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50/50 * 56 Up * 500 Days of Summer * 1480 * 42 * A Face In The Crowd * Factotum * Fahrenheit 9/11 * Failure To Launch * Fair Game * The Family * Family Man * The Family Stone * Far From Heaven * Farewell, My Queen * The Fast Runner * Femme Fatale * Fever Pitch * Fifteen Minutes * The Fighter * Finding Forrester * Finding Neverland * Firewall * The First Grader * First Position * The Five-Year Engagement * Flags of Our Fathers * Flash of Genius * Flight * Flightplan * The Fog of War * Food, Inc. * Footnote * For Your Consideration * Forgetting Sarah Marshall * Forks Over Knives * Four Brothers * Four Christmases * The 40-Year-Old Virgin * Fracture * Francis Ha * Freaky Friday * Freedom Writers * Frida * Friday Night Lights * Friends With Kids * Friends With Money * From Hell * Frost/Nixon * Frozen River * Fruitvale Station * Fuel * Funny People * The Future

50/50: Our local reviewer calls 50/50 a “laugh riot,” and it is being advertised as a “laugh-out-loud hilarious comedy.”  If you see advance previews, you will see many, if not most, of the funny scenes. In my opinion, the film is not a laugh riot. It is better than that. It is a moving screen-play inspired by true events in the life of the author, Will Reiser.  It is a powerful and moving story that may trigger a few smiles and a couple of chuckles, but far more memorable will be the heartfelt tears you may have to wipe away by the end. The movie deals with a rare and hard to pronounce cancer, but I never felt my emotions were being manipulated. It is warm without being maudlin, and it has an Academy Award worthy performance by the male lead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He is natural and believable and will never be accused of overacting. Seth Rogen plays his side kick, Angelica Huston plays his mother, and Anna Kendrik (Up In The Air) plays a sympathetic therapist. To go into the story could take away from the film if you should decide to see it.  I am sure you can guess to what the odds in the title refer. Barbara liked this film as much as I did and I predict that it is 85/15 that you will be glad you took a chance on this film. OK, cancer sucks, but this film does not. GRADE A-

56 UP: (2012) This is the latest installment of Michael Apted’s documentary project that has followed a group of Britons since they were seven years old in 1964. It began as a current-affairs program on television, and the first film was a 40-minute look at the lives of 14 children from different backgrounds. The documentary makers have checked in with the children every seven years, discussing their lives, their relationships, and their successes and failures especially with regard to the hopes and dreams of their younger selves. There have been a few dropouts along the way but the group remains remarkably intact. One woman, interviewed at 49, said she was not going to continue, but here she is a 56, still part of the group. She said that she has a sense of loyalty to the project even while she dislikes it. The participants are celebrities to people who have watched each installment over the last fifty years. One man, a cabdriver, tells an amusing story of being asked for his autograph. We both remember hearing about the study and Gary is sure that he saw one previous episode, but this is the first installment that I have seen. 56 Up brings the viewer up-to-date by showing brief segments from earlier interviews. It is striking to see these remarkably verbal 7-year-olds suddenly become middle-agers talking about their grandchildren. Conceived originally as a study of the class system, it demonstrates that little has changed—the rigid class system of Great Britain is alive and well. Though a bit long at 2 hours and 24 minutes, it is a fascinating look at an interesting social experiment. GRADE B

500 DAYS OF SUMMER: We loved this well-written and creatively filmed romantic comedy. It is not, as the narrator hastens to point out at the very beginning, a love story. It is, however, a story that charmed and surprised us from the first words that appeared on the screen until the unpredictable but completely satisfying ending. Director Marc Webb’s decision to show us a few of the 500 days that Tom and Summer spend together in random order was inspired. It isn‘t at all distracting but rather enhances the story-telling. Webb also included a musical number that could have been absurd but in his deft hands is delightful. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Tom and Zooey Deschanel is Summer. We first noticed Levitt in The Lookout in 2007 but he has been acting in films and on TV since 1988 when he was 7 years old. We first noticed Deschanel, whose sister, Emily, stars in the TV series, Bones, in the movie Failure To Launch (2006). The movie wasn’t very good, but she was memorable in the best friend role. Both are perfect in this quirky and enjoyable film. It opened here in Phoenix in only one theatre, but is scheduled to open more widely. We think you will like this one. GRADE A-

1408: (2007 film seen on DVD) Supernatural horror films may be our least favorite genre, but this one stars John Cusak, so we decided to take a look. Cusak plays a cynical writer whose books debunk the idea of ghosts, poltergeists, etc.  A mysterious postcard advises him to "stay away from Room 1408," so of course he has to discover the location of the room and book a visit. The film is based on a Stephen King short story and, as horror films go, this is a pretty good one. Not good enough to convert us into horror fans, but good enough to recommend. THUMBS UP

42: (2013) The real life story of Jackie Robinson and his historic signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 is so inspiring that even a script which is a bit hokey at times couldn’t keep us from enjoying this movie. With the cooperation of Robinson’s widow, Rachel, Oscar winner Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) wrote and directed the biopic. Chadwick Boseman is outstanding as the young Robinson. The actor has appeared in many TV shows, but this is only his second starring role in a feature film. The athletic Boseman did play Little League baseball, but later basketball took over his energies. He practiced for 4 months with major league coaches to be able to replicate Robinson’s signature moves. Both the actor and the director obviously felt great responsibility to Rachel Robinson to portray her husband’s story faithfully. And they did.  The terrible discrimination and harassment that Robinson faced, not only from baseball fans and opposing teams, but even from his own teammates, would have destroyed a lesser man. Robinson, with the help of Branch Rickey, realized that it would take more courage to ignore the racism than to fight against it. The movie shows some stunning examples of the bigotry Robinson faced, but Helgeland didn’t overdo that part of the story. I expected plenty of racism in the movie, but I was stunned by the volume of hate mail and death threats that Robinson received. Helgeland managed to make Jackie Robinson look like the almost super-human hero that he was.  Harrison Ford was terrific as Branch Rickey and Christopher Meloni appears as Leo Durocher. Lucas Black portrayed Pee Wee Reese, and the moment that he put his arm over Robinson’s shoulder in a game against Cincinnati, was one of the movie’s highlights. (That moment has been commemorated with a statue Brooklyn’s KeySpan Park.) The movie title refers to the number Robinson wore on his Dodger’s uniform. It is the only baseball player's number that has ever been retired--a fitting tribute to the gentleman who integrated the major leagues. GRADE A-

At Reese’s funeral, Joe Black, another Major League Baseball black pioneer, said:

“Pee Wee helped make my boyhood dream come true to play in the Majors, the World Series. When Pee Wee reached out to Jackie, all of us in the Negro League smiled and said it was the first time that a White guy had accepted us. When I finally got up to Brooklyn, I went to Pee Wee and said, ‘Black people love you. When you touched Jackie, you touched all of us.’ With Pee Wee, it was No. 1 on his uniform and No. 1 in our hearts.”

 
A FACE IN THE CROWD: (1957 Seen on DVD) This is one of Elia Kazan’s best films and is as powerful today as it was in 1957 when it was made. Andy Griffith, in his first movie role, is Lonesome Rhodes, a good-old country boy who becomes a Television powerhouse. It is a brilliant tale of how power corrupts. ENTHUSIASTIC THUMBS UP (Be sure you get the original 1957 version!)
 
