2012

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Hitchcock

(R) • 98 minutes • On-screen here from 12/28/12 to 1/13/13

Director:  Sacha Gervasi

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlet Johanssen, Jessica Biel

Synopsis: “What if someone good made a horror picture?” asks Alfred Hitchcock of his wife Alma Reville early on in Sacha Gervasi’s clever and witty drama about the making of PsychoPsycho was itself the film that so emphatically answered that question in 1960 and the story of its creation – based on Stephen Rebello’s enthralling 1990 account, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, and scripted by John McLaughlin – is at heart the story of a marriage, between a fat, ugly genius and the “tiny, birdlike woman” who was invigilator, confidante and touchstone to his talent.

Played here by Anthony Hopkins, in facial prosthesis and fake belly, and the neither tiny nor particularly birdlike Helen Mirren, Hitch and Alma appear as an indissoluble partnership in art and life, suddenly threatened by pressures from without (no budget) but more from within, particularly by Alfred’s tendency, now tiresome to the red-haired Alma, to become obsessed with his leading blondes.

The film opens with Hitchcock speaking directly to us, Alfred Hitchcock Presents … style. He’s just enjoyed the huge success of North by Northwest and is at a loose end for projects. Offered Cary Grant in Casino Royale, he reminds his assistant Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette): “I just made that movie.” His ears prick up, however, when he encounters Robert Bloch’s Freudian gore-transvestite-incest-necrophilia shocker Psycho, which horrifies everyone he shows it to, but which might give him the edge he needs in his private war with French director Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose Les Diaboliques has critics talking of “French Hitchcocks” and similar rot.

But Paramount won’t back it, and the Hitchcocks are driven back on their own resources, and into one another’s company. We see them in domestic harmony, 34 years married, Alfred in the bath reading the Times, and Alma clad in the same white bra and slip that Janet Leigh will wear in Psycho’s opening sequence. Alma has the epicurean Hitchcock on a diet and one senses trouble in paradise. The film essentially tells us how their marriage suffers until she, in a magisterial, bark-stripping tirade, finally reminds him of her indispensable role in his success: “I was once your boss!”

The device that speeds along the estrangement of the partnership is the movie’s weakest invention, a screenwriting project with another writer (Danny Huston), a fool and a hack in Hitch’s eyes. But one should treat that like a McGuffin – a plot engine – forget that the middle section sags a little, and enjoy the ride. The making of Psycho is depicted in detail without our seeing one frame of the completed movie. The closest we come is when Hitchcock stands in the lobby outside the premiere, faux-conducting Bernard Hermann’s slashing violins; he has a combination of a maestro’s manual flourishes and a murderer’s manic stabbing motions as the audience inside wails and howls its way through the shower scene. It’s a magnificent moment for anyone who can blink-sync their way through those infamous 45 seconds, and beautifully brought off by Hopkins, who hasn’t had this much fun in years.

All the smaller roles are neatly filled, particularly Scarlett Johansson’s Leigh and James Darcy’s Tony Perkins, the latter almost eerily resembling the original; plus Kurtwood Smith as the fuming head of the censor’s office and Ralph Macchio as screenwriter Joseph Stephano. But it lives and breathes through Hopkins and Mirren. Unlike Toby Jones’s Hitch in The Girl, which physically and vocally evoked the director very convincingly, Hopkins relies, as with his Nixon, on a few tics, some prosthetic fakery, and just lives the man, pink, pale, blinking and blimpish, held up by iron certainty in his own talents.

Mirren matches him, though, despite a slightly thankless and less rounded role to which she brings all her heft and leverage; finally, however, she is the film’s – hell, both films’ – secret heroine. Forget all those blondes – count on the redhead.

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Anna Karenina

(R) • 130 minutes • On-screen here from 12/7/12 to 12/27/12

Director: Joe Wright

Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson

Synopsis: Tom Stoppard, a fluent and sensitive adaptor, has made a distinguished job of carving a workable screenplay from Tolstoy’s 950-page novel, and Joe Wright has found a distinctive way of bringing it to the screen with Keira Knightley as Anna, Jude Law as her middle-aged, cuckolded husband, Karenin, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as her dashing lover, Count Vronsky. The last serious attempt to film Anna Karenina was by Bernard Rose in 1997, a lumbering work shot largely on Russian locations in the style of Dr Zhivago, with Sophie Marceau hopelessly inadequate as Anna, James Fox inexpressive as Karenin and Sean Bean virile in a rather unaristocratic way as Vronsky.

Famous for his highly accomplished adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet, Wright may have come to a similar conclusion about Anna Karenina, ie that the last thing serious moviegoers are looking for is another conventional version of a familiar literary classic. So he decided (apparently after Stoppard had completed his screenplay) to stage his Anna in and around a Russian theatre in the 1870s. His intention was to create a large-scale image of upper-class tsarist society. This symbolic theatre is a place of dramatic performance and moral judgment, a forum where aristocrats gather to see and be seen, to observe and to censure. It is not clear where the notion came from, but one infers that the thought struck Wright after his disappointing discovery that all the obvious locations for the film had become so familiar that something was desperately needed to justify and enliven his project.

Wright’s movie is a dazzling affair, a highly stylised treatment of a realistic novel, superbly designed by Sarah Greenwood and edited by Melanie Ann Oliver, with rich photography by Seamus McGarvey, sumptuous costumes by Jacqueline Durran and a highly romantic Tchaikovskian score by Dario Marianelli, all previous Wright collaborators. The theatre stage with its oil lamp footlights is sometimes a real stage with 19th-century flats and sometimes a venue for actual events such as the provincial racecourse where Count Vronsky has his terrible fall. The pit of the auditorium becomes a Moscow ballroom where Anna seduces Vronsky away from Kitty on the dancefloor, an opera house and the St Petersburg council chamber where Karenin conducts his business.

Other scenes take place in the wings and up among the flies above the stage. At an important dramatic point, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), the awkward, honest landowner, a character close to Tolstoy himself, is rejected by his future wife, Kitty. He makes his exit from the back of the theatre, the giant doors opening up on to the real countryside, at once announcing his rejection of city life and his embracing of his responsibility to agriculture and to his peasants on his estate.

The movie version has to jettison a great deal of the book’s essential digressions into politics and social affairs, but it does well by its core issue. This is, of course, the presentation and examination of love in its many forms – the destructive romantic passion of Anna for Vronsky (with its sense of the closeness of sexual love to murder); the happy, amoral amorousness of her brother, Oblonsky; the gentle companionate love of Levin for Kitty; the cold, possessive detachment of Karenin – and it is forceful, if obvious, on the operation of the double standard in society. “I’d call if she broke the law,” one society matron remarks of ostracising Anna, “but she broke the rules.”

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Wuthering Heights

(NR) • 129 minutes • On-screen here from 11/30/12 to 12/6/12

Director: Andrea Arnold

Starring: Kaya Scoldelario, James Howson, Solomon Glave

Synopsis: A poor boy of unknown origins is rescued from poverty and taken in by the Earnshaw family where he develops an intense relationship with his young foster sister, Cathy. Based on the classic novel by Emily Bronte.

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The Sessions

(R) • 95 minutes • On-screen here from 11/16/12 to 11/29/12

Director: by Ben Lewin

Starring: Helen Hunt, John Hawkes, William H. Macy

Synopsis: The Sessions (formerly titled The Surrogate) certainly deserved to win the Audience Award and Special Jury Prize for ensemble acting in the U.S. Dramatic category. Character actor and now Sundance veteran John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene) turns in an Oscar-worthy performance despite the physical limitations of the role (only being able to move his head and change facial expressions). Director Ben Lewin and his exceptional cast take a potentially disastrous subject matter and turn it into a tender memorial of one man’s life-long struggle with polio and his desire to lose his virginity. It has everything a film should have, amply providing comedy while striking the right dramatic notes. The Sessions is a wonderful, albeit morally challenging, film with a perfect balance of humor and heart; viewers will find themselves in all sorts of tears: joy, laughter and heartbreaking emotion. Fear not though, it is one of the more accessible, uplifting and life-affirming tales ever to come out of a typically edgy, gritty and downbeat Sundance Film Festival.

The film is based on Mark O’Brien’s poetry and article On Seeing a Sex Surrogate. It follows the polio-stricken man who is confined to his iron lung (a huge machine that helps him breathe) for all but a few hours of the day. Despite his handicap, he has always tried to live his life to the fullest. After graduating from the University of Berkley, he sets out to lose his virginity, since at age 38 and in his condition he feels he might not have much time left to do so. When his more traditional method of getting a woman fails, he decides to use a sex “surrogate.”

