The newest releases on physical media, including The Bad Guys, Ambulance, The Northman, Everything Everywhere All at Once, and Criterion editions of The Tales of Hoffman and Shaft.
The latest on streaming and Blu-ray, including 21 Bridges, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and a Criterion edition of Roma.
Scout Tafoya's series on underrated films heads into the 2020s with a Tony Scott classic.
Veronica Cartwright on "The Field"; Musso & Frank turns 100, Silent films' universally accessible power; 'Mrs. Maisel' actresses battle restraints on women; In defense of "The Fanatic."
An interview with Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips, this year's recipient of the AAFCA's Roger Ebert Award.
A tribute to the late, great, unbelievable artist that is David Bowie.
An appreciation of Joseph Sargent, Director of many classic television and theatrical films, including "The Taking of Pelham 123."
Odie Henderson went to TIFF 2014 and shares his favorites from this year's fest, along with a glimpse of what's it like on the ground at a fest like Toronto.
Ridley Scott's new film, whose production was interrupted by the suicide of the director's brother Tony, is a weird melding of their styles, concerns and temperaments.
The biggest taboo in American cinema may be the direct-to-video (DTV) market. Director John Hyams was dropped by his agent after making the DTV "Universal Soldier: Regeneration." Fellow director Isaac Florentine has said "I discovered that being a straight to DVD director is…worse than saying you have malaria." To some extent, one can understand why DTV films have such a bad reputation: just watch the SyFy channel on Saturday night, or Cinemax at 2 am any night. Yet there's a certain freedom in making genre films without the budget to use extravagant CGI effects, and Hyams and Florentine have put it to good use. Over the past few years, a handful of critics, like ex-con Steven-Seagal-expert Vern and RogerEbert.com contributor Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, have championed their work. As the concept of vulgar auteurism has become a hot topic among the cinephile blogopshere recently, something's gotten lost in all the debate about whether Michael Bay and Tony Scott should be taken seriously. At heart, what seems worthwhile to me about vulgar auteurism is its championing of the best DTV genre films. Most 1950s intellectuals would have been horrified by the notion of taking Edgar G. Ulmer's "Detour" or Sam Fuller's "The Steel Helmet" seriously, and today they're considered essential. Isaac Florentine's "Undisputed III: Redemption" (2010) suffers from a surface cheesiness that manifests itself in several ways. The most obvious is the fact that the cast seems to have been assembled as much for its fighting ability as its acting talent. However, that turns out to be a strength in the end. Vin Diesel, pumped-up muscles and all, is no longer so convincing as a tough guy. Scott Adkins, who has teamed up with Florentine six times, is thoroughly believable as a man who's spent years in jail, and the rest of the actors who play prisoners look equally rough. Adkins plays Boyka, a Russian boxer forced to compete in a contest where eight prisoners fight each other for the amusement of depraved gamblers and jailers; the winner supposedly gets his freedom."Ninja "(2009) is the other consensus favorite in Florentine's filmography. While less reliant on long takes than "Undisputed III: Redemption"—apart from one breathtaking swordfight caught in a single take—it also uses zooms heavily and conveys a sense of the actors' genuine athleticism. However, it ventures further into fantasyland. Casey (Adkins) is an American raised at a Japanese martial arts dojo and sent to New York to safeguard a cache of weapons from a rogue assassin. The film is marked by an enjoyable goofiness, expressed through subplots like the one involving secret cult rituals staged by a huge corporation. John Woo seems to be a prime influence: the action mixes guns, swords and the body itself. There's a dubious Orientalism around the whole project: While it gives lots of screen time to Asians and creates a Japanese villain who turns out to be more charismatic than Casey, its story ultimately depends on Casey rescuing the Japanese from themselves. Also, his Japanese girlfriend is basically an object to be rescued. (That's a common trope in DTV films, unfortunately.) Despite these flaws, it's extremely entertaining, on a lighter note than "Undisputed III: Redemption", and the sequel will be Florentine's next film.Dutch-born director Roel Reine has landed one film on Jack Lehtonen's "official" vulgar auteurist top 20 list: "The Marine 2" (2009). While I'm less enthusiastic about it than Lehtonen, "The Marine 2" shows the marks of a distinctive stylist. Reine only shoots close-ups when the narrative really requires him to. He prefers long shots, sometimes taken from a vast distance. He also seems to have more of a special effects budget than Florentine, as the film contains a number of CGI explosions. However, it suffers from a formulaic script that transplants the narrative of "Die Hard" to a tropical island and a protagonist—a Marine (wrestler Ted DiBiase) on vacation with his wife—who has all-American good looks going for him but suffers from an overriding blandness. The film has one astonishingly choreographed fight scene, shot in a 30-second take with a pirouetting camera. I'd love to see what Reine could do with a satisfying script.Reine's latest film, "12 Rounds 2: Reloaded" (2013), suggests a marked improvement in his work. This time around, he's working with a script by David Benullo that suggests the David Fincher of "Seven" and "The Game": paramedic Nick (wrestler Randy Orton) is called by a vigilante (Brian Markinson) and forced to play a bizarre round of games connected to an event in their pasts. Stylistically, it's less reliant on long shots than "The Marine 2," but doesn't shy away from them. The nocturnal cinematography is quite beautiful at times. Despite the requisite ass-kicking, it feels more like a film noir than an action movie: The narrative turns out to be surprisingly complex and willing to shift focus from character to character. This impression is enhanced by Reine's tendency to film light streaming through venetian blinds. The movie concentrates on the plot with admirable economy and breakneck pacing. It only spends a few scenes setting up Nick's home life, and as soon as