FACTOTUM: This Independent Film Channel movie is an interesting character study of a man who isn’t very interesting. All he does is get fired from jobs, drink copious amounts, and, when he‘s sober enough, write. It’s a series of vignettes showing various events in the life of Hank Chinaski (Matt Dillon) who is the fictional alter-ego of author Charles Bukowski. (In the 1987 film, Barfly, Mickey Rouke played the author’s alter-ego also named Chinaski) Dillon proves what a fine actor he is, but Gary thought he looked almost too good to be believable as a drunk. Lilly Taylor is a woman Chinaski lives with for a while, and Marisa Tomei is a barfly he spends a few days with. Both women are excellent. The film seemed incredibly slow-moving, and quite depressing. Some of the scenes are a bit humorous, but overall, it’s quite dark. Dillon narrates between scenes, speaking author Bukowski’s words. I’ve never read any of his work, but would be interested in hearing from anyone who has. In an interview, Dillon defined "factotum" as a person who has many jobs. The dictionary says it’s "a person having many diverse activities or responsibilities, or, a general servant." GRADE C+

FAHRENHEIT 9/11: We decided to write our individual reactions to the film. 
     Barb: I laughed and I cried at Michael Moor's cinematic editorial. It also made me very, very angry with the Bush/Rumsfeld/Chaney gang. Gary and I went at 10:30 on a Saturday morning and were stunned to find a packed theater. When we left, people were already lined up for the next showing. We joined the audience in enthusiastic applause at the end of the film. Most of the facts Moore uses are not particularly new, but he skillfully weaves them into a damning indictment of the Bush administration. Yes, the film is slanted and propagandistic, "but, as the Chicago Reader review said, "…it is transparently so, unlike Fox News or CNBC." I suppose ardent Republicans will avoid the film and that is unfortunate. I agree with the Boston Herald: If you want to be part of the national debate, ``Fahrenheit 9/11 is must-see cinema. GRADE A

     Gary: Barbara and I were delighted to see a crowd in the theater and when we exited even more waiting in the lobby to see this Michael Moore "documentary." "Fahrenheit 9/11" received both the first prize and the longest continuous standing ovation in the history of the Cannes Film Festival (25 minutes)--and it wasn't just because of French antipathy to America. This is a compelling and persuasive film. Michael Moore is a skilled filmmaker with a definite point of view. He is the man who targeted General Motors in Roger & Me and the NRA in Bowling for Columbine. Now he takes on an even larger target: the President of the United States. People’s opinions of Fahrenheit will depend on their political affiliation – the left wing will love it; the right will hate it or, more likely, refuse to see it. With my long-standing history as a liberal, I have no trouble awarding this film an "A." GRADE A
 
FAILURE TO LAUNCH: Several critics have been hard on this film, calling it preposterous and completely unbelievable. Other critics say it’s surprisingly well cast, and fresh and funny throughout. Their grades range from D to A-. While we agree that the film has no connection to reality, we were entertained by it Leaving the theatre, I overheard two young women talking about how adorable Matthew McConaughey is. They’re right. He is adorable as Trip, a 35-year-old man still living at home with his parents. (In his review, Richard Roeper said that McConaughey is so attractive and charming that he’s the kind of guy who moves out of his parent’s house at 15 because he’s dating his teacher.) Trip’s parents, Kathy Bates and Terry Bradshaw, hire Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker) to help them get their son out of the house. She attempts to do this by making him fall in love with her which, she says, will give him the urge to move into a place of his own. Zooey Deschanel is Kit, Paula friend and roommate. She’s terrific, playing what Gary thought was a young version of Eve Arden. In fact, she is the most appealing character in the film. Bates is believable as Trip’s mom, and Bradshaw is surprisingly good as Trip’s dad, in spite of a rather embarrassing nude scene. As a light romantic comedy, we think the film is worth a B. GRADE B
 
FAIR GAME: "The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa ." These words from George Bush’s 2003 State of The Union Speech are thought to be the 16 words that took us into the Iraq war. Whether the administration believed it, or whether they merely wanted to believe it, is open to debate. As far as Joe Wilson is concerned, it was a lie. He is the former Ambassador whom the C.I.A. sent to Niger in 2003 to gather intelligence on the rumored yellow cake purchase. He concluded that it could not have happened. In addition, the C.I.A. had credible intelligence that Saddam’s nuclear weapons program had been disbanded years before. But that is not what the White House wanted to hear. When Wilson published an article declaring that the White House had misrepresented the facts, those in power took their revenge by leaking to a reporter that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a C.I.A. operative. Although it is against the law to divulge the identity of an operative, Karl Rove declared that Wilson’s wife was "fair game." As a result, Plame’s career was ruined and her marriage was almost destroyed. They both received hate mail and death threats from extreme right-wingers who refused to believe that the Iraq war was not justified. Ultimately, Scooter Libby, a Vice Presidential aide, took the fall and was convicted for divulging Plame’s C.I.A. identity. George Bush commuted his sentence, but did not pardon him. This movie tells the story that was front page news for months. Naomi Watts plays Plame and Sean Penn is Wilson. Both are excellent. The movie ends with Plame’s appearance before a Senate investigating committee, and we see the real Valerie Plame making her statement. I have no idea if the foreign scenes added for dramatic excitement are completely accurate, but they help make for interesting story-telling. GRADE B
 
THE FAMILY: What drove Barbara and me to the theater on opening day was the stellar cast,  Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Tommy Lee Jones plus a trailer making the movie look like a light hearted comedy. Making torture, mayhem, and murder seem light hearted doesn’t come easy, but if anybody could pull it off it would be them. They didn’t--at least not for us. As we nearly always do in recent years, we thought the cast was excellent, including two talented young actors (Dianna Agron and John D’Leo). The story sounds like it has promise. An ex-Mafioso (De Niro), who has apparently testified against the mob is in witness protection with his family and staying just ahead of a ticked off cast of mob characters. Unfortunately, we found the screenplay unworthy of the talents of the cast. The writer, director, and producer seem to be aiming for a dark off-beat comedy. At times, they succeed, just not enough to earn a high grade from us. GRADE C

FAMILY MAN:  We have a suggestion: Rent the video of Me, Myself, I with Rachel Griffiths. The two movies have the same plot, but the British version has a lot more charm. (Although, if you like Tea Leoni as much as we do, you might want to see the movie just because of her. We did.) Now for the plot: Everyone wonders what their life might be like if they had made different decisions along the way. Family Man invites us into the life of Jack Campbell (Nicholas Cage). In 1987, Jack left his college sweetheart, Kate Reynolds (Leoni) to take a one-year internship at Barclay's Bank in London. He never came back to her. Thirteen years later he is a rich, dynamic executive with what he considers a "perfect" life. That is, until he wakes up one Christmas morning to find himself in New Jersey with a wife and two kids. He suddenly is living the life he might have had if he had never gone to London, and he has great difficulty adjusting to it. It is especially hard for him to accept his job as a tire salesman. Up to this point, we enjoyed the movie, but the ending was unsatisfying. The stock romantic ending seemed too predictable and totally lacking in creativity. We can't short the acting: Cage is good and Leoni is terrific. We also enjoyed Don Cheadle as a street-smart angel and Jeremy Piven as Jack's best New Jersey friend. If I hadn't seen Me, Myself,I first, I might have rated this movie a little bit higher. GRADE: C

THE FAMILY STONE: We both enjoyed this movie. Yes, it is predictable and sentimental, but that’s not always a bad thing. The Stone family is made up of mom (Diane Keaton), dad (Craig T. Nelson) daughters Susannah and Amy (Rachel McAdams) and sons Everett (Dermot Mulroney), Ben (Luke Wilson) and Thad. Everett, the perfect son, brings his fiancée, Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) home for Christmas to introduce her to the family. They are not warm and wonderful to her, and Meredith feels distinctly unwelcome in the Stone home. Based on the trailers we saw, we were afraid that too much of the humor in the movie would rely on slap-stick. There is one scene toward the end of the film that does get a bit silly, but, in the context of the story, we didn’t mind it. There are plenty of laughs, but we appreciated the fact that the story also has some touching and serious moments. Luke Wilson is good at playing the laid-back, stoner son; Parker is believable as an extremely uptight career woman; McAdams is as pretty and interesting as always, and the warmth between Keaton and Nelson is touching. In other words—the ensemble works. Claire Danes is also charming as Meredith’s sister, Julie. The film was directed and written by Thomas Bezucha (Big Eden 2001). The Family Stone makes for an enjoyable Christmas movie. GRADE B+

