"Romantic Warriors: A Progressive Music Saga" (*** 1/2-95 minutes)

If you ask most people "What is progressive rock?" more often than not you'll get blank stares. However, if you mention such 40+ year-old classic rock groups such as Pink Floyd, Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, & Emerson, Lake & Palmer, suddenly you'll get a nod and a response. These groups were the pioneers of a genre of music that has long been considered anti-mainstream and not readily accessible in this day and age of pop music sensibilities. With its roots going back to the late 60's and early 70's, this form of music culls together rock, classical, jazz, and world music that is still thriving-despite lacking the publicity, advertising, & generous airwaves enjoyed by its more popular accessible pop counterpart.

Award-winning German documentary film maker Adele Schmidt and her partner and prog fan, Peruvim-born José Zegarra Holder, have set out, and wonderfully succeeded, in documenting the talent and artistry of worldwide progressive rock musicians that will gleefully introduce this art form to newcomers, and will explain why prog music should not be ignored. Although the film is chock full of history and interviews, the real reason for tuning in is the music. Skillfully edited, the music is fabulously mixed to showcase the incredible talent that defines what this musical style is all about.

It seems proponents of prog rock in the U.S. have settled for displaying their wares on the U.S. East Coast. Three festivals are showcased: ROSfest (Rites of Spring) held in Pennsylvania, ProgDay (purported to be "the world's longest running progressive rock festival") held at Storybook Farm near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and NEARfest (North East Art Rock festival), the largest progressive music festival in the U.S. currently held at Bethlehem, Pa. in June. You'll see bands performing at both locations throughout the doc. A forth location is right here in Baltimore at Mike Potter's Orion Studios where he constantly invites international prog groups to practice & perform throughout the year.

Although many bands are shown performing, four are prominently featured: Cabezas de Cera, D.F.A., Cheer-Accident, and Deluge Grander/Dan Britton. Qui, Phideaux, Karmakanic, and La Maschera di Cera are given shorter, but entertaining, film time. Tying it all together for the older folks is ex-Gentle Giant lead guitarist Gary Green, who gives insightful commentary on progressive music throughout the documentary. "Ancient" 1974 clips of GG's performance will give the viewer equal helpings of background & nostalgia.

At the screening I attended at Orion Studios on December 4 (which featured a wonderful pre-screening performance by Chapman Stickist Rob Martino-who is featured in the film), I asked Adele about the title. She responded that it fit the mindset of the musicians who have accepted the "romance" of playing the music they love with total disregard to financial or commercial success, while being thoroughly engaged in the struggle to present their music & gain acceptance with the general public. This documentary should go a long way in accomplishing that goal.

The film is currently making the festival circuit but is now available for purchase at Amazon.com as well as at this site.

"The Social Network" (*** 1/2-120 minutes)

Thursday September 23, 2010

Director David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" was my favorite film in 2008 and should have taken home the coveted Best Picture Award (won by "Slumdog Millionaire"). Fincher goes from fantasy/adventure to this docudrama and, will most likely be in strong contention for this year's award. Shown mainly in flashbacks, we methodically see how the dude who created Facebook, almost by fluke, became in a few short years the planet's youngest billionaire.

Harvard student & computer nerd Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg in a breakout role that will undoubtedly get him AA consideration), upset at being dumped at a restaurant by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara-set to play the latest Lisbeth Salander in the Americanized version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo") in a brilliant nine minute opening scene, decides to get back by immediately creating an online on campus woman rating page using the head shots of Harvard coeds. After the campus servers crash from all of the ensuing traffic, Mark is contacted by jock twins, future Olympic rowers, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both seamlessly played by Armie Hammer) who have a "Facebook" idea but need Zuckerberg's genius to bring it to fruition. Realizing he would never be accepted in their "club" Mark takes their idea and runs with it-all for himself. (One of the legal deposition scenes involves their lawsuit against the now successful Facebook CEO.)

The two main supporting characters are Eduardo (competently played by Andrew Garfield-currently in "Never Let Me Go") who is Mark's only friend who became his early financier-only to be later dumped by the heartless Zuckerberg. (Also included are deposition scenes involving his lawsuit against his longtime friend and co-founder.) And Justin Timberlake (forget 'N Sync, folks-this guy can act! Look for an AA Supporting Actor nom) as Napster & Plaxo founder Sean Parker who takes Mark by the shirt collar and introduces him to Silicon Valley with all the accompanying wild woman, parties, & drugs.

However, the real star is the spectacular rapid fire spot-on dizzying script (based on Ben Mezrich's book "The Accidental Billionaires") by "West Wing" scribe Aaron Sorkin who also wrote the "Charlie Wilson's War" & "The American President" screenplays. It is almost as if Sorkin were being paid by the word, as one's utmost attention is a requisite to getting the most juice out of his wonderful delicious script. My main beef was that, although the pulsating soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is a perfect accompaniment to Fincher's spectacular visual style, the music at times overpowers the words-which has as much character presence as the actor's who are voicing them.