the game is over, the story ends, too. Without endorsing vigilantism, "12 Rounds 2: Reloaded" understands populist anger at a two-tiered justice system that tends to spare the privileged. The film's only major flaw is a stiff performance from Orton, who's called upon to do more than just fight.John Hyams' reputation rests on his two "Universal Soldier" sequels: "Regeneration" (2009) and "Day of Reckoning" (2012). In "Regeneration," a terrorist with an android "universal soldier" (Andrei "The Pit Bull" Arlovski) has seized a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl. Luc (Jean-Claude van Damme), a decommissioned universal soldier, is sent to stop him, but once there, he discovers that he must fight Andrew (Dolph Lundgren), another soldier. The two face off in an epic fight that lasts about fifteen minutes."Regeneration" plays with fantasies of invulnerability, only to constantly remind us of aging and bodily decay. By casting middle-aged actors with lined faces—and, in van Damme's case, a perpetually depressed expression—it undercuts the notion of unstoppable force. Luc never indulges in one-liners à la Schwarzenegger. When he prepares for battle, he doesn't become a cool badass, but a machine that must be constantly tuned up with booster shots. (The title of Hyams' documentary "The Smashing Machine," about boxer Mark Karr, seems relevant here.) I'm not sure where the film was shot, but one can practically smell the odor of industrial decay. Cinematographer Peter Hyams, the director's father and an accomplished director in his own right, livens up the film, particularly its fight scenes, with an array of blue, red, gray and gold filters. Rarely does "Regeneration" look naturalistic—it creates its own world, with a distinctive and unique feel. Like Florentine, Hyams avoids CGI, apart from blood-splatter effects."Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning" brings back van Damme, Lundgren and Arlovski, and introduces Scott Adkins to the "Universal Soldier" world, yet it feels very different from "Regeneration". It begins with the murder of John's (Adkins) wife and daughter by a group of thugs led by Luc. He falls into a coma and wakes up after nine months, but he seems to be suffering from mental problems. "Day of Reckoning" shows off Hyams' cinephilia, drawing first-person camerawork from Gaspar Noe's "Enter the Void," ominous walks down corridors from Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" and a boat trip down a swamp from Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." It's slightly less stylized than "Regeneration"; shot in Baton Rouge, its images sometimes resemble the real world, but that only makes John's psychological collapse more disturbing. Dozens of sci-fi films have drawn from Philip K. Dick's novels over the past thirty years; "Day of Reckoning" is one of the few to get his sense that everyday life could turn into a hallucination at any moment."Day of Reckoning" relies on the notion of living and dealing with implanted memories for its emotional charge. But what is cinema if not the art of implanting false memories? The film's DVD box features two separate quotes touting its brutal nature, and it is indeed startlingly violent. (Hyams himself describes the NC-17 cut as an endurance test.) Yet there's more to the violence than meets the eye. In an interview with Sara Freeman for the website MUBI, Hyams shows that he's thought seriously about the ethics of depicting bloodshed. "Day of Reckoning" takes place in a world where life is spectacularly cheap due to the proliferation of clones. This technology allows it to bring back a character who died in "Regeneration." Its ending shows a man dying and immediately being replaced by his clone. Both in its treatment of violence and the theme of memory, "Day of Reckoning" evokes the visceral power of good fiction and its ultimate artificiality. It's not cynical: its final scenes affirm the force of emotion, even if separated from real life.Hyams, Reine and Florentine's work seems at once part of a Hollywood tradition—their fight scenes look like Raoul Walsh or Allan Dwan compared to the chaotic blur of mega-budgeted blockbusters like "World War Z"—and hyper-modern. Beyond the genre tropes, they capture the physical and psychological pressures of the world we're living in. Florentine and Reine's films are less ambitious, but "Undisputed 3: Redemption" and "12 Rounds 2: Reloaded" evoke the same kind of weight as Hyams' "Universal Soldier" films. They may be working in the DTV ghetto—technically, "Day of Reckoning" played for one week in a New York theater last year—but they're describing the same world as a more prestigious filmmaker like Olivier Assayas. (Without making a big deal of it, Florentine uses casts drawn from all over the world.) I can't say that I've been impressed by the entire vulgar auteurist canon, but in the DTV arena, its critics have made some real discoveries.
"A man can be an artist ... in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasey's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece." -- Rayburn (Christopher Walken), "Man on Fire" (2004)
While I've never been a fan of the late Tony Scott or Christopher Nolan, a few thoughtful articles in recent days have helped me see them in new lights, and got me to thinking about their resemblances as well as their dissimilarities. Several appreciations of Scott (especially those by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Bilge Ebiri, David Edelstein and Manohla Dargis), along with David Bordwell's incisive essay on Christopher Nolan ("Nolan vs. Nolan") got me to thinking about the common assumptions about these popular filmmakers, both of whom are known for quick, impressionistic imagery, intercut scenes, slam-bang action and a CGI-averse insistence on photographing the real world.¹ Regardless of what you ultimately make of their work, there's no question they've done it their way.
This is an attempt to look at both filmmakers through the prism of others' points of view, refracted in critical appraisals like the above.
Of course, Scott and Nolan have passionate admirers and detractors. Until Scott's shocking suicide last week (from a bridge, a landmark that figures hauntingly in the climaxes of several of his movies), I wasn't aware of many critics who championed his movies, but with a few exceptions the obits seem to have been more admiring than the reviews over the years -- understandably, under the sad circumstances.
