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A mature look at mature love, 28 September 2014

Usually when movies use Paris as a romantic backdrop, it's a young couple who gets to occupy the foreground. Not so with "Le Week-End," a tale of two aging tourists - he a professor of philosophy, she a teacher - who've chosen to "celebrate" their 30th anniversary in (where else? ) the City of Lights.

Like many couples who have been together for a long time, Nick and Meg Burroughs often seem to have more things that are driving them apart than bringing them together. Not only have they grown tired of each other's all-too-predictable habits and quirks, but Meg, in particular, feels that now, with the kids grown and gone, it may be time for the two of them to move on and to spend what little time they have left getting to know themselves as individuals rather than as a couple.

Because the screenplay by Hanif Kureishi is clearly focused on an older couple, the film captures the paradox that exists at the core of lasting romantic love: that the very same predictable patterns and dull routines that, over time, work to deaden love are also what enhance intimacy and bind us inexorably to one another over the long haul.

Though Meg and Nick are still clearly sexual beings, even that fact has caused some tension and division between them, namely in an affair Nick had awhile back and for which he is perpetually atoning. Yet, the script is smart enough to know that what is said in the heat of the moment is not always indicative of what is in the heart.

Much of the second half of the film takes place at a posh and pretentious dinner party thrown by an old college buddy of Nick's, an American author and intellectual played by Jeff Goldblum.

Director Roger Michell keeps the tone serious and intimate without becoming heavy-handed or preachy. He allows the characters to reveal their depth through conversation and the way they interact with the world and each other. He is aided immeasurably by the skilled and incisive performances of Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan, who make us truly believe that they are a couple who have grown both comfortable and complacent with one another over time. Above all, "Le Week-End" acknowledges that relationships are tricky and complex things and come with no pat or easy instructions to make them easier to navigate our way through.

After "Le Week-End," it may not be necessary for Richard Linklater to make another "Before…" movie, after all. I think Kureishi and Michell might have done it already.

Stalingrad (2013)
Banal, stolid WWII film, 24 September 2014

From the war-is-hell department comes "Stalingrad," an old-fashioned World War II movie chronicling the famous siege that devastated that city in 1942 and 1943. This dubbed-into-English Russian film tells of five heroic Soviet fighters who commandeer a shell-shocked woman's apartment out of which they wage their own battle against the Nazis.

With its clear-cut delineation between good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains (except for one momentarily ambiguous Nazi), it's clear that subtlety is not exactly the movie's strong suit. In addition, its complete lack of character development turns the viewers into dispassionate observers of all the brutality and carnage taking place on screen.

Running an overlong 2 hours and 10 minutes, this static and talky and occasionally corny movie seems designed to provide modern-day Russians with a morale boost by giving them a chance to focus on their heroic past. And while the Russians have just as much of a right to engage in this sort of self-congratulatory exercise as anyone else (goodness knows, American movie makers do it often enough), it still doesn't make for very compelling filmmaking or drama.

If you want to see this sort of thing done right, check out the beautiful 1957 Russian classic, "The Cranes are Flying," a true work of art for any season or nationality.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Paul deserves better, 21 September 2014

A high-octane action flick on the order of the "Fast and Furious" franchise, "Need for Speed" features the less-than-impressive first big-screen headliner role for Aaron Paul, the brilliant young star of TV's "Breaking Bad." In it, he portrays Tobey Marshall, an unassuming mechanic by day and by night a street racer whose recently deceased dad was not only the owner of the body shop that Tobey is now trying to rescue from the old man's years of mismanagement but a legend among the die-hard racing crowd. Daddy issues much? Before he knows it, Tobey is wrongly convicted of the death of his best friend in a fiery car crash and, when he's finally paroled, dedicates his life to exacting revenge on the actual culprit, a snooty rival from Tobey's past. And what better or more fitting way than by besting said villain in an illegal cross-country race sponsored by an underground radio announcer played by Michael Keaton?