Fortunately, he finds the sensitive and still beautiful Cheryl Cohen Greene, a kindhearted and devoted sex therapist. She is upfront about the differences between her position and a common prostitute, as surrogates limit their visits, designed not only to help the client achieve sexual satisfaction but also develop their emotional behavior as well, instead of pure instant gratification and seeking return business; hence, her self-proclaimed title sex therapist. O’Brien, having never been intimate with someone before, suffers from premature ejaculation on several of their meetings, but the two work together to ease his anxious behavior so he can finally have full blown intercourse. As the sessions continue she finds it increasingly difficult to remain emotionally detached, as anyone who has begun a sexual relationship with another can attest to.

The other main component to the story is his recurring visit to his Catholic church where Father Brendan offers up his time to counsel O’Brien. Despite the conflicting morality, the priest claims God will give him a free pass on this one. William H. Macy is perfect for the role as the droll character. His scenes are cleverly intercut with the sex scenes to optimize comedic effect, though without becoming overtly derisive of the church. With Father Brendan and a trio of personal physician assistants, O’Brien is well cared for, but his health is always in the balance.

The film is a showcase for John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. Hawkes does more with simple head movements and facial expressions than most actors can do with entire body languages. He is extremely charming as O’Brien but also human, in that he can be a bit stubborn. This and other flaws keep the character from becoming too perfect. Also, his interactions with all those around him feel natural and healthy in that no one seems to like him out of pity; they all genuinely care about him. It is a tremendous performance likely to garner major awards attention. Similarly, Hunt gives one of her best performances in years as Cheryl the sex therapist. Baring it all, she skillfully conveys the right emotions through her character’s arc.

Overall, the film is a feel-good crowd-pleaser that strikes many emotional chords throughout. It is not only an entertaining, oftentimes hilarious dramedy but also a story rich with moral questions. Indeed, it is a pitch-perfect blend of comedy and drama.

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The Paperboy

(R) • 107 minutes • On-screen here from 11/9/12 to 11/15/12

Director: Lee Daniels

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Mathew McConaughey, John Cusack, Zac Ephron

Synopsis: Director Lee Daniels has a habit of falling madly in love with characters nobody else wants, out of an underclass littered with sociopaths, psychopaths and their victims. He has done it again in the sweat-soaked noir of The Paperboy.

It’s the Florida Everglades of the 1960s, and there is nothing friendly about this place, including the backcountry alligator skinner on death row, the chippy who’s fallen for him, or the journalists intent on saving him. An exceptional cast led by Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron and John Cusack gives these tawdry miscreants a scuzzy, sexy, sad reality that is as unerring as it is unnerving.

Daniels is never one to shy away from the cruelty of humans, hatred that rises up like bile, unimaginable violence and depravity. Any joy, love or laughter that elbow their way into his work comes as more of an afterthought. Those themes are delivered in The Paperboy with slightly less ferocity than we’ve seen in the other films Daniels has had a hand in — Precious, Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman come to mind (the first he directed, the others he produced). But don’t expect too much relief; he still manages to push his actors to new highs as their characters plummet to new lows. There is such unflinching passion in the piece that The Paperboy deserves to be seen even though it can feel almost as flawed as its characters.

With Pete Dexter’s novel as a starting point (Daniels and Dexter share screenplay credit), the film begins with the gutting of a longtime local sheriff. A man with a mean streak and plenty of blood on his hands, no one mourned his death. The Moat County D.A., however, did prosecute one swamp rat named Hillary Van Wetter (a completely unhinged Cusack).

By the time the film picks up the story in earnest, Hillary has been on death row long enough for the sassy Charlotte Bless, a tarted-up, down-market Kidman, to fall in love with him. W.W. Jansen (Scott Glenn) owns the local paper. His youngest son, Jack (Efron), a college dropout, now delivers it. The oldest is Ward (McConaughey), an investigative journalist of some acclaim at the Miami Times who has come home to dig into Hillary’s questionable conviction. He’s accompanied by his writing partner, Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), who wields an aristocratic British accent like a sword and wears his disdain like a designer suit; that he is also black only serves to confuse the locals.

Jack is enlisted as their driver. Charlotte shows up to help with her letters and files. Anita Chester (Macy Gray, in a surprisingly warm turn), the Jansens’ maid who took over raising the boys when their mother left, observes it all with a wary eye.

There are any number of stories running on parallel tracks and they are inclined to bump into one another as they intersect and overlap. Characters have been expanded and altered to hit harder on issues of race and homophobia; journalistic integrity so central to the book has been let to slide. Now the spine of the story is Jack’s growing infatuation with Charlotte, who is a sexual hot plate even when she’s treating him like a younger brother.

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Seven Psychopaths

(R) • 110 minutes  On-screen here from 10/26/12 to 11/8/12

Director: Martin McDonagh

Starring: Collin Farrell, Woody Harrellson, Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Tom Waits

Synopsis: What movie junkie out there wouldn’t leap at the chance to see merry pranksters such as Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson go nuts in something called Seven Psychopaths? Walken, his line readings a thing of bizarro beauty, is reason enough to sign up. The icing on the cake is Martin McDonagh, the acclaimed Irish playwright who took a winning stab at writing and directing for the screen in 2008’s In Bruges. Two years ago, Walken made Broadway hum with mirth and menace in McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane.

Now they’re back together, with Walken playing a priceless McDonagh creation called Hans, an L.A. con artist who teams up with Billy (Rockwell) to kidnap dogs from wealthy owners and hold them for ransom. Their big mistake is nabbing Bonny, a Shih Tzu belonging to Harrelson’s Charlie Costello, a gangster with a sadistic streak for anything non-canine. Harrelson is hilarious, especially going goo-goo over Bonny. And Walken and Rockwell have mad skills at, well, everything. Their byplay gets mired by a subplot involving Marty (Colin Farrell), a boozy Irish screenwriter stuck in Hollywood and blocked on his new script. He hasn’t written anything but the title, Seven Psychopaths. To help, Billy puts out an all-points alert for scum of the earth. Not a bad idea when the great Tom Waits, playing a serial killer, becomes a contender. Blood splatters, heads explode, and McDonagh takes sassy, self-mocking shots at the very notion of being literary in Hollywood. It’s crazy-killer fun.

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Butter

(R) • 90 minutes • On-screen here from 10/19/12 to 10/25/12

Director: by Jim Field Smith

Starring: Jennifer Garner, Olivia Wilde, Yara Shahidi, Hugh Jackman

Synopsis: It was hot that day. Jason Micallef was in the middle of a summer road trip, and he and his friends had decided to stop off at the Iowa State Fair. It was a typical muggy Midwestern summer day, the only building on the fairgrounds that was air-conditioned was the one that housed the butter sculpting competition.

“The first time you see butter sculptures, you start laughing,” Micallef says. “They’re like regular scupltures, but made out of big blocks of butter. Like, Elvis in butter. Then you get closer and you look at them, and you realize that they’re really good. The people who made them are really talented.”

That’s when something clicked in his mind.

Micallef, a Gloucester County native, had been trying to write a movie screenplay that would be a political satire, but he didn’t want it to be explicitly about politics. He had been looking for a subject to use as a metaphor – something utterly silly on the surface, but of the utmost seriousness to the people involved.

Something like butter sculpture.

The resulting film, Butter, opens nationally this weekend, with Jennifer Garner in the lead role as a ruthlessly ambitious butter sculpting champion whose reign is suddenly challenged by a talented newcomer.

“Jennifer Garner has never played a role like this one before, where she’s just wicked,” Micallef says. “In the end, you kind of come around to her and see her in a different perspective. She’s a great actress, and she’s able to do that because she is still inherently likeable.”

When it played the festival circuit last year, Butter drew comparison’s to Alexander Payne’s “Election,” another film in which the “heroes” are deeply flawed and the “villains” are all too human so that the lines between them are blurred. The influential trade publication Daily Variety wrote that the film “may not be to everybody’s taste, but there can be no doubt it heralds the arrival of a talented new voice in first-time screenwriter Jason Micallef.”

In addition to Garner in the lead, the film features Hugh Jackman, Olivia Wilde, Rob Corddry and Yara Shahidi as the young upstart who challenges the butter sculpting royalty.