Those who applaud Scott and Nolan's films see them as genre boundary-pushers (thrillers, action pictures, science-fiction, superhero movies); those who denigrate them see them as symptomatic of the debasement of resonant imagery in modern Hollywood movies. Both have been subjected to that worst of all critical insults, comparisons to Michael Bay:
"'Inception' may have been directed by Christopher Nolan, but Nolan's dreams are apparently directed by Michael Bay." -- Andrew O'Hehir, "Inception: A clunky, overblown disappointment"
"If it sounds like I'm describing Michael Bay, that's because I sort of am. What we like to think of today as the Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer aesthetic was, in fact, originally the Tony Scott aesthetic (often deployed in films made for Bruckheimer and his late partner Don Simpson). Only back then there was a lot more art to it." -- Bilge Ebiri, "To Control Something That's Out of Control: On Tony Scott"
One of Scott's notable defenders has been The New York Times' Manohla Dargis. She identifies him as a "maximalist" who used "a lot of everything in his movies: smoke, cuts, camera moves, color. This kind of stylistic, self-conscious excess could be glorious, as in his underappreciated film 'Domino' (2005)," which Roger Ebert also somewhat grudgingly admired, quoting a character to describe the movie itself as having "the attention span of a ferret on crystal meth." Dargis writes:
"Dear Mr. Spider;I am profoundly sorry to have taken you from your home in the woods, when I was picking Himalayan Blackberries on Monday afternoon. I didn't see you fall into my bucket and which was entirely my fault; I must have bumped into your web while reaching for a berry. Needless to say, I was surprised upon returning home with my bucket full, to suddenly see you there standing on a blackberry and looking up at me." - Marie
(photo recreation of incident)
Chaos Cinema Part 1 from Matthias Stork on Vimeo.
Matthias Stork, a German film scholar now based in Los Angeles, has created a most stimulating two-part video essay on a subject near and dear to my heart: "Chaos Cinema." At Press Play, it's given the sub-head "The decline and fall of action filmmaking," while an analysis at FILMdetail considers it from the angle of technology: "Chaos Cinema and the Rise of the Avid." Stork, who also narrates his essay, describes his premise this way:
Rapid editing, close framings, bipolar lens lengths and promiscuous camera movement now define commercial filmmaking.... Contemporary blockbusters, particularly action movies, trade visual intelligibility for sensory overload, and the result is a film style marked by excess, exaggeration and overindulgence: chaos cinema.
Chaos cinema apes the illiteracy of the modern movie trailer. It consists of a barrage of high-voltage scenes. Every single frame runs on adrenaline. Every shot feels like the hysterical climax of a scene which an earlier movie might have spent several minutes building toward. Chaos cinema is a never-ending crescendo of flair and spectacle. It's a shotgun aesthetic, firing a wide swath of sensationalistic technique that tears the old classical filmmaking style to bits. Directors who work in this mode aren't interested in spatial clarity. It doesn't matter where you are, and it barely matters if you know what's happening onscreen. The new action films are fast, florid, volatile audiovisual war zones. [...]
Most chaos cinema is indeed lazy, inexact and largely devoid of beauty or judgment. It's an aesthetic configuration that refuses to engage viewers mentally and emotionally, instead aspiring to overwhelm, to overpower, to hypnotize viewers and plunge them into a passive state. The film does not seduce you into suspending disbelief. It bludgeons you until you give up.
It seems to me that these movies are attempting a kind of shortcut to the viewer's autonomic nervous system, providing direct stimulus to generate excitement rather than simulate any comprehensible experience. In that sense, they're more like drugs that (ostensibly) trigger the release of adrenaline or dopamine while bypassing the middleman, that part of the brain that interprets real or imagined situations and then generates appropriate emotional/physiological responses to them. The reason they don't work for many of us is because, in reality, they give us nothing to respond to -- just a blur of incomprehensible images and sounds, without spatial context or allowing for emotional investment.
Linked here are reviews in recent months for which I wrote either 4 star or 3.5 star reviews. What does Two Thumbs Up mean in this context? These films are worth going out of your way to see, or you might rent them, add them to your Netflix, Blockbuster or TiVo queues, get them by VOD, watch for them on cable, anything. Many of the older titles are already streaming on Netflix and Amazon.
"Another Year" (PG-13, 129 minutes). Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) and long and happily married. Their frequent visitor is Mary (Lesley Manville), a unhappy woman with a drinking problem who needs shoring up with their sanity. Mike Leigh's new film is one of his best, placing as he often does recognizable types with embarrassing comic and/or dramatic dilemmas. One of the year's best films. Four stars
"My Dog Tulip" (Unrated, 83 minutes). The story of a man who finds love only once in his life, for 15 perfect years. It is the love of a dog. It may be the only love he is capable of experiencing. This is an animated film combining elating visuals with a virtuoso voice performance by Christopher Plummer. Nor for children. Foe adults who will admire its beauty and profundity. Directed and animated by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger. Four stars
"Inspector Bellamy" (Unrated, 110 minutes). Gerard Depardieu stars as a famous Parisian police inspector who is on holiday when a man tells him, "I committed murder...sort of." Claude Chabrol's final film, written with Depardieu in mind, is inspired in part by Simenon's Inspector Maigret, and follows Bellamy as he unwinds the strange story of the murder, while also, like Simenon, becoming fascinated by side characters, such as Bellamy's troubled half-brother. Marie Bunel is warm and supportive of her husband, and a good confidant during pillow talk about crime. Three and a half stars.