The film, a "Citizen Kane" for our times, never bores and will help put in better perspective a story about how a computer geek had the knowhow, timing, & luck, to earn a king's ransom establishing a network that now involves over 500 million humans interconnecting as "friends" on the World Wide Web.

Erica (Rooney Mara) & Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) exchange
barbs in the opening scene

Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) tries to join forces
with Zuckerberg
Eduardo (Andrew Garfield): Mark's friend, partner, & financier


The good news is that, even though I haven't posted any new reviews since early October, I have continued to attend several film screenings and events over the past month. However, due to recent circumstances beyond my control, I haven't been able to devote the proper time to sit down at my keyboard to update this site. However, I am now ready to get back to my writings and will soon post reviews of several films and events including: Philip Seymour Hoffman's "Jack Goes Boating" (with coverage of a post-screening Q&A with AA nominated actress Amy Ryan), director David Fincher's "The Social Network", Emma Stone's "Easy A", "Stone" (with coverage of a post-screening Q&A with Ed Norton), "Never Let Me Go", AA winning director Danny Boyle's upcoming "127 Hours" (with coverage of the Q&A with the director), & the upcoming "Fair Game" about mother/CIA spy Valerie Plamem whose covert identity was revealed by The Bush Administration in 2003 (with coverage of the Q&A with director Doug Liman, Valerie, & her husband, ex-Ambassador Joe Wilson). So please stop back as I will soon be ready to provide you with my humble opinion that just might prevent you from spending a couple of hours in a theater that you'll never get back.

"Buried" (***-110 minutes)

Tuesday September 21, 2010

As the credits were rolling, I sat there transfixed-immediately probing my brain as to how I was going to approach the review of this film after I had just spent an hour and 40 minutes watching Ryan Reynolds ("The Proposal", but is best known as the actor who dumped pop singer Alanis Morissett to marry Scarlet Johannson) alive in a coffin. My initial conceit was that this was a near miss-a 2 1/2 star flick. However, this film will not go away from my brain cells, and the more I think about it, the more there is to admire about it. Director Rodrigo Cortés, proficient in short films, has ingeniously made, along with cinematographer Eduard Grau ("A Single Man"), his first full-length feature that grabs and won't let go.

Paul Conroy, an independent trucker in Iraq, wakes up in that coffin, along with, among other things, a pen, lighter, flashlight, and a cell phone. After the initial shock of where he is, he gets a series of phone calls and discovers that he has been kidnapped and buried for a ransom. Over the course of 110 minutes (which helps explain the life of that cell phone battery that seems to last forever-until we realize that the movie plays in real time), he desperately tries to contact outsiders to try to help him escape his tomb.

Cortés' ingenious use of light (occasionally throwing the screen into darkness), sound, and a nice haunting soundtrack by Victor Reyes, makes it even more suspenseful, claustrophobic, & creepy. In addition, Reynolds pulls it all off with an intense believable solo acting turn (only voice-overs are supplied by other actors) that is sure to finally get him noticed in a big way.

Although "Buried" is not an easy film to recommend, and it does lose its way a couple of times during the middle reels, you won't be able to look away from this exercise in terror that delivers up until the very end.

The film started platforming across the U.S. last Friday, including D.C., and is due to open in Baltimore next month.

Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) in a bit of a fix

"The Town" (***-125 minutes)

Tuesday September 14, 2010

The town referred to in the title is Charlestown, identified at the outset as a Boston neighborhood with the unique distinction of having more bank and armor car robberies in one square mile than anywhere else in the U.S. Armed with that tidbit of information we immediately are thrust upon a bank robbery about to take place. The perpetrators are a gang of four and, with precision skill, we quickly recognize that these guys are quite adept at their occupation.

During the course of the bank robbery, they take the bank manager hostage and later release her. When the leader of the gang, Doug MacRay (Affleck), who has that heart of gold, finds out the hostage lives in their hood, he takes it upon himself to check her out. Soon the cops and robbers theme, takes a turn into romance and personal redemption. Added in are two more heists that turn into increasingly major gun battles. The last, staged at Fenway Park, is so ridiculously unrealistic that my eyes haven't stopped turning in their sockets.

Based on Chuck Hogan's 2004 novel "Prince of Thieves" (which won the 2005 Hammett Prize for excellence in crime writing), Ben Affleck follows up his Boston-based directorial debut, 2007's "Gone Baby Gone", with this gritty crime drama in which he also stars & co-wrote (along with Peter Craig & his Gone Baby Gone co-writer, Aaron Stockard).