“It’s such a great cast,” Micallef says. “I was in the enviable position of watching the filming every day and thinking, ‘Wow, that turned out even better than what I had intended.’ The actors just added to it.”

Micallef says that from the start he envisioned Butter as a satire of what he has witnessed in recent American elections. He hopes that will make it feel even more timely during this election season, and he notes that in test screenings it has fared equally well with conservative and liberal viewers.

“I think both sides, regardless of which side of the aisle, can see that our politics have sort of gone off the rails a little bit,” Micallef says. “I think during the 2008 election, if an alien was visiting from another planet and observed what was going on and how we were going about electing our leaders, he would have been very amused.

“In a way, Butter pokes fun at all of that. Certain characters carry the conservative ideology, and certain characters carry the more liberal ideology, and they’re all kind of nuts.”

That’s why Micallef enjoys seeing the gradual transformation in how the audience perceives Garner’s character.

“People in politics, whatever side they’re on, are demonized by the other side for no real reason,” he says. “I’m sure that Barack Obama has more in common with Mitt Romney than he does with any of us, but the two sides act like they are completely, 100 percent opposites. It’s so ridiculous that we do that, because at the end of the day, all Americans really want everybody to get along. It’s just not happening.”

Official site  IMDb

 

Chicken with Plums

(PG-13) •  93 minutes • On-screen here from 10/12/12 to 10/18/12

Directors: Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud

Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Golshifteh Farahani, Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros, Edward Baer

Synopsis: A parable of art and love, and a political allegory to boot, Chicken with Plums centers on an Iranian musician who wills himself to die. Yet the story that then unfolds, mostly in flashback, could hardly be more vital and engaging.
The movie was adapted by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud from the former’s graphic novel. The same team brought Satrapi’s earlier book, the autobiographical Persepolis, to the screen with animated renderings of Satrapi’s drawings. For this tale, which is based on a Satrapi family legend yet has wider implications, the duo largely forgoes the graphic approach in favor of live action.

The narrative, which nests stories within stories, does incorporate a few hand-drawn or CGI-generated episodes. And the other scenes, filmed on sets at Germany’s Studio Babelsberg, are far from naturalistic. In appearance, the movie recalls Amelie or Hugo, but with a shadowy, sepia-toned palette. Its storytelling style is playful and self-conscious, with magically unrealist touches.

A former concert violinist, protagonist Nasser Ali chooses to perish early in the movie, which then circles back to explain his despair. Not even the title dish, his favorite meal, can lure him from his self-made appointment with the angel of death. In fact, the story is narrated by that very figure: horned and black-shrouded Azrael (Edward Baer).

The inspiration for Nasser Ali’s death wish is twofold, although that’s not immediately obvious. At first, it seems that the only cause of his anguish is the loss of a long-beloved violin, which was recently broken.

Even a Stradivarius, acquired after an arduous journey that includes an opium trip, fails to satisfy Nasser Ali. Without his original instrument, it seems, the musician can never again perform to his own expectations. So he resolves to waste away.

As Nasser Ali waits a week for oblivion, flashbacks and asides deepen our understanding of the man, embodied by Mathieu Amalric with his usual flair for playing neurotics who are roughly as likable as they are irritating.

When he returns to Tehran after his touring days are over, Nasser Ali is pushed by his mother into a marriage with a woman (Maria de Medeiros) he doesn’t love.

Nasser Ali’s struggle to become a great violinist, we’ll come to understand, has been painful, and his international success as a musician short-lived. Returning to Tehran, he’s forced by his chain-smoking, charmingly overbearing mother (Isabella Rossellini) to marry Faranguiss (Maria de Medeiros), a math teacher who has long adored him. He doesn’t love her, and subsequently doesn’t much care for the two children they produce. (The movie has it in for the kids as well, lampooning them in flash-forwards to their adult lives.)

Eventually, we learn that the neglected Faranguiss has done something unforgivable. But as we get to know her, we also come to see that she means well and is far more than simply the nagging, bourgeois wife that Nasser Ali resolves to escape by dying.

Both Nasser Ali and Faranguiss are tormented, in different ways, by the specter of Irane (Golshifteh Farahani), the woman the violinist once desperately wanted to marry. Irane’s time on screen is brief, but the influence of the sundered romance touches every aspect of Nasser Ali’s life. (The obsessiveness of his passion is underscored with a clip from the 1925 film Phantom of the Opera.)

As her name suggests, Irane also represents something else that has been lost: the pluralistic, Western-friendly country destroyed by the Islamic Revolution 21 years after Nasser Ali’s farewell chat with Azrael. Thus Chicken with Plums is as much about culture as about love and family. To be true artists, the film muses, perhaps violinists — and graphic novelists — need the national equivalent of a room of their own.

Irane (Golshifteh Farahani) is the one who got away from violinist Nasser Ali (Mathieu Amalric) — and her loss consumes the musician in Chicken with Plums, a new film from Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud.

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The Master

(R) • 144 minutes • On-screen here from 9/21/12 to 10/11/12

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams

Synopsis: This is a superbly crafted film that’s at times intentionally opaque, as if its creator didn’t want us to see all the way into its heart of darkness.

It’s a film bristling with vivid moments and unbeatable acting, but its interest is not in tidy narrative satisfactions but rather the excesses and extremes of human behavior, the interplay of troubled souls desperate to find their footing.

Its writer-director, of course, is the all-out visionary Paul Thomas Anderson, an all-in filmmaker whose previous work like Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood explored strong and compelling personal conflicts. But none are stronger than the one here between a man completely sure of himself and another who is completely not.

The latter would be Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix at his most ferocious), a troubled, tortured World War II veteran whose contrived cockiness can’t mask the torment he lives with. The intense connection he makes with Lancaster Dodd (an impeccable Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a new human potential movement who claims he’s found a way to “return man to his inherent state of perfection,” powerfully affects them both.

The parallels between Dodd and his movement, known as The Cause, and the real-life presences of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology are plentiful enough to have attracted considerable attention, but those looking to The Master to be some kind of muckraking expose are going to be disappointed.

For one thing, Anderson’s script feels more like something inspired by Scientology than any kind of literal representation of the early days of the movement. For another, The Master is not in the expose business. Rather it is a moody, disturbing film about personality, obsession and delusion, about the will to power, the parallel need to be mastered, and what happens when those wires get irredeemably crossed.

“Rootless” is a mild word to describe Freddie Quell’s life. We meet him on Guam in the closing days of World War II, a sailor getting so hellaciously drunk that simulating sex with a woman constructed out of sand seems like a hell of a good idea.

Phoenix, known for immersing himself in Oscar-nominated roles in Gladiator and Walk the Line, makes Quell frighteningly believable. The way the man walks, the way he talks, the savage bursts of violence he is prone to, mark him as a traumatized individual, likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder before it had a name, someone who is perennially fighting his demons for control and losing more often than not.

After making a mess of his postwar job as an in-house photographer in a department store (Jack Fisk and David Crank’s production design is superb, as is Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s 65-millimeter cinematography), Quell gets into trouble because of the toxicity of the moonshine he enjoys cooking up. Then, one night in 1950, completely drunk, Quell wanders onto a yacht docked in the San Francisco Bay, passes out, and wakes up in a world he never imagined.

That world is under the control of Dodd, the master of all he surveys who in fact enjoys being called “Master” by his small group of followers. Dodd describes himself to Quell as someone who does many things — “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher” — but who above all is “a hopelessly inquisitive man.”

On the yacht with his pregnant new wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), to oversee the wedding of his daughter, Dodd sizes up Quell immediately, frankly telling him “you are a scoundrel” but allowing him to stay on the boat if he promises to keep brewing the moonshine that Dodd approvingly sampled while its maker was passed out.

What fascinates Quell as well as everyone else on the boat about Master is easy to see in a confident, magnetic performance by Hoffman that owes as much to Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane as anyone else. His Dodd is a showman and an unexpectedly idiosyncratic thinker, someone with a gift for language who casually drops phrases like “leave your worries for a while, they’ll be there when you get back. Your memories aren’t invited.”

What Dodd sees in Quell is murkier and less straightforward. Wife Peggy says “you seem to inspire something in him,” and the man himself calls Quell “my guinea pig and protégé,” which may be closer to the truth. If his theories and practices can work on Quell, Dodd is perhaps thinking, they can work on anyone.

The ideas behind The Cause, as we get them in bits and pieces, turn out to be a witch’s brew of psychology, mind control and science fiction that involves spirits from outer space, past lives and a battle Dodd characterizes by saying, “this is something you do for billions of years or not at all.” It’s no wonder that Dodd’s son thinks his father may be making all this up as he goes along.

