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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Alex Cross; Anna Karenina; Argo; The Battleship Potemkin; End of Watch; A Late Quartet; The Master; Nothing But the Truth; Playing for Keeps; Skyfall; The Stoning of Soraya M; This Is Spinal Tap; and Warlock

Alex Cross   2012   101 minutes     I had read a few of the Alex Cross novels, but I hadn’t realized that as a detective he has powers of observation and deduction worthy of Sherlock Holmes and at the same time is physically intimidating.  In this story, he chases down a particularly nasty serial killer and the man behind him.  Spoiler alert:  As soon as I say “the man behind him,” you know it’s going to be Jean Reno’s character.

Anna Karenina   2012   130 minutes    I counted at least nine versions of Anna Karenina in the Netflix listings.  It all starts with Garbo, and then almost everyone but Meryl Streep has a go at the part.  So what’s a director to do?  The movie is shot on sets that look like the action is taking place on series of stages.  An actor walks through a door and into a different building at a different time of day.  Some scenes take place in the orchestra in front of the stage.  The seats have been removed and people are dancing at a reception, while other things are happening on stage in the background.  Characters leave the orchestra, and the camera follows them backstage among the ropes and pulleys.  Keira Knightley does a nice job as Anna, and Jude Law doesn’t seem to have to work too hard to become the despicable Count Vronsky.  It’s an innovative presentation of an all too familiar story, and the story is well told.

Argo   2012   120 minutes    Ben Affleck has directed a truly first rate movie.  This is an adaptation of a true story of how a CIA exfiltration expert , Tony Mendez, used the wildly improbable ruse of scouting for a location for a science fiction movie to rescue six Americans hiding in the Canadian Embassy in Teheran.  The six had escaped out a back door when the American Embassy was overrun by “student” protestors in 1979.  One of the six, Lee Schatz, was our colleague in the Foreign Agricultural Service.  Everything is well done, but for me the most gripping thing was Affleck’s recreation of the atmosphere in the crowds on the streets in Teheran.  There were a number of criticisms of Affleck for his one dimensional presentation of Iranian society and to those critics I can only say; See the Stoning of Soraya M and read Reading Lolita in Teheran.  While many details of the real story have been changed for dramatic effect (you can see them all on Wiki), amazingly there really is a Tony Mendez.

The Battleship Potemkin    1925   109 minutes   I just read Red Mutiny about the mutiny on the Potemkin, a Russian battleship in the Czar’s Black Sea fleet.  In the film you get only bits and pieces of the story and there is a feeling that the Soviet censors were watching Sergei Eisenstein’s every move, but the film may be worth it just to see the recreation of the massacre of civilians by Cossacks on the long stairway that leads down from Odessa to its waterfront.  I think I’ll resist the temptation to go back and see more silent movies.  Read Red Mutiny.

End of Watch   2012   109 minutes     This may be the worst film I have ever seen.  It is supposedly made from security footage and the cameras of cops criminals and victims.  If there was a sentence uttered that didn’t include the f-word, I missed it.

A Late Quartet   2012   105 minutes    A string quartet that has been together for many years and has an international reputation has to deal with the debilitating illness, Parkinson’s disease, of the first violin and eventually find a replacement for him.  Naturally all of the problems that the four members have been bottling up for years have to be dealt with in the evolving situation, which will affect the livelihood and artistic standing of each of them.  I can say I’m a fan of Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener, but the fourth member, Mark Ivanir was new to me.  He more than held his own.  This is a gem of a film which displays the strengths of the excellent cast.

The Master   2012   137 minutes   This is a really creepy film about a religious movement called The Cause, which is partly based on the life of L. Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology but has elements from several other sources.  Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Dodd, the master who guides the cause, and his character reminds me a lot of Hoffman’s Andy Warhol, all knowing, self-interested, manipulative.  Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie, a sex-obsessed alcoholic WW II navy veteran who joins The Cause after Dodd shows some interest in him.  Dodd is a fraud and Freddie is trouble.  I didn’t like this film much, even if the critics did.

Nothing But the Truth   2008   107 minutes    Kate Beckinsale plays a journalist who outs a CIA operative played by Vera Farmiga.  Matt Dillon plays the government prosecutor who sends Kate to jail for an indefinite period because she refuses to reveal her source.  She suffers in prison, loses her husband to another woman and sees Farmiga driven to suicide as a result of her decision.  Eventually she gets out, but we don’t learn until the very last frame why she refused to reveal her source and who it was.  It’s a good film about a difficult issue, national security vs. the fourth amendment. 

Playing for Keeps   2012  106 minutes    A washed-up soccer star who had played at the highest levels in Europe comes back to the US broke and unemployed but determined to rebuild his relationship with his son, who lives with his ex-wife.  He takes over the coaching for his son’s soccer team and all the parents love him, especially some of the moms.  Eventually he lands a broadcasting job with ESPN, escapes from the attentions of Catherine Zeta Jones and problems with rich guy Dennis Quaid and his oversexed wife, and reconciles with his ex, played by Jessica Biel.  It’s a romantic comedy with a few interesting twists, and some of the soccer moments will be interesting to “soccer parents.”

Skyfall   2012   143 minutes    I’d say “Bond is back” except Bond is always back, going on 50 years.  This has plenty of action including the usual, where Bond falls into the clutches of the bad guys.  Javier Bardem makes a first rate bad guy.  This is the last we’ll see of Judy Dench as M, but the new M is Ralph Fiennes so we can look for lots more Bond films and hope that all of them give plenty of screen time to the new Moneypenny.

The Stoning of Soraya M.   2008   It’s 1986 in a village in Iran.  A husband falsely accuses his wife of adultery because she has refused to let him divorce her so that he can marry a 15 year old girl.  I put off watching this because I knew it would be bad, but I had no idea how bad.  They tied her hands behind her back and buried her in the ground up to her waist.  Then they stoned her until there was nothing left but a bloody pulp.  The father made sure that each of his two sons had a turn stoning their mother.  This was bad, but even worse was the collusion among the village officials, the mullah and the other men to kill this woman, who had done nothing but try to care for her children.  Is this Islam?

This Is Spinal Tap   1984   83 minutes    Rob Reiner casts himself as the manager of a British rock group on the skids that is trying to recover with a tour in the US.  It spoofs everything about rock’n’roll.   It’s sort of funny and sort of sad.  There are better ways to spend 83 minutes.

Warlock    1959   121 minutes   The mining town of Warlock hires Clay Blaisdale and Tom Morgan (Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn) to clean up the town by getting rid of the local rancher and rustler and his gang, which keeps shooting up the town and murdering the sheriff.  Clay is almost the fastest draw around and Morgan, who is devoted to Clay and always has his back, actually is the fastest draw.  The two are successful at keeping order, but the townsfolk begin to think they may have made a mistake.  Meanwhile Morgan bushwhacks a gunmen who is coming to town to challenge Clay and does it in way that implicates two of the rancher’s hands as the murderers.  Richard Widmark had been one of the rancher’s men but quits in disgust and volunteers to take the job as sheriff.  If he can survive that, then there is no need for Clay and Morgan.  It all works out.  All the bad guys get shot by Widmark and the townsfolk who have decided to back him; Clay shoots Morgan and leaves town.  It’s just another western, but fun to watch.  One forgets just how impressive Henry Fonda was on screen.

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