The film should please the most ardent popcorn-loving crowd. Although I do not count myself as one of them, there is much to admire here. First is the acting by some of Hollywood's finest talents. At the top of that list is last year's Oscar nominated Jeremy Renner from 2009's AA Best Picture "The Hurt Locker". His role here as the hotheaded Jem, Doug's childhood friend & partner, is a volcano ready to explode. His performance proves his best acting nomination last year was no fluke-and could put him on the nomination list again. His total immersion in his character made me squirm while watching him in my seat. As the bank manager, Rebecca Hall (wonderful in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and this year's "Please Give") perfectly portrays the roller coaster emotions she experiences. As the FBI agent pursuing the robbers, Jon Hamm (best known for his TV work in "Mad Men") is totally believable and is the perfect foil for the gang. Blake Lively gives a commendable performance as Jem's sister, a lady who still has the hots for MacRay. In addition, there is an all too brief wonderful performance by the great Chris Cooper as Doug MacRay's dad, currently living out his days in prison.

Also positive is the look and feel of the locations, which hometown boy Affleck knows all too well (although the Boston Irish accents are so thick in spots that I wished that subtitles were provided). And the soundtrack by David Buckley & Harry Gregson-Williams perfectly complements the action.

The main problems: the film needs some serious editing. Cutting at least 20 minutes would have made it tighter. Also, those action sequences, although expertly staged, go way over the believability scale for my tastes. The last shootout at Fenway Park, as I mentioned above, is practically science fiction and takes away from everything that preceded it. And, of course, we have that usual Hollywood ending that neatly wraps up the 2 hours but ultimately left me cold and disinterested.

So put me down for a 2 1/2 star flick that elevates to 3 stars due mainly to the incredible acting Affleck gets out of his cast, as well as the overall production values on the screen. Just be certain you have enough popcorn to get you through the 2 hours.

The gang of four (l to r): Jem (Jeremy Renner), 'Gloansy'
(Slain Jenkins), Desmond (Owen Burke), & Doug (Ben Affleck)

Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) tries to get Claire (Rebecca
Hall) to cooperate

Krista (Blake Lively) & Doug (Affleck)

"The Disappearance of Alice Creed" (***1/2-100 minutes)

Thursday July 29, 2010

From a silly Hollywood comedy that falls flat to this near-brilliant indy British noir- J. Blakeson's directorial debut is a sure winner. Although he previously wrote the forgettable "The Decent 2", his screenplay here is tight and unrelenting. It reminded me of the Wachowski Brothers' fabulous initial offering, 1996's "Bound", or this years' wonderful "The Square" in which the action is confined to a couple of set locations complete with nonstop suspense & plot twists that never stop churning until the final credits.

The riveting opening ten minutes depict two guys as they meticulously plan a kidnapping. Composer Marc Canham provides a pulsating score that accompanies the visuals, without dialogue, building up to the actual abduction of one Alice Creed. Slowly, we get to know who these 3 characters are as well as their motives. As each layer of the plot is peeled back, just when you think you have it all figured out, Blakeson decides to take the story into even more unpredictable territory.

The three actors each display incredible range throughout the ordeal. Gemma Arterton (Strawberry Fields in "Quantum of Solace") as Alice and Martin Compston as the young kidnapper, Danny, are perfectly cast and believable in portraying the naivety and cunning demanded by Blakeson's wonderful script. However it is the great Eddie Marsan (supporting in Mike Leigh's 2004 "Vera Drake" and as the quirky cab driver in Leigh's 2008's "Happy Go Lucky") as the intense psychopathic Vic, who can explode at any moment, that will truly keep you focused until the end.

I liked the fact that the violence is minimal as the director is more interested in character development than blood. My only problem was that the film loses some steam in the final reel, but, overall, this one is sure to satisfy you for practically all of its 100 minutes running time.
The kidnappers (l to r), Danny (Martin Compston)
& Vic
(Eddie Marsan)
The kidnapped Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton)

"Dinner for Schmucks" (**1/2-110 minutes)

Tuesday July 20, 2010

Oh boy, it's time for yet another Hollywood remake/redo of a French film. Director Jay Roach has established his career devoted to the comedy genre that includes the Austin Powers franchise, the successful 2000 "Meet the Parents", "Meet the Frockers", as well as producing the Borat & Bruno films starring Sacha Baron Cohen. Here he tackles the 1999 well received "The Dinner Game (Le Dîner de cons)" directed by Francis Veber, the source of previous U.S. remakes including The Man With One Red Shoe," "The Birdcage," and "Father's Day." Alas, another huge disappointment-especially considering the talent involved.

The premise: career minded Tim Conrad (Paul Rudd as the straight man) hopes to climb that executive career ladder to the upper floors with corner windows. After Tim impresses his boss, Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood) during a meeting, Tim is invited to an exclusive dinner regularly thrown by Fender. The kicker: each attendee must bring a guest-the craziest/weirdest of which will be declared the "winner". Although he is reluctant to attend in a moral sense, Tim ultimately sees his chance for furthering his professional standing when he, literally, runs into Barry Speck, played by Steve Carell-outfitted with fake teeth, geeky hairdo & glasses to emphasize his character's geekiness. After Barry offers Tim one of the items that he exclusively uses in his dioramas, a stuffed dead mouse in a costume, Tim realizes that he has found his guest.