The heart of The Master are the scenes where Dodd and Quell have at each other, especially the situations where Dodd applies psychological techniques he calls “processing” (a word Scientologists use as well) to his at-times reluctant adept. “Electricity” is a mild word for the formidable charge that passes between these two, and though it’s disconcerting that the relationship between them gets murkier rather than clearer as time goes on, that is perhaps the point.

The only other recognizable names in The Master’s strong cast are Adams, excellent as always as Dodd’s tough-as-nails true-believer wife, and a fine Laura Dern as one of Master’s early disciples.

It is characteristic of Anderson’s rigorous directing style that all the supporting actors as well as each of the extras is not only convincingly played (Cassandra Kulukundis is the casting director) but also looks precisely as the period demands.

That dedication to immaculate filmmaking extends to all areas, including Jonny Greenwood’s brooding music, Mark Bridges’ costumes and the editing by Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty. All have worked with Anderson and his elusive style before, and if you appreciate filmmaking at this level you are more than grateful that it’s happened again.

Official site  IMDb

 

The Intouchables

(R) • 112 minutes • On-screen from 9/14/12 to 9/20/12

Director: Oliver Nakache & Toledano

Starring: François Cluzet, Omar Sy and Anne Le Ny

Synopsis: Philippe (Cluzet of Tell No One) is a stupendously wealthy man who hit a bad luck streak, losing his wife to a terminal illness and then suffering spinal injury in a freak accident. When he and his assistant Magalie (Audrey Fleurot) interview potential caregivers, the applicants are bland functionaries. Philippe needs constant care to stave off atrophy and the myriad other maladies that can impact a paralyzed man, but he is put off by the morose men looking for work.

Then a tough Senegalese immigrant named Driss (Sy) shows up, looking to just have his application rejected so he can collect unemployment. Driss is unrehearsed and not eager to impress, ready to get his paper stamped and go away. Instead, Philippe offers him the job, partly as a challenge to the young and directionless man from the Parisian projects, but also as a challenge to his own regimented life.

The Intouchables carries all the warning signs of being a Driving Miss Daisy update, a cloying oversimplification of race relations that provides easy but trite solutions to societal divides. But this is all about execution and chemistry — Cluzet and Sy each deliver magnetic, sympathetic performances using entirely different skill sets. Cluzet is remarkably expressive given the limitations of his character’s movement, while Sy derives his power from a kinetic, force-of-nature presence.

The Intouchables was a huge sleeper hit, mainly because it offers a satisfying emotional arc without force-feeding those emotions. There is an inescapable joy in seeing actors hit a rhythm, and Cluzet and Sy deserve great credit for taking what could have been stock characters and giving them unexpected life.

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Beasts of the Southern Wild

(PG-13) • 91 minutes  On-screen here from 8/31/12 to 9/13/12

Director: Benh Zeitlin

Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry and Levy Easterly

Synopsis: Beasts of the Southern Wild is among the most transporting films you’re likely to see. Director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin, using Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious, crafts a fully enveloping world that is both pinpoint specific and all-encompassing enough to be a timeless fable. On the surface, it is a character study of one six-year-old girl as she comes to terms with the possibility of becoming an orphan as a natural disaster devastates her dirt-poor backwoods community. Yes, it’s about people surviving Hurricane Katrina and yes, it contains certain social/political commentary, but it is a universal saga of grief and survival. The film’s greatest narrative strength is that it refuses to be a representative saga of the impoverished victims of that 2005 storm. It is merely a heart-wrenching would-be myth told from the point of view of a single child.

Doing even a brief plot synopsis would do the film a disservice, so I’ll merely state that the film involves the relationship between young Hushpuppy (an Oscar-worthy Quvenzhané Wallis) and her tough-love father Wink (Dwight Henry). Theirs is a world of seemingly unimaginable poverty, the kind that certain political factions like to pretend doesn’t exist in America. But the picture neither editorializes their circumstances nor does it try to ennoble their seemingly cut-off community. Some viewers may be put off by the squalor on display while others may merely find themselves grateful for their own financial/social situation and/or self-congratulating in their acknowledgment of these sorts of living conditions. But the film merely presents the world of this backwoods Louisiana nicknamed ‘the Bathtub’ at face value with little commentary. This is not a documentary, but rather a film that tells a surreal fairy tale in a seemingly foreign world that is in-fact right within our own borders.

There are moments of devastating emotional power and the picture is built on a foundation of the anticipation of unimaginable grief. Hushpuppy knows that her father is not long for this world, and while she occasionally talks about finding her (dead) mother, it’s clear that she knows that she will soon be a parent-less child. The storm that basically destroys their home is merely another obstacle for a father and a daughter to overcome in a journey to stay together for as long as they can. Wink has the domineering behavior of a seemingly harsh and judgmental patriarch, but he knows his own mortality and is desperate to teach Hushpuppy how to survive when he is no longer around. Hushpuppy’s sole solace is in the community around her, a tight-knit group of equally poverty-stricken people who stick together because they have no chance whatsoever alone. All these elements come together to form an uncommonly intimate and thoroughly authentic portrait of a community struggling to survive in a country that has basically cut them off from ‘society’.

The Beasts of the Southern Wild is easily one of the best films of 2012. Even though it concerns Hurricane Katrina, it is not intended to be ‘the Katrina film.’ It’s not When the Levees Broke nor is it Treme, but rather a singular child’s-eye view saga of uncommon power. It is visually unlike any film you’re likely to see in the near-future, melding periodic fantasy elements with devastating tragedy and authentic humanity. It is the kind of intimate experience that ennobles independent film-making and it is a genuine piece of must-see cinema.

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Ruby Sparks

(R) • 104 minutes • On-screen here from 8/24/12 to 8/30/12

Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris

Starring: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan and Annette Benning

Synopsis: More romantic fantasy than magic realism, “Ruby Sparks” is a charming bit of fluff that relies on an elementary narrative gimmick inline with something Woody Allen might have employed 30 years ago.
Screenwriter/actress Zoe Kazan touts her romantic appeal from both sides of the camera. The spirited Kazan plays the fantasized object of desire to Paul Dano’s one-hit-wonder novelist Calvin Weir-Fields. Self-doubting Calvin lives a lonely existence in his modern lap-pool-appointed Los Angeles home from which he attempts to reinvent the literary success he stumbled into a decade ago when he was still a teen. Writer’s block is a problem. With only his dog to comfort him, Calvin follows a writing assignment from his psychiatrist (Elliot Gould). In so doing Calvin writes into existence the redheaded girl of his daydreams — Ruby Sparks. In fact, Calvin can amend Ruby’s behavior at whim with a few keystrokes on his trusty manual typewriter.

Calvin’s businessman brother Harry (Chris Messina) can’t believe his sibling’s manifestation of malleable femininity. Herein lies the wobbly thematic rub of Kazan’s script, which professes to comment — however absurdly — on man’s never-ending quest to invent, conquer, and control the woman at his immediate emotional disposal. As such, Ruby is little more than a waking-talking-Barbie-doll until an unannounced pms-fit threatens to shatter Calvin’s ideal of romantic perfection. A house party given by Calvin’s smarmy literary agent Langdon Tharp (predictably well played Steve Coogan) gives Ruby an opportunity to break character once more. “Ruby Sparks” is a humorous observation of the dysfunctional ground between men and women, especially during the early stages of a relationship. It has “date-movie” written all over it.

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To Rome with Love

(R) • 102 minutes  On-screen here from 7/27/12 to 8/23/12

Director: Woody Allen

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Alec Baldwin, Penélope Cruz and Greta Gerwig

Synopsis: After whisking audiences to France last year with Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen is bringing another Europe-set comedy to the big screen with this year’s To Rome With Love. Film Independent announced Thursday that the new movie will open the Los Angeles Film Festival on Thursday, June 14.

Written and directed by Allen, To Rome With Love marks the filmmaker’s first on-screen role since 2006’s Scoop. Also starring Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg, Alec Baldwin, Penélope Cruz and Greta Gerwig, the film depicts the romances and adventures of people in Rome. The cast plays a collection of Americans and Italians.

 

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Moonrise Kingdom

(PG-13) • 94 minutes  On-screen here from 6/29/12 to 7/26/12

Director: Wes Anderson

Starring:  Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Francis McDormand, Tilda Swinton

Synopsis: The sweetness, sadness and charm of Wes Anderson’s new film — co-written with Roman Coppola – opened the Cannes film festival in a delicate minor key. In some ways, it might have made a more piquant closing gala.