The plot, such as it is, doesn't require much more in the way of elaboration, other than to say that it's basically just an excuse for a bunch of testosterone-fueled, speed-busting outlaws to careen through the city streets and around the countryside in their fantastically expensive race cars with zero regard for the lives and safety of themselves or anyone else around them. This cavalier attitude is supposed to make the characters somehow cool and charming when what they really are is obnoxious and appalling. And while we're asked to weep when one of their own number gets inevitably killed in an "accident," that same courtesy isn't extended to any of the innocent motorists or law enforcement officials who might get taken out during their high-stakes "playtime." They're all just "collateral damage," I suppose.

One understands Paul's need for a little R&R in the acting department after the intense rigors required by five seasons of "Breaking Bad." Still, one hopes that he'll soon get back to doing what he does best now that he's gotten this little career detour into commercial movie-making out of his system.

Director Scott Waugh pumps up the action scenes efficiently, but he's had far less success with the quieter expository moments. No surprise, given that the movie is based on a video game of the same name.

The supporting cast includes Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Ramon Rodriguez ("Gang-Related"), Rami Malek and the aforementioned Keaton, but, like Paul, they too play second fiddle to the cars, chase scenes and stunt work. And that, I guess, is as it should be when it comes to a movie with a title like "Need for Speed."

Offbeat and funny, 16 September 2014

A familiar face in Britain but a virtual unknown in the States, comedian Steve Coogan has made his name in his home country portraying a fictional radio talk show host by the name of Alan Partridge. Since 1991, Coogan has performed his act on both radio and TV, and now he's branched out to his first feature-length movie entitled "Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa" (just "Alan Partridge" in the United States).

In the film, the station where Partridge works is facing serious cutbacks due to a corporate takeover, changing audience tastes, a drop in listenership and bailing advertisers. Though Partridge himself survives the ax, the same cannot be said for his fellow broadcaster, Pat Farrell ("Hell on Wheels' Colm Meaney), who, upon learning of his dismissal, completely flips out, holding his co-workers hostage at gunpoint while the goofy and inept Partridge is sent in by the authorities to help negotiate a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Maybe with our history of gun violence, we're a trifle more sensitive to this sort of thing here in America than they are in Britain, which may explain why some of the laughs tend to catch in our throats at times, particularly when Farrell is threatening to take out a bunch of his own innocent and understandably distraught colleagues as retaliation for the wrong that's been done to him. That being said, the stylish mix of satire, slapstick, black humor and social commentary that Coogan and his various co-writers have come up keeps us chortling through most of the movie.

Coogan makes Partridge a likable everyman character, bemused and skeptical without being hard-edged and cynical. The supporting cast is engaging as well.

Offbeat and funny.

Repentance (2013/I)
Potentially interesting idea frittered away, 15 September 2014

"Repentance" starts off as a reasonably sincere tale of a best-selling author/life coach (Anthony Mackie) who tries to help a grieving man (Forest Whitaker) come to turns with the death of his mother. But at the 35 minute mark, the movie suddenly jumps the tracks, turning into a bizarre, yet strangely conventional, hostage drama, with the psychologically disturbed client kidnapping and torturing the psychologist in an effort to prove which of the two is actually most in need of help.

The movie seems to be making the case that people like the Mackie character are just glib, overpaid shysters, taking advantage of people's suffering by offering them little but shibboleths and bromides to help them cope with their problems - but any message the movie might be trying to convey is subsumed by the unpleasant melodramatics that come to dominate the second half. Yeomen that they are, Mackie and Whitaker work valiantly to overcome the various roadblocks that the script throws in their path, but even these two fine performers eventually have to concede that they're fighting a losing battle here. Even the "surprise" ending and moralistic message can't ultimately redeem this cinematic turkey.

Non-Stop (2014)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Effective within its limitations, 12 September 2014

Those with a fear of flying might want to skip "Non-Stop," an airliner- in-jeopardy thriller that could have you taking trains and buses for quite some time to come.

In another of his increasingly frequent action-hero roles, Liam Neeson plays Bill Marks, a U.S. air marshal who discovers that someone aboard a flight from New York to London is threatening to kill a new passenger every 20 minutes until $150 million is deposited into an account that has been set up for the occasion. The twist is that the mystery culprit is making it look as if Marks is the actual extortionist and may even be making Marks carry out some of the killings for him.