The highlight of the film, the actual dinner, does not come until the final reel, and, by then, it is too late. You have to previously endure a trying hour and a half as you watch Carell slowly intrude, and nearly destroy everything good in Rudd's life including his relationship with his girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak in a throw away role). The other characters who are introduced along the way include Barry's IRS boss, Therman (usually reliable Zach Galifianakis in a role that did not produce even a giggle), and Kieran (Jemaine Clement giving a way-over-the-top performance as a narcissistic womanizing artist who is planning to exhibit in Julie's art gallery).

I really wanted to frequently laugh out loud, but the joint screenplay by Andy Borowitz, Ken Daurio, David Guion, & Jon Vitti only managed to squeeze out several light chuckles and one noticeable guffaw (during that dinner sequence at the end). I really yearned for more bite and satire but the script seemed to have that usual Hollywood soft edge-making sure not to offend anyone in the audience.

Rudd & Carell have now done three films together (including Carell's breakout film, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin", & "Anchorman") and their overall chemistry works here, but the film desperately needs an editor's scissor. When the only thing to recommend is a 15-minute segment at the end and those wonderfully conceived dioramas of dead mice, you know you are in for a long evening.

Barry (Steve Carell)with his dioramas

Barry & Kieran (Jemaine Clement) contemplate life

The dinner for schmucks

"The Kids are All Right" (*** 1/2-104 minutes)

Thursday July 22, 2010

Director/writer Lisa Cholodenko's previous narrative efforts were 1998's "High Art" & 2003's "Laurel Canyon", both of which received generally mixed reviews. However, this her third film, she collaborates the writing duties with Stuart Blumberg (2004's "The Girl Next Door") and the results, I predict, will be multiple AA nominations for this terrific ensemble work.

Annette Benning (on the heels of her phenomenal acting in "Mother and Child") stars with Julianne Moore (who also gave a stellar performance in last year's "A Single Man") as Nic & Jules, a long time married lesbian couple raising their 2 kids whom each separately produced using the same surrogate dad. The kids, Joni & Laser, perfectly played by Mia Wasikowska ("Alice in Wonderland") & Josh Hutchinson, are curious as to who their real father/sperm donor is. When Joni (named after the pop/folk singer Joni Mitchell) investigates and they connect with said donor, they set up a lunch date with Paul (played by veteran Mark Ruffalo in a sure fire breakout role).

However, mucho complications ensue when Paul, a cool dude who has never married and owns an organic food restaurant, agrees to meet the surrogate moms-also agreed to, although reluctantly, by said egg donors. Prior to Paul entering the scene, there is already a mid-life crises in full bloom in the steady, typical, bringing-up-kids atmosphere provided by the controlling Nic and the subservient Jules. Now, everyone's world is about to be rocked when Paul enters the picture.

Although "The Kids are All Right" is a "comedy", the smart dialogue & plot situations are believable no matter the sex of the parents. Each character and their motivations are realistic and heartfelt-making this film even more special.

A few words about Mark Ruffalo: His name may not be recognizable but any regular moviegoer will know his face. Most recently seen in "Shutter Island", he's been present in a multitude of films & TV productions and genres. Steady & sure in every role I've seen him in, Paul is the role that may finally put him on the actor A-list. Ruffalo gives a beautifully nuanced performance that, as I stated at the beginning, will undoubtedly lead to one of many nominations this film will bring come Oscar time next year.

(from l to r) Nik (Annette Bening), Jules (Julianne Moore),
Laser (Josh Hutcherson), Joni (Mia Wasikowska), & Paul
(Mark Ruffalo)

The end of an era: 10/05/39-07/21/10

July 21, 2010-Evening

On October 5, 1939, a beautiful Art Deco movie palace, designed by architect John J. Zink, was opening on 5904 York Road in the Govans section of Baltimore. On the marquee was the Spencer Tracy classic "Stanley and Livingston". On 7/21/10, the marquee spelled out yet another classic: "Star Wars-A New Hope". Then, after the last of the overflowing capacity crowd had left around 11:00 PM owner Tom Kiefaber, who, in 1977, had taken over the day-to-day operation of the theater which had been in his family since day one, finally closed the doors.

What had transpired for those 71 years will probably never be duplicated again. Baltimore, and the film world, has lost two true originals: "The Historic Senator Theater" (as the owner would proudly announce in person or on a pre-recorded message prior to each screening) and the passion & dedication of Tom Kiefaber. Oh, the show will go on, as renovations by the new proprietors will soon be underway. Hopefully the lobby's original terrazzo floors and striking art deco murals will remain untouched, as well as the back lit sunburst & the rainbow prisms on the ceiling. And, I can only hope and pray that the same care and diligence that Mr. Kiefaber put into every screening will be continued from here on out.

Tom took such tremendous pride in each presentation that in 2003, the Senator was selected to become the first venue to complete the Historic Cinema Certification Program offered by George Lucas' THX Ltd., the San-Rafael, California based company. You could always expect state of the art projection & sound systems to be presented on the massive 40 ft curved screen. Folks, there was a reason that the theater has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1989.