This was an evocation of young love in a younger, more innocent America. It was a very charming, beautifully wrought, if somehow depthless film — eccentric but heartfelt, and thought through to the tiniest, quirkiest detail in the classic Anderson style: there were the familiar rectilinear shots, and compositions with letters and drawings suddenly filled the screen like courtroom exhibits.

Anderson’s movies often mark out their own weirdly regressive, faintly dysfunctional space, from which the modern world has been politely excluded, and where the occupants communicate in a kind of modified, private language. Now he takes us back to 1965, a little coastal town in New England called New Penzance. Perhaps, in its un-swinging quaintness, it is more truthful to the homely values of a small-town America which often looked the same in the 60s as it did in the 50s and 40s, though this is Anderson-America in the Anderson-60s, a knight’s-move away from the actual time and place.

Where David Lynch finds a dark horror beneath the wholesome exterior, Anderson sees something else — something exotic but practical and self-possessed, a world that ticks along like an antique toy, much treasured by a precocious child. The homes and buildings often look like giant dolls’ houses.

Teenage newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward play Sam and Suzy, two smart, unpopular kids who fall in love. Sam is a member of the local scout troop. An orphan, clever if not precisely wise beyond his years, and affecting a corn-cob pipe, he resembles a young Douglas MacArthur. Suzy likes sci-fi novels and the music of Françoise Hardy, which she plays on a portable Dansette-style record player.

When they run away together, Anderson shows how the ensuing crisis discloses the older generation’s unhappiness. Bill Murray and Frances McDormand are Suzy’s parents; their marriage is in crisis and they are sunk in anxiety and self-pity. Bruce Willis is the police chief – lonely and depressed for reasons of his own – and Edward Norton is the scout troop leader, preposterous yet dignified in his absurd shorts and long socks.

Grownups and kids are united in their fear and loathing of the social services officer, who is keen to put Sam away in an orphanage; she is played by Tilda Swinton in an electric blue outfit, like a hostile insurgent from another planet.

The movie takes its odd but attractive keynote of high-mindedness from the music of Benjamin Britten. Suzy and her siblings listen to Britten’s Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra, and Suzy performs in a church production of Noye’s Fludde, the resonance of which work reveals itself in the movie’s tempestuous final act. The music is an interesting assertion of the Anglo-Saxon character of this parochial, islanded corner of America – evoked not with conventional nostalgia, but rather with a connoisseurship of how strange and different it seems.

Anderson’s movies are vulnerable to the charge of being supercilious oddities, but there is elegance and formal brilliance in Moonrise Kingdom as well as a lot of gentle, winning comedy. His homemade aesthetic is placed at the service of a counter-digital, almost hand-drawn cinema, and he has an extraordinary ability to conjure a complete, distinctive universe, entire of itself. To some, Moonrise Kingdom may be nothing more than a soufflé of strangeness, but it rises superbly.

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The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

(PG-13) • 124 minutes  On-screen here from 5/25/12 to 6/28/12

Director: John Madden

Starring: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith

Synopsis: It’s rare to watch a film post “Slumdog Millionaire” that hasn’t frustrated Asian viewers with its volley of Indian clichés that fit every stereotype a Westerner may have cradled since the fall of the British Empire.

John Madden’s (“Shakespeare in Love”) “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is guilty of this crime; yet, it somehow manages to rise above the stereotype largely due to the combined strength of its powerful actors, including Dame Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy.

Adapted from the bestselling book, “These Foolish Things” by Deborah Moggach, Madden takes creative liberty with his screenplay to nip/tuck the original’s premise without comprising on the lead characters or their vulnerabilities.

The film follows a group of seven misfit British retirees whose respective personal conflicts and financial hardships encourages them to ‘outsource’ their final days to a Jaipur retirement hotel, which promises a slice of exotic India for the elderly.

It all sounds picture perfect on paper, but lo and behold, upon arrival nothing is as clear-cut or simple in India.

Dev Patel’s Sonny is the maharaja of this rundown Jaipur palace, aptly called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which is a far cry from any lap of luxury that our foreigners would have imagined.

While the lonely Evelyn (Dench) looks upon her Indian misadventure with a share of restrained amusement, awe and vulnerability, as she takes baby steps towards independence post her husband’s death, Penelope Wilton’s Jean is her antithesis as the neurotic, domineering wife of the long-suffering Douglas (Bill Nighy), who resents India itself for not offering her the safety net of familiar surroundings that awaits her in England.

Jean and Douglas’ marital problems are immediately evident as the former’s snobbish countenance draws her like an over eager puppy towards the handsome, and well respected retired judge Graham (Wilkinson), while Nighy’s character finds solace and heart-warming grace in Evelyn.

Meanwhile, Graham is warding off his own inner demons as he embarks on a quest to find a long-lost friend with whom he once shared a forbidden romance, and then damned him to his fate in a society that still frowns down on gay relationships.

As the quartet play out their roles in an emotional dance, humour comes in spades with Maggie Smith’s portrayal of the racist with a heart of gold Muriel, who has been forced to embark on her Indian escapade to find a cheaper alternative to a hip replacement.

Joining her brand of sarcasm are the two frisky retirees, Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup), who see India as a gateway to exotica, rather than the exotic.

The plot unravels in layers, with each shedding of skin revealing every individual’s private fears and inhibitions, as they overcome their personal battles or succumb to their weaknesses.

Madden briefly touches on India’s controversial caste system, unsurprisingly tying it with Muriel’s tale, while Evelyn’s success in securing her first job is inevitably at an outsourced call centre.

Despite the obviousness of the plot, the sincerity of its lead actors warms your heart and almost sees you share that vulnerability with the fear of life’s many hurdles that are married with old age.

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi

(PG) • 81 minutes • On-screen here from 5/18/12 to 5/24/12

Director: David Gelb

Starring: Jiro Ono

Synopsis: If you can land one of the 10 seats at Sukiyabashi Jiro, a tiny Tokyo restaurant in a subway corridor, and if you’re willing to pay a king’s ransom, you can savor what may be the world’s finest sushi.

Jiro Ono, the octogenarian proprietor of this three-star Michelin operation, is the subject of David Gelb’s delectable documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” It’s the story of a man with an exquisite palate who has spent decades seeking perfection in a circumscribed field — sushi is all he serves.

The precision and discipline of Jiro and his assistants, their dedication to detail and obsession with obtaining the best possible ingredients have created admirers throughout the world, including the exalted likes of chef Joël Robuchon. There’s no secret recipe, we’re informed — Jiro’s miniaturist art is a pursuit of purity and simplicity. It’s a matter of working as hard as you can and learning how to taste, and doing it over and over.

Through the decades, Jiro has cultivated the best providers, and not just for fish (the film visits the main Tokyo fish market) but for rice, seaweed and all the other makings. Assistants undergo severe training — think of young Buddhist monks learning under an elderly master — and start by wringing out hot towels for the customers before they’re allowed near the food.

We meet Jiro’s two sons. The elder (who once dreamed of being a race-car driver) is the restaurant’s manager and will someday take it over, while the younger runs a sushi place that’s a mirror image of Sukiyabashi Jiro. We hear from a handful of others, including Japanese restaurant critic Masuhiro Yamamoto, who offers reverential commentary, including the admission that he finds himself nervous while eating at the restaurant under Jiro’s serene gaze.

Jiro is a classic workaholic, but we get a glance of him outside the restaurant as he visits with childhood friends, who recall, not without affection, that he was a bully. A visit to the grave of his father, who abandoned the family, leaves him unmoved.

The image that finally lingers is one shown repeatedly: a close-up of fingers gently pressing a piece of fish onto a hand-held oblong of rice, painting it with a single brushing of sauce and laying it on a plate. We’re left to contemplate the pristine creation and envy Jiro’s lucky customers.

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Bully

(NR) • 99 minutes  On-screen here from 5/11/12 to 5/17/12

Director: Lee Hirsch

Starring: Alex, Ja’Maya and Kelby

Synopsis: There’s a fleeting shot in the documentary Bully of a kid who just plain looks mean. He has a cruel mouth and squinting eyes, and you wonder if he knows how to smile. The movie singles him out but says nothing about him. Is he one of the bullies? Who knows? He reminded me of a kid in grade school who called me Fatso. I called him Stupid. We were both right.

