)

"The Producers"-I must start out by saying that I am not a big fan of Mel Brooks nor did I like the original Zero Mostel-Gene Wilder film of "The Producers," although a recent re-viewing of it gave me a slightly improved perspective. That said, this film musical isn't half bad, despite Brooks' esssentially immature slapstick humor. Matthew Broderick does a very good job of impersonating the hysterical characteristics of Gene Wilder as the original Leo Bloom, the accountant who wants to be a producer. Nathan Lane also does a fine job playing Zero Mostel as Max Bialystok, the lascivious and unfortunate producer of Broadway flops. Uma Thurman is lovely and sexy as Ulla, the Swedish bombshell who inspires the pair in their plot to raise millions, produce a gigantic flop, and run off with the "losses." Will Ferrell, however, steals the show as Franz Liebkind, the very funny pigeon-raising Nazi who writes "Springtime for Hitler," the astonishingly tasteless show that backfires on the plans of Bloom and Bialystok. Ferrell's performances in the "Guten Tag Hop Clop" and "Haben Sie Gehört Das Deutch Band" numbers are a sight to see and hear. "The Producers" is rather hectic and hyper for a musical, fitting in quite well with the less than classical style of modern Broadway shows. And it has some good non-Ferrell moments, including Broderick's song and dance number,"I Wanna be a Producer," a showstopper for sure, and "Springtime for Hitler," which doesn't fail to give the audience an extremely queasy feeling in the pit of the stomach. It's not everyday you get to see a Broadway show that people paid a fortune to attend, even if it does raise more than a few grimaces. B (5/23/06)

"Duma"-A film about a boy and his cat. Well, not an ordinary cat. A cheetah. Alexander Michaeltos plays Xan, a young boy living with his parents (Hope Davis and Campbell Scott) on a farm in South Africa. One night he and his father come across a cheetah cub wandering on a highway and bring him home. The cub, who initially seems very kitten-like, soon grows into a full-size cheetah named Duma, but he has become tame and friendly. When the father grows ill and dies and the mother decides to move Xan to the city, things start to go wrong. Having discussed with his father Duma's ultimate need to return to the wild, Xan starts out on a trip to take Duma back to his natural habitat. The remainder of the movie is the story of that journey which brings to mind other films about young kids trekking through the desert, including "Walkabout" and "Rabbit-Proof Fence," both of which involved the Australian desert. "Duma" is beautifully filmed and any animal lover will soon grow to adore the magnificent Duma (played actually by several cheetahs). Along the way there are the usual "roadblocks," including some very hungry looking crocodiles. Annoying though these roadblocks may be, they certainly enhance the dramatic tension. Eamonn Walker is excellent as Ripkuna, a man who finds Xan and Duma wandering in the desert. Ripkuna at first seems mysterious and dangerous, but turns out to be somewhat of a savior. This is a very good "family" film with themes of love, loss and growth. It was not well supported by Warner Bros., and got little attention in its theater release. Now on DVD, "Duma," directed by Caroll Ballard ("Fly Away Home"), truly deserves to be seen by a much wider audience. B+ (5/20/06)

"The White Countess"-Merchant/Ivory films have had mixed success over the years. Some were spectacular hits ("A Room With A View" and "Howard's End") and some were duds ("The Golden Bowl"), but all have one vital element: they are quality films intended for those who appreciate good, intelligent cinema. "The White Countess" is loaded with quality, from the directing of James Ivory, the cinematography of Christopher Doyle, the acting of Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, Natasha Richardson, Ralph Fiennes, Allan Corduner, and Hiroyuki Sanada, and the writing of Kazuo Ishiguro ("The Remains of the Day"). Why the film got little attention is not clear. But it is a very good and interesting film about a group of expatriates living in Shanghai in the years just before WW II. Ralph Fiennes is Todd Jackson, a blind American diplomat who turns horserace winnings into his dream--a nightclub in which the "centerpiece" is the beautiful Countess Sofia (Natasha Richardson). Sofia, who has worked as a dancehall girl/prostitute in order to keep her family of former Russian aristocrats alive, is used and abused by these relatives, including Olga (Lynn Redgrave) and her sister-in-law Greshenka (Madeleine Potter), who is obviously desirous of turning Sofia's daughter Katya (Madeleine Daly, Potter's real-life daughter) into her own. The film ultimately centers around the emotionally stiff Jackson who has a mysterious tragic past that led to his blindness. The interactions of Jackson with those around him, including Mr. Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada), a Japanese man who becomes a close friend, are spellbinding, especially in the exquisitely filmed setting (on location in Shanghai). When the Japanese invade. the lives of all are completely disrupted as they attempt to leave Shanghai, a situation which allows some of the social relationships of the characters to be rearranged. Natasha Richardson, showing the vulnerability of Sofia, and Ralph Fiennes, exposing the emotional pain of the blind diplomat, are brilliant in these roles. Notable also are the wonderful Allan Corduner ("Topsy-Turvy") as Feinstein, a Jewish neighbor with three children of his own, who adores Katya and aids in the escape from Shanghai; Vanessa Redgrave as Sofia's only empathetic relative, Princess Vera; and Hiroyuki Sanada ("The Last Samurai") as the soft-spoken and intelligent Mr. Matsuda. A- (5/19/06)

"The New World"-Since 1973, when he directed "Badlands" with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, Terrence Malick has directed only three additional films, including this one, "Days of Heaven," and "The Thin Red Line." Each has been a cinematic meditation on the beauty of the setting, "Days of Heaven" being about rural farming, "The Thin Red Line" about war at Guadalcanal, and "The New World" about the development of Jamestown in the early 17th Century. The problem ultimately is that Terrence Malick becomes so obsessed with the scenery that he appears to have developed his own visual world, a place I can only call "Malickland." "The New World" seems hardly to be about anything, although it obviously shows us the landing of the British at what became Jamestown, the objections and behavior of the local Algonquian Indians under Chief Powhatan, the attraction of Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) to Powhatan's young daughter (Q'Orianka Kilcher) (obviously Pocahontas although she is never named as such in the film and is later named Rebecca by the British colonists), the departure of Smith, and Pocahontas' later marriage to colonist and tobacco grower John Rolfe (Christian Bale). But what we see mostly is a two-hour documentary reflection of spectacular Virginia scenery near the Chickahominy River. We are overwhelmed visually by beautiful fields, gorgeous sunsets, lovely waterside scenes and the like. The film also contains the virtually inaudible whisperings of the three main characters, Smith, Pocahontas, and Rolfe, often drowned out by the musical soundtrack, thus undermining whatever there is of a script and story. If the purpose of "The New World" was to give us a visual sense of life in colonial Virginia in the early days of the 17th Century, it succeeds quite well. If, on the other hand, the film was intended to tell the tale of Pocahontas, Smith and Rolfe, it must be considered to have failed because all we get are the barebones and muffled outline of the story. B- (5/13/06)

"Wedding Crashers"-Hollywood comedy films more often than not suffer from a fatal disease or two. They're either not funny or they're based on a funny idea which doesn't translate to a full two-hour film. "Wedding Crashers" seems to fall into the latter category. Two guys who mediate divorces, Jeremy (Vince Vaughn) and John (Owen Wilson), are wedding crashers, with the goal of meeting and bedding as many women as possible. The first hour of this film is quite funny, presenting the charming and conniving Jeremy and John successfully attending a variety of weddings to which they have not been invited and meeting a slew of gorgeous and hungry women. That hardly anyone, including the brides and grooms, seems to wonder who they are is almost beside the point. But the humor starts to fade when the film takes a turn about half way through when the guys attend the extravagant wedding of the daughter of the Secretary of the Treasury William Cleary (Christopher Walken) and predator-wife (Jane Seymour). Jeremy meets one ultra-aggressive Cleary daughter, Gloria (Isla Fisher), and John falls for another, more restrained Cleary daughter, Claire (Rachel McAdams), who just happens to be going with a "Lodge" (as in Cabots and Lodges). With John and Jeremy suddenly limited to interacting with the slightly nutty Cleary family, including Claire's awesomely obnoxious boyfriend, Sack Lodge (Bradley Cooper), "Wedding Crashers" descends into formulaic monotony, especially when John starts feeling sorry for himself after Sack's one-sided announcement of his engagement to Claire. Bradley Cooper, who was a pleasant hero in the TV series "Alias" is outstandingly obnoxious as the aggressive and repulsive Sack. Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, and Rachel McAdams are delightful to watch. But Isla Fisher is memorable as the hot red-headed sister who ultimately gets her man. "Wedding Crashers" certainly has its moments. It's just too bad that they couldn't have been throughout the whole film. B (5/13/06)