FAR FROM HEAVEN: Julianne Moore is the perfect June Cleaver in this movie set in 1957 in Hartford Connecticut. Her Cathy Whitaker has bouffant hair and bouffant skirts and an ideal suburban life. Even the setting looks like a picture postcard for upper class affluence. Dennis Quaid is Frank Whitaker, but he is a Ward Cleaver with a big problem. He is fighting homosexual desires, something that surely occurred in the 1950s but was rarely talked about in polite society. Cathy is struggling to keep the family together, but she finds herself attracted to, of all people, her "Negro" gardener, Raymond. (Played by the impressive Dennis Haysbert--The President on TV's 24.) At a party, someone comments that there are no race problems in Hartford because there are no "coloreds" there. This is said in front of several black waiters and maids. They are invisible to white Hartford society, but, when Cathy is seen in friendly conversation with Raymond, people are appalled--it shakes the very foundations of their social mores. Writer/Director Todd Haynes has recreated the picture perfect surface of 1950s life, but has introduced social problems that simmered under that surface. Quaid has a difficult role. Frank is full of self-hatred. He cannot make love to his wife, and he cannot resist "the love that dare not speak its name." Julianne Moore is, as always, splendid. The acting here is uniformly excellent and I was touched by Cathy and Raymond's love story. Gary gives the film a B, but I liked it a bit more and say B+. GRADE B+/B

FAREWELL, MY QUEEN: For the past couple of months we’ve been enjoying the old BBC TV series Upstairs, Downstairs, courtesy of Netflix. So we thought the idea of a movie about the French Revolution told through the eyes of royal servants would be interesting. I wish the movie had been as interesting as the idea. As it turns out, the servants and royal retainers had no idea what was going on outside the castle walls—no newspapers, no radio or TV and no internet in 1789. Therefore, a movie about people who are clueless as to what is going on is not only uninteresting, but boring. There was a lot of running around asking for information, but for us, that didn’t make much of a movie. If I’d had access to a guillotine I’d have chopped a few heads just to get some action! The cast, headed by Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette were all believable and the costumes were gorgeous. I suppose for some, the scene of the Queen bidding goodbye to her noblewoman lover might be touching, but we were unmoved. Our local reviewer praised the “sense of realism, even amid the fairy-tale setting” and he thought the dynamic between the women was subtle and engrossing. We can agree with “subtle,” but for us, it was far from “engrossing.” We really can’t recommend this one in spite of glowing reviews from many professional critics. GRADE C-

THE FAST RUNNER: Although Barbara and I liked this film, we find it difficult to recommend to any but avid independent film buffs--or to anyone fascinated by cultural anthropology. It is the first film shot in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit peoples who live above the Arctic Circle. It was made with an Inuit cast, and a 90-percent Inuit crew. It is based on a story that is at least 1,000 years old and it records a way of life that still existed within living memory of many working on the film. It was shot with a high-definition digital video camera, sidestepping the problems that cinematographers have long experienced while using film in temperatures well below zero. Its script, compiled from versions of an Inuit legend told by eight elders, is a classic tale told in many cultures. The actors were so convincing that the film plays like a documentary. It has opened with high praise from many film critics and we give it well deserved GRADE B.

FEMME FATALE: Some reviewers criticize Brian DePalma for favoring style over substance. It's true, as Gary said upon leaving the theater that DePalma never lets plot or plausibility stand in the way of a good scene. And this film is typical DePalma. His camera acts like the eye of a voyeur and is never happier than when clothes are being shed. Which happens a lot in this movie. Rebecca Romjin-Stamos is Laure Ash, a self-described "bad" girl. As the movie opens, she and her colleagues are taking part in a daring diamond heist at the Cannes Film Festival. I won't even try to detail the plot--you'd never believe it. Stamos certainly has the body of a femme fatale, although some criticize her "non-acting." We thought she was credible as a fantastically well-built femme fatale. Antonio Banderas and Peter Coyote also appear. The New York Times critic said: "But Mr. De Palma proves that, in the absence of insight or ideas, some amazing things are possible. It is possible, for instance, to be entranced by a movie without believing it for a second." While "entranced" might be a bit strong to describe our reaction to the film, we thought it was stylish enough to deserve a B. Also, it has an interesting twist at the end. Very Hitchcockian. GRADE B

FEVER PITCH: This movie is a pure delight. It is guaranteed to make you smile from beginning to end. And laugh out loud quite often. Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon are a charming couple—you root for them to work it out. The problem in their romance is Ben’s (Fallon) obsession with the Boston Red Socks. Lindsey (Barrymore) is absorbed in her career, but not to the level of Ben’s addiction. There are many wonderful scenes and all the supporting actors, including the kids (Ben is an elementary school teacher), are terrific. When the Farrelly brothers started this film, they thought it would be about a fan dealing with his team’s loss. But, as fate would have it, the Red Sox, down 3 and 0 to the Yankees in the American League Championship game, miraculously came back to win. They went on to win the World Series. This changed the end of the film, for the better, I think. I imagine the movie will play forever in Boston. We rank it up there with our favorite romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally. This is a departure for the Farrelly Brothers because it is family fare, unlike There’s Something About Mary. The film is based on a novel by Nick Hornby. Other Hornby novels have given us High Fidelity (2000) and About A Boy (2002). Roger Ebert praised Hornby’s books saying, "Their humor all begins in the same place, with truth and close observation. We know these people. We dated these people. We are these people." GRADE A-

FIFTEEN MINUTES:  The title of this film is based on Andy Warhol's prediction that everyone in the future can expect to be famous for 15 minutes. It is ironic that a movie, which condemns our fascination with violence and celebrity, uses a great deal of violence to make its point. The filmmaker is also critical of the media's encouraging of that fascination. To demonstrate this, Kelsey Grammer plays the slimy host of a tabloid television "news" show. His character is a blatant caricature. Here's the gist of the story: Two men, one Czech and one Russian, arrive in the U.S. Oleg, the Russian, is movie-crazy and his first act in New York is to steal a video camera. Emil, the Czech, has a violent temper. He commits three brutal murders, and Oleg, who fancies himself a Russian Frank Capra, films each act. It doesn't take Emil long to learn some basic facts about American culture: We love celebrities and people will do anything to get on TV. (If you doubt that, watch the Jerry Springer show.) At one point, after watching a sleazy talk show, Emil says, "I love America. Nobody here is responsible for anything" He decides to kill a celebrity, plead mental incompetence, and then sell his videotaped story to TV for a million dollars. The celebrity he selects is Eddie Flemming (DeNiro) who is a somewhat famous NYPD Detective. Flemming, along with Jordy Warsaw (Ed Burns), a Fire Department arson investigator, are hot on the trail of the visiting killers. The pace is furious and much of the violence is effectively shown through Oleg's video camera. The film has been much criticized, but we thought it was frequently exciting, if somewhat implausible. We particularly liked Burns. GRADE: B-

THE FIGHTER: Good sports films are nearly always more about people than about the sport. I liked this boxing film a little better than Barbara, but I think we both agree that there are Oscar-worthy performances in this inspirational drama about a real life blue-collar boxing family. Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund were half-brothers and professional fighters who probably did as much fighting in a dysfunctional family as in the ring. Nearly every scene in the film, in or out of the ring, plays out like a boxing match. The word is that Wahlberg fought for years to get this film made and he is not only one of the producers, but is effective in his role as Micky Ward. There is sharp contrast between the stoic Wahlberg and Christian Bale brilliantly playing his motor-mouth, crack-addicted half-brother who is both his mentor and his millstone. Each compliments the other’s performance. Inspired casting brings together one of the best acting ensembles of the year: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Melissa Leo. Adams successfully shows her remarkable range after earlier playing a wide-eyed Disney princess in Enchanted. Here she convincingly plays Charlene, a tough-talking bar hostess who helps Ward break the crippling grip of his family and rise through the ranks for a title shot. Leo plays the big-hair, chain-smoking family matriarch. Her two marriages produced two boys and seven sisters who would make ideal candidates for a Jerry Springer episode. Leo may play a controlling stage-mom stereotype, but she doesn’t allow that to stand in the way of a riveting performance that may earn her another Oscar. Is the film predictable? Of course. Is it worth seeing? Definitely! GRADE B+/B