There’s only one bully actually identified in the film. A clueless teacher has pulled together two kids who got in a fight and insists they shake hands. One kid is as friendly as an insurance salesman and sticks out his paw with a friendly smile.

The other kid refuses. The teacher sends the friendly kid away and lectures the other one. Of course it’s the “nice kid” who is the bully. He probably gets away with more stuff than a con man. His victim knows it. He’s been down this path before.

If the teacher were more clued in, she’d know it, too. One of the themes in Lee Hirsch’s documentary is how many parents and teachers have no idea what’s really happening in the secret society of children in their care. Many bullied children are reluctant to tell anyone what’s happening to them. Are they embarrassed or scared? Bullying is designed to make them feel inferior, and in their cases, perhaps it has worked.

The film follows the stories of several children in Mississippi, Oklahoma and Georgia. Two of them committed suicide. Their lives had become unendurable without anyone noticing, or taking their situations seriously enough. I can believe it. The most infuriating people in the film are teachers or administrators who don’t know what’s happening — or don’t want to know, perhaps afraid of bureaucratic difficulties or angry parents. (I imagine, but don’t know, that the parents of bullies are likely to flare up in anger at accusations against their children — and then possibly abuse their kid themselves later. Do bullies have nice parents?)
Sometimes an entire community gets in on the act. A girl who is a lesbian is humiliated by a teacher in front of other students, and her parents observe that many of their own longtime friends have become hostile. A culture of ignorance and homophobia feeds this.

Much has been made of how the MPAA gave this film an R rating for its language. (A PG-13 has belatedly been handed out to a version with some swear words taken out.) It was widely reported that the MPAA was preventing admission to those very kids under 17 who could benefit from it the most. That part I’m not so sure about. The movie contains little solid information about bullying, and although we feel sorry for the victims who are profiled, it is unclear what can be learned from observing them.
My notion is that a fiction film might be more effective than a documentary. It could encourage young viewers to identify with victims of bullying and to dislike bullies. Movies that encourage empathy are more effective than those that objectify problems. Some kids will think: “I’m not like those losers.” The right kind of fictional story might make that harder to do.

Why are some people bullied? Because they are different. How? It doesn’t matter. A bully can act as the catalyst for encouraging a group to draw together in cruelty against someone perceived as not a member. This process was shown with great power in Larry Clark’s Bully (2001), which added an unexpected twist: A brutal bully is actually murdered by a group of his victims, who together are moved to do something none of them could ever do alone.

Bully is a sincere documentary but not a great one. We feel sympathy for the victims, and their parents or friends, but the film helplessly seems to treat bullying as a problem without a solution. I can think of one thing that might help. Parents and schools should place great emphasis on the idea that it is all right to be different. Racism and all the other “isms” grow from primitive tribalism, the instinctive hostility against those of another tribe, race, religion, nationality, class or whatever. You are a lucky child if your parents taught you to accept diversity. Teaching prejudice to a child is itself a form of bullying. You’ve got to be taught to hate.
–Roger Ebert

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The Kid with a Bike

(NR) • 87 minutes  On-screen here from 5/4/12 to 5/10/12

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Starring: Thomas Doret, Cécile De France, Jérémie Renier

Synopsis: There is life beyond Hunger Games. A more prosaic form of survival, but an even more poignant one, is laid bare in The Kid with a Bike, by the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

Cyril (Thomas Doret) has been abandoned by his father and taken into a children’s home, but he refuses to believe in his dad’s betrayal, even up to the point when he establishes for certain that his father sold Cyril’s bicycle.

A local hairdresser, Samantha (Cecile de France), agrees to let him stay with her at weekends, and helps him look for his father (Jeremie Renier), a man not worth the hunt, nor equal to his son’s dogged affection. Although Samantha does her best to contain him, the father-shaped hole in Cyril’s life, full of rage and need, renders him vulnerable to the attentions of a small-town gangster.

Doret’s acting is instinctively truthful: Cyril, with his pinched, watchful face, dashes or runs everywhere, as though trying to outpace his pain. Cecile de France, in a beautifully understated performance, is loving and intelligent towards him without being soppy.

This story is all the more moving because all traces of sentimentality have been purged. The fact that I was constantly on tenterhooks lest something worse than abandonment befall Cyril, only serves to show how completely the Dardennes succeeded in making me care.

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Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

(PG-13) • 107 minutes • On-screen here from 4/13/12 to 5/3/12

Director: Lasse Hallström

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt

Synopsis: Swedish director Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Chocolat), really gets it right with Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. McGregor plays Dr. Fred Jones, a sad, repressed man who’s trapped in a loveless marriage with his wife Mary. Dr. Jones happens to be an expert on salmon and is sought by the Sheikh who sends his PR representative Harriet, played by Emily Blunt, to recruit him for his salmon fishing project.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is not your traditional romantic comedy. Fred is trapped in a marriage he’s too afraid to get out of and Harriet has fallen for a guy who’s gone missing at war. Both Harriet and Fred deal with their emotional relationships at home and the unsure direction of the “friendship” they’ve created.

On the surface, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a love story, but underneath it’s a heartwarming story about connectivity, building relationships, and the little things that bring us together. The Sheikh, Fred, and Harriet are all in search to feel more connected.

As someone who shuns rom-coms, because they’re usually formulaic with gag worthy plots, Salmon Fishing is as refreshing and vibrant as they come. Having the two main characters start down the road the puppy love, but making that road full of potholes, and uncomfortable turns is what makes this film feel genuine.

The great characters and well placed laughs separate Salmon Fishing in the Yemen from other films in its genre. This film is a great date movie that makes for an even better discussion after the film.

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A Separation

(Academy Award ® winner ~ Best Foreign Language Film)

(PG-13) • 123 minutes  On-screen here from 4/6/12 to 4/12/12

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Starring: Payman Moadi, Srina Farhadi

Synopsis: Good news is not something Nader is used to hearing lately. His wife wants to leave him, his father has Alzheimer’s, his bank account is dwindling — and now the woman he hired to help around the house is accusing him of troubling things.

He sees himself as a man of honor, but honor has a way of growing slippery when the whole world seems out to get you.

That’s the setup for the understated but absorbing Iranian drama “A Separation,” which earned the 2012 Oscar for best foreign-language film and which — after a trophy filled pre-Oscar run. Devoid of politics but brimming with humanity, it feels a lot like an Iranian version of “The Descendants,” another Oscar winner (for best adapted screenplay). Like that George Clooney drama and best picture nominee, “A Separation” is a deliberately paced but entirely intimate portrait of a family in crisis. Also like “The Descendants,” it focuses on the mercilessly squeezed man at the center of it all, as he lives a life of compounding heartbreaks

Iranian actor and “Separation” star Peyman Moadi might not have the name recognition of Clooney — or the 100-megawatt smile. In playing the beleaguered but stoic Nader, however, Moadi — like his A-list counterpart — turns in an honest, searing performance that helps make “A Separation” the engrossing drama that it is.

He’s not alone. All the performances in “A Separation” are top-shelf, as is writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s managing of the film’s increasingly tightening emotional strings. What starts as a simple story of one family’s struggles soon morphs into a distressing tale of tangled emotions and concealed truths.

Perhaps the most important aspect of “A Separation,” however — and another attribute shared by “The Descendants” — is the way in which Farhadi gets us to relate to, and thus sympathize with, his main character.

In “The Descendants,” Clooney’s Hawaii-dwelling character begins the film by lamenting about how all of his friends on the mainland think he lives in paradise, as if Hawaiians are magically immune to the mundane, everyday problems of mainland Americans.

Those same mainlanders might have a different view of Iranians, but Farhadi shows us that it is just as skewed. Influenced by gross generalizations and runaway stereotypes fostered by headlines and political posturing, most Americans view Iran, by and large, as a country of fanatics and zealots.

In “A Separation,” Farhadi makes it clear that’s not the case. In that sense, it’s the little moments in Farhadi’s film that are its most important, speaking every bit as loudly as its big, narrative-driving moments: A child presses her nose against a window. A student crafts a diorama for school. A man kisses his elderly father’s forehead. A dishwasher needs emptying. A husband blames his wife. A wife blames her husband.

Every bit as much as the film’s performances, those kinds of astute observations quietly — almost invisibly — breathe life into Farhadi’s film, which stands as an illustration of the world-shrinking power of cinema.