"Munich"-The script is by Tony Kushner ("Angels in America") and Eric Roth, the film is directed by Steven Spielberg, the premise is simple, and the "live by the sword, die by the sword" theme blares out at us. Following the Black September terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics which resulted in the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir decided to kill as many of the terrorists as possible. Avner (Eric Bana), the son of an Israeli hero, is brought in and briefed by Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) and then receives specifics from a Mossad officer, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush). He is told that he and his colleagues will be considered to be non-existent as far as the government is concerned. But they will be provided with large amounts of money to accomplish their goals, although "it may take years." Avner, happily married with a pregnant wife, doesn't hesitate and joins four others, Steve (Daniel Craig), Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), Hans (Hanns Zischler), and Carl (Ciaran Hinds). Avner and his cohorts proceed to rather amateurishly kill several Palestinian terrorist leaders in a variety of European cities. A bungled shooting here, a couple of almost bungled bombings there, and it begins to be obvious that this is no easy job. And Avner, at the very least, is suffering: from both guilt and the absence of his family. "Munich" seems initially like a run-of-the-mill tale of an assassination squad until we begin to see the theme of insanity involved in the cause of political murder. Avner gets information from a French family who claim to be hostile to governments, and who may or may not be dealing with the other side as well. A beautiful woman in a bar may or may not be an assassin. His colleagues begin to die. Ultimately, Avner finds himself looking obsessively under his own bed, and checking electronic devices in his room for bombs as his own paranoia and fear of reprisal develops. "Munich" has some weaknesses, including a few rather abrupt segues and some unclear locations. While some European cities are clearly identified, others are not. The weakest part of the film is the setting for the retelling of the actual events at the Munich Olympics, with a great deal portrayed as part of Avner's bad dreams as well as a distraction in his mind during sex with his wife. I would have appreciated a more direct approach. Bana is excellent as Avner. Also notable are Ciaran Hinds (Julius Caesar in the HBO series "Rome") as a thoughtful and concerned colleague, and Mathieu Kassovitz as a not completely expert bombmaker. I also loved the subtle performance of Michael Lonsdale, as Papa, the head of the mysterious family which provides much of the information Avner and his group needs to do their job, but only at a great expense. "Munich" is an outstanding achievement, despite its flaws. A- (5/12/06)

"The Family Stone"-We've seen it all before so many times. The family reunion at a major holiday (Christmas in this case) that brings out every unreal and annoying feature of the various family members and friends. And here, director/writer Thomas Bezucha has decided to literally unload on us a family that looks great but certainly doesn't taste great. Serious and rather dour businessman Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney) brings his incredibly uptight girlfriend, Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker), home for Christmas. The family is led by mother Sybil (Diane Keaton) (who has a disturbing health secret) and father Kelly (Craig T. Nelson), and includes a variety of unlikely siblings, including the gay and partly deaf brother Thad (Tyrone Giordano) and his black significant other, Patrick (Brian J. White), the beautiful but nasty and obviously insecure sister Amy (Rachel McAdams), the slightly wacky and very free brother Ben (Luke Wilson), and the rather passive, pleasant and pregnant sister Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser). In this melange, Meredith simply doesn't belong and manages to do and say virtually everything the wrong way and to remind us over and over how annoying and uptight she is. If there was you know what on the ground, Meredith would have stepped into it. Which makes for hysterics, right? Well, not exactly. Meredith becomes so unhinged that she calls for her sister Julie to come keep her company, and we know that something drastic in the romance department is about to change when the beautiful long-haired Julie (Claire Danes) steps (actually falls) off the bus. Director/writer Bezucha has filled his film with family reunion jokes and clichés to the nth degree, the worst of which is that after only one beer, the miserable Meredith undergoes the standard (for this genre) astounding, impossible but predictable transformation that helps lead to the ultimately semi-happy ending. "The Family Stone" has a rather talented cast. No bad performances. But good performances don't make up for a silly script loaded with weak attempts at humor in contrast to the family angst that pervades the film. C (5/6/06)

"Aeon Flux"-Based on Peter Chung's cartoon series shown, I believe, on MTV, "Aeon Flux" turns out to be a rather decent sci-fi film. The versatile Charlize Theron is Aeon Flux, a sleek 25th-Century Monican rebel whose sister Una (Amelia Warner) has been killed by the government. She receives mind-wave instructions from The Handler (Frances McDormand) to kill the seemingly oppressive government leader, scientist Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas) and, with the aid of the four-handed Sithandra (Sophie Okenedo), literally flies, leaps and twirls her way into the government headquarters. But when she finally reaches Goodchild, the descendant of the original Goodchild who had saved a small portion of mankind from a terrible virus in the 21st Century and founded the walled city of Bregna, she discovers that things may not be as she had previously thought. Something about Goodchild brings out hints of distant and pleasant memories and she backs off. "Aeon Flux" is a fairly understandable and original sci-fi tale with some rather unique features. The future, for example, rather than being full of computers and other machine-like technology, is portrayed as one in which high tech and nature have become one. Charlize Theron, always a delight to look at, took the chance that didn't work for Hallie Berry in "Catwoman." Wearing what might be thought as something close to a cat suit, Theron as Aeon has the advantage of a pretty decent story to romp around in and a fairly good cast to support her, including McDormand, Okenedo and Pete Postlethwaite. Ultimately, though, "Aeon Flux" turns out to be somewhat of a love story and it is undermined by the lackluster performance of Marton Csokas, as Goodchild. Csokas is simply blah in his role, demonstrating virtually no personality or charisma. Since Goodchild is supposed to be a charismatic leader and a potential love interest for Aeon, this is a serious flaw. B- (5/5/06)

"Casanova"-Director Lasse Hallstrom seems to jump back and forth between semi-serious films such as "The Cider House Rules" and "The Shipping News" and very light fare such as "Chocolat" and now "Casanova." Here he presents a comedic farce about the 18th Century Venetian rake, Giacomo Casanova (Heath Ledger), whose misadventures with women and otherwise have him being watched closely by the law, including the Doge (Tim McInnerney) and, later, the Grand Inquisitor Pucci (Jeremy Irons). Casanova jumps from bed to roof and roof to bed, one step ahead of the law, until ordered by the Doge to marry or leave Venice. In the process he becomes engaged to the seemingly innocent Victoria (Natalie Dormer) only to meet and fall for the independent and exciting Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller) who manages to both write feminist tracts and impersonate men, almost at the same time. Filmed on site in Venice, "Casanova" is lovely to look at, including especially an enchanting scene in which Casanova and Francesca ride over the city at night in a hot air balloon. The story is not to be taken seriously and certainly doesn't represent any significant historical fact. But this is one of those films which deserves to be called entertainment, light though it may be. Heath Ledger, in a role very far from "Brokeback Mountain," and the gorgeous Sienna Miller ("Alfie" and "Layer Cake") are a delight to watch. Jeremy Irons is funny as a bumbling Grand Inquisitor. Also notable in the cast are Lena Olin as Andrea, Francesca's mother; Oliver Platt as Francesca's sight-unseen and somewhat overweight fiancé, Paprizzio; Charlie Cox as Francesca's brother who would be Casanova in his dreams; Helen McCrory as Casanova's mother; and the delightful Leigh Lawson as a Cardinal impersonator and Casanova's mother's lover. As usual, a Hallstrom film is easy to watch. B (4/29/06)

"Match Point"-It's got the classic Woody Allen opening titles with accompanying music (in this case, opera) and the classic Woody Allen themes of love and lust, with a little greed thrown in, but the scene has moved from New York City to London and a few things are missing. For one, humor. There is virtually none. For another, a concise rapidly moving script. "Match Point," which generally received favorable reviews, is a disappointment as it is tiresome in many ways, although it does play out, with the accompanying strains of the great Caruso and others, as a mini-opera. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is Chris Wilton, a tennis pro hired to teach at an upper class London club, who soon meets and falls in with the Hewett family, including the charming Tom (Matthew Goode), sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), superwealthy father Alec (Brian Cox) and highly critical mother Eleanor (Penelope Wilton). While Chloe immediately has her eye on Chris, he seems utterly underwhelmed by her, but he nevertheless begins a relationship with her that may or may not be based on his desire to enjoy the perks of the good life (his initial motives are never clear). But there's a catch. Tom Hewett is engaged to the beautiful and sensuous, but struggling, American actress Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), and Chris, despite his relationship with Chloe and friendship with Tom, cannot take his eyes or hands off Nola. Since I can't give away the rest of the story, I will say that it has elements of Hitchcock and classic opera. Unfortunately, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is virtually expressionless in this film, even when lusting after Nola. His lack of emotion undermines the theme. Try to imagine Montgomery Clift lusting after Elizabeth Taylor in "A Place In the Sun" without any signs of emotion or expression. Whether he's sneaking out to call Nola on his cell phone, talking to his secretary at the office, or trying to act as if he really likes Chloe, Rhys Meyers looks exactly the same. Woody Allen uses too many obvious devices to create tension. For example, if someone is doing something wrong, even if the act is innocuous, another character will notice and ask about it but will then immediately be easily distracted. Phone calls are noticed and questioned when the need arises, but highly questionable calls are utterly ignored despite their obvious irregular nature. Or, if a character does something inherently dangerous to himself, it'll be done almost in the open while someone else just happens to be looking for him and calling his name. It definitely creates tension, but is so unlikely as to undermine the effect of the film. Scarlett Johansson is excellent as the initially sexy and later desperate Nola, and the supporting cast does a fine job. B (4/28/06)

"Breakfast on Pluto"-It is Ireland, early 1970s, and this is an original tale (from the novel by Patrick McCabe) of Patrick Braden (Cillian Murphy), also known as "Kitten," a young man who was left by his mother as an infant on a priest's doorstep and has grown up to be feminine and to prefer to dress and look like a woman. One would think that the tale of a transvestite in rough, tough Ireland of the 1970s would be a serious tragedy/drama, but director Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game" and "The Butcher Boy," also by McCabe) will have none of it. No, instead, this is a charming, funny, and intelligently presented story of a strange young man's journey to find his lost mother who, he knows, left him behind to move to England. Cillian Murphy goes through an astonishing transformation to become Kitten, a character like no other he's done before. On his various trips away from home, he encounters a group of humorous and human characters, ranging from rock star Billy Hatchet (Gavin Friday), Bertie the magician (Stephen Rea), and John-Joe (Brendan Gleeson) who dresses like a wombat and teaches Kitten an hysterical wombat dance. "Breakfast on Pluto" is told through Kitten's narrative, each chapter having its own title. There is, of course, the IRA. What movie about Ireland in that period could omit the IRA? But ultimately, "Breakfast on Pluto" is about more down-to-earth issues and about the humanity of a young man who is so unusual that he just might have come from Pluto. Notable in the cast are Liam Neeson as the priest who plays a major role in Kitten's life and Ruth Negga as Charlie, a young woman with whom Kitten has a cosmic connection. "Breakfast on Pluto" is an experience and one that should not be missed. A- (4/23/06)