"The Illusionist" (PG, 90 minutes). A magician named Tatischeff fails in one music hall after another, and ends up in Scotland, where a young woman takes care of him and believes in him, even when he's reduced to performing in store windows. An animated film based on the final screenplay of Jacques Tati, and directed by Sylvain Chomet ("The Triplets of Belleville"). Four stars
"Barney's Version" (R, 132 minutes). Paul Giamatti stars as an unremarkable Montreal TV producer who drinks too much, smokes too many cigars, and discards two women in quick divorces before finding at last one far too good for him (Rosamund Pike). Dustin Hoffman has a smallish but particularly good role as his father. Giamatti won the 2011 Golden Globe award as best actor. Three and a half stars
"All Good Things" (R, 101 minutes). David (Ryan Gosling) is the rebellious son of a wealthy Manhattan family that owns sleazy 42nd Street real estate. He marries Katie (Kirsten Dunst), and they move to Vermont to open an organic products store. But his father (Frank Langella) pressures him to return to the family business, and he undergoes alarming changes eventually connected to two murders. Based on one of those true stories Dominick Dunne used to write about in Vanity Fair. Three and a half stars
"Blue Valentine" (R, 120 minutes). Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as Dean and Cindy in two seasons of marriage: Six years ago when love was fact, and today, when love proves unable to support the weight of real life. Director Derek Cianfrance closely observes the details as his couple fail to comprehend the larger picture. Dean thinks marriage is the station. Cindy thought it was the train. Three and a half stars
"The King's Speech" (R, 118 minutes). After the death of George V and the abdication of his brother Edward, Prince Albert (Colin Firth) becomes George IV, charged with leading Britain into World War Two. He is afflicted with a torturous stammer, and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) seeks out an unorthodox speech therapist (Lionel Logue) to treat him. Civilized and fascinating, this is the story of their unlikely relationship. (The R rating, for language, is absurd; this is an ideal film for teenagers.) Four stars
"True Grit" (PG-13, 110 minutes). An entertaining remake of the 1969 film, and more. Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn easily fills John Wayne's boots, and Hailee Steinfeld is very special as young Mattie Ross, who hires the old marshal to help her hunt down the varmit what killed her old man. Not a "Coen Brothers Film," but a flawlessly executed Western in the grand tradition. Strong support from Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper. Three and a half stars
"Somewhere" (R, 96 minutes). Johnny Marco Stephen Dorff is a movie star. He has access to sex, booze, drugs, but feels no pleasure. He sits in a Los Angeles hotel room, stuck. His 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning) comes to stay for a few days, but he clearly has no feeling for fatherhood. He's given an award in Milan but hardly notices in the confusion of strangers around him in a hotel suite. He retreats to the same famous West Hollywood where John Belushi died, which for him might have been a recommendation. Sofia Coppola's film, winner of the Golden Lion at Venice, is a masterpiece of observation of hopelessness. Four stars
"Rabbit Hole" (R, 91 minutes) Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are trying their best to get on with things. This is the tricky and very observant story of how a married couple is getting along, eight months after their 4-year-old ran out into the street and was struck dead by a car. They were leveled with grief. Their sex life stopped. They lived for a time in a daze, still surrounded in the house by the possessions of the child who no longer lives there. I know all this sounds like a mournful dirge, but in fact "Rabbit Hole" is entertaining and surprisingly amusing, under the circumstances. Three and a half stars
"Black Swan" (R, 108 minutes). Natalie Portman in a bravura performance as a driven perfectionist, a young ballerina up for a starring role at Lincoln Center. Her life is shadowed by a smothering mother (Barbara Hershey), an autocratic director (Vincent Cassel) and a venomous rival (Mila Kunis) and her deposed predecessor (Winona Ryder). A full-bore melodrama, told with passionate intensity, gloriously and darkly absurd. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Three and a half stars
"Carlos" (Unrated, 332 minutes). A remarkable portrait of a despicable man, the terrorist Carlos ("the Jackyl"), who from 1975 to 1994 directed a shadowy group of violent militants that dealt in kidnapping and murder. Edgar Ramirez is powerful in the title role, as an egomaniac whose primary cause seems to be himself. With reckless boldness he eludes an international manhunt until finally even his masters grow tired of him. Unflinching, detailed, absorbing. Directed by Olivier Assayas. Three and a half stars
"White Material" (Unrated, 105 minutes). Isabella Huppert plays a French woman in Africa, managing the coffee plantation that was her ex-husband's. War stirs in the land, and she is warned to evacuate. She finds that unthinkable. This is her home, this is her farm, and she will bring in the crop. The movie doesn't sentimentalize or make a political statement; like its heroine, it doesn't have theories. A beautiful, puzzling film; the enigmatic quality of Huppert's impassivity draws us in. Three and a half stars
"I Love You Phillip Morris" (R, 98 minutes) Jim Carrey in the true life story of outrageous con man Steven Russell, who impersonated doctors, lawyers, FBI agents, and corporate executives. He convinced prison officials he had died of AIDS, successfully faked a heart attack, and escaped from jail four times (hint: always on Friday the 13th). Ewan McGregor plays his cellmate Phillip Morris, who Steven falls in love with. Thereafter his life consists of trying to get Steven out of jail, or trying to escape to be with him. Audacious. Jim Carrey's mercurial personality was almost necessary to even make this movie. Three and a half stars
"Hereafter" (PG-13, 129 minutes). Clint Eastwood considers the idea of an afterlife with tenderness, beauty and a gentle tact. Matt Damon stars as a man who believes he has a genuine psychic gift, and suffers for it. Cecile de France is a French newsreader who has a near-death experience. Frankie McLaren is a small boy seeking his dead twin. The stories converge, but in a way that respects the plausible. Not a woo-woo film but about how love makes us need for there to be an afterlife. Four stars
"Made in Deganham" (R, 113 minutes). Delightful serious comedy about the historic 1968 in Ford's British plant that ended its unequal pay for women, and began a global movement. Sally Hawkins plays Rita O'Grady, who caught the public fancy as a strike leader. Bob Hoskins is a sympathetic union organizer, and Miranda Richardson plays Barbara Castle, the minister of labor who unexpectedly sided with the striking women. Three and a half stars
"Monsters" (R, 93 minutes). An American photojournalist (Scoot McNairy) shepherds the daughter of his boss (Whitney Able) north from Mexico though a dangerous Infected Zone occupied by an alien life form. But this isn't a "monster movie," or an exploitation film. It's an uncannily absorbing journey transformed by the fact of Beings who are fundamentally different from any life form we have imagine. Writer-director Gareth Edwards, who also created the special effects, builds toward a climax combining uncommon suspense and uncanny poetry. Three and a half stars
"Unstoppable" (PG-13, 98 minutes) A runaway train hurtles at 70mph, and the movie is as relentless as the train. Denzel Washington and Chris Pine try to stop it, and Rosario Dawson is the hard-driving dispatcher. In terms of sheer craftsmanship, this is a superb film. Directed by Tony Scott. Three and a half stars
"Morning Glory" (PG-13, 110 minutes). Rachel McAdam transforms a conventional plot into a bubbling comedy with her lovable high energy. She plays an ambitious young producer on a last-place network morning news show, who forces a reluctant TV veteran (Harrison Ford) to do the kind of TV he despises. A lot of laughs, including Diane Keaton as Ford's veteran co-anchor, Matt Malloy as a goofy weatherman and Jeff Goldblum as the boss who considers the show dead in the water. Three and a half stars
"127 Hours" (R, 93 minutes). The harrowing true story of James Franco, a rock climber whose arm was pinned to a Utah canyon wall by a boulder. In desperation he amputated his own arm to free himself. James Franco stars in Danny Boyle's film, which is gruesome but not quite too gruesome to watch. It's rather awesome what an entertaining and absorbing film Danny Boyle has made here. Yes, entertaining. Four stars
"Buried" (R, 93 minutes). Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) is a truck driver working for a private contractor in Iraq. He comes to consciousness in blackness. He feels around and finds a lighter. It its flame his worst fears are realized. He has been kidnapped, buried alive, and is a hostage. Taking place entirely within the coffin, this is a superior suspense picture that's ingenious in devising plausible events inside the limited space. Three and a half stars.