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Being Flynn

(R) • 102 minutes • On-screen here from 3/30/12 to 4/5/12

Director: Paul Weitz

Starring: Robert De Niro, Paul Dano

Synopsis: A young writer, coping with addiction, finally meets the drunk, delusional father he never knew at the homeless shelter where the writer works. That’s the improbable truth at the core of Being Flynn, the uneven but undeniably powerful film from writer and director Paul Weitz.

Based on Nick Flynn’s 2004 memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (great title), Being Flynn is a film that aches with sadness. Paul Dano excels as Nick, the budding writer, poet and playwright who drifts through his twenties until he takes a job at the New York homeless shelter that employs his girlfriend, Denise (Olivia Thirlby). Seeing his father, Jonathan (Robert De Niro), lining up for the shelter is a jolt. Jonathan is a writer too, claiming to be on par with J.D. Salinger and Mark Twain. He talks obsessively of his magnum opus, Memoirs of a Moron, and unearths long-buried memories of Nick’s childhood and his troubled mother, Jody (the ever-superb Julianne Moore).

The film is a duel between father and son, with Nick providing narration for each in the hope of understanding his old man. From L.I.E. to Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood, Dano has shown himself to be an actor of subtle brilliance. His quiet intensity is a wrenching contrast to De Niro’s unhinged flamboyance. Weitz directed De Niro in Little Fockers, a strained farce that barely tapped the actor’s skills. Here, you can feel De Niro’s full engagement in a character that echoes his roles in Taxi Driver and Awakenings. It’s a great wreck of a performance that feels bruisingly true. At its best, when it keeps sentimentality at bay, so does Being Flynn.

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A Dangerous Method

(R) • 99 minutes • On-screen here from 3/23/12 to 3/29/12

Director: David Cronenberg

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Kiera Knightley

Synopsis: David Cronenberg’s movies are known for oozing subtext beneath layers of freaky genre excess, digging into the mysterious crevices of human behavior. His latest movie looks downright tame by comparison. But the secret appeal of A Dangerous Method, a keen look at the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, is it explains everything else in the Cronenberg oeuvre. Newbies should start here and work their way back, slowly descending into the filmmaker’s dark interests and gradually soaking in his themes before watching them run wild.

It should be noted that the stylish, talky brilliance of A Dangerous Method does not belong to Cronenberg alone. Christopher Hampton’s screenplay culls from his 2002 play The Talking Cure, which in turn adapted Jon Kerr’s 1994 tome A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabin Spielrein. That third character, one of the world’s first psychoanalysts, plays a key role in explicating the connection shared by the two men, as well as the hubris that led to their falling out. By exploring that shared drama, Cronenberg arrives at tensions between instinct and rationality that, in retrospect, his movies have touched on since the beginning. “A Dangerous Method” is his therapy, too.

A patient of Jung’s suffering from extreme hysteria, Spielrein eventually becomes the young doctor’s paramour in a scandalous affair that she treats as extended therapy for the abuse she received as a child. Jung’s inability to overcome his urge to sleep with Spielrein allows Freud to condescend to his colleague, a selfish behavior that casts doubt on the older Freud’s seemingly airtight theories.

Initially viewing Jung as the torchbearer for the next generation of psychoanalytic theory, Freud eventually loses respect for the doctor on both personal and professional grounds. Jung, meanwhile, grows disdainful of Freud’s emphasis on repressed sexual desires as the answer for everything. Jung’s decision to consider new treatments and move beyond a closed system of Freudian psychoanalysis mirrors the constant grappling between tangible and irrational behavior in so many Cronenberg movies — exactly what makes him such a first-rate storyteller.

Michael Fassbender portrays Jung with a complicated stare that hints at the constant moral struggle taking place behind it. Viggo Mortensen buries himself in Freud’s skin, both inhabiting the cigar-chomping character’s iconography while showing how the man strove to maintain it. Between these two muted performances, however, Keira Knightley bursts through with an intense turn as Spielrein, a woman equally capable of using her sexual prowess and her intellect to manipulate Jung into falling in love with her. The movie arrives at point where two human beings fully cognizant of their destructive behaviors neverthess become slaves to them before dealing with the inevitable fallout.
Cronenberg didn’t create this dynamic, but the way A Dangerous Method deals with unspoken cravings provides a handy foundation for his entire filmography. Beyond that initial gateway, the next steps are his last two movies, Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, a double bill of subtle, elegant thrillers about unreliable appearances (both of which, like A Dangerous Method, involve Mortensen performances).

Get past those entry points to arrive at the alternately queasy and cerebral output of Cronenberg’s ’90s period, a decade of more abstract, unsettling looks at distinctly personal struggles: Drug addiction (Naked Lunch), morbid fetishes (Crash), gender confusion (M. Butterfly), solipsism (eXistenZ). That will you lead to the lurid body horror of the ’70s and ’80s, a collection of nightmarish experiences ranging from Rabid and Scanners to The Fly that unleash the repressed frustrations in A Dangerous Method with frightening physicality.

In the new movie, when Freud asserts that “a little neurosis is nothing to be ashamed of,” he provides a potential tagline for practically all Cronenberg movies at once. And there’s his counterpart: In the movie’s final shot, Jung’s confidence crumbles and he looks supremely troubled, still uncertain of a world he once believed could be explained with textual prowess. Better than any analysis, his expression sums up the dangerous method at the heart of every Cronenberg movie.

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The Iron Lady

(PG-13) • 105 minutes • On-screen here from 3/16/12 to 3/22/12

Director: Phyllidia Lloyd

Starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent

Synopsis: Playing both the staunch human battleship and the diminished old woman sifting through her past, Meryl Streep is riveting in The Iron Lady. Her physical and verbal mimicry are uncanny, but her embodiment of an indomitable, uniquely British spirit perhaps even more so. The performance provides this engrossing if somewhat deferential biopic of Margaret Thatcher with a richly conflicted center that befits one of the most divisive figures in 20th century politics.

With less complexity or cleverness, the film follows in the footsteps of Stephen Frears’ 2006 The Queen, another intimate portrait of a British head of state. Scripted by Abi Morgan (Shame) and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, The Iron Lady digs more incisively into character than context.

Just as Thatcher continues to have passionate
champions and detractors more than two decades after the end of her eventful 11½-year tenure as U.K. Prime Minister, the film stands to split audiences. Some will likely admire its even-handedness while others may find its point of view timid and mollifying, shaped less by objective detachment than by the distorting lens of compassion.

Instead, it’s a humanizing, at times touchingly sentimental drama, its most persuasive moments often outside the political arena. The keynote of vulnerability is struck from the opening scene in which Thatcher, in her 80s, alarms her security detail by tottering off unsupervised to the local shop for milk. Only after a boiled egg breakfast with her husband Dennis (Jim Broadbent) does it become clear that Margaret has been a widow for many years.

Those imagined conversations with the ghost of Dennis — a chortling, playful old codger in Broadbent’s endearing performance — establish a poignant us-and-them dynamic that ponders the solitary fog of old age. Streep is masterful at showing the internal battle between failing mental faculties and a refusal to relinquish dignity and command, yielding moments in which the confused elderly Thatcher appears convinced she is still the P.M. The mettle of her glory years resurfaces when the hallucinations of Dennis begin threatening her lucidity, prompting an attempt to banish him from her mind.
The framing action takes place around the time of the 2005 London terrorist attacks, and Morgan’s script deftly uses present-day triggers to summon flashbacks. These skip through Margaret’s youth as a grocer’s daughter (played with pluck and intelligence by Alexandra Roach), inheriting an early interest in politics from her father; her Oxford years and courtship by young businessman Dennis (Harry Lloyd); her determined first foot in the door of the boys’ club of conservative politics; and her 1959 entry into Parliament.

But the dramatic core is the rollercoaster of the 1980s, when Thatcher’s policies forged a new Britain out of financial deregulation, mass privatization, decreased public-service spending and the hobbling of the trade unions. With extensive use of news clips, the film touches on the widespread protests, the poll tax riots, the miners’ strike, the IRA bombings; it also alludes to soaring unemployment, the collapse in national industrial output and the widening gap between Britain’s new class of millionaires and its rapidly expanding poor.

As trusted political advisers, Roger Allam and Nicholas Farrell are priceless as they groom Thatcher for the party leadership, diplomatically considering areas in need of a makeover. Richard E. Grant exudes twitchy antagonism as Michael Heseltine during a tense encounter when the ferment in Thatcher’s ranks becomes evident. And Streep’s magnificent fury is electrifying opposite the shocked humiliation of Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Howe (an excellent Anthony Head) during a sharp rebuke in a cabinet meeting that led to his resignation and precipitated her downfall.