"Mrs. Henderson Presents"-Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins. Could anything go wrong? Well, not much. Judi Dench is simply out of this world as Laura Henderson, a real-life British upper class widow in the 1930s who doesn't know what to do with herself until she discovers and buys the Windmill Theater in London. Hiring a theater veteran, Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), to run the theater, Mrs. Henderson begins a conflicted relationship with Van Damm that runs the gamut from anger to love. Van Damm proposes non-stop musical "revuedeville." Initially a success, the theater begins to have financial problems just before World War II, and Mrs. Henderson gets the brilliant but shocking idea to have nude women in the cast. What results are some wonderfully funny scenes with Christopher Guest as Lord Cromer, who must give approval for something so unusual. "Mrs. Henderson Presents" is touching, poignant, and fun. And the fun is magnified by a delightful bit of casting with Will Young (the first winner of "Pop Idol," the British predecessor to "American Idol") as Bertie, the main song and dance man. Young couldn't be more perfectly cast and exudes a 1940s personality and character. Directed by Stephen Frears ("Dirty Pretty Things," "High Fidelity," and "The Grifters"), "Mrs. Henderson Presents" is simply a funny jolly romp with a great cast, which also includes Kelly Reilly as Maureen, the young woman Van Damm and Bertie discover by accident, and Camille O'Sullivan as the main female singer. A- (4/22/06)

"Separate Lies"-This is the first film directed by actor/writer Julian Fellowes and it shows. A British tale with typical lovely country scenery that would have made a darn good TV show were it not for the grade A cast, "Separate Lies" tells the story of a wealthy couple with an apartment in London and a home in the country. He is barrister James Manning (Tom Wilkinson) and she is his wife, Anne (Emily Watson). Initially, they appear to have a happy marriage but it soon becomes clear that while James is off in London working with an adoring but hardly noticed blonde assistant, Anne is having an affair with a country neighbor and friend of both, William Bule (Rupert Everett). The marriage is further pressured by the fact that the husband of Anne's housekeeper, Maggie (Linda Bassett), has been accidentally killed after being hit by a car while riding his bike near their home. This happens during a night in which Anne, left alone by James, is entertaining friends. It soon becomes obvious that one of the primary characters is responsible and a police investigation ensues, putting pressure on all. "Separate Lies" tries to defy what we might consider normal human emotions as James remains in love and loyal to Anne despite some rather harrowing treatment. The cast is first rate, although some of the scenes seem a little awkward. "Separate Lies" is not a bad film; but not a great one either. B (4/15/06)

"Derailed"-A married man (Clive Owen) meets an attractive married woman (Jennifer Anniston) on a commuter train to Chicago and they decide to have an affair, winding up at a somewhat seedy hotel. While in the act of consummating their friendship, a thug (Vincent Cassel) enters the room, beats the man and rapes the woman, and leaves with their money and wallets. But the thug is not finished with the man and proceeds to blackmail him into handing over many thousands of dollars more, much of which the man needs for his daughter's precarious health. I won't give away the story for those who really like to punish themselves, except to say that from this point on the man finds himself in the middle of various acts of violence, including the murder of a friend who was going to help him. Never once does the man ever consider going to the police. By the time this incredibly contrived and unlikely story ends, the man has managed to avoid almost any real contact with the police despite being involved in some hair-raising and quite bloody acts. "Derailed" is an utter failure. It think it's a clever film with a tricky ending, but it's not. It's really a labored and strained story that never once has the viewer thinking that the events could possibly happen. The result is a lack of suspense and a desire to have the whole thing end as soon as possible. Clive Owen, a fine actor, is utterly wasted here. Jennifer Anniston is initially pert and charming, but ultimately lost in her role. Vincent Cassel probably does the best job as the vicious thug. Miss it. D+ (4/14/06)

"Bee Season"-As "Bee Season" (based on the novel by Myla Goldberg) opens we see what looks like a normal intellectual Jewish family in Oakland, CA. The father, Saul Naumann (Richard Gere), is a professor of religious mysticism, somewhat obsessive about his supernatural beliefs and, as we observe, very talkative and extremely controlling of his family in many subtle ways. His wife is Miriam (Juliet Binoche) who, we learn, was born a Catholic and suffered the tragic loss of her parents in her childhood (the details are never made clear). It doesn't take long to realize that there is something seriously wrong with Miriam who looks vacant, expressionless, and depressed. Naumann, too busy babbling, never notices until it's too late. The Naumanns have two children. At first, Aaron (Max Minghella), the older child, seems perfectly okay. He is cheerful and happy to help his younger sister Eliza (Flora Cross), who has suddenly emerged as a spelling bee champion. Eliza, like her mother, shows little expression but manages to spell impossible words through some form of hypnotic magical concentration. Naumann becomes obsessed (as he apparently is with most things) with Eliza's spelling championships, and Aaron suddenly becomes bitter and angry towards his father, turning to a young Hindu cultist he has met, Chali (Kate Bosworth), for succor. "Bee Season" is loaded with characters rather annoying to behold and whose motives and problems are strangely unexplained (whether this is the fault of the novel or the script is unclear). The weaknesses of this film are amplified in a scene in which young Eliza, on the verge of winning the National Spelling Bee, experiences what appears to be a seizure but is apparently intended to be the outward manifestation of some kind of supernatural revelation. Ultimately, "Bee Season" is about a distinctly unpleasant dysfunctional family loaded with malarkey. Juliet Binoche, a wonderful actress, is utterly wasted in a role in which she must look blank and rarely has any chance to show emotion. Richard Gere, however, seems perfectly cast as the father so into himself and his mystical ideas that he fails to see anything of what is going on right in front of him. C (4/8/06)

"Brokeback Mountain"-I suspect that by now almost everyone interested in movies knows that "Brokeback Mountain" is about two Wyoming male ranch hands, assigned to herd sheep on Brokeback Mountain, who fall for each other while passing the lonely hours. Based on the short story by Annie Proulx, directed by the great Ang Lee, and with a script written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, this film is truly courageous in telling the unusual story of two men one would never suspect of homosexual longings. One of the things that surprised me about the film was that although Heath Ledger got so much attention and an Oscar nomination for best actor as Ennis Del Mar, it is Jake Gyllenhaal, as the more aggressive Jack Twist, who is more impressive. Gyllenhaal, it should be noted, also got an Oscar nod (strangely for best supporting actor, although he is certainly one of the leads in this film). Ledger, unfortunately, decided to play his role as a western hand as someone who could barely move his lips or show expression. At times, it is very difficult to understand what he is saying. Ledger simply looks pained throughout the film. Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, is extremely powerful as the cowboy with homosexual longings who wishes that he and Del Mar could spend their lives together. The tight-lipped Del Mar, who understands the reality of what would likely happen to two cowboys living together, is rather pathetic in not knowing what to do with his life, first marrying Alma (Michelle Williams), having two daughters, and then divorcing and facing a barren life alone. Jack Twist also falls into a loveless marriage with Lureen (Anne Hathaway), has a son, and finds himself living in the shadow of his rich father-in-law. "Brokeback Mountain" is an amazing, unusual, and painful love story. It says so much more about the humanity of its characters than most films and certainly deserved to win the Oscar for Best Picture, especially against the mediocre "Crash."

Michelle Williams deserves mention for her wonderful acting as Alma, a woman who is happy with her ranchhand husband until she sees him kissing his "old fishing buddy," Jack, at the foot of the stairs outside their home. Her distress and frustration is palpable. Anne Hathaway is somewhat miscast as the silly rich daughter of a businessman who marries Jack seemingly just to have a child. She's good, however, at expressing her disdain and lack of interest in Jack. Randy Quaid has a short but nice turn as Joe Aguirre, the man who hires Ennis and Jack and places them together on Brokeback. "Brokeback Mountain" is full of touching characters and scenes, including the one extremely powerful scene in which Ennis, at the end, goes to visit Jack's parents. While the film moves slowly and cautiously, there is a great deal to see and feel. Needless to say, it is not to be missed. A (4/7/06)

"Memoirs of a Geisha"-Directed by Rob Marshall ("Chicago"), "Memoirs of a Geisha" has a lot going for it. A cast of first-rate Asian stars, gorgeous sets and cinematography, a spectacular score by John Williams with performances by Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, and a potentially fascinating story about an aspect of foreign culture that we rarely hear about. But as good as it is, somehow it also leaves you a little empty at the end. Ziyi Zhang ("House of Flying Daggers") plays the grown-up Chiyo who, as a child from a rural village, is sold with her sister to geisha houses in the city. Somewhat rebellious against the cruelty she experiences, she ultimately becomes caught up in the world of the geisha, that specially trained breed of Japanese women who entertain men with singing, dancing, and conversation. With the aid of an ally, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), Chiyo grows into the beautiful geisha, Sayuri, in competition with the older, jealous, and nasty Hatsumomo (the elegant and wonderful actress Gong Li of "Raise The Red Lantern"). But at the heart of everything she does is Sayuri's dream of one man, the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), who, when she was still a child, inspired her to cooperate with the head of the geisha house. "Memoirs of a Geisha" is a romance and unlikely to be intended to be an authentic look at the culture of the geisha. The sincerity is tainted by the characters speaking English (with rough accents) instead of the authentic Japanese. That several of the stars, including Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li, are Chinese and not Japanese, and have rarely if ever acted in English before, contributes to the ultimate weaknesses of the overall production. Still, "Geisha" is a sumptious film and worth seeing. Just don't expect a real cultural experience. B (4/5/06)