FINDING FORRESTER:  Gus Van Sant has done it again. After Good Will Hunting, he follows it up with Finding Forrester, another student/teacher relationship film that will capture both your mind and your heart. What can I say about Sean Connerythis has to be his best work yet. Connery is more than up to the challenge of playing a vulnerable and frightened man. His performance is filled with subtlety, humor, and warmth and is nothing short of brilliant. Connery is William Forrester, a man who wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning novel when he was 23 and never published another book. Now he is 73, living in a dilapidated building in the Bronx, watching the world from his window because he is afraid to go out. His window overlooks a basketball court and, as he watches the teenagers, they see him watching and wonder about the man behind the window. One curious boy, Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown) pays a visit to the recluse and an unusual friendship is born. Jamal is a remarkable 16-year-old: He has a superior mind, he is a gifted writer and he is also exceptional at the net. Those skills earn him a scholarship to an exclusive private prep school in Manhattan. Forrester becomes Jamal's mentor, encouraging and inspiring him. There is a moment in the film where I thought, "My Fair Hoop Man." It is a moment when Jamal realizes that he will never again be at home in his own neighborhood. Brown makes a memorable Jamal and he more than holds his own with Connery. What a pair they make! I liked Jamal's relationship with his friends and his family too--No stereotypes here, just living breathing people--people you'd like to know. (And I'll never again worry about starting a sentence with a conjunction. But I must be sure not to overdo it.) Gary agrees that Finding Forrester is an "A" film. Saying this, he now feels that we should have given Good Will Hunting an A+.  GRADE: A

FINDING NEVERLAND: Johnny Depp is the playwright J.M. Barrie in this gentle and rather strange but ultimately touching movie. The movie opens in 1903 in a London theater as Barrie watches from behind the curtain as an opening night audience streams in. The play is a flop, much to the chagrin of Barrie and his producer, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman). When Barrie meets the Davies family in the park one day, he is captivated by the four young boys and their widowed mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet). Barrie always felt that he had grown up too soon, and he enjoys playing with the young boys. Their make-believe becomes the inspiration for his most famous play, Peter Pan. (One of the boys is named Peter, nicely played by Freddie Highmore.) The film frequently expands their make-believe into reality. For example, tied to a tree in the backyard, Barrie and the boys imagine they are on a pirate ship, and we see them on an actual ship. Barrie is married, so his infatuation with Sylvia and her sons is troubling to his wife. It is also troubling to Syvia's mother (Julie Christie). I think Depp may be the best actor living today. He is so versatile that he totally inhabits his characters. He is equally believable as a flamboyant pirate (Pirates of the Caribbean) and a this shy Scottish playwright. The film is based on a play titled The Man Who Was Peter Pan, and the film was directed by Marc Forster. The low volume in our movie theater combined with the accents, made it difficult for Gary to hear much of the dialogue. For that reason, he can't grade the film, but I liked it enough to give it a B+. GRADE B+

     (Note: The writer does take some liberties with the facts. In her review, Monahla Dargis (New York Times) tells us that in reality Barrie was homely and barely cleared 5 feet. She writes, He met the five (not four, as in the film) Davies boys long before their father's death. Arthur died in 1907, after ''Peter Pan'' was mounted on the London stage. . . Barrie's devotion to the children was such that he might have altered Sylvia's will so that he could take stewardship of the boys. He did, and the tragedies continued: one son was killed during World War I, another was an apparent suicide. Years after Barrie died, the 63-year-old Peter . . . threw himself under a train, having long hated his connection with his namesake. For this man who did grow up, ''Peter Pan'' was, as he called it, a ''terrible masterpiece."
 
FIREWALL: There are plenty of holes in the plot of this thriller starring Harrison Ford, but, as Roger Ebert asks, "Need a thriller be plausible in order to be entertaining? I’d say that plausibility is a plus, but not totally necessary. If you care about the people involved, and the if the film does a good job of building tension, you will be entertained—especially if there are explosions and fisticuffs at the end. This one entertained us. Ford and Virginia Madsen play an upscale Seattle couple with two children. Ford is head of computer security for a large bank. Paul Bettany and his crew of thieves hold Ford’s family captive in order to force the security chief to help them rob the bank. They don’t want to put their hands on any actual money, but want Ford’s computer expertise to wire transfer 100 Million dollars into an off-shore account. I think computers are fascinating and even exciting, but they usually don’t make for exciting movies. However, here the director does a fair job of holding our interest through the technical stuff and rewards us with the requisite hand-to-hand combat at the end. Bettany is believable and chilling as a polite sociopath. We also enjoyed seeing Mary Lynn Rajskub playing a character much like her Chloe in TV’s 24. Robert Patrick, Robert Forster and Alan Arkin appear in small roles. In an interview, Ford said he does all his own stunts. I wonder how much longer he can keep doing that. He must have suffered quite a bit of wear and tear on this shoot. Gary says B; I say B-. GRADE B/B-
 

THE FIRST GRADER: (2010) This is a wonderful story—and it’s true. Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge was a Mau Mau freedom fighter in the war for Kenyan Independence. The Mau Mau Uprising was a military conflict that took place in Kenya between 1952 and 1960. The movement was violently repressed by the ruling British government and failed to capture widespread public support, but It has been argued that the conflict helped set the stage for Kenyan independence in 1963. Maruge’s wife and two children were killed by the British Military, and he was imprisoned and tortured for years. When the Kenyan government announced free primary education for all in 2002, he went to his local school and to get the education he was denied as a boy. He was 84. The teacher in charge of the school turns him away at first, but she is unable to resist his story and his fierce desire to learn to read. Despite opposition from parents, she accepts him into first grade. (Maruge currently holds the Guiness World Record for the oldest person ever admitted to primary school.) Oliver Litondo plays Maruge with great dignity. He and Naomie Harris as Teacher Betty, bring this true story to life. Both actors are outstanding, and the young school children are adorable. While it is true that, in the words of Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly, “The First Grader plays more like a teaching tool than a dynamic drama,” we liked it anyway. Gary was especially moved by the story and he gives the movie a higher grade than I. GRADE A-/B

FIRST POSITION: (2011/2013) We watched this documentary on DVD from Netflix. It follows six young dancers from around the world as they prepare for one of the most prestigious ballet competitions in the world--The Youth America Grand Prix. It is a competition for young ballet students between the ages of 9 and 19, and one of the world's leading proving grounds for new talent. Most major dance companies and schools pay close attention to who fares well in the annual contest. Each year, thousands of dancers enter, but only three hundred make it into the finals, held in New York City. You get to know six of the dancers and follow their journey to the finals. It’s always a thrill to see young people who have worked so hard compete for jobs and scholarships, but you feel bad for those that don’t do well in the competition. The subject is clearly near and dear to the documentarian heart. The director, Bess Kargman, studied ballet when she was younger, and when she heard about the Grand Prix competition, she was inspired to make First Position. Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) commented that each of the young dancers “is a wonder of self-imposed discipline in service to art.” We agree with the Variety critic who called it “touching (and) enormously satisfying. We think this is a documentary that you will enjoy. Pictured is a 16-year-old from Columbia named Joan Sebastian Zamora. GRADE B