"Tamara Drewe" (PG-13, 110 minutes) A mischievous British comedy, set in a rural writer's retreat where egos and libidos are in contention. When a once-homely local girl returns home with newfound fame and an improved nose, all the men perk up with unfortunate results. With Gemma Arterton, Roger Allam, Dominic Cooper, Luke Evans and Tamsin Greig. Directed by Stephen Frears. Delightful. Three and a half star
"The Social Network" (PG-13, 120 minutes). The life and times of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), who created Facebook, became a billionaire in his early 20s, and now has 500 million members on the site he created. A fascinating portrait of a brilliant social misfit who intuited a way to involve humankind race in the Kevin Bacon Game. Everybody likes Facebook--it's the site that's all about you. With Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker, the Napster founder who introduced Zuckerberg to the Silicon Valley fast lane, Andrew Garfield as the best friend who gets dumped, and Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss twins, who sued Zuckerberg for stealing their idea. One of the year's best films. Four stars
"Secretariat" (PG, 116 minutes). A great film about greatness, the story of the horse and the no less brave woman who had faith in him. Diane Lane stars as Penny Chenery, who fell in love with Secretariat when he was born, and battled the all-male ring fraternity and her own family to back her faith in the champion. A lovingly crafted film, knowledgeable about racing, with great uplift. Also with John Malkovich, Scott Glenn, James Cromwell, Nelsan Ellis, Dylan Walsh. One of the year's best. Four stars
"Last Train Home" (Unrated, 87 minutes). Begins as a documentary about an annual New Years migration from cities to villages by 180 million Chinese, and focuses on one family; the parents have labored at low factory wages for 15 years to pay for their children's education back home, and now, as their daughter graduates high school, they may find only heartbreak as repayment. Shot over three years, it's one of those extraordinary films, like "Hoop Dreams," that tells a story the makers could not possibly have anticipated in advance. Works like stunning, grieving fiction. One of the year's best. Four stars
"Inside Job" (Unrated, 108 minutes). Exactly how Wall Street thieves eagerly sold bad mortgages, bet against them, and paid themselves millions in bonuses for bankrupting their own companies. And the Street is having another good year at our expense, because Financial Reform is as far away as ever. An angry, devastating documentary. Four stars
"Let Me In" (R, 115 minutes). A well-made retelling of the Swedish "Let the Right One In," which doesn't cheapen the original but respects it and adds some useful events. Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a bullied, neglected boy, and Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz of "Kick Ass") is the girl who moves into the next apartment and has "been twelve for a very long time." The same cold, dark atmosphere of foreboding, in a doom-laden vampire drama. Not for Team Edward. Three and a half stars
"Scrappers" (Unrated, 90 minutes). A portrait of Otis and Oscar, two self-employed collectors of scrap metal, who troll the alleys in their trucks and vacant lots of Chicago for metals that can be sold. They work hard, they support families, they perform recycling on metals that might end up buried in garbage, and they like the work--its freedom, its independence. But metals dropped from $200 to $300 a ton to $20 with the economic collapse, and now their trade is desperate. See this and you'll never look at a scavenger with the same eyes. Three and a half stars
"Never Let Me Go" (R, 104 minutes). In an alternative time line, test-tube babies are created solely for the purpose of acting as Donors for body parts. Raised in seclusion, they accept their role. Are they really human, after all? In this sensitive, teary adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel, three of them begin to glimpse the reality of their situation, and its tragedy. With Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins. Four stars
"Nowhere Boy" (R, 97 minutes). The Beatles are only distantly on the horizon in this deeply-felt biopic of young John Lennon growing up in Liverpool. He's at the center of a tricky relationship involving his mother, who he didn't know growing up, and his aunt, who raised him. From these years perhaps came and simultaneous elation and sadness of many of his songs. Aaron Johnson as John, Kristin Scott Thomas as his Aunt Mimi, Anne-Marie Duff as his mother Julia. Three and a half stars
"Waiting for Superman" (PG, 102 minutes). The new documentary by Davis Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth") says the American educational system is failing, and dramatizes this failure in a painfully direct way, saying what is wrong, and what is right. He points to existing magnet schools that draw their students by random lottery and virtually guarantee high school graduation and acceptance by a college. He explains why bad teachers who cannot be fired are a national scandal. The film is alarming, fascinating, and in the end hopeful. Three and a half stars
"Easy A" (PG-13, 93 minutes). Funny, star-making role for Emma Stone, as a high school girl nobody notices, until she's too embarrassed to admit she spent the weekend home alone and claims she had sex with a college boy. When word gets around, she uses her undeserved notoriety to play the role to the hilt, even wearing a Scarlet Letter. And she's able to boost the reps of some of her pals by making up reports of their process. Sounds crass. Isn't. Three and a half stars
"The American" (R, 95 minutes). George Clooney is starkly defined as a criminal as obedient and focused as a samurai. He manufactures weapons for specialized jobs. He lives and functions alone. He works for a man who might as well be a master. He used few words. Only his feelings for a prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido) supply an opening to his emotions. Zen in its focus. Four stars.