"King Kong"-At the end of the three hours of continuous special effects known as "King Kong," my wife and I both felt as if we had just gotten off a boat that had been rocking for that period of time. Once again, we learn the truth about Director Peter Jackson ("Lord of the Rings" trilogy). He is probably one of the best special effects directors of all-time. But three hours of special effects does not a movie make. His failing is in one simple word: EXCESS. There is a basic story to "King Kong." Carl Denham (Jack Black) wants to make a jungle movie on mysterious Skull Island and essentially hijacks a group of people, including filmmakers, actors, and merchant seamen, to take him to the island and make his film. One of these is Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a pretty blonde burlesque actress he has just met and convinced to become a movie star. When they get to the island, Ann is captured and placed as a sacrifice by zombie-like natives to the giant gorilla, Kong. In their effort to save Ann, the men battle prehistoric monsters and, rather revoltingly, gigantic cockroaches and slugs, in a series of scenes that seem to go on forever. The result is that Ann is saved and Kong is chloroformed to be taken back to New York for Denham's show. That 17 men are killed in the process hardly phases Denham. Back in New York (how they manage to get him on the ship and back to NY is as unexplained in this version as it is in the original), Kong escapes and ultimately reaches his end at the top of the Empire State Building. Besides the visuals and the special effects, Jackson does one thing particularly well in "Kong," and that is demonstrating the affection that grows between the human Ann and the creature Kong. But virtually everything else in this film makes one hyperventilate from the astounding battles between Kong and prehistoric creatures, the attack of the killer bugs, and the battles in the streets of New York. There's only one reaction I can think of to the end of this film and that is utter relief that it's over. Notable in the cast are Adrien Brody as the screenwriter, Jack Driscoll, Ann's ultimate love interest; Jamie Bell as a young seaman; Thomas Kretschmann as the ship's captain; Evan Parke as Hayes, a thoughtful seaman who meets a bitter end; Colin Hanks as Preston, Denham's assistant; Kyle Chandler as Bruce Baxter, the narcissistic male star of Denham's film; and Andy Serkis ("Lord of the Rings") as both seaman Lumpy and as Kong. If you like three hours of virtually continuous special effects, you will adore "King Kong," but it you don't, all I can say is BEWARE. B- (4/1/06)

"Capote"-I can still remember the excitement when the "non-fiction novel" "In Cold Blood" was released. I read it as soon as it was off the presses and was distinctly impressed by the tale of the shocking murders of the four members of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, and Truman Capote's intense descriptions of the killers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickok. And I well remember Truman Capote, one of those significant cultural and social figures of the mid-20th Century. Now, with a truly astonishing performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the rather bizarre, brilliant, and self-centered Capote, Dan Futterman (screenwriter), Adam Kimmel (cinematographer) and Bennett Miller (director) have given us a brilliant insight into the man Capote, how "In Cold Blood" came about, and its ultimate effect on Capote's life. Philip Seymour Hoffman was made for this part and he makes it his own. But he's accompanied by the wonderful Catherine Keener as Harper Lee, Capote's friend and assistant (and ultimately author of "To Kill A Mockingbird.") After reading of the murders in the New York Times, Capote, a writer for The New Yorker, decides to do a story and takes Lee with him to Kansas. But it isn't until Capote sees the killers, and especially Perry Smith, being brought after being arrested, that his obessession with the story and with Smith really begins. The film moves slowly, deliberately and wonderfully. With gorgeous muted photography from Kimmel (who does a brief stint in the film as Richard Avedon, the great photographer), "Capote" gets us into the minds and character of the main figures. One of the most interesting performances, apart from the stars, is that of relative unknown Clifton Collins, Jr., as the soft-spoken appealing Smith who seems not quite to understand just why he did what he did. The cast is brilliant, including Chris Cooper as Alvin Dewey, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation detective who received a great deal of Capote's attention; Bruce Greenwood as Jack Dunphy (Capote's lover who wishes he would return from Kansas); and Bob Balaban as William Shawn, the strained but ultimately supportive editor of The New Yorker. This is a must see--highly recommended. A (3/31/06)

"Jarhead"-Based on the book by Anthony Swofford, "Jarhead" is an original look at military life. In this case, it's the life of a few jarheads, or marines, during Desert Shield and, later, Desert Storm, in the early 1990s. Jake Gyllenhaal is Swofford, a man who soon realizes that joining the marines may have been a mistake. But there he is, nonetheless, dealing with the daily misery of boot camp, training, and the slow effects of the insanity of military life as he slowly turns into a Marine Corp sniper. And then, suddenly, he and his cohorts are swept off to the Gulf to prepare for a possible battle against Iraq over its invasion of Kuwait. The film and, I suspect, the author Swofford, avoids political commentary. At one point, when one of the marines makes a political comment about why they are in the middle east (oil), Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) replies: "Fuck politics. We're here. All the rest is bullshit." But while the film may not be a comment on the pros and cons of Desert Storm, it certainly is a comment on the miserable life of the poor souls who found themselves in the desert going nuts while doing almost nothing for months on end except preparing for the unknown, constantly contemplating hydration, and thinking of their women back home who, they suspected, were abandoning them for available men. "Jarhead" has a cinematic look that pretty much gives you a real feel of what vision must have been like in the blazing sun of the Gulf desert. Jake Gyllenhaal is at his best as Swofford, an ordinary man, like most of his platoon, placed in an extraordinary situation and being pushed along by events. Peter Sarsgaard is excellent as Swofford's co-sniper, Troy. Jamie Foxx is appealing as Staff Sgt. Sykes, a tough but more human Marine sergeant than is usually portrayed in films. A- (3/25/06)

"The Squid and the Whale"-Writer/director Noah Baumbach, apparently writing semi-autobiographically, here tells the story of a dysfunctional family in Brooklyn in 1986, and this one is memorable. Loaded with great characters and a wonderful cast "The Squid and the Whale" is one of the finest portrayals of real life I've seen in a long time. Jeff Daniels, doing the best acting of his career, is Bernard Berkman, a teacher and fading novelist, who is, as the film opens, clearly hostile to his wife Joan (Laura Linney), an up-and-coming writer whose work is showing up in "The New Yorker." When the marriage finally fails, their two sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), the older, and the younger, Frank (Owen Kline), are literally caught in the middle, having to jump back and forth between their mother's lovely Park Slope brownstone and their father's somewhat needy home in a lesser neighborhood not far away. Berkman is an intellectual but also a self-centered jerk. Poor Walt has had no other hero than his father and emulates his ways and thoughts almost instinctively. Frank is also suffering but seems more together in dealing with the craziness of his parents' breakup. "The Squid and the Whale," with enough touches of humor to match the misery, beautifully portrays what can happen in a family with equally strong parents who don't always realize the errors of their ways or that they can harm their children. Laura Linney, one of the finest actresses around today, is simply magnificent as the mother who must deal with the needs of her two sons as well as her own failings. Owen Kline (son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) is adorable and perfect as young Frank. Others of note in this great cast are Anna Paquin as Lilli, a young flirt from Berkman's class who comes to live in his home; William Baldwin as Ivan, the charming tennis pro who has an affair with Joan post-marriage; and Halley Feiffer as Sophie, a lovely young woman who really doesn't need poor Walt as a boyfriend., "The Squid and the Whale" could be thought of as depressing. But it is so well done and effective in its portrayal of a family in pain that it is ultimately an uplifting and extremely satisfying experience. Don't miss this one. A (3/24/06)

"Good Night, and Good Luck."-Director/star George Clooney not only has made a wonderful film, he has also provided Americans with an important public service: reminding them of how vital it is to our democracy to have an independent and functioning media that isn't afraid to question the liars and demagogues who unfortunately are often elected to high office in this country. "Good Night, and Good Luck.," filmed beautifully and crisply in black and white, seems almost like a documentary about the courage displayed by CBS's Edward R. Murrow (David Straitharn) and his producer, Friendly (Clooney), in exposing the anti-Communist terror and intimidation of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. With a delightful "greek chorus" in the background, in the form of jazz singer Dianne Reeves, we see how the chain-smoking Murrow, a very serious journalist with great integrity, and Friendly, fought the instinctive desires of CBS corporate (William Paley, played by Frank Langella) to avoid annoying Alcoa, Murrow's "See It Now" sponsor. I have only two complaints about this film. One, as good as it is, it doesn't completely get across the nightmarish fear that fell over America during the period of "McCarthyism," and, two, it's not long enough at 90 minutes. Clooney could have added more to make it even clearer to viewers that McCarthy and his supporters, including Attorney Roy Cohn, were ruining many innocent and decent lives with outrageous charges and innuendos. The memorable scene in which Attorney Joseph Welch, representing the US Army during the Army-McCarthy hearings, asks McCarthy "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" loses a great deal of its impact by the absence of further exploration of the terrible effect that McCarthy had on the country.