 
THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT: (2012) I’m a pushover for a good romantic comedy and this is a very good one. It was co-written by Jason Segal and director Nicholas Stoller and the dialogue is funny throughout. (The two men collaborated on another movie we enjoyed, Forgetting Sarah Marshall.) Both are good at creating funny, touching and real stories. They also provided good parts for a lot of talented actors, and many of the laughs come from minor characters. Segal stars as Tom, who proposed to Violet (Emily Blunt) a year after meeting her. However, the wedding day keeps getting postponed. Life keeps getting in the way. They are a lovely couple and we know they are perfect for each other, but we realize that their path to the altar will not be without twists and turns. The first turn comes when Violets gets the chance to do her post-graduate work in Psychology at the University of Michigan. Tom agrees to give up his job and travel from San Francisco to Ann Arbor. In California, he was a chef, but in Michigan he is only able to find a job in a deli. Making sandwiches, no matter how delicious, is not the career Tom had in mind. At the University, we meet Violet’s goofy post-grad colleagues and her boss, played by Rhys Ifans, who looked so bizarre in Notting Hill, but looks rather normal here. Meanwhile, Violet’s sister, Suzy (Alison Brie) who got “knocked-up” at Tom and Violet’s engagement party by Tom’s best friend Alex (Chris Pratt), gets married and produces two adorable children. There is a very funny scene toward the end of the film where Suzy and Violet discuss relationships in front of the two youngsters while using Elmo and the Cookie Monster voices. The two kids are fascinated by the voices and we laugh at the words. My favorite lines from that scene are, “There are no perfect cookies. Sometimes you just have to pick a cookie and bite into it.” We enjoy Jason Segal and can’t say enough good things about Emily Blunt. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, but Mimi Kennedy and David Paymer are standouts as Tom’s parents. We both enjoyed The Five-Year Engagement. GRADE A-

 

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS: I remember thinking, when I finished reading James Bradley’s book on which this film is based, that it was one of the most powerful and moving books I ever read. Often such a reading experience is followed by a disappointing film experience. Not so with Flags Of Our Fathers. As Barbara and I left the theater, Barbara commented, "He really knows how to tell a story." She was referring to Academy Award winning director Clint Eastwood. The film deals with one of the bloodiest battles in WWII and arguably the most inspiring photo ever snapped, the flag raising on Iwo Jima. It was a photo that may have changed history dramatically. There are no blockbuster stars in Flags, but many skilled actors who play their roles flawlessly. Ryan Phillippe, playing a Navy corpsman, and Adam Beach, playing a troubled marine struggling with survivor guilt, deserve special praise for their portrayals. The film skillfully cuts back and forth between the horrors of battle on Iwo Jima and a flag waving public relations tour designed to raise desperately needed money for the war. The American people needed heroes. The men chosen to be those heroes felt overwhelming guilt assuming that role. There have been many important war movies coming out of Hollywood. I think we must add Flags Of Our Fathers to that list. GRADE A-

FLASH OF GENIUS: It’s hard to resist a David and Goliath story. This film is based on the true story of Robert Kearns, a college professor and inventor who, in the late 1960s, invented and patented the intermittent windshield wiper. He called it the "blinking eye." When he took it to the Ford Motor Company, he thought they were going to help him manufacture the wiper. Instead, they stole it. The film details his efforts to get recognition for his invention. No one thought he could get the case to court, let alone win against the auto giant. He gave up his marriage and, for a time, his emotional stability, but he did prevail. Greg Kinnear is terrific playing Kearns who was a flawed but determined man. We lauded his performance in Ghost Town in the last issue, and this multi-layered performance is another example of Kinnear’s skills as an actor. Lauren Graham (The Gilmore Girls) plays Phyllis Kearns, and Alan Alda appears as a lawyer who works for Kearns but resigns from the case when the professor refuses a settlement offer. This is an earnest film and it does a good job of articulating the legal argument, but the court case lacks the universal appeal of Silkwood, or Erin Brokovich. Stephen Holden of the NYTimes said, "It has the tone and texture of a well-made but forgettable television movie." And Roger Ebert, who gave the film 3 stars, says "Flash of Genius tells this story in faithful and often moving detail. If it has a handicap, it's that Kearns was not a colorful character, more of a very stubborn man with tunnel vision." We don’t think this will be a popular film at the box office, although we liked it enough to give it a solid B. GRADE B.

FLIGHT: The camera and audiences love Denzel Washington and when he is on screen it is hard not to be fascinated. If you saw the previews for this R-rated drama, you know it is about a veteran airline pilot who saves the lives of over 100 people with miraculous handling of a badly disabled plane. The trailer hints that even though he performed spectacularly, there may be some questions raised about his sobriety during the controlled crash. What you are not told in the trailer and you may want to know, is that the film is primarily about the power of addiction. It is Washington’s movie and in my opinion he is terrific from beginning to end. He is ably assisted in supporting roles by heavy star power. That includes Don Cheadle, John Goodman, and Melissa Leo. John Goodman is especially memorable bringing a few smiles to an otherwise very serious film. Robert Zemeckis, director, has brought us many impressive films, e.g., Romancing the Stone, Forrest Gump, and Cast Away. Barbara and I liked this film from the nail biting opening through the heartbreaking consequences of addiction and think it is well worth seeing. GRADE B+

 

FLIGHTPLAN: In her last movie, Jodie Foster spent most of the time in a Panic Room. In this movie, she spends most of the time in panic mode as she frantically searches a jumbo jet for her missing six-year-old daughter. At one point, she begins to question her own sanity, because everyone insists her daughter was never on the plane. Foster is very good at playing a woman on the edge. She is equally good when she gets tough with the "bad guys." Foster has the help of a sympathetic sky marshal played by Peter Sarsgaard. Sean Bean plays the flight captain who, at first, tries to help her in the search, but eventually comes to believe that Foster is delusional. Foster manages to maintain tension throughout the film, but, unfortunately, there are some major holes in the plot. I didn’t really think about the holes until after the movie, but Gary was bothered by them even as he watched. I won’t explain the plot problems because I don’t want to give anything away, but they were the reason for our grade of C+. However, we think that Foster deserves at least a B+ for her performance. GRADE C+
 
THE FOG OF WAR: (2003 Release) This 2003 documentary received rave reviews from nearly all the critics. It is an extraordinary film that you may never have an opportunity to see. If you have the opportunity, I implore you not to miss it. The film is condensed from over 20 hours of interviews that director Errol Morris had with Robert McNamara. McNamara was Secretary of Defense during both the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations. But it is beautifully interspersed with historical film footage from the periods being discussed and by supplementary interviews. The New York Times critic writes, "If there's one movie that ought to be studied by military and civilian leaders around the world at this treacherous historical moment, it is The Fog of War." I can only hope you have an opportunity to see this remarkable film. Barbara enjoyed it a bit less than I did and gives it a B. GRADE: A-/B
 
FOOD, INC.: This is not just a good movie. It is an important movie. As a retired teacher, I would like to make it required viewing. But if memory serves, making reading or viewing required is often counter-productive. I must face the reality that most of our readers will not have an opportunity to see this brilliant documentary in a theater and very few will take the time to rent it. After all, who would go out of their way to see an enlightening and at times infuriating exposé of our nation’s food industry? Why should we care that a few increasingly powerful corporations put profits ahead of consumer health and the safety of workers? It could be uncomfortable seeing a bright-eyed two-year-old playing in the surf only to learn that twelve days later he was dead after eating burgers contaminated with E. coli. And then to learn that staggering sums are being spent trying to prevent any attempts to enforce sanitation and safety standards. These few comments don’t begin to cover the depth or breadth of this important film. Barbara and I both feel that going the extra mile to see Food, Inc. will not only make you and your family healthier, but make the world a little better place in which to live. GRADE A
 

FOOTNOTE: This film is from Israel and was a nominee for this year’s foreign-language Oscar. It is, of course, in subtitles. Set in the world of Israeli academia, two eccentric professors (father and son) have dedicated their lives to Talmudic Studies. The son seems successful and is the recipient of many awards. After decades of pouring over the Torah, the father’s research amounted to little more than a footnote when a competitor’s chance discovery and rapid publication rendered his labors moot. The setup is slow, but creative camerawork and the introduction of an interesting moral dilemma held Barbara’s and my attention. For me, having worked for decades in academia, I was keenly aware of the vicious dynamics of academic competition. At its core this movie is a tragic tale of father-son discord. There is a little humor sparingly sprinkled through the film, but if you are one who appreciates only entertaining movies and especially if you demand Hollywood endings that resolve issues, you may want to pass over this one. GRADE B-

