Recent Reviews 

America's Heart and Soul
Dir. Louis Schwartzberg (PG)
By virtue of timing alone, America's Heart and Soul, a slice-of-life series of stories released just in time for the flag-waving Fourth of July, has the dubious (and likely unwarranted) appearance of being Disney's substitute for Fahrenheit 9/11, which it declined to distribute. In any case, it's a blasé substitute. There's little to connect the people Schwartzberg encounters in these 20-plus vignettes, beyond uncritical recitations of cliché elementary-school civics lessons, with affirmations of rugged individualism and the Protestant work ethic ad nauseam. But if the American Dream was as pervasive as we are led to believe then we wouldn't need so many constant reminders of its selling points. AP

Dir. Mario Van Peebles; writ. Van Peebles & Dennis Haggerty; feat. Van Peebles, Joy Bryant, Ossie Davis, David Alan Grier, Paul Rodriguez, Saul Rubinek (R)
Mario Van Peebles pays complicated tribute to his father, Melvin, and his opus, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, by fictionalizing the making of the movie. The result is most successful as a film-about-filmmaking comedy, one in which our fearless hero writes hot checks, tells lies, and courts unlikely investors to realize his dream. There's a ghost hanging over the film. The elder Van Peebles has contributed precious little to the cinema since inventing blaxploitation, yet here his son lionizes him; it's as if the father were still calling the shots, letting the youngster do the work while taking all the dubious credit for himself. JD

The Clearing
Dir. Pieter Jan Brugge; writ. Justin Haythe; feat. Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, Willem Dafoe, Alessandro Nivola, Matt Craven, Melissa Sagemiller (PG)
The Clearing is not so much a violent thriller as a study in three parallel lives that, in the non-Euclidean geometry of Justin Haythe's screenplay, eventually converge. But the pleasure that this understated film provides is not in guessing or discovering plot twists; the trailer already divulges the most shocking. The plot holds a viewer hostage to the spectacle of three superb actors thoroughly inhabiting their roles. "If you were in my shoes, wouldn't you do it?" asks Arnold, the down-and-out abductor, who regards, Wayne, his hostage, as a luckier version of himself. Providing new footwear for their trek through the forest, Arnold in fact puts Wayne into his shoes. For the viewer and its imperfect characters, The Clearing is a strenuous exercise in empathy. SGK

Coffee and Cigarettes
Dir. and writ. Jim Jarmusch; feat. Roberto Benigni, Steven Wright, Joie Lee, Cinqué Lee, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Cate Blanchett, Jack White, Meg White, Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan, GZA, RZA, Bill Murray.
Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (Mystery Train, Night on Earth) constructs a series of vignettes around caffeine- and nicotine-fueled conversations among a pack of familiar faces, including darlings of the indy-circuit and Jarmusch regulars. The best of the shorts are rich, flavorful, full-bodied and robust. Jarmusch's inert, intimate direction places the viewer directly in the middle of a conversation. Jarmusch's running themes of interconnectedness and isolation resonate throughout the film. Conversation, over coffee and cigarettes or around the dinner table, can bring us together. But, Jarmusch reminds us, the inability to communicate can just as easily split us apart. AP

Control Room
Dir. Jehane Noujaim (NR)
Control Room presents an idea very few Americans have paused to consider: The Al Jazeera network may be a more impartial source of news than some of America's leading media outlets. The film shows just how manipulated some of our news is, with video footage not aired on these shores of iconic events such as the fall of Baghdad. It shows a frustrated American press corps that sometimes seems to want to show its viewers more than the government will allow. Whether you walk out rooting for Al Jazeera or condemning it, the film presents a side of this war you haven't seen unless you've recently been stationed in Iraq. JD

Fahrenheit 9/11
Dir. Michael Moore (R)
To the popular, manipulated, mind, the deadly attacks on New York and Washington committed by al Qaeda transformed an executive slacker into a cross between Churchill and Roland. Moore dissents. His post-9-11 Bush is an Orwellian monster who exploits public fear for partisan advantage and fosters ceaseless war in order to consolidate control. Fahrenheit 9/11 is not "balanced." Its antecedent is not those tedious documentaries whose voice-of-God narration soothes us into submission, but rather Emile Zola's "J'accuse." The imperial president, says Moore, has no clothes, except a Navy flight jacket he never earned. Fahrenheit 9/11 saddens, infuriates, informs, and empowers. SGK