The Senator's glory can be viewed for all time on celluloid in films such as "Twelve Monkeys", "Diner", "Avalon", and John Water's "Cecil B. Demented". Several premiers have occurred there over the years, as well, for Baltimore location films "Ladder 49", "Runaway Bride", "Avalon". John Waters & Barry Levinson often chose The Senator to premier their works.

In 1999, Tom received a call from the Baltimore Little Italy neighborhood association who asked him to put in motion an idea to show movies on a space, which Tom later realized, was the perfect ratio of a 16mm movie screen. However, the only spot for a projector was from the apartment window of longtime Little Italy resident 89-year-old John Pente. John had been living in Little Italy since birth, and in that apartment, bought by his grandparents, since 1941. He was truly a legend in the neighborhood and he would do anything to bring the community together. As a result, a heavy Bauer projector was carried up three flights of stairs to John's bedroom, and The Little Italy Summer Outdoor Film Festival was born. Its notoriety spread nationwide. Coverage included The Today Show, the front page of The New York Times, & ABC's World News Tonight. A five-minute short was even produced that appeared regularly on Northwest Airline flights beginning in 2000. Four countries (including Italy, of course) sent their representative to inquire about the event. Tom even offered free popcorn to the attendees who brought their own folding chairs to the parking lot in front of John Pente's apartment. (Sadly, and ironically, John Pente, passed away at the age of 100 on July 26th, a mere 5 days after Tom's last day.)

Over the years, Mr. Kiefaber annually offered specially priced or free screenings of classic films, especially during the anniversary of the building's opening and surrounding the Christmas holidays.

In 1993, Tom presented the extraordinary 70mm documentary "Baraka" which was filmed by Ron Fricke in 24 countries on 6 continents. I was so moved by the work and presentation, that I came back multiple times during its run to see it on the magnificent screen at The Senator because I knew I would probably never ever see it the same way in any other theater. Shortly thereafter, Tom started celebrating Earth Day by offering to show it free each year. The event, coupled with a drum circle in the lobby before the show, was a mainstay of the community. I came back repeatedly-often bringing friends to witness one of the most amazing documentaries I've ever seen-the only way it should be seen: on the giant screen at The Senator. He and I often spoke of someday putting our money together to buy our own 70mm print of the doc.

Tom Kiefaber was honored in 2003 with the Business Leadership Award “in recognition of his tireless advocacy for historic, independent movie theaters".

Finally, I'd like to personally thank you, Tom, for you are the reason this column exists. In 2007, in response to an occasional Email to my mailing list buds in which I reviewed certain films I had seen, you suggested that I place my writings on the Internet. I took your advice and, because of it, I now share my thoughts with a multitude of readers. Thanks, Tom. I sincerely hope that whatever endeavor you undertake from here on out will bring total success into your life; and bring to you as much joy as you have brought to us moviegoers over these many years. You will be missed!


There is a group, The Friends of The Senator, who are dedicated to preserving the heritage of The Senator and are providing up-to-date news and information regarding this theater. Their site is: http://www.friendsofthesenator.org./

Other sites worth noting:

The People's Theater at http://www.thepeoplestheatre.us/;

The Senator designated one of America's Top 10 Theatres! By: J. Rentilly Moving Pictures MagazineWinter 2008/2009 Click here

10 theaters doing it right: We tell you about the movie houses that make watching films a dreamBy Gilbert Cruz, Gregory Kirschling Entertainment Weekly Click here

The Senator's owner honored by Theatre Historical Society of AmericaSecond recipient in history of THSA's prestigious"Creating Theatre History" award Click here for a YouTube of award presentation

Places to see a classic cinemaUSA Today Posted 09/29/2003 Click here

Sidewalk block honoring the late Bruce Crockett,
creator of the Sidewalk Hall of Fame

A portion of the 100 blocks comprising The Sidewalk
Hall of Fame

The capacity crowd await the final show
Tom Kiefaber addresses the audience for the final time
The Millenium Falcon hovers over the concession stand
Theater manager Gayle Grove with Tom after the show
Tom gets knighted by a Star Wars Jedi Knight wannabe
The historic Senator Theater
The rotunda

The Senator Theater in 1948

RENTAL RECOMMENDATION: "Please Give" (*** 1/2-90 minutes)

Wednesday July 21, 2010 -Afternoon

Phew! After the mindless action flick from the night before it was a welcome relief to catch up on a film genre that is more to my liking. An easy, character-driven realistic comedy/drama from Nicole Holofcener, the talented indy director who has been directing nothing but critic favorites since 1996 with "Walking and Talking". Then, beginning in 2001, she added screenwriting to her directing credit for "Lovely and Amazing", followed by "Friends with Money" (which was the opening night movie at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and, although not one of my favorites, it became her most financially successful move to date), and now the wonderful "Please Give" which was released last April. And, despite currently receiving meager box office results, I highly recommend putting this one on your list.