A distinguished stage director, Lloyd’s first feature, Mamma Mia!, showed only a rudimentary grasp of filmmaking craft, not that anyone seemed to care. This time out, her work is far more polished. Cinematographer Elliott Davis strikes the right visual note of somber formality, while editor Justine Wright fluidly integrates contemporary scenes with flashbacks, archival footage and home movies. Thomas Newman’s score shifts effectively between minor-key moods and bombastic authority.

If Thatcher the politician remains a somewhat intransigent and monumental figure, Morgan’s script is perceptive in examining her as a woman claiming uncharted territory. “I have always preferred the company of men,” she remarks casually while entering a male-dominated dinner party. That statement reverberates in her fearlessness among lions, her impatience with weakness and even in the imbalance of her affections for her twin children. The grownup Carol (Olivia Colman) is a fussy, well-meaning presence treated by Margaret with fond cordiality, while the absence of her son Mark in South Africa is a source of piercing sorrow.

It’s in the pathos of the fragile 21st century figure rather the power of her former self that The Iron Lady impresses. And while it seems fair to quibble that the film’s approach makes the title something of a misnomer, Streep’s meticulously calibrated work gives it unexpected emotional resonance.

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The Artist

(PG-13) • 100 minutes • On-screen here from 2/10/12 to 3/15/12

Director: Michel Hazanavicius

Starring: Jean Dujardin, John Goodman

Synopsis: When director Michel Hazanavicius turned heads with his 2006 sophomore feature OSS 117: Cairo Nest Of Spies, who would have guessed that just five years later he’d be debuting his fourth feature in competition in Cannes? But Hazanavicius had two weapons in his arsenal that led directly to where his is now, currently riding a wave of acclaim with one of the most unique and entertaining films of the competition lineup. He had an uncanny ability to recreate past eras of cinema on screen. And he had star Jean Dujardin. And both have served him well in The Artist.

Dujardin stars as George Valentin, the leading screen star of the silent film era. George is riding high, his films beloved by the masses and his common touch making him hugely popular. Following the premiere of a new hit film George has a random encounter with Peppy Miller, a young woman with dreams of stardom. George gives Peppy a hand on her path – a small one, but significant – setting the two on diverging courses as the most prominent faces of their respective ages.

For what George doesn’t know is that the silent era is just about over. The talkies are coming and though he may scoff at the potential of this new technology and refuse to play along the industry is changing and anyone who won’t adapt is left behind. And so George falls hard as Peppy rises, the girl’s natural charm making her an enormous success in the rise of talking pictures.

With the OSS 117 films, Hazanavicius turned his visual skills to recreating the spy movies of the late sixties and early seventies. Those films were remarkable recreations of the era, films that felt like organic products of the period rather than later copies. And now he applies that exact same approach to the silent film, with the exact same result.

The Iron Lady is a beautiful recreation of the silent era. Presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio and shot in gorgeous black and white, it is presented as a film from the late 1920’s would have been presented. Even the score feels as though it could have been lifted from the era and, yes, dialogue is presented on title cards. But more than just a recreation of the era, Hazanavicius has created here a clever meta-commentary on the history of film and the movement from one technology to another. While the aesthetic remains period throughout the structure is deliciously post-modern as he moves away from the films that Valentin stars in and into the story of his characters fall from fame.

Working in the silent format allows Hazanavicius to cast purely by look and physical ability without needing to worry about language or accent and the results are fantastic. Dujardin again takes the lead – and again proves that he simply has a remarkably timeless movie star quality to him – while Berenice Bejo glows as Peppy. Also in the mix are John Goodman – a perfect choice as the hard driving studio head – and James Cromwell as George’s faithful driver. The entire cast fits perfectly into this world, everyone adapting their acting styles smoothly to the demands of the format without ever slipping into parody.

This film is one of the most unique and charming efforts of the year and certainly one of the most pleasant surprises of Cannes.

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The Descendants

(R) • 110 minutes  On-screen here from 1/27/12 to 2/9/12

Director: Alexander Payne

Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster

Synopsis: After a five-year wait since Sideways, Alexander Payne has made his best film yet with The Descendants. Ostensibly a study of loss and coping with a tragic situation, this wonderfully nuanced look at a father and two daughters dealing with the imminent death of his wife and their mother turns the miraculous trick of possibly being even funnier than it is moving. George Clooney is in very top form in a film that will connect with any audience looking for a genuine human story, meaning Fox Searchlight should be able to give this a very long ride through the holid daughter Scottie (Amara Miller), and when they go to fetch saucy 17-year-old Aleley) from her boarding school on the Big Island, they are confronted by a drunken girl spouting obscenities on the beach after curfew.

Despite his shortcomings as a father and, very likely, a husband, Matthew can’t help but stir viewer sympathy, especially when the smart-mouthed Alex insists upon bringing along stoner boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) wherever they go and when confronted by his father-in-law (Robert Forster), a military type who deals with his grief over his beloved daughter by abusing everybody in his vicinity.

But the monkey wrench in the already fraught situation turns up when Alex informs her clueless dad that his wife had been cheating on him. As he so often does, Payne finds a way to augment the impact of a dramatic revelation with out-of-left field humor; in this case, he has Matthew put on some sandals and go running to the home of his wife’s best friend, his determined rush to learn the truth made giddily humorous simply by the sight of his awkward dash. Payne repeats this technique at equally critical moments, such as the denouement of the scene when Matthew finally tracks down the man who has cuckolded him.

Backgrounding the medical and emotional drama—with no hope of recovery, Elizabeth will be let go—is an expressive layer of Hawaiian history; Matthew’s family’s presence on the islands dates back to 1860 and a decision is due to be made within days about selling 25,000 acres of stunning waterfront property in Kuau’i, said to be the largest remaining such undeveloped parcel. Income from a sale would deliver a fortune to Matthew and his many relatives (including a yokel very nicely played by Beau Bridges), and a trip taken to the site by the endearingly conflicted quartet of Matthew, his girls and Sid plays a role in the resolution of this meaningful issue.

A major key to the film’s success are the nuances, fluctuating attitudes, loaded looks and tonal inflections among the main characters; the ensemble work is terrific. Despite her father’s admonitions, Alex continues to fling around dirty words, something then picked up by Scottie. Sid starts off seeming like a total dufus, always saying exactly the wrong thing, but even he gets a significant scene later on that completely changes the way he can be regarded.

The audience does get the satisfaction of Matthew’s fine confrontation with the man who screwed his wife, but this is made legitimately richer by a wonderful follow-up scene involving his wife, indelibly etched by Judy Greer.

But it’s Clooney who carries it all with an underplayed, sometimes self-deprecating and exceptionally resonant performance. He’s onscreen nearly all the time (and narrates as well) and makes it easy to spend nearly two hours with a man forced to carry more than his fair share of the weight of the world on his shoulders for a spell.

Similarly essential to the venture’s success is Woodley, who transforms convincingly from a girl who is reflexively condescending toward her father to one who becomes his eager accomplice and staunchest defender. Miller and Krause are excellent as the other members of what becomes the inner circle, and Patricia Hastie will, one hopes, one day have the opportunity to make a more expressive impression on the big screen than she does in the dramatically thankless but somehow still memorable role of the inert, bedridden Elizabeth (well, she does get a kissing scene with George Clooney, even if her character can’t feel it).

The film notably provides a most welcome untouristy view of Hawaii and everyday life on the islands, amplified by diverse weather (heavy clouds, mist and rain offset the expected sunny vistas). The soundtrack is also exceptional, consisting almost entirely of local tunes used in apt and expressive ways.

Official site  IMDb

 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

(R) • 127 minutes • On-screen here from 1/6/12 to 1/26/12

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Starring: Gary Oldman,Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Mark Strong

Synopsis: In the early 1970s during the Cold War, the head of British Intelligence, Control, resigns after an operation in Budapest, Hungary goes badly wrong. It transpires that Control believed one of four senior figures in the service was in fact a Russian agent – a mole – and the Hungary operation was an attempt to identify which of them it was. Smiley had been forced into retirement by the departure of Control, but is asked by a senior government figure to investigate a story told to him by a rogue agent, Ricky Tarr, that there was a mole. Smiley considers that the failure of the Hungary operation and the continuing success of Operation Witchcraft (an apparent source of significant Soviet intelligence) confirms this, and takes up the task of finding him.

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