David Straitharn is simply brilliant as Murrow. He literally morphs into the look, sound and feel of the man. Others worth noting in the cast are Robert Downey, Jr., and Patricia Clarkson as Joe and Shirley Wershba, a couple hiding their marital status in the CBS newsroom; Ray Wise as the ill-fated Don Hollenbeck; Jeff Daniels as CBS newsroom exec Sig Mickelson; and Glenn Morshower ("24") as an overbearing colonel trying to stop Friendly and Murrow in their tracks. This is an important film and is highly recommended. A (3/18/06)

"A History of Violence"-Violent films are a dime-a-dozen in American movie theaters and this film is loaded with violence. So what makes this one different? Well, it's an original take on the entire subject and originality goes a long way, especially with a cast as talented as this one. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a quiet midwestern family man who runs a local restaurant, but his life is turned upside down when two men walk in the door and threaten the lives of all present. Stall, almost with utter ease, kills both men and becomes a hero locally and on national television. The result is that shortly thereafter a one-eyed east coast hood, Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), arrives with a couple of henchmen and informs Stall that he knows that he is really Joey Cusack of Philadelphia, a killer who took out Fogarty's eye and that he wants revenge. The question facing Stall and his family is whether he is really the simple, quiet Tom Stall or the ruthless Joey Cusack. "A History of Violence" becomes an analysis of varying emotions, including the effects of the threat on Stall's wife (Maria Bello), son Jack (Ashton Holmes), and young daughter. Directed by David Cronenberg (usually known for horror flicks such as "The Fly"), "A History of Violence" exposes the raw emotions and sexuality that occurs when people are threatened with serious life turmoil. The cast is first rate. Mortensen is perfect as the tight-lipped Stall. Maria Bello ("The Cooler") is ideal and real as Edie Stall, whose life has been turned upside down by the violent incidents this film describes. Ed Harris is ultimately sinister as the smooth-talking nightmare who has entered the lives of the Stall family. Ashton Holmes, a newcomer, provides the right level of fear and anger as the son who is the subject of a bully at school and wants his own vengeance. William Hurt, playing a role unlike almost anything he's ever done, is stunning as an insecure but ruthless underworld figure. B+ (3/17/06)

"The Ice Harvest"-Directed by Harold Ramis (who starred in "Ghostbusters") and written in part by Richard Russo (better known for novels-turned-films such as "Empire Falls" and "Nobody's Fool"), "The Ice Harvest" is a black comedy that occurs during a Wichita, KS, ice storm on Christmas eve. Centered around lawyer Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) who thinks up a way to steal a fortune from his mob boss, and a strip-club owner, Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton), who encourages Arglist to go through with the theft, "The Ice Harvest" follows Charlie around as he waits for the opportunity to escape from Wichita with Vic (who has insisted on taking the money for safekeeping). Charlie claims he knows how to commit a perfect crime, but it's obvious that he never listened to the weather report. Following the theft, we see Charlie live through a night of twisted events in which he deals with the icy road conditions; the angst of a friend (Oliver Platt) who is now unhappily married to Charlie's cold ex-wife; the fear of being sought-after by mob hoods and his angry boss (Randy Quaid); and flirting with the gorgeous strip-club operator, Renata (Connie Nielsen) who appears to be throwing herself at him. The rather slow-moving film has its moments, but ultimately breaks down at the end when just too much goes wrong after Charlie begins to suspect that Vic doesn't intend to share. John Cusack provides his standard professional performance, unfortunately mostly poker-faced, and Billy Bob Thornton is, well, Billy Bob Thornton, bringing back Christmas memories of "Bad Santa" (although this film has a decidedly better script--but that's not really saying much). Connie Nielsen is beautiful as Renata but it's always obvious why, despite her beauty, she is still relatively unknown. Randy Quaid is funny as the angry mob boss bent on getting back his money and killing Charlie. Finally, Oliver Platt is perfect as Charlie's depressed drinking pal who never knows when to keep his mouth shut. Lots of potentially good elements for a black comedy, but ultimately it's not much more than a big ho-hum. C+ (3/11/06)

"Domino"-Domino Harvey (Keira Knightley), who died not long after this film was finished, was the daughter of the late Laurence Harvey, star of "The Manchurian Candidate." But she didn't turn out like a typical star offspring. Instead of being a 90210-type, she hardened, picked up a shotgun, and started chasing wanted criminals as a bounty hunter. "Domino" is a fictionalized tale based loosely on Domino's life and provides us with a cartoonish world of bailbondsmen, bounty hunter thugs, and hardened criminals. Despite being almost ripped off by a lecturing bailbondsman, Claremont Williams (Delroy Lindo), Domino joins his questionable gang which includes Ed Mosley (Mickey Rourke, looking like a living version of Marv, the character he played in the even more cartoonish "Sin City") and Choco (Edgar Ramirez). The film tells a rather comic tale of an attempt to raise money for an operation for the granddaughter of one of Williams' cohorts, Lateesha Rodriguez (Mo'Nique, who has an hysterical ethnic re-naming scene as a participant on Jerry Springer) by crosses and doublecrosses involving an armed robbery (what else?). That the activities of the bounty hunters are being filmed by a TV crew, including two actual "90210" stars as hosts, turns the whole escapade into one of manic hysteria. Keira Knightley has undergone one of the most incredible role transformations from the 18th Century heroine of "Pride and Prejudice" to a gun-toting tough talking 21st Century chick, and does it sublimely well. "Domino" is rough around the edges but provides some good laughs along the way. B (3/10/06)

"Rent"-The Broadway play won all types of awards and yet every time I saw or heard a scene from the musical I was not impressed. So, at last, here was my opportunity to see what the shouting was about. And now I can say that while it's not great, it's not terrible either. "Rent" is the tale of a group of New Yorkers living on Avenue A in 1989. The story follows them for approximately one year and thus the main theme song, "525,650 Minutes." Based very loosely on "La Boheme," they're a group of "bohemians?" Most owe rent, some are sick with AIDS. The diverse group of characters are friends and, through caring and being cared for, form the essence of a family. At the heart of the story is Mark (Anthony Rapp) who shares a loft with guitar-playing Roger (Adam Pascal), who seems numbed by life. Mark, a would-be filmmaker who walks around filming with his seemingly ancient wind-up camera, has lost his lover, performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel) to an attorney, Joanne (Traci Thomas). Roger, meanwhile, is attracted to his AIDS-stricken stripper neighbor Mimi (Rosario Dawson). Among their dear friends are Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) and his amazing drag queen lover Angel (a bravura performance by Wilson Jermaine Heredia), also suffering from AIDS. Causing problems for all is Benjamin (Taye Diggs), a former member of the group who married up and is now the landlord. "Rent," of course, is a "rock opera" and the recitative tends to be annoying. Portions of the score are difficult to listen to, but every once in awhile a catchy number comes along like "La Vie Boheme," "The Maureen Tango," or "Santa Fe." Parts of the script and some of the lyrics are laughable and the film contains some sloppy techniques (in one scene on a subway, a woman sits in a corner seat, then is gone, and then is magically back again--continuity, where art thou?). "Rent" has its virtues, even if they are limited. C+ (3/4/06)

"Pride and Prejudice"-I first fell for Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet when I saw the lovely Elizabeth Garvie play the part in a British TV serial version in the early 1980s. Then there was the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth TV extended version in 1995, followed by the "Bollywood" version of "Bride and Prejudice" in 2004. I didn't think I could take another viewing, but I was wrong. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach somehow distilled a rather complex tale by editing down some of the more unpleasant aspects of the story and turning it into a truly magnificent early 19th century two hour film about romance and the ties of family. Gorgeously filmed, and loaded with wonderful performances, this version of "Pride and Prejudice" presents a new take on the characters of Lizzie Bennet (Keira Knightley) and Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen). Lizzie is younger with more pizzazz and Darcy seems more real as he changes from the seemingly pompous fool who appears at a local dance to the caring and lovestruck gentleman with whom Lizzie ultimately falls in love. "Pride and Prejudice" is simply chock full of delicious characters and performances, including Brenda Blethyn as the somewhat airheaded matron of the Bennet clan intent on marrying off her five daughters, Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennet who knows Lizzie's worth, the gorgeous Rosamund Pike ("Die Another Day") as older sister Jane Bennet whose romance with Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) is initially interrupted by the mistaken Darcy. Jena Malone is delightful as the younger sister Lydia, obsessed with the local military men, and who runs off with Mr. Wickham (Rupert Friend), a role that is far more significant in the original Austen, but toned down in this smaller version. The great Judi Dench does another fabulous and nasty turn as Lady Catherine de Bourg. She is astoundingly overbearing in the scene in which she attempts to intimidate Lizzie to stay out of Darcy's life. Tom Hollander is delightful as the stiff and silly Mr. Collins, the Bennet cousin who will inherit the Bennet estate and turn out the Bennet women if Mr. Bennet should die. "Pride and Prejudice" is a joy to watch. Highly recommended. A (3/3/06)

"Walk the Line"-One of my favorite genres of motion pictures is the biopic about entertainers and especially musical ones and this is one of the best. I've been following Johnny Cash since the days of early rock and roll in the early 1950s and this wonderful film shows us just how Johnny Cash came out of cotton field roots in Arkansas and turned into a superstar despite various trials and travails. Echoing themes from last year's "Ray," Cash had to deal with the pain of losing a loved brother with accompanying deep feelings of pain and guilt imposed by his steely father; an early marriage and children; the attraction to another; and ultimately the descent into substance abuse. Joaquin Phoenix literally becomes Johnny Cash, even to the point of singing the songs himself. Likewise, Reese Witherspoon, who also does her own singing, finds the role of a lifetime as June Carter, the comic country singer with a perky personality who at first resists Cash, especially as he is married with children, and finds himself more and more reliant on drugs and alcohol, but ultimately turns into his savior. In addition to the brilliant performances of Phoenix and Witherspoon, the cast is loaded with excellent performances by Ginnifer Goodwin as Vivian, Cash's first and long-suffering wife (and mother of Rosanne and three others), Robert Patrick as the father who never saw good in his son, Waylon Payne as Jerry Lee Lewis, and Sandra Ellis Lafferty as Maybelle Carter, June's mother. "Walk the Line" is beautifully filmed and recorded. Director James Mangold deserved an Oscar nomination. A (3/2/06)