Catherine Keener (her 3rd film in a row with the director) gives yet another standout performance in the lead role (she's been quite busy this year appearing in "Cyrus" as well as "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief"), with another competent veteran, Oliver Platt, as a married couple, Kate & Alex, who run a furniture shop populated with the belongings of dead people. Marty is the straightforward, happy-go-lucky partner who's in it for the bucks, while Keener seems to have a deep-rooted moral conscience in the buying and selling end of her business. She's also quite the philanthropist-even offering money (paper-not coins) to homeless and the not-so-homeless folks she happens upon on the streets of NY. (There's a funny scene involving a person in front of a restaurant that I won't spoil here.)

They live together with their teenage daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), who's hell-bent on getting expensive designer blue jeans. They live next to the apartment occupied by the cantankerous aging Andra (Ann Guilbert-a wonderful character actor whom Woody Allen would envy). She's being looked after by her two visiting granddaughters, sisters Rebecca & Mary (Rebecca Hall, who appeared in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", & Amanda Peet, respectively). The timid, caring Rebecca is a radiology tech while narcissistic Mary works at a spa giving massages and facials.

Meanwhile, Kate & Alex are doing so well in their business they plan to expand into Andra's pad as soon as she's left the planet. The plot is set in motion when they decide to finally get to know their neighbor by inviting Andra and her granddaughters over for dinner to celebrate Andra's birthday.

The character development and interactions that ensue take a little while to get going, but once in motion, the story takes off and you'll find yourself thoroughly involved as the director delivers on many levels. The script subtly & humorously raises your consciousness as to what is most important in life and relationships without being judgmental & preachy-all of which adds Nicole Holofcener to the growing list of insightful writers/directors working in today's cinema. A wonderful film!

The DVD release is scheduled for July 29th.

Abby (Sarah Steele) & her mom (Catherine Keener)

Alex (Oliver Platt) trying to make a sale
Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) (l) & Mary (Amanda Peet)

"Salt" (***-99 minutes)

Tuesday July 20, 2010

The movie career of Australian director Philip Noyce started with a bang: 1989's brilliant high seas thriller "Dead Calm" starring Sam Neill, Billy Zane, and a very young nubile 21 year old newcomer named Nicole Kidman playing a person being stalked by a mass murderer on a sailboat (rent it!). Noyce went on to film another wonderful Aussie film, "Rabbit-Proof Fence" in 2002 and a couple of high powered Hollywood films based on Tom Clancy's spy novels, "Patriot Games" & "A Clear and Present Danger".

In "Salt" Noyce combines the heroic femme fatale theme with the spy genre to give us, yet another, James Bondish, totally outlandish, action film that seems to be a requisite of the majority of summer flicks year after year. (Nice to see strong willed female roles abounding lately; namely, Lizbeth, the gal with that dragon tattoo, & now Evelyn Salt). This time around we have the charismatic Angelina Jolie doing the honors as the focus of a plot that never quite reveals who she is or whom she is working for until the end of the final reel.

Let me say up front, I'm not a huge fan of these bombastic, leave your brain at the front door, popcorn movies. But I have to hand it to Noyce, the guy can direct action sequences with the best of them. And, although the plot is never fully revealed until the end, you actually won't care because the presence of Jolie is so mesmerizing that the superhuman stunts she performs, with no let up, keeps you interested in the game nonetheless.

The film opens with Jolie as Evelyn Salt being tortured unmercifully by North Koreans who suspect she is a spy. Her life/torturing are sparred when she becomes involved in a prisoner swap. Advance 2 years later and she is about to celebrate her 2 year anniversary with her husband, a German (August Diehl), who happened to be involved with freeing her in North Korea. She is working as an undercover CIA operative in D.C. and, just as she is about to leave work to celebrate, a Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski) shows up that sets in motion enough chase sequences and plot twists for two films.

Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Andre Braugher offer pedestrian supporting roles, and, once again, you'll be bombarded by an aggressive in-your-face (ear?) soundtrack, this time by the talented James Newton Howard. The good news is the music here is more in the background than, say, in "Inception", and was definitely not as distracting. Also, the production values, as well as the editing by Stuard Baird and John Gilroy, are top notch.

Finally, if you are into the whole spy genre, you'll be pleased that Noyce pays particular homage to the Cold War 60's environment prevalent between the Russians & U.S. If you think this is preposterous in this day and age, remember that this film comes practically on the heels of headline that story a couple of weeks ago involving those Russian spies we just swapped. And, I love the '60's nod to the knife-in-the-shoe-wielding Russian female spy, Colonel Klebb, in "From Russia with Love".