 
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION: We enjoyed this latest film to come from the creative minds of Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy. However, we think it isn’t as good as their previous efforts, and it’s appeal is more limited. In this film, Guest and Levy satire the movie industry. Actors, Agents, Directors, Producers, Writers, Studio Publicity hacks, Studio Heads and TV Entertainment and movie review shows, all come in for their share of ridicule. All the regulars make an appearance. Catherine O’Hara is particularly effective as an aging actress who is playing the lead in the movie that Guest is directing titled Home For Purim. Harry Shearer (A Mighty Wind) is O’Hara’s husband in Purim, and Parker Posey is her estranged daughter. All three are excellent at portraying earnest actors who efforts are slightly off kilter. When all three learn that there is media buzz about their possible Oscar nominations, they become part of the Oscar frenzy that pervades Hollywood as the Academy Award season approaches. Fred Willard and Jane Lynch play the hosts of a TV Entertainment show and they are terrific. Jennifer Coolidge is a dim-witted producer, and John Michael Higgins is the dim-witted studio publicity guy. Gary thought that Levy’s talent agent was the best characterization of all. If you are a movie buff, you will probably enjoy For Your Consideration. There are some very funny bits and a lot of talented comedians present. GRADE B-.
 

FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL: If you enjoy romantic comedies that combine raunchy humor with a sweetness of spirit, then you’ll enjoy this movie. Produced by Judd Aptow, it has all the ingredients of his previous hits, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad, so you can expect some adolescent humor and some nudity—in this case, full frontal male nudity. The film’s star, Jason Segel from TV’s How I Met Your Mother, is also the screenwriter, and he has penned a story about how a man recovers from a sorrowful break-up. Segel’s Peter has been with his TV star girlfriend, Sarah (Kristen Bell from TV’s Veronica Mars) for years, and when she dumps him for a rock star, he is devastated. Convinced to take a vacation to get away from reminders of Sarah, he goes to a luxurious resort in Hawaii, only to find that Sarah and her boyfriend are staying there. (Russell Brand is a Brit TV personality and he is hilarious as Aldous Snow, Sarah’s new love.) Two Aptow favorites, Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill play, respectively, a stoner surfing teacher and a waiter who worships Aldous Snow. The gorgeous Mila Kunis (TV’s That 70’s Show) is a hotel hospitality hostess who helps Peter forget Sarah. Especially funny are scenes from Sarah’s CSI-type TV show in which Billy Baldwin appears as her detective partner. We are also treated to bits from the puppet rock opera, Dracula, that Peter has been working on for years. It all adds up to a lot of fun. Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune) says that this film is proof that "all raunch is not created equal." Both he and Richard Roeper gave the film favorable reviews. However, if you’re offended by nudity and rather crude humor, you might want to skip this one. We enjoyed it and give it a solid B. GRADE B+

FORKS OVER KNIVES: Could the advice gleaned from a not very exciting documentary save your life….or at least improve or extend it? In my humble opinion, this persuasive documentary could do just that. It focuses on the research of two food scientists who effectively argue that despite broad advances in medical technology, the popularity of modern processed foods has led to epidemic rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and many other health problems. I suspect that they are “preaching to the choir” for most people willing to spend time with this film are those who are already somewhat informed and receptive to the message. The message will not be welcomed by the meat and dairy industry, but the evidence is compelling. One critic put it like this, “Movies are like food. There are popcorn films that entertain you and spinach movies that are good for you. Forks Over Knives is a spinach flick.” GRADE B+

FOUR BROTHERS: This movie teaches a valuable lesson: Don’t visit Detroit in the winter. Our local reviewer compared this film to The Sons of Katie Elder and called it "Katie Elder with a mean streak." The plots are similar: four brothers try to find out the truth behind the death of their mother. In this modern version, the setting is urban, and the mother adopted all four boys: two of the brothers are white and two are black. Mark Walhberg takes the John Wayne role as the oldest brother who has recently been released from prison. When asked if he was going straight, he replies, "straightish." Walhberg is terrific in the role—the shot of him walking across a frozen lake toward the end of the film is perfect. (It’s hard to think of him as Marky Mark posing in his Calvin Kleins.) Andre Benjamin, Tyrese Bibson and Garrett Hedlund are the other three brothers and they are all fine. The urban setting demands a killer who has politicians and police officers on his payroll and Chiwetel Ejiofor fills that bill beautifully. Of course, there is a conspiracy, but the Mercer brothers are determined to get the truth. And they do. Terrance Howard appears as a sympathetic cop and Fionnyula Flanagan is the murdered mother, who we see at the time of her death and in flashbacks. This movie is violent with lots of gunplay and one car chase, but as a revenge flick, it is reasonably satisfying. We both decided on a grade of B. GRADE B

FOUR CHRISTMASES: It is hard to believe, but there are five Oscar-winning actors in this mediocre Christmas story. The two leads are played by Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon with Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Jon Voight, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, and Tim MGraw in supporting roles. With one of my favorite comedians, Vince Vaughn, how could the film miss? Well it doesn’t miss entirely; it misses just enough to make it hard to be enthusiastic. Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Witherspoon) are products of divorce and families they would rather avoid every Christmas. They manage to accomplish this by telling the families they are spending Christmas vacation as volunteers doing "good works," while in fact they sneak off to some exotic vacation spot. But this Christmas their deceit is exposed and they feel forced to spend time with each of the four parents. Then things get a little crazy and a little vulgar with a lot of over-the-top slap stick. There are a few laughs and a feel-good ending, and, because Barbara and I like Vince Vaughn, we grade this film slightly higher than the average critic. GRADE C+

THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN: Barbara suggested that I might be better qualified to review this film than she. I will need to ruminate on how to interpret that. Although we certainly give this adult comedy a thumbs up, neither of us felt it quite lived up to the hype and to our high expectations. We love the work of the talented Steve Carell who plays the loveable and sympathetic virgin. He is supported by equally talented actors like Catherine Keener and Paul Rudd. To tell you much about the plot would assume you did not read the title. There are, of course, many funny scenes. In fact one may prove to be as memorable as the tooth-drilling scene in The Marathon Man. The scene involves an incredibly harry chest and a waxing process. If you see it, you should know that it was done in one take because it was for real. The film builds to a touching and creative end and we both give The 40-Year-Old Virgin a "B." GRADE B

FRACTURE: Despite less than glowing reviews, Barbara and I wanted to see this film because of the cast. It is hard for me to ignore a film staring Anthony Hopkins and we both see Ryan Gosling as a talented rising star. And even though his role is small, good old reliable David Strathairn never turns in less than a great performance. The trailer made the screenplay look witty, riviting and maybe a little scary. It isn’t exactly a "whodunit," so much as a "howdidhedunit?" Hopkins plays a genius who plans a perfect crime as revenge against his wife who is having an affair with a hostage negotiator. The screenplay is often cleverly credible, but can quickly move to disappointingly incredible. It is hard to imagine a beautiful house remaining in pristine condition after the police conduct several presumably thorough searches for a murder weapon. It would be criminal to reveal anything more about the plot in case you decide to see this in a theatre or wait for the DVD. I rate this film marginally higher than Barbara. GRADE B-/C+.