"Flipped" (PG-13,90 minutes) Juli (Madeleine Carroll) has adored Bryce (Callan McAuliffe) ever since he moved into the neighborhood in the second grade. Bryce has been running away from her ever since. Now they're 14 and they seem to be flipping: he more interested, she less. Rod Reiner's warm human comedy tells their stories by showing the same crucial events from both their points of view. He returns to the time of his "Stand By Me" with the same endearing insights. Rating: Four stars
"Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1" (R, 133 minutes). Continuation of the brutal life of France's most notorious criminal, who survived a 20-year series of bank robberies, kidnappings, prison breaks and murders. Vincent Cassel makes him brutal, ugly, powerful and inscrutable. Winner of French Oscars for best director and actor. Three and a half stars
"Mesrine: Killer Instinct" (R, 113 minutes) He was a ruthless killer, bank robber, kidnapper and prison break artist--and a self-promoting egomaniac who wrote books some compared to Camus. Vincent Cassel stars in a hard-boiled performance as the French criminal who killed on three continents and was in love with his image. Three and a half stars
"Salt" (PG-13, 100 minutes). A damn fine thriller. It does all the things I can't stand in bad movies, and does them in a good one. Angelina Jolie stars as a CISA agent fighting ingle-handedly to save the world from nuclear destruction. Hardly a second is believable, but so what? Superbly crafted, it's a splendid example of a genre action picture. Directed by Philip Noyce. Four stars
"Inception" (PG-13, 148 minutes). An astonishingly original and inventive thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a men who infiltrates the minds of others to steal secrets. Now he's hired to implant one. Ken Watanabe is a billionaire who wants to place at idea in the mind of his rival (Cillian Murphy). DiCaprio Assembles a team (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Ellen Page) to assist him, in a dazzling achievement that rises above the thriller level and enters the realm of mind control--in the plot, and in the audience. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan ("Memento," "The Dark Knight"). Four stars
"The Kids are All Right" (R, 104 minutes). A sweet and civilized comedy, quietly satirical, about a lesbian couple, their children, and the father the kids share via sperm donation. When they meet him, they like him, he likes them, and their moms are not so sure. What happens is calmly funny, sometimes fraught, and very human. With pitch-perfect performances by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as the moms, Mark Ruffalo as the dad, and Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson as the 20-something children. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Three and a half stars
"The Girl Who Played with Fire" (R, 129 minutes). Noomi Rapace, electrifying in last year's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," returns for the second film drawn from Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. Once again she's following the same crimes as journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), but they don't meet until late in the game as a murder trail leads to old family secrets. Well constructed, good cast, not quite up to the "Dragon" standard. Three and a half stars
"Restrepo" (R, 94 minutes). A documentary shot during the 15 months an American company fought under almost daily fire in Afghanistan's Korangal Valley, described as "the most dangerous place on earth." The Taliban is a constant presence; the Americans take fire three, four, five times a day; they establish the strategic Outpost Restrepo, named for the first of their number to die, and it seems to turn the tide in the Valley. The 15-month tour is hard duty, and our admiration grows for these men. The film is non-political; the men are fighting above all to simple survive. Four stars
"9500 Liberty" (Unrated, 80 minutes). A law similar to Arizona's controversial recent measure was passed and briefly enforced a few years ago in Virginia's Prince William County, and what happened there may be instructive. This documentary shows the rise and fall of a movement led by a right-wing blogger, and the groundswell of opposition (including many whites and Republicans) that ended it. The cost of the law in higher taxes, exposure to lawsuits and the city's image was startling. The doc shows the rise and fall of the county law, and centers on the American tradition of citizens speaking out in town hall meetings. Three and a half stars
"A Small Act" (Unrated, 98 minutes). A documentary about a Kenyan boy named Chris Mburu who grew up in a mud house, graduated from Harvard Law School, and is today a United Nations Human Rights Commissioner. His education was made possible by a $15-a-month gift from Hilde Back, a Swedish schoolteacher whose parents were Holocaust victims. Mburu started a foundation in her honor to grant more scholarships, and in the film they meet and she is honored by his village. To call it "Heartwarming" would be an understatement. Three and a half stars
"Cell 211" (Unrated, 111 minutes). Very effective thriller about a man's attempt to save his life by thinking quickly. A new prison guard, being given a tour, is left behind when a riot breaks out. Pretending to be a new prisoner, he improvises well enough to become a de facto leader of the riot, and develops a subtle relationship with the rock-hard leader of the prisoners. Winner of eight Goya awards, the Spanish Oscars, this year, including Best Picture. Three and a half stars
"I am Love" (R, 120 minutes). A sensuous and fascinating story about a modern family of Italian aristocrats. Tilda Swinton plays a Russian who has married the oldest son, learns her husband and their son will take over the family textile business, then suddenly finds herself in the middle of an unexpected affair. Masterfully direct by Luca Guadagnino. One of the year's best. Four stars
"Cyrus" (R, 91 minutes). Two lonely people (John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei) meet at a party and like each other. She has a 20ish son (Jonah Hill) who welcomes Reilly to their home and invites him to stay for dinner. But a comedy of social embarrassment develops when it becomes clear that the son is jealous and possessive of his mother, and perhaps to physically familiar with her. No, it's not incest; let's call it inappropriate behavior that his mom doesn't seem to discourage. Reilly is caught in an awkward position, which the film simply regards, leaving us to wince in a fascinated way. Three and a half stars