So, suspend total belief at the door (anyone who has been in the middle of midday D.C traffic will still have their eyes rolling witnessing the chase scene a third of the way in as Jolie performs maneuvers that even Spiderman would envy), grab that popcorn, & sit back. And, although you'll be entertained, be prepared to have trouble remembering what the film was all about not too long after you leave the theater.
Evelyn Salt (Joie) about to use her home-made weapon

Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), Peobody (Chiwetel Ejiofer)
& Salt (Jolie) about to interrogate the Russian defector

"Inception" (***-148 minutes)

Tuesday July 13, 2010

The most highly anticipated film of the summer (which, folks, let's be honest, that ain't saying much this year!) is also one of the most unique original films ever created. Director/screenwriter Christopher Nolan ("Memento"; "Insomnia";"The Dark Knight") had the idea knocking inside his head (dreams?) for about 10 years and the results are ingenious, spectacular, thought provoking, intriguing, entertaining, and yet, stupefying. If a film ever required multiple viewings this one is at the top of the list. And a bit of a warning: Do not, I repeat, DO NOT, walk into this one not prepared to give it your 100% attention. And if you need to make a bathroom run (please note the running time), you can forget about it. That being said, this is one amazing trip into the landscape of dreams-yours and everybody else's.

The basic premise: Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio successfully playing yet another character who is in constant anguish & angst) is a master of dream sharing &, therefore, is capable of stealing ideas from the minds of others-corporate mind thievery or espionage. An extractor, if you will. We quickly find out, also, that his wife is dead and that he's on the lam, internationally, unable to return to the U.S. to see his children-other than in his dreams.

He's given the opportunity to get into the U.S. safely by Saito (Ken Watanabe) who believes, by using his techniques, he can, instead of stealing an idea, implant an idea (inception) into a rival's dreams in order to change the course of his conscious actions when the rival's rich father dies. If Cobb agrees and ultimately succeeds, Saito knows enough people who can get him through customs and back to his children.

Got it? Well, that's the basic set-up. What follows next is the recruitment and placement of the "heist" team that will accomplish this task by entering/creating a dream within a dream within a dream. In other words, three levels down. The target? Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), who is about to inherit his father's empire. Saito intends to benefit if Fischer is convinced to split up his newly acquired energy empire. Still with me? Although the premise is straight forward, the execution not as much so. There is a lot of explanations as to time warping between levels (one level down, 5 minutes of dreaming becomes 1 hour-but 3 levels down, those 5 minutes turn into years); consequences of dying in your dream; how to wake up from the dreams; objects taken with you that can reveal whether you are in the real or dream state; etc. All the dialogue demands total attention and then some to piece together & make sense of the logic in Nolan's mind (hence my suggestion of repeated viewings).

The supporting cast is generally terrific but I had wished more time was available for richer character development. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (most recently starring in last year's terrific "500 Days of Summer") is Arthur, Cobb's point man and confidante; Tom Hardy is Eames, master of disguises; Yusef (Dileep Rio) is the chemist who is responsible for the strong sedatives needed for the operation; and, the weakest link in the group, Ellen Page (What?? Juno?!) is Ariadne, the young architect recruited to "build" the dream mazes in each of the levels. Playing Cob's deceased wife, Mal, is Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard ("La Vie En Rose") who provides the emotional thread that drives Cobb's motivations throughout. She tries to convince Cob to join her forever and ever in dreamland by constantly reappearing, uninvited, in all of his dreams. Not a good idea when you are three levels down and continually interfering with the mission. Competent cameos are provided by veterans Michael Caine and Tom Berenger.

For me, there are a couple of problems-the most annoying of which involves the soundtrack. There is no question that Hans Zimmer, who has composed scores for countless films and who has been nominated for 58 awards while winning 48 (including the AA for "Lion King"), is at the top of his game. However, for some reason, his music is placed incessantly throughout almost every frame-often rivaling and practically drowning out the dialogue. It eventually became, for me, an unwanted character. In a film requiring total concentration, this was a huge distraction. Also, the decision to make each dream sequence an individual action movie in itself seems preposterous (mine do have quiet moments from time to time). However, it does succeed in sustaining one's interest. Sort of. The final reel involving a shootout in the mountains goes on way too long and I found myself practically zoning out. Cutting this one by 1/2 hour at least would have been my preference. Also, in the end, I didn't have the emotional connection I should have felt after spending so much time in dreamland.

During my initial visit to Sundance in January 1999, I happened upon The Treasure Mountain Inn on Main street-home of the alternative film festival in Park City-Slamdance. They were presenting the major award winners chosen the the night before. I hunkered down in a room with about 75 folding chairs for 4 consecutive screenings, one of which was a fabulous small black and white film entitled "Following" which had won the Cinematography Award (put that on your rental list-it is wonderful). Afterward, the blond haired English director conducted a Q&A for this, his first feature film made for a paltry $6,000.

Despite the minor flaws, how he put on screen ideas that originated right around the time I was sitting in that small room in Park City is pure genius. However, it will be interesting to see how widespread the appeal will be with the viewing audience. Although "Inception" is an action movie at heart, there all so many intellectually challenging convolutions to deal with, that, I fear, this film might be lost on a major segment of the target audience.