"North Country"-Based on the true events of a sexual harassment trial involving a mine in the northern Minnesota Mesabi Range, "North Country" is a fictionalized version involving a young woman miner, Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron). Having left her abusive husband and taking her two kids with her, Josey, who unfairly has a reputation for loose morals, decides to go to work in the local mine where her father (Richard Jenkins) has worked for many years. It doesn't take long until she discovers that the men in the mine don't want women working there and will make it as miserable as possible for them via harsh forms of sexual harassment. "North Country," directed by Niki Caro ("Whale Rider"), is beautifully filmed and acted, if not a little overbearing on the stereotypical clichés of man vs. woman. The men in the mine are portrayed as almost unanimously vicious whereas reports of the real case (which actually took years to settle), indicate that there were only a few transgressors among the men working in the mine. The mine officials and their female lawyer also seem slightly cartoonish in their presentation as evil characters. Charlize Theron proves once again that a beautiful woman can act and play a normal human being. She transforms herself into the crusading mother who wants to work in these miserable conditions so she can support her children. The supporting cast is outstanding, including Sissy Spacek as her husband-dominated but understanding mother; Woody Harrelson as a lawyer friend who ultimately agrees to take her case; Frances McDormand as Glory, a truck driver at the mine who suffers miserable health but still rises to the occasion to support Josey; Sean Bean as Glory's husband Kyle, who retired from the mine after a back injury; and Xander Berekeley ("24") as Josey's miserable chauvinistic supervisor at the mine. Richard Jenkins ("Six Feet Under") is powerful as Josey's father, a man who has misunderstood and failed to appreciate his daughter's qualities, but ultimately rises to the occasion when forced, by his wife, to appreciate what women do for men. "North Country" is full of those film techniques that push our buttons about the miserable treatment of human beings by others, but despite some of these clichés, the film is powerful because of its theme, its visual and audio qualities, and its outstanding cast. Both Theron and McDormand have deservedly been nominated for Oscars. A- (2/25/06)

"Proof"-Taken from a successful Broadway play of the same name, "Proof" feels like it during many scenes. The four main characters often talk to each other in the tone of a dramatic stage play rather than a fluid film script. They are Robert (Anthony Hopkins), a brilliant mathematician from Chicago, whose daughter Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) has cared for him in the last years of a severe mental illness; Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), a student of Robert's who haunts the house after Robert's death searching his papers for any previously unknown mathematical proofs; and Claire (Hope Davis), Catherine's sister, who arrives from her home in New York to attend the funeral and attempt to take her sibling, whom she believes is ill like her father, back to NY. Catherine and Claire are a real pair. Catherine is depressed and socially hostile following her father's death, and Claire is dense and thoughtless in relating to Catherine and those around her. The heart of the film ultimately is intended to be the question of whether a significant proof discovered in Robert's desk is that of Robert or of Catherine, who claims it as her own. We learn something of the truth during flashbacks, but ultimately this theme is overwhelmed by the silliness and pettiness of the two sisters. Catherine's hostility is unexplained and also unexplained is her easy surrender to a sister she obviously does not like. Throw in a sister who lacks feelings and is more interested in her TV shows than in higher learning, plus Hal who isn't sure whether he's coming or going, and you have a strange mix. Anthony Hopkins, as usual, seems strong as Robert, but it's pretty much the same Anthony Hopkins we see in virtually every film. Nuance is not one of his specialties. "Proof" undoubtedly was stronger on a stage because that's where it belonged. B- (2/24/06)

"Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit"-The original short claymation films of Nick Park about Wallace, the eccentric British inventor who loves cheese, and his intelligent dog, Gromit, are brilliant and wonderful to see. Now, years later, Park has presented us with a more sophisticated full-length animated film starring Wallace and Gromit. This time Wallace and Gromit run a pest (rabbit) control company aimed at protecting the astoundingly large vegetables being grown in their neighborhood for Lady Tottington's annual vegetable contest. We see all of Wallace's amazing inventions, including one that appears to have created a Frankensteinian monster, a large "were-rabbit" who devours virtually everything in site. This animated film is fun to watch, even if a little too long. Wallace and Gromit probably are best seen in short spurts as they were in films like "The Wrong Trousers." But nevertheless the film contains some delightful characters, including the red-haired Lady Tottington or Tottie (voiced by Helena Bonham-Carter), the toupeed Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes) (Wallace's rival for Tottie's affections); and the somewhat dense Reverend Hedges (Nicholas Smith). Peter Sallis is the voice of Wallace, who is a little too smart for his own good and is awfully lucky to have the incredibly smart dog Gromit (whose eyebrows astoundingly establish virtually every necessary thought and emotion). B+ (2/18/06)

"Nine Lives"-I'm sure most people would enjoy becoming a "fly on the wall" and dropping in to other people's lives to see what's going on, even if only for a few minutes. Director/writer Rodrigo Garcîa has given us about 10 minutes in the lives of nine women who are experiencing angst in their relationships, whether with spouses, family, or others involved in their lives. With some overlapping of characters, among others, we see nine stories, including a woman (Elpidia Carillo) in prison frustrated by the refusal of prison authorities to allow her to communicate with her young daughter; an angry woman (Kathy Baker) with breast cancer awaiting surgery; a nurse (Lisa Gay Hamilton) angrily estranged from her father but contemplating talking to him; a pregnant woman (Robin Wright Penn) who runs into an old lover (Jason Isaacs) at a supermarket with emotional consequences; and a woman (Amy Brenneman) at the funeral of her former husband's suicidal wife. Each vignette is intriguing but disappears just as we begin to wonder what is going to happen. In an interview on the DVD, director Garcîa admits that he wrote the stories to fit the basic idea of nine vignettes and it shows. We want to care about these people, but we never get enough to allow us reason to care. The film contains sharp-edged performances from those noted and others, including Sissy Spacek, Holly Hunter, Glenn Close, Molly Parker, Joe Mantegna and Ian McShane. B (2/17/06)

"Elizabethtown"-Director/writer Cameron Crowe ("Almost Famous" and "Jerry Maguire") has now gone wrong two pictures in a row. His last, "Vanilla Sky," was hardly worth viewing. "Elizabethtown" is a little more appealing, but is seriously flawed. Orlando Bloom plays Oregonian Drew Baylor, a creative guy at a shoe company who has created a disaster of a shoe and cost his company almost a billion dollars. Needless to say, he's fired by his boss (Alec Baldwin) and, having lost his job and his girlfriend (Jessica Biel) (who works at the company), he contemplates suicide. But fate steps in and he gets a call from his sister (Judy Greer), who tells him his father has died in his native Elizabethtown, KY, and he must go and deal with the body, the funeral plans, and the rest of his father's family and friends. Virtually sleepwalking through the film, Drew flies to Kentucky on a red eye and meets what can only be called his "fairy godmother," Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst), a flight attendant who has nothing more to do than sit, flirt, and give advice to poor Drew. The rest of the film takes Drew to Louisville and Elizabethtown where he meets a whole range of characters, but seems always to find Claire by his side giving advice. "Elizabethtown" has a decent theme of considering just what is important in life: a young man's rise from suicidal thoughts to life by the experiences he has and the people he meets. But the film is often dull at points, and contains some really poor segues. Ultimately, it's a hodgepodge of images, almost as if the film were thought up and created in separate sections. One ends, another begins and they don't seem to connect. Orlando Bloom is often expressionless in the film. I guess he missed his usual horse, armor, and arrows. Kirsten Dunst, an actress I usually like, is just too chirpy as the all-knowing everpresent Claire. One of the best scenes in the film is performed by Susan Sarandon as Drew's mother who shows pathos and humor at a memorial for her late husband. C (2/10/06)

"The Aristocrats"-There's no secret about the joke that is the centerpiece of this film. It's simple, although there are a million variations. A family walks into a talent agent's office and asks to do their act for him. The agent says to go ahead. The family proceeds to engage in virtually every sexual and scatalogical act imaginable, ranging from incest to pure degradation (and all described in detail by the joke teller). When the act finishes, the agent looks stunned and asks the name of the act. They reply "We're called the Aristocrats." Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) and Paul Provenza interviewed dozens of comedians and people connected to comedians about this joke. The film provides everything from straight versions of the joke, philosophy about the joke, and variations, some of the latter being the funniest things in the film. But ultimately "The Aristocrats" presents the viewer with a very revealing vision of comics who, rather strangely, think that overkill on sex and bodily functions is an inherently funny thing, but even some of them wonder why and almost looked embarrassed. One of the funniest tellings of the joke in the film occurs when Gilbert Gottfried is seen shaking up a Friars Club roast three weeks after 9/11, making everybody (well almost everybody) laugh again. The almost pained look on the face of Hugh Hefner, of all people, sitting next to the lectern where Gottfriend is speaking, is priceless. Among the many comics in the film are Jason Alexander, George Carlin, Whoopie Goldberg, Bob Saget (telling possibly the filthiest version), Sarah Silverman (hysterically lowkey and serious about the whole thing), Jon Stewart, Martin Mull, Eric Idle, Robin Williams, and Bill Maher. "The Aristocrats" was unrated and, as a result of this and its subject matter, I have concluded that it should be left Ungraded (2/5/06)