FRANCIS HA: (2012) In lesser hands this movie about what happens when dreams are confronted by reality might go unnoticed by critics and moviegoers. However, with the wonderful and charming Greta Gerwig in the title role and Noah Baumbach at the helm, it is a rare delight. It is shot in black and white and, although Gerwig and Baumback share writing credits, it has the feel of improvisation—much like the life of its title character. Francis wants to be a dancer, but languishes as an apprentice in a modern dance company. She shares an apartment with her very best friend, Sophie, and they like to talk about the dreams they had when they left college and arrived in New York. When Sophie decides to move in with her boyfriend, Francis is set adrift. Although Francis and Sophie’s relationship is not sexual, they do love each other, and when Sophie leaves it’s like a divorce. Gerwig invests Francis with optimism and charm as she tries and often fails to find her way--gamely charging ahead in spite of mostly self-created obstacles. You have to admire her spirit and when, at the end of the movie, it looks like she will find her way, we are happy for her. GRADE B+

FREAKY FRIDAY: This remake of a 1976 movie works because Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan do such an outstanding job. Curtis is Tess Coleman, a psychologist with a private practice. She is a widow with a teenaged daughter, Anna (Lohan), and a young son. Tess and her daughter have those typical mother/daughter conflicts complicated by the fact that Tess is about to get married again. Two mystical fortune cookies (don't ask!) cause mother and daughter to exchange bodies: Tess has to go to high school and live in her daughter's shoes for a day, and Anna has to handle her mother's clients and the wedding plans. Yes, it's another one of those body exchange plots, but this one is very enjoyable. Curtis has a skilled comic touch and we were impressed with how well Lohan (The Parent Trap remake-- 1998) handled her role. Mark Harmon plays Tess's fiancée and Harold Gould is an amusing grandfather. The movie is funny and surprisingly tender and we both think it deserves a B, or maybe even a B+. GRADE B+

FREEDOM WRITERS: This is a true story about a devoted teacher in a "bad" school with "bad" students who resist learning, so you can guess pretty much where the film is heading. But we found the story inspiring and passionate, and the journey well worth the effort. Perhaps it because our own teaching background made us identify more strongly than the professional critics, but we found ourselves thoroughly engrossed in the story. Not that the professional critics didn’t like the film, they did. It is just that Barbara and I liked it even better than the "B" given by most critics. Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank was terrific in the leading role and a first-rate supporting cast was lead by Patrick Dempsey, Imelda Staunton, Scott Glenn, and a host of young actors playing kids who had experienced more life than they should have at their age. Any movie with a serious message about education is bound to be compared with predecessors like Lean on Me (1989), Stand and Deliver (1988), To Sir With Love (1967), and the grandfather of them all, Blackboard Jungle (1955). We think Freedom Writers compares favorably with the best. GRADE A-

FRIDA: Selma Hayek will surely get an Oscar nomination for her stunning portrayal of Frida Kahlo, the brilliant painter who was married to Diego Rivera--twice. This movie tells the story of their love affair: two remarkable people who were destined to be together, but not necessarily faithful to each other. When she was a young girl, Frida was severly injured in a bus accident. She survived her many injuries, but suffered through over 30 operations and a lifetime of pain. Still, she managed to live an extraordinary life. She met Rivera when she was a teenager, and their tumultuous relationship makes a captivating story. The two artists were philosophical communists, and their political affiliations caused many problems. Ed Norton appears in a small role as Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller hired Rivera to paint a mural for the Rockefeller Center and then tore it down because the artist put Lenin in the painting. Julie Taymor has directed the film with great flair, using Frida's paintings in a most creative way. (Taymor is famous for bringing The Lion King to the Broadway stage.) The film is a visual delight, and Hayek and Alfred Molina, who plays Diego Rivera, are perfect in their roles. Geoffrey Rush disappears into his role as Leon Trotsky, and Ashley Judd is memorable as Frida's partner in a sensuous tango. We give this film an enthusiastic GRADE A.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS: In 1988 Odessa, Texas, high school football isn't the biggest thing in town--it's the only thing. When the team wins, the town loves Coach Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton); when the team loses they put For Sale signs on his front lawn. Thornton is believable and restrained as a coach who cares about his players as much as he cares about winning. Director Peter Berg (TV's Chicago Hope) frequently uses handheld cameras to vividly depict the speed and violence that is the game of football. The scenes on the field are as good as those in Any Given Sunday. Berg is a talented director and I look forward to his next film. Derek Luke is the team's star running back and when he is injured in the first game of the season the town sees it's hopes of a State Championship limp off the field with him. Luke impressed us in Antwone Fisher and continues to impress us here. The centerpiece of this film is football, and we get only rare glimpses into the off-field life of the players and the coach. Tim McGraw plays the father of one of the players--a man whose single accomplishment in life was being on a State Championship team when he was in high school. Now he is a drunk who bullies and humiliates his son both on and off the field. We enjoyed seeing Jay Hernandez (The Rookie) and also thought that Lucas Black, who plays quarterback Mike Winchell, was especially good. I like any movie about sports, but I like football movies the best. While I wouldn't put this gridiron movie at the top of my list, I thought it was very good. Gary and I both give it a B+. GRADE B+ 

FRIENDS WITH KIDS: How wonderful to see a comedy that relies on witty dialogue rather than bathroom humor to get laughs. And there are lots of laughs in this exploration of the effect that having kids has on friendship, love and marriage. Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) are two long-time platonic friends who have never found the person with whom they want to spend their lives. When their married friends start having kids, Jason and Julie notice the strain it can put on a marriage. Since Julie’s biological clock is ticking, and Adam wants to have children eventually, they decide to have a child together without any messy romantic entanglement. They plan to share the child jointly and each one will continue to look for “Mr. or Ms. Right.” Since this is a romantic comedy we know exactly where it’s going, but getting there is great fun. Credit must be given to writer/director Jennifer Westfeldt. She has written lines that fit each character perfectly, and often feel spontaneous and unscripted. She directed with a sure hand and was a delight as Julie. She has also cast the movie beautifully with Maya Rudolph/Chris O’Dowd and Kristen Wiig/John Hamm as Jason and Julie’s married friends. We were pleased to see Adam Scott who we have liked ever since first seeing him in TV’s Party Down. He is terrific here and this should do wonders for his career. Reviews have been mixed. One critic didn’t like the movie because he thought the concept of two friends sharing a baby was ridiculous. I think he was taking it too seriously. Ridiculous is, and always has been, the stuff of most comedies. We were both delighted with Friends With Kids and think it might be one of the best comedies we will see this year. GRADE A-

FRIENDS WITH MONEY: This movie is a bit like life. If your expectations are too high, you may be disappointed. It’s another one of those non-linear, episodic movies with no discernible story line. It’s just a series of glimpses into the lives of four friends: Jennifer Anniston, Frances McDormand, Catherine Keener, and Joan Cusack. Cusack and her husband are wealthy, Anniston is poor, and the other two couples are well off. Interestingly, the wealthy couple seems to be the happiest. Maybe money can buy happiness. I did think that Anniston was a bit young to be friends with the other women, and the movie never explains how they all came together. It’s clear that they have been friends for a long time. My favorite character was Jane ( McDormand). She had just turned 43 and was tired of everything. Mostly, she was tired of washing her hair. Plus, she was annoyed by almost everything: the driver who steals her parking place and the people who cut in front of her in line, for example. However, all the characters were interesting to me and I was sorry when the film was over. I would have liked to see more of them. Gary commented afterwards at what a good actress Anniston is. She is believable here as a teacher who left her job and now works as a maid, cleaning other people’s houses. The film was written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, whose two previous features were also studies of women and their relationships: Walking and Talking (1996) and Lovely and Amazing (2001). The wonderful Catherine Keener was in both of those films. Gary liked Friends With Money, although he gives it a B, while I have to say B+. (I think it’s probably a gender thing.) GRADEB+/B