(from l to r) The heist gang: Yusef (Dileep Rio), Eames
(Thomas Hardy), Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt),
Dom (Leonardi DiCaprio), & Ariande (Ellen Page)
with Saito (Ken Watanabe)

Mal (Marion Cotillard) & Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio)
Share a quite mo
ment in dreamland

Shared dreaming demonstrated in Paris

Director/screenwriter Christopher Nolan


Monday July 12, 2010

"Solitary Man" (*** 1/2-90 minutes)-Producer/Director/actor Michael Douglas won an Academy Award playing a sleaze ball con artist in "Wall Street". In "Solitary Man", his performance ranks up there with his personification of Gordon Gekko. Douglas IS a solitary man and for good reason. The narcissism flows like lava from an active volcano engulfing and consuming everybody that comes into his path. Hell bent on personal destruction, we witness several days in the downfall of this dude who once had it all: great wife (Susan Sarandon), promising career as car salesman "Honest Ben Kalman", beautiful family-a man with so much charisma & charm that he is able to seduce anything his little heart desires. And that's the problem. The man has no heart for anyone but himself. Although I'm describing a very despicable dude, Douglas makes us pity him and that is the beauty of his acting. Directed by Brian Koppelman, who co-wrote the script with David Levien, this (subtle) comedy/drama has some terrific supporting roles including Mary-Louise Parker as his current girlfriend; Imogene Poots as her daughter who is accompanied by Douglas to her college-to-be (he knows the dean and mom has the flu); Jenna Fisher as Ben's daughter; Jesse Eisenberg as the college student who gets a few life lessons from Honest Ben; and Danny Divito, Ben's old college buddy who runs a campus greasy spoon. All are, in different ways, seduced by Ben who just can't seem to finally grown up and get it. A spot-on character study and tour-de-force by one of Hollywood's finest actors who keeps getting better and better with age. The DVD release is scheduled for September 7.

"City Island" (****-104 mintues)-This is one of my favorite films of the year. The audience award winner at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival (run by Robert DeNiro) is a wonderful human comedy that completely took me over with it's charm (hmmm-seems to be a running theme) about keeping secrets from those you love and dealing with the consequences. Andy Garcia gives a 4 star performance as Vince, the head of an Italian-American family whose members are each housing a secret. He's a prison guard who yeans to be an actor-so much so he secretly goes off every Wednesday to acting classes telling his wife (the wonderful Julianna Margulies-who previously paired up with Garcia in 2001's "The Man From Elysian Fields") he's playing poker. Not believing him, she secretly tries to start an affair with Tony (Steven Strait), a dude whom Vince rescues & brings home from prison after he recognizes him as the child he abandoned in a prior life. Of course, he keeps this fact a secret from Tony. Meanwhile, Vince's daughter (Dominik Garcio-Lorido) is visiting home from college-well, not really. She lost her scholarship & is trying to earn her way back in by working as a stripper. Teen-age son Vinnie (Ezra Miller) has a peculiar secret fetish: craving overweight females eating in their kitchen in front of a web-cam. And even the secrets have secrets: Vince's assignment in acting class (headed by the always winning Alan Arkin) is to share a secret with a fellow student in preparation of voicing a monologue in front of the class. He's paired with Emily Mortimer who, not surprisingly, has a secret of her own. Director/screenwriter Raymond De Felitta keeps the clever screenplay moving along at a brisk humorous pace and utilizes a brilliant score by Kim Oler and lyricist Allison Hubbard that is perfectly suited for the visuals. The pace and charm of the film reminded me of the wonderful Canadian film "Seducing Dr. Lewis" which won the 2004 Sundance Audience Award. (You should put that one your list as well.) "City Island" (which refers to the seaport community in the Bronx) is being released on DVD on August 31.

"The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos)" (****-156 minutes)-This year's Foreign Language Academy Award winner is, quite simply, a masterpiece. I was a bit miffed when "Sin Nombre" wasn't even nominated (an equally brilliant film), but, having seen this one, my feelings have been tempered. Director/screenwriter Juan José Campanella has crafted an intricate narrative that cuts back and forth over 25 years with 2 themes at its core: a senseless rape & murder of a young beautiful newlywed and an unrequited relationship between an attractive successful judge (Soledad Villamil) and her investigator (Ricardo Darin) who secretly loves her. The story, centered in Buenos Aires, begins in 2000 as the investigator, Benjamin, now retired and still haunted by the case, is struggling to write his memoirs about the crime. After he takes the manuscript to his former boss, Irene, for her critique, each story line begins its meticulous journey allowing you to savor, like fine wine, the beautiful tapestry of the plot. Campanella has populated the story with wonderful supporting characters-especially Guillermo Francella as Sandoval, Benjamin's alcoholic assistant who plays a prominent role in investigation, and Pablo Rago as Morales, the widower who spends his days waiting to spot the murderer in a train station. In addition, there is a chase sequence in a soccer stadium that is astounding in its execution. However, the quiet reflective moments are just as powerful as the action sequences and, by the end, you'll agree with Roger Ebert's assessment that, " This is a real movie, the kind they literally don't make very much anymore". The DVD is currently available.