"The Legend of Zorro"-Pure fluff but fun, "The Legend of Zorro" is a combination of Zorro, James Bond, and The Incredibles. Alejandro (Antonio Banderas, as the dashing hero Zorro has just helped California become a state by guaranteeing that the votes are counted. He then has a tiff with his gorgeous wife, Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and finds himself on the receiving end of divorce papers. Three months later, he discovers that Elena is in a relationship with Count Armand (Rufus Sewell), a wealthy and powerful European. Seething with anger, Alejandro lets himself get drunk but in the process discovers a sinister plot that revitalizes the Zorro within him. "The Legend of Zorro" has in it the tale of a very human superhero (and he is that as he is shown running at astounding speeds, leaping beyond the capacity of any normal human, and almost flying); the James Bondian story of a megalomaniac, planning dastardly doings on a very large scale who even has an Oddjob-like right-hand man to Armand's "Goldfinger"; and the presence of an Incredibles-like son of the superhero, Joaquin (Adrian Alonso), who, despite the fact that he doesn't know his father is Zorro, demonstrates Zorro-like abilities. Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones provide the swordplay and good looks to make one admire both. Nick Chinlund is quite nasty as one of Armand's henchmen. If you like a little adventure and pretty scenery without a hint of seriousness, check this out for a couple of hours of fun. B (2/4/06)

"Flightplan"-Jodie Foster is Kyle, an airplane engineer living in Berlin whose husband has just died after a fall from a roof. She is seen walking the streets with her husband after his death, thus raising questions about her sanity. Kyle then takes her 6-year old daughter Julia home, along with her husband's coffin, on a very large two tiered jumbo jet. While on the plane, Kyle and Julia stretch out on empty seats and, when Kyle awakens, Julia is gone and can't be found. The problem? No one saw or can remember seeing Julia, the boarding list doesn't include her, and the hospital at which Kyle's husband died reports that Julia died as well. Kyle is thus seen as a madwoman disrupting the plane searching for a non-existent daughter. The problem with this film is that we know that it is not likely to be about a woman's descent into madness. The ultimate end is obvious and the machinations of at least the first half of the film are such that I, at least, had the desire to fast forward to get to the climax. I didn't, however, and finally got to the "thriller" portion of the film. But this was relatively predictable minor stuff and it's somewhat sad to see a talented actress like Jodie Foster sticking to films of this genre (compare "Panic Room"). Others in the cast are Sean Bean as an annoyed pilot, Peter Sarsgaard as an air marshal, and Greta Scacchi as a well-meaning therapist/passenger who wants to help poor deluded Kyle. C (2/3/06)

"Oliver Twist"-This umpteenth version of the Dickens classic, directed by Roman Polanski, falls on its face. On the DVD, Polanski says that he didn't know what to do after "The Pianist," but wanted to make a film for his children. And this is it? "Oliver Twist" is a tough story about an orphan in 19th Century England who is mistreated by virtually all, and falls into the hands of the ultimate fence, Fagin (Ben Kingsley), and his very nasty colleague, Bill Sikes (Jamie Foreman). But even the story of Oliver Twist has some charm. Well, there's none in this film. Polanski's version plays more like an American thriller than a Dickens masterpiece. Characters are thrown at us, not developed. Young Barney Clark as Oliver, as cute as he is, fails to provide any appeal. It's almost as if he is a cipher to whom things are happening. Ben Kingsley is almost unrecognizable as Fagin, but it's a comic book Fagin rather than the pitiable soul that Dickens portrayed in his novel. Ultimately, the film is not really for children. It's likely to give them nightmares. I liked Leanne Rowe as the good-hearted but ill-fated Nancy, Edward Hardwicke (Dr. Watson in the BBC's "Sherlock Holmes") as Mr. Brownlow, the man who ultimately gives Oliver a home, and Harry Eden as the Artful Dodger. If you really want to see "Oliver Twist," I'd recommend the 1948 David Lean version with Alec Guinness as Fagin and Robert Newton as Bill Sikes. C+ (1/28/06)

"Junebug"-Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) is a fairly sophisticated art gallery operator in Chicago who one day spies the handsome George (Alessandro Nivola) in her gallery and immediately falls in love. A week later they're married. When Madeleine decides to check out the work of an "outside" artist in North Carolina, she and George travel together as the "outsider" lives near George's family and a family visit is overdue. "Junebug" is all about culture clash and especially about the state of mind of those in the South, and North Carolina in particular (the roots of the writer, Angus Maclachlan). Madeleine, born in Japan and raised in Africa, tries to fit in, but it's almost embarrassing to watch her touchy-feely affection for people she has never met before, especially when most greet her with cold dispassion or misunderstanding. On the other hand, Ashley (Amy Adams), the red-headed pregnant wife of George's brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie), can't wait to meet Madeleine and make her into her "best friend." Madeleine finds herself in the middle of a rather nasty family situation, especially with Johnny tightlipped and angry about his brother. "Junebug" has lots of potential and a magnificent performance by Amy Adams as the bubbling and loving young pregnant woman whose husband is incapable of showing any affection during her greatest time of need. However, it also has weaknesses that undermine its effectiveness. Madeleine is too affectionate, whether it's genuine or not, with people she has never met before. The idea that someone as worldly as Madeleine would marry a guy after one week is a little too much to accept. George's father is played as tightlipped and subdued as possible and this is understandable when we see the domination of his rather nasty wife, Peg, George's mother, played by Celia Weston. Finally, George, having stayed away from his family for three years, suddenly becomes a family man when back home, but still shows more feeling for his sister-in-law than for his own flesh and blood. If Angus Machlachlan intended a favorable view of southern life, he erred. The lack of diversity in the local culture (lots of white people and churches) is broken only by the bizarre sexual ramblings of the "outside" artist, David Wark, played beautifully by Frank Hoyt Taylor. This indie film is unusual enough and Amy Adams' performance magnificent enough to recommend a viewing. But it could have been a lot better. B+ (1/27/06)

"2046"-From director Wong Kar Wai ("In the Mood for Love"), "2046" is an experience. Is it science fiction set in the future? Is it the story of a man's romantic failures set in the 1960s? Well, it's something of both. The cinematography, the score, and the acting are all superb. Having said that, I must note that the plot is a little murky and the timeline confusing, and this can ultimately be a put-off. Following up on "In the Mood for Love," "2046" stars Tony Leung as Chow, the same character who appeared in the other film, and who has significant but fading memories of Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung), the woman he lost in the earlier film. Chow is now living in Hong Kong and "2046" portrays his relationships with a group of other women, including another Su Li Zhen (Gong Li); his landlord's daughter, Wang Jing Wen (Faye Wong), who pines for her lost Japanese boyfriend; and Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), a woman who initially puts him off but finally falls madly in love with him. At the same time, we see another Chow riding a train in the future trying to escape from the year 2046, and surrounded by beautiful androids. That Chow occupies Room 2047 in the hotel where he lives, right next to Room 2046, is symbolically significant. The film, however, contains too many titles indicating "one hour later," "ten hours later" or even "100 hours later," especially when events happen and then repeat in slightly different versions (are they memories?). "2046" is ultimately like looking at a beautiful work of art even if it's not easy to figure out just what's going on. (In Cantonese, Japanese, and Mandarin with English subtitles). B+ (1/21/06)

"The Chumscrubber"-Considering the cast, I'm surprised this black comedy did not get much attention when in release. The plot is simple. Jamie Bell ("Billy Elliot") is Dean Stiffle, a teen living in a dull, typical, ultra-suburban California development, who walks past the adults attending a party at the home of his neighbor, Mrs. Johnson (Glenn Close), enters the cottage occupied by her son, his friend, and finds him hanging from the rafters. Instead of telling anyone, he simply walks out in a stupor and returns home to deal with his utterly clueless parents, Dr. Bill (William Fichtner), who is obsessed with his celebrity upon writing a self-help book, and Mrs. Stiffle (Allison Janney), who is totally into cooking and distributing health pills. But some of Dean's schoolmates are interested in other kinds of pills and kidnap a young boy whom they think is Dean's brother Charley (Rory Culkin). Even when they learn that they actually have Charley Bratley (Thomas Curtis), son of the local policeman (John Heard), they inform Dean that they will kill the boy unless he hands over drugs stored in the cottage of his late friend. But this film is not really about the plot to get the drugs so much as it is about almost total miscommunication between adults and their teen children. Every adult in the community is portrayed as a dolt, utterly oblivious to their kids and what they are doing. When the kidnappers Billy (Justin Chatwin), Crystal (Camilla Belle), and Lee (Lou Taylor Pucci), are totally honest with their parents ("We kidnapped this kid and are holding him for ransom"--you get the point), the parents respond, Stepford-style, with "That's nice, dear." Ultimately, "The Chumscrubber" (a symbolic figure in a computer game) fails because it goes over the edge into portraying almost all of the adults as totally oblivious and insane. For example, Charley Bratley's mother, Terri Bratley (Rita Wilson), divorced from her police officer ex-husband, is so obsessed with her upcoming marriage to the mayor (Ralph Fiennes) (who is also in a world of his own), that she doesn't notice for two days that Charley is missing. Jamie Bell, sans British accent, is wonderful as the decent pill-popping Dean, who simply wants to be left alone in response to the nutty environment in which he lives. Ralph Fiennes is, as always, excellent, as the spaced-out mayor. Others of note are Carrie-Ann Moss (the "Matrix" films) as a very sexy but oblivious mother, and Jason Isaacs (of the "Harry Potter" films) and Caroline Goodall as another set of "Stepford" parents. "The Chumscrubber" may not succeed but it is earnest and worth a look as a social commentary. B (1/20/06)