FROM HELL: We rented this DVD because Ebert & Roeper touted it as an under-appreciated film. Ostensibly a story of Jack The Ripper, it is really about Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp), the policeman in charge of the case. Abberline is an opium addict whose drugged sleep brings visions of crimes yet to happen. His Sergeant calls them his "intuitions." Abberline's investigation of the murders and mutilations lead him to the highest reaches of London society and to the secret society of the Freemasons. We were once again impressed by Depp's skill as an actor. Heather Graham is Mary Kelly, one of London's "unfortunates" who is being stalked by The Ripper. Ian Holm is Sir William Gull, a famous physician/surgeon who gives some assistance to Abberline. In fact, the identity of Jack The Ripper was never discovered, but a website indicates at least 21 suspects. The screenplay for From Hell was written by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, and is based on the graphic novel (i.e. comic book) by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. It advances one theory of the Ripper's identity. The real star of the movie is the dramatic and stunning direction by the Hughes brothers--Allen and Albert. They demonstrate an incredibly skillful command of the moviemaking art with this moody and violent movie. The film was shot on location in the medieval streets of Prague and has the look of Victorian London. If you can tolerate murder most bloody, then by all means take a look at From Hell. Thumbs Up

FROST/NIXON: If you can remember the 1977 televised Frost/Nixon interviews, this film will hold a special appeal for you. If you are too young to remember the Watergate scandal, the film will be a valuable glimpse of our nation’s history. The screenplay is based on the award-winning London and Broadway play, which starred the same actors who play the leads in this film: Frank Langella as Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen as David Frost. It would be impossible for me to characterize their performances as anything but brilliant. The film was directed by the always-gifted Ron Howard (Opie). While Frost/Nixon is not a documentary, and it is impossible to know how much of the film’s relationship between the two leads is fictionalized, it seemed to both Barbara and me that the essence of the people and the period was accurately captured. And the film is so much more than the interview. The drama of the buildup and the behind the scene struggles made the film a joy to watch. Barbara and I give Frost/Nixon high marks. GRADE: A

FROZEN RIVER: We have been Melissa Leo fans ever since she appeared on TV’s The Young Riders in 1990. She has finally gotten a starring role worthy of her skills as an actress. The story is set near a little-known border crossing on the Mohawk reservation between New York State and Quebec. The time is a few days before Christmas, but this is no syrupy Christmas story. It is grim reality. Ray (Leo) and her two sons live in a dilapidated mobile home. Her husband has left with all their spare cash, and her job in the Dollar Store isn’t enough to put food on the table, let alone finance her dream—a new double-wide. Meeting a young Mohawk woman, Lila (Misty Upham) sets Ray in a dangerous direction. What Ray does to feed her family is not pretty, and yet we understand why she was willing to take such a chance. The story is tense, but low-key and Leo and Upham are both excellent. Stephen Holden of the New York Times says, " Ms. Leo’s magnificent portrayal of a woman of indomitable grit and not an iota of self-pity makes Frozen River a compelling study of individual courage." Gary had a bit of trouble getting involved with the characters and would give the film a B. I was more involved and say B+. GRADE B/B+

FRUITVALE STATION: (2013) In the early morning hours of New Year's Day 2009, a 22-year-old unarmed black man named Oscar Grant was shot by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer in Oakland's Fruitvale train station. Dozens of people witnessed this and several of them recorded the incident on their cell phones. Those video went viral the next day. Fruitvale Station fictionalizes the events of the day leading up to Grant’s murder painting him in, some contend, an overly positive light. But, as Kyle Smith said in his recent Harper’s article, “Even had Grant been the worst man in the Bay Area. . .he should not have been shot in the back by a cop while lying face down on a subway platform.” Michael B. Jordan is terrific as Grant. When we first saw him in TV’s Friday Night Lights, we were certain we would see a lot more of this gifted young actor. (He previously starred in The Wire, which we did not watch originally but are now watching on DVD.) Jordan’s portrayal is sympathetic even in those scenes that show Grant’s disturbing tendency to become aggressive. The scenes that show Grant with his young daughter, charmingly played by the adorable Ariana Neal, are especially sympathetic. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer is memorable as Grant’s loving mother. We also thought that Melonie Diaz did a fine job as Grant’s girlfriend. Fruitvale Station is the feature-length directorial debut of Ryan Coogler, who won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award earlier this year at Sundance, as well as the Best First Film award at Cannes. Coogler doesn’t agree with critics who charge him with an unrealistic portrayal of Grant. Although he admits to inventing a couple of scenes, he said that, in his research, he discovered that Grant was “always trying to keep people around him happy. Oscar was known for being the life of a party and a people pleaser.” Coogler tried to show him in that light. The result is a powerful film. One we will not soon forget. GRADE A-

FUEL: (Seen on DVD) This is a 2008 documentary on the real costs of our dependence on oil and a plug for practical alternative sources of energy. Therefore, it has been seen by only a tiny percentage of people who could benefit from seeing it and is likely to die in the can. Forgive me if I am a little pessimistic. Fuel was made by Joshua Tickell who you may remember as the young man who bought an old diesel-powered Winnebago van, painted it with sunflowers, and took it on a two-year tour of the U.S. He powered his "Veggie Van" on biodiesel fuel made from the grease collected from fast food restaurants along the way. His film is informative and, in my opinion worth renting. GRADE B+

FUNNY PEOPLE: This film is being billed as a more grownup Judd Apatow comedy and stars Adam Sandler as George Simmons, a successful comedian who learns he has a deadly blood disease. The serious stuff is, indeed, grownup; the comedy tends to be less so. If you took all the F words and the penis jokes out of the film, it would be about half as long. It does have some funny bits, though, and Sandler is excellent. Starring with Sandler is a newly thin Seth Rogan. He is a struggling comic who does Improv gigs at night—without pay—and works at a deli by day. Simmons hires Rogan to be his assistant and write some jokes for him, but what he really wants Rogan to be is a friend. Because Simmons isn’t a very nice person, he is sorely lacking in the friend department. Simmons biggest regret is the girlfriend who got away, and, now that he’s sick, he tries to reconnect with her. Leslie Mann, Apatow’s real-life wife, plays that role and her two children are played by her real daughters. The movie must have been a boon for comics, because Apatow used many of them to play themselves. Sandler, who has quite a good voice (remember The Wedding Singer?) also sings a bit. The mixture of seriousness with comedy may bother those who like Sandler’s screwball roles the best, but I’m sure they will like the film. Gary and I, who prefer him in his more serious roles, liked the film, but think it isn’t nearly as good as Spanglish. We recommend you rent that movie, if you haven’t already seen it. GRADE B-

THE FUTURE: This is an odd-ball movie, but that’s not necessarily bad. We tend to like odd-ball moves and we were enthusiastic about Miranda July’s first effort, You and Me and Everyone We Know. In our review of that one, we said it was either “the oddest movie you’ve ever seen or the most unique and charming movie you’re ever likely to see.” The Future is every bit as odd, but it’s a bit lacking in the charm department. As Steven Rea said in his Philadelphia Inquirer review, it’s “odder and darker than July’s first feature.” The movie introduces us to Sophie (played by July who both wrote and directed) and Jason (Hammish Linklater, from TV’s The New Adventures of Old Christine). They are both 35, both passively content with their life together, and both stuck in a comfortable rut. They even look a bit alike. They have shaken themselves out of their ennui to experiment with adult responsibility by adopting a cat. But, the cat they’ve adopted has been injured and they can’t take it home from the cat hospital for thirty days. That means they have thirty days to start acting like adults: To start doing something with their lives. It’s sort of a Peggy Lee Is-That-All-There-Is moment. They each set out on a journey of discovery, only they don’t really discover that much. Along the way we viewers experience a talking cat, a talking moon, and Jason literally stopping time. Actually, those things aren’t quite as odd as they sound. The stopping of time sequence is quite charming. One critic called the film a “meditation on mortality and loneliness,” and I think that’s accurate. Gary had difficulty hearing much of the film for the characters, who are living a muted life, speak in rather muted tones. He doesn’t feel he can grade The Future, and I’m a bit on the fence. I enjoyed its quirkiness and its seriousness, but don’t feel I can recommend it except to the most ardent of independent film buffs. GRADE B-

"I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper?"
Francis McDormand in Fargo