"Winter's Bone" (R, 99 minutes). Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant as a 17-year-old girl who father has skipped bail and left his family threatened with homelessness. In a dirt poor area of the Ozarks, she goes seeking him among people who are suspicious, dangerous and in despair. Winner of the Grand Jury prize at Sundance 2010 and the screenwriting award, this film by Debra Granik is one of the year's best. Four stars
"Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" (R, 84 minutes). Rivers was 75 in this film, and never tires of reminding us of that fact. She remains one of the funniest, dirtiest, most daring and transgressive of standup comics, and she hasn't missed a beat. The doc follows her for a year as she relentlessly pursues the career that her daughter, Melissa, says was like having another sister. She violates her own privacy, speaks from the heart, does not know tact, and makes us laugh a lot. If you've only seen Rivers on TV, you ain't seen nothing' yet. Three and a half stars
"The Karate Kid" (PG, 126 minutes). Faithfully follows the plot of the 1984 classic, but stands on its own feet and takes advantage of beg shot on location in China. Jackie Chan dials down convincingly as the quiet old janitor with hidden talents, and Jaden Smith (son of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith) holds the screen with glowing charisma. The obligatory final fight climax is unusually well-handled. Three and a half stars
"Solitary Man" (R, 99 minutes). Michael Douglas in one of his best performances, as a once rich and famous car dealer, now in hard times but still tireless as closing the hardest sell of all--himself. He's a seducer, a cheater, a user, but running outgo of options, in a smart comedy/drama with an excellent supporting cast including Jesse Eisenberg, Jenna Fischer, Danny DeVito and Susan Sarandon. Three and a half stars
"Please Give" (R, 91 minutes). Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt play a Manhattan couple who have a daughter and run an antique store and live next to a mean-tempered old lady (Ann Morgan Guilbert) . When she dies, they can buy her apartment. The old lady has two granddaughters, played by Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet. When the couple invites everyone over for dinner, events are set in motion that are true, funny, and ruefully observant. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener is so perceptive about women whose lives are not defined by men; that's rare in the movies. Three and a half stars
"Death at a Funeral" (R, 92 minutes). The best comedy since "The Hangover." A big family home is the setting for a funeral that's just one damn thing after another. Remake of a 2007 Brit comedy, but a lot funnier. All-star cast includes Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, James Marsden, Peter Dinklage, Loretta Devine, Regina Hall, Zoe Saldana, Tracy Morgan, Luke Wilson and on and on. Three and a half stars.
"Home" (Unrated, 98 minutes) A family live in a small home in the middle of vast fields and next to the highway, which hasn't been used for ten years. Then big trucks arrive to lay down a fresh coating of asphalt, and the arrival of traffic puts unbearable pressure on a family that seems a little strange from the first. With Isabelle Huppert and Olivier Gourmet. 2008 winner of the Swiss Film Prize. Three and a half stars.
"Date Night" (PG-13, 88 minutes) Steve Carell and Tina Fey play a perfectly nice married couple from New Jersey who simply want to have a great night out together in Manhattan. Mistaken for another couple, they're spun into a nightmare involving a mob boss and an unpaid debt. Funny, because they seem halfway plausible. With Ray Liotta, Mark Wahlberg, James Franco. Directed by Shawn Levy ("Night at the Museum"). Three and a half stars
"Greenberg" (R, 107 minutes). Ben Stiller in one of his best performances as a chronic malcontent who returns to L.A. to house-sit, nurture his misery, and reconnect with people who quite rightly resent him. With Greta Gerwig as an aimless but pleasant young college graduate who feels sorry for him, and Rhys Ifans and Jennifer Jason Leigh as survivors of his troublesome past. Directed by Noah Baumbach, of "The Squid and the Whale." Three and a half stars.
"Vincere" (Unrated, 128 minutes) The long-suppressed story of Mussolini's early mistress, who bore him a son and then was pushed into the shadows after he made a respectable marriage. She obsessively follows him, confronts him with their child in public, and is finally locked away by the fascists in an asylum. Giovanna Mezzogiorno's performance as Ida, the mistress, reminds me of Sophia Loren in the way she combines passion with dignity. Directed by the legendary Marco Bellocchio. Three and a half stars
"Leaves of Grass" (R, 105 minutes). Edward Norton plays a dual role as brothers: One a professor of philosophy at Brown, the other still back home in Little Dixie, Oklahoma, growing the best marijuana in the state. He may be the better philosopher. With Susan Sarandon as their mother, and Richard Dreyfuss as the state's drug kingpin. Norton gives two inspired and entirely different performances. Written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson, who also plays the best friend. One of the best films of 2010. Four stars
"45365" (Unrated, 90 minutes). An achingly beautiful portrait of small town America. The title is the zip code of Sidney, Ohio, and brothers Bill and Turner Ross grew up there and spent seven months on 2007 creating this portrait in sound and images of ordinary people, mostly nice, living their lives. No obvious structure, no message, just an appreciation of daily life that becomes haunting in its poetry. Winner of the Truer than Fiction Award at the 2010 Independent Spirits. Four stars (3/27/10)
"Mother" (R, 128 minutes). A mentally-deficient 27-year-old seems almost certainly guilty of murder. His mother, who has protected him all his life, is determined to prove his innocence. She is a remorseless force of nature, in a South Korean thriller that moves far beyond our expectations, into labyrinths deeper than reality. Written and diffracted by Bong Joon-ho ("The Host"). Three and a half stars
"Chloe" (Unrated, 96 minutes). A woman doctor (Julianne Moore) suspects her husband (Liam Neeson) of cheating, and hires a young call girl (Amanda Seyfried) to test how he might respond. She is fascinated by the girl's reports. Her jealousy shifts into curiosity. And the call girl? What's in this for her? Egoyan weaves a deceptive erotic web. Three and a half stars
"Waking Sleeping Beauty" (PG, 86 minutes). A privileged inside look at the Disney animation studio from 1984 to 1994, a golden age that essentially recreated feature animation in the form we know it now. From "The Little Mermaid" to "The Lion King," interviews, archives, home movies and interviews recreate a time of creative turmoil and backstage rivalries. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Three and a half stars.