"Hustle & Flow"-DJay (Terrence Howard) is a Memphis pimp who spends most of his time driving around his blonde "ho" Nola (Taryn Manning), looking for tricks. But DJay is no ordinary pimp. While waiting for tricks to show up, he philosophizes to a somewhat stupefied Nola. Back home, DJay must not only care for Nola but also Shug (Taraji P. Henson), pregnant with his child, and deal with the anger and frustrations of Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) and her crying infant. DJay's interest in music is reignited one day when he's given a small electronic keyboard and, upon meeting an old schoolmate, Key (Anthony Anderson), who is knowledgeable about sound recording, the idea of his becoming a rapper emerges. But what really gets DJay inspired is the information he gets from a friendly bar owner (Isaac Hayes), that Skinny Black (Ludacris), a local rapper who made good, is coming for a visit. Written and directed by Craig Brewer and produced by, among others, John Singleton ("Boyz n the Hood"), "Hustle & Flow" is one of the finest inner city films in many a year. It's loaded with incredible performances. Terrence Howard ("Crash") is utterly and breathtakingly transformed into a pimp with a dream. But that's not all. Anthony Anderson is amazing as Key, who has to weigh his desire for success through DJay's off-color and harsh rap sounds versus the middle-class ways of his wife, Yevette (Elise Neal). Taraji P. Henson also does a wonderful turn as the sweet, somewhat helpless, and pregnant Shug who suddenly finds herself inspired when invited to join in on DJay's demo rap song. Meanwhile, Paula Jai Parker provides a touch of inner city anger to Lexus, a stripper who ultimately pushes DJay too far. And if that wasn't enough, possibly the most memorable performance is that of D.J. Qualls as Shelby, the white keyboard player whose self-confident entry into DJay's home produces one of the funniest bits of dialogue (between DJay and Key) heard in a long time. This is one of those films that I would recommend putting on your "must see" list but remember that it is surely for adults only. A (1/14/06)

"The Constant Gardener"-From John LeCarré's novel, "The Constant Gardener" is a compelling, taut, and beautifully filmed and acted thriller with a genuine message about the ultra-cynical state of modern business and politics. Ralph Fiennes is brilliant as Justin Quayle. a low level British diplomat in Africa who initially seems more concerned with his flowers than with the world around him. But he starts to seethe with anger and some jealousy when his activist wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), whom he thinks may have been having an affair, is killed while on a trip with a doctor colleague. Flashbacks provide us with the background of the development of the relationship between Quayle and Tessa, a woman who is unafraid to question and embarrass authority about significant issues. Realizing that his wife, whose activities centered around the medical treatment of local poor Africans riddled with AIDS and TB, may have been onto something while investigating pharmaceutical companies who apparently were using the locals as guinea pigs for their new drugs and suspecting that her death was related, Quayle begins his own investigation under threat that what happened to his wife can happen to him. The director of this film is Fernando Meirelles, the director of the great Brazilian film "City of God," and it is easy to see what motivated Meirelles to make this more mainstream film but one with a theme very closely akin to that of "City of God." "The Constant Gardener" proves that "City of God" was no accident. Meirelles once again demonstrates his tremendous talent for outstanding, unusual, and beautiful films about social issues. He is a director to be watched very closely in the future. Not only is Fiennes brilliant in his subtle, low-key performance, but the performances of Rachel Weisz as the fearless Tessa and Danny Huston as Sandy Woodrow, another British official involved in the life of the Quayles, are not to be missed. Also to be watched closely are Bill Nighy as a somewhat creepy high British official, Hubert Koundé as Arnold, Tessa's doctor colleague, and Pete Postlethwaite, a cynical doctor who gives Quayle some important answers. Finally, "The Constant Gardener" is magnificent to watch as a result of the incredible cinematography of César Charlone. Run, don't walk, to see this film. A (1/13/06)

"Red Eye"-Directed by horror maven Wes Craven, "Red Eye" isn't quite in the same league with his other films. In fact, surprisingly it's fairly run-of-the-mill. A beautiful young lady (Rachel McAdams) who also happens to be a Miami hotel exec, having just attended her grandmother's funeral, gets on a late-night plane to Miami and finds herself seated next to a seemingly charming young man (Cillian Murphy) she met in the terminal. But it doesn't take long for Lisa, the young lady, to discover, that Jackson Rippner (get it?), the young man, is not what he seemed. Rippner is a bad guy who has been tracking Lisa so that he can use her to move an important official and his family from his regular room in Lisa's Miami hotel to another so that he can be targeted for death. After a few scenes of Rippner terrorizing Lisa aboard the plane, the film deterioriates into a standard and almost ho-hum chase film. Don't bother. C (1/13/06)

"Broken Flowers"-Jim Jarmusch, one of America's most original filmmakers, has finally given us a totally coherent film and he's loaded it with some of the best actors in the business who simply excel in the exotic roles they are given. Don Johnston (Bill Murray), called "Don Juan" by his neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright) and whose name frequently brings laughs when people think he has said "Don Johnson," is a somewhat dour retired successful computer exec who sits in his fairly tasteless home staring at the TV set while his current girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) walks out. At the same time, Don receives a pink anonymous letter informing him that 20 years earlier he impregnated a girlfriend and now has a 19-year-old son who is looking for him. Winston, who is an amateur sleuth, encourages Don to check out the ex-girlfriends of 20 years earlier and sets up a road trip, complete with plane, auto, and hotel reservations and maps. Although Don continuously says he's not interested, he leaves and heads out to visit his former girlfriends played respectively by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton. What makes "Broken Flowers" astonishing is Jarmusch's insight into the nature of American culture. From Don sitting in front of his HDTV watching mindless shows, to the heady flirtation/exhibitionism of one of his ex-girlfriend's daughters, we are confronted with a variety of incredibly telling images of our culture. We see Don flying from city to city, but everything always seems to look much the same, both at the airports and on the road. One ex is a closet organizer, another is a monumentally dull real estate agent married to a monumentally dull real estate agent who live in and sell monumentally dull pre-fab homes. A third ex is a pet "communicator," a slap at some of the "new age" ideas that have haunted our culture. A fourth is a hick in a rundown farm shack surrounded by motorcycle toughs. Each has obviously moved in very different directions from the days when they were Don's flames. Even the lesser characters in the film are realistically revealing, from the two chattering young women on an airport rental car bus, to the characters who give Don directions by pointing without saying a word and then driving off. Although his face is blank much of the time, Murray has a wonderful ability to show expression when it's needed. And because he doesn't waste expressions, they make far more impact than if he emoted throughout the film. Jeffrey Wright ("Angels in America") proves once again that he is simply one of the best actors in the business. Chloë Sevigny has a delightful brief role as the very businesslike but sexy receptionist for the pet "communicator." And Sharon Stone, Frances Controy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton are out of this world in their brief roles as the ex-flames. Swinton particularly is so unlike her usual image that it's easy to forget that it's her. This is Jarmusch's masterpiece to date. Don't miss it. A (1/6/06)

"November"-This low budget film shot in about two weeks doesn't lack cinematic values, although some sections of the film are shot in very depressing dark hues. What it lacks is a coherent story and theme. It's a sort-of "Rashomon"-style tale of a photography teacher named Sophie Jacobs (Courtney Cox) who is experiencing a nightmare of sorts. The problem is that we ultimately have no idea what the truth is. We see a robbery/shooting/murder in a grocery store in three versions, all combining with various visions of Sophie's confused and differing memories. In the first one (they all take place on November 7), Sophie sends her boyfriend Hugh (James LeGros) into a corner store for a late-night snack (after just finishing a Chinese meal) and he is shot and killed by a nervous hold-up man (boy, haven't we seen this sort of thing before?) while she is sitting in the car talking to a lover on her cell phone. We then see her, following Kubler-Ross style headings (e.g., despair), seeing a psychiatrist (Nora Dunn). But everything keeps changing. Sometimes it looks like the story is coming together but when we reach the end of this film, it is virtually impossible to determine what was reality. To me this kills any theme that the filmmakers may have intended. Courtney Cox is very different from her "Friends" role. But even then a little too somber and expressionless. James LeGros has a lot more life in his limited role as her seemingly-doomed boyfriend. This film has been called a "psychological thriller," but ultimately we are left with the question of what in the world it all means. C- (1/6/06)

"The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill"-A wild flock of cherry-headed conures (parrots), originally birds from South America, somehow wound up living in San Francisco and congregating on Telegraph Hill (most were probably abandoned imported pets). One of the residents of the Hill, Mark Bittner, became their loyal friend and, to some extent, caretaker, and this documentary by Judy Irving tells the tale of Bittner and the parrots. Bittner, who had originally come to San Francisco to get into the music business, found himself surviving on odd jobs and living in a rent free cottage until he found a new raison d'etre, the birds. This absolutely wonderful and heartwarming documentary shows Bittner interacting with the birds on a truly profound and loving basis. And some of the birds star. There is Mingus, the musical conure, and Conner, the blue-headed founder and yet somewhat outcast of the flock, and Tupelo, the disabled bird that Bittner clearly loved. This is a film not so much to talk about as to recommend. If you love animals, you will love this film. It truly soars. Don't miss it. A (1/1/06)



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