"Non-Stop" works well enough within the limited confines of both the setting and the hostages-held-for-ransom genre of which it is a part. The whodunit plotting unravels at an appropriate pace, with a whole host of possible suspects for us to choose from, including fellow passengers Juliette Moore, Anson Mount ("Hell on Wheels") and Corey Stoll ("House of Cards" ), as well as Michelle Dockery ("Downton Abbey") and Lupita Nyong'o ("12 Years a Slave") as flight attendants who demonstrate grace and ingenuity under pressure.

The holes in the plot are probably large enough to fly a 747 through, but you really won't notice or care while you're strapped in for the ride. And to think, most airlines just provide movies as in-flight entertainment.

Romance done right, 10 September 2014

Everyday at midday, something quite unusual happens in Mumbai, India: dozens of bike riders fan out to deliver homemade lunches to workers all across the city. These lunches are literally homemade, produced principally by the wives of these working men, though various restaurants participate in the deliveries as well. One day, the lunch that Ila (Nimrat Kaur) has intended for her husband is mistakenly delivered to someone she's never met, a widower named Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), a man soon to be retired from his job as a government clerk after 35 years, who lives a life of solitude and loneliness with nothing but memories of his late wife for companionship.

Out of this simple situation, Ritesh Batra, writer and director of "The Lunchbox," has fashioned an endearing and observant tale of two total strangers who forge the unlikeliest of long-distance relationships. Through the notes that they pass back and forth to one another along with the lunches, Ila and Saajan open up their hearts in ways that Ila finds herself unable to do with her husband and Saajan has been unable to do since the passing of his wife. For though married with a child, Ila is clearly as lonely and unfulfilled in her life as Fernandes is in his.

Protected by the cloak of anonymity, Ila and Saajan carry on an old- fashioned pen-pal romance in an era in which the rest of us have moved onto chat rooms and instant messages. Then, of course, comes the inevitable moment…should they meet in person, potentially deepening their relationship - or possibly ruining forever the very rare and special thing they already have?

Marked by delicacy and imagination, "The Lunchbox" reminds us all of how to make a quality movie romance. Hollywood should take note.

Son of God (2014)
Uninspired and uninspiring, 8 September 2014

After the violent excesses of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," "Son of God" feels like a bit of a throwback to the days when Hollywood churned out homogenized biblical spectacles with almost as much regularity as it does superhero movies today. This two-and-a-quarter-hour film, expanded from a shorter version originally shown on the History Channel as part of the miniseries "The Bible," plods its way through the familiar story without bringing anything particularly new or interesting to the material. It even has a conventionally European Jesus in the person of Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, which undercuts a good deal of the movie's authenticity from the outset. That, combined with an unwillingness to offend anyone, turns the greatest story ever told into a great big heaping helping of pabulum, an Illustrated Highlights edition suitable for a Sunday School lesson perhaps but little else.

The mood is so reverential, in fact - so filled with tired bromides, swelling music, cheesy narration, and endless shots of awe-stricken onlookers - that we are unable to connect with any of the characters as actual human beings, to see them as anything more than actors in a long and very elaborate Easter pageant. The paint-by-numbers screenplay goes through the motions, but it leaves us unimpressed and uninspired. We seem to go from one overly familiar incident to another without the slightest pause for reflection or introspection to help us determine what it all means.

Setting aside, for the moment, Martin Scorsese's mega-controversial adaptation of "The Last Temptation of Christ," it's not as if there haven't been any GOOD movies made from this story - Pier Paolo Pasolini's "The Gospel According to Saint Matthew" and Franco Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth" being just the first examples that spring to mind. And Gibson did bring a unique perspective to "Passion," for all the controversy he ended up generating with the film.

And indeed it's that very passion - for characterization and human conflict, if not for the subject itself - that "Son of God" most sorely lacks.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Definitely an acquired taste, 7 September 2014

Implausibility is the hallmark of Akiva Goldsman's "Winter's Tale," a sappy romance, whose handsome production values and fantastical elements can't quite conceal its dime-novel origins. Set at the turn- of-the-century (the 20th Century, that is), this adaptation of the Mark Helprin novel employs generous dollops of magic realism in a vain attempt to cover a multitude of narrative sins.

Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is a dreamy-eyed thief-with-a-heart-of-gold who makes a home for himself in the attic of Grand Central Station, rides around the city on a kind of magic horse, and, on one of his periodic burglaries, meets Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), a poor little rich girl, who, like all good heroines of a certain era, is rapidly succumbing to consumption. Repeating to some extent his Javert bit in "Les Miserables" (minus, thank heavens, the singing), Russell Crowe plays Pearly Soames, a sadistic Fagin-esque figure who raised the orphaned Peter up to become a thief but who now thinks his young ex- protégé has just turned into a great big softie (the fellow has somehow gotten the notion that he can steal from people without actually harming them physically) and is determined to make Lake pay for his disloyalty. Soames is so villainous, in fact, that he stops just short of twirling his mustache whenever he's about to perform one of his trademarked dastardly deeds. Turns out there's more to it, though, as we learn that Peter is the first human who's on the brink of "using his miracle," (i.e., saving Beverly) which would result in...well, we're never really quite sure what it would result in, but we're assured it would be pretty awesome. And, oh yes, did I mention that at some point a laughable Will Smith joins the proceedings, portraying no less a figure than that old boy Lucifer, who it turns out is Soames' boss, Soames himself being a demon from hell? And things just get weirder from there. In fact, I half expected the horse to let out with a "Wi..i..i..i..lber" at some point, but he never did.

Fast forward to the present day to find an amnesia-stricken Peter unaccountably defying the ravages of time to wander the streets of New York searching for that elusive something he knows he lost a full century ago. Yet, amidst all the soul-searching and miracle-working and New Age-philosophizing, the only thing we really want to know is why the man couldn't come up with a more stylish and flattering hairstyle after a hundred additional years on Earth.

Ah well, if this sort of thing happens to be your cup of tea, at least know that you'll be rewarded with some mighty impressive visuals as well as a total saturation in period atmosphere. You'll also get to see such acting stalwarts as William Hurt, Jennifer Connelly, Graham Greene and Eva Marie Saint in supporting roles. But beyond that, I can't offer much in the way of encouragement or solace for those who insist on giving "Winter's Tale" a try. Just know that this is a movie designed with a very specific audience in mind.

Omar (2013)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Humanistic exploration of a controversial topic, 24 August 2014

"Omar" is so topical in content and authentic in form that it feels as though it had been ripped straight from the morning's headlines. This Oscar-nominated Palestinian film may not be as "fair and balanced" in its depiction of the seemingly endless and intractable Mid East conflict as some might wish it to be, but, like all good social dramas, the movie is far more concerned with exploring the human condition than with scoring political points.

Omar (Adam Bakri) is a young Palestinian baker who, at great risk to himself, regularly scales the massive wall that runs through occupied Palestine to hang out with his friends, Tarek (Iyad Hoorani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat), and to carry on a secret romance with his girlfriend, Nadia (Leem Lubany), who also happens to be Tarek's sister. The three young men are also active as "freedom fighters," dedicated to liberating their people from Israeli control. After Amjad shoots and kills an Israeli soldier, Omar is arrested and coerced into becoming a spy in exchange for his freedom. Against this backdrop of simmering social and ethnic unrest, the bonds of friendship are tested in ways that will surprise and move you.

Though the geographic, sectarian and boundary issues could be a bit more clearly defined for audiences less familiar with the area, the screenplay by Hany Abu-Assad finds its truth in its portrayal of what day-to-day life is like for the ordinary people who call that part of the world home. Omar and his buddies may be passionately partisan about their cause, but that doesn't mean they aren't complex, three- dimensional characters in their own right. For underneath all the outward bravado and righteous bluster, they are still just "boys" after all, with all the interests and concerns that all young men have who are embarking on this journey we call life - a journey made all the more arduous and challenging by the world in which they live.

Assad's direction is taut when it needs to be (particularly in the striking foot chases through the narrow streets and alleyways of the prison-like city) and observant and patient when that is what is called for.

All the actors are excellent, but special mention must be made of young Bakri, who, as the title character, runs the emotional gamut from explosive to sheepish without missing a beat, his sly, toothy grin standing in direct counterpoint to his steely gaze and serious mien. It is Bakri who largely cuts through the polemics and who makes the story one that all of us can relate to. Well worth seeing.

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