"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (Unrated, for adults, 148 minutes). Compelling thriller with a heroine more fascinating than the story. She's Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace), a 24-year-old Goth girl with body piercings and tattoos: thin, small, fierce, damaged, a genius computer hacker. She teams up with a taciturn Swedish investigator to end a serial killer's 40 years of evil. Based on the international best-seller. Intense and involving. The planned Hollywood remake will probably have to be toned down. Four stars.
"Diary of a Wimpy Kid" (PG, 92 minutes). Nimble, bright and funny comedy about the hero's first year of middle school. Zachary Gordon stars as the uncertain newcomer, and Robert Capron is his pudgy best pal, who still acts like a kid. Chloe Grace Moretz sparkles as the only student who's nice to them, and the movie amusingly remembers the tortures of early adolescence. Based on the books by Jeff Kinney. Three and a half stars.
"The Green Zone" (R, 114 minutes) Matt Damon and his two-time "Bourne" director Paul Greengrass team up for a first-rate thriller set early in the war in Iraq. Damon's chief warrant officer finds that U.S. intelligence is worthless, and his complaints lead him to discover the secret conspiracy intended to justify the American invasion. Greg Kinnear is the deceptive U.S. intelligence puppet-master, Brendan Gleeson is a grizzled old CIA hand whose agency has always doubted the stories sabot Saddam's WMD, and Amy Ryan plays a newspaper reporter who served Kinnear as a pipeline. Four stars.
"A Prophet" (R, 154 minutes). An unformed young man is imprisoned, and behind bars he terrifyingly comes of age. A remorseless consideration of the birth of a killer. With Tahar Rahim as the clueless young prisoner and Niels Arestrup as the powerful boss of the gang controlling the prison. Swept the 2010 Cesar awards ("the French Oscars"), won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes 2009, a 2010 Oscar nominee for best foreign film. Directed by Jacques Audiard. Four stars
"The Ghost Writer" (PG-13, 124 minutes). In Roman Polanski's thriller, a man without a past rattles around in the life of a man with too much of one. Ewan McGregor plays a ghost writer hired by a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan), whose previous ghost has mysterious drowned. In a rain-swept house on Martha's Vineyard, McGregor meets the PM's wife (Olivia Williams) and his assistant/mistress (Kim Cattrall), as an international controversy swirls. A splendidly acted and crafted immersive story. Four stars
"Red Riding Trilogy" (Unrated, for adults, 302 minutes). An immersive experience based on the infamous Yorkshire Ripper killings and the subsequent revelations about deep corruption in the Yorkshire Police Departments. Brilliantly cast, filmed in segments each offering a distinctive look and feel, beginning with a serial killer and then tangling the investigation with deep-seated local corruption. Not so much about what happens objectively as about its surrounding miasma of greed and evil. Four stars
"The Art of the Steal" (Unrated, 101 minutes). The most valuable collection of modern and impression art in the rod, valued at $250 billion, was intended by its rich collector, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, to reside forever in the Barnes Foundation in suburban Philadelphia. He hired the best lawyers to draw up an iron-clad will to assure that would happen after his death. He specified it not go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which he felt had scorned him and his collection. This absorbing documentary tells the story of how and why his art is in that museum today, the film calls it the "art theft of the century." Three and a half stars
"Shutter Island" (R, 135 minutes). Leonardo Di Caprio and Mark Ruffalo are U.S. Marshals called to a forbidding island in Boston bay, the home of an old Civil War fort now used as a prison for the criminally insane. A child murderer has escaped her cell. Martin Scorsese relentlessly blends music, visuals, special effects and all of film noir tradition into an elegant horror film as fragmented as a nightmare. If you're blind-sided by the ending, ask yourself: How should it have ended? How could it have? Three and a half stars
"Fish Tank" (Unrated, adults, 123 minutes). The harrowing portrait of a 15-year-old girl on a reckless path toward self-destruction. Her mother, only about 30, is a drunken slut and she seems on the same path. Covers a few days of fraught experiences with sex and anger. Superbly acted by newcomer Katie Jarvis. Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes 2009. Directed by Andrea Arnold. Four stars.
From the Grand Poobah in Toronto: It was slightly chilly and I threw on my Toronto International Film Festival jacket and hurried out of the hotel. Only an ooh and an ahh from behind me at the Elgin Theater alerted me that I was wearing my official Roots 20th anniversary jacket. Since 2010 is the festival's 35th anniversary, that's not bad, n'est-ce pas? I hope that at the theater my T-shirt wasn't peeking out.
The Grand Poobah writes: I carry a little Canon S60 digital camera so small it tucks in my jeans pocket. Sometimes, all by itself, it will take a great photograph. Here are Lena and Werner Herzog. She is the acclaimed photographer. This was taken shortly after Herzog and Errol Morris held their lively onstage conversation, which I video recorded from the front row.
Yes, Chaz and I are still going ahead with our plans for a new movie review program on television. No, Wednesday's cancellation of "At the Movies" hasn't discouraged us. We believe a market still exists for a weekly show where a couple of critics review new movies.
I can't prove it, but I have the feeling that more different people are seeing more different movies than ever before. With the explosion of DVD, Netflix, Red Box, and many forms of Video on Demand,
I was watching Tony Scott on the Charlie Rose program, and he said, in connection with "The Reader," that he was getting tired of so many movies about the Holocaust. I didn't agree or disagree. What I thought was, "The Reader" isn't about the Holocaust. It's about not speaking when you know you should.
That's something I'm guilty of. I hold my tongue all the time, especially in social situations where my opinions might cause unhappiness. Those often involve politics and religion, two subjects that a lot of mothers tell their kids never to discuss at a dinner party--unless, of course, everybody at the table agrees, and then what's the point?