The Saddest Music in the World
Dir. Guy Maddin; writ. Kazuo Ishiguro, Guy Maddin; feat. Mark McKinney, Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros, Ross McMillan, David Fox (NR)
Set in 1933, this is the goofy story of an international cash tournament held in chilly, gloomy Winnipeg. An olympiad of maudlin melody has been conceived by a local beer magnate. Each elimination round pits representatives of one nation against those of another. All this and more add up to a heady brew that holds more spume than substance. The very idea of a monetary reward for the saddest sounds mocks North American culture's tendency to turn everything into a sporting event and to exploit dolor for dollars. John Keats observed that: "Our sweetest songs of saddest thoughts do sing." Yet The Saddest Music in the World is about as sweet as rancid beer. SGK

Spider-Man 2
Dir. Sam Raimi; writ. Alvin Sargent; feat. Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons (PG-13)
Things get really bad for Spider-Man's alter ego in this second installment of the blockbuster franchise - and that's good news. Peter Parker is destitute and living in a dump, while the love of his life, Mary Jane, becomes engaged to a muscular astronaut who happens to be his boss' son. This angst provides the backdrop for a new villain, Doctor Octopus. Ock has built a device that threatens Manhattan, of course, but the film's real conflict is between Parker and Spider-Man. The dialogue is as one-dimensional as a comic book page, but the emotional thrust is compelling. It's enough to make you believe in heroes again. JD

Super Size Me
Dir. Morgan Spurlock (NR)
In Super Size Me, his first feature film, Director Morgan Spurlock serves as his own guinea pig to test the hypothesis that a steady diet of fast food is hazardous to a consumer's health. By the final frames, a vigorous man in his thirties has become a depressed, exhausted maw, a swollen bundle of human tissue diagnosed as gravely ill. Spurlock resolves that for an entire month he will eat three meals a day at McDonald's. He will order everything on its menu at least once and will opt for the largest portions whenever prompted by an employee. From beginning to end of his dreadful ordeal, Spurlock is monitored by three increasingly appalled physicians and pitied by his vegan girlfriend. Super Size Me is a 96-minute anti-commercial, designed to demonstrate that Big Mac means big trouble. The film also includes conversations with John Banzhaf, the law professor who took on the tobacco industry and now challenges fast-food merchants; David Satcher, former surgeon general of the United States; and Marion Nestlé, a prominent critic of the food industry. The success of fast-food chains is symptomatic of a culture of narcissism, in which nothing is more compelling than individual comfort. After Super Size Me, no one can consider cheeseburgers a comfort food. SGK

The Terminal
Dir. Steven Spielberg; writ. Sacha Gervasi, Jeff Nathanson; feat. Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Kumar Pallana, Zoe Saldana, Eddie Jones (PG)
Tom Hanks plays this guy from the former Soviet Union who has just landed at a New York airport. Trouble is, while he was in the air a civil war broke out in his home country; when he lands, his country doesn't exist. Bureaucrats at the airport can't recognize his papers, because they come from a defunct nation, and can't think of any way to handle his case, so they tell him he has to stay in the terminal until they can work something out. He lives in the airport for nine months. The Terminal could be a Kafka-esque nightmare, or a redemptive adventure story, but no matter how you play out the plot, it's essential that you play it like a fable, that you acknowledge the premise is ridiculous and its details are not to be taken literally. Unfortunately, Spielberg does. JD

Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei)
Dir. Yoji Yamada; writ. Yoji Yamada, Yoshitaka Asama, based on stories byShuuhei Fujisawa; feat. Hiroyuki Sanada, Rie Miyazawa, Min Tanaka, Nenji Kobayashi, Ren Osugi (NR)
Set at the end of the feudal Edo period in the bleak Shonai province of northeastern Japan, where corpses of peasants clutter the icy river, Twilight Samurai is the portrait of a decent man whose impoverished family means more to him than the antiquated codes of swordsman chivalry. Director Yoji Yamada has created an intimate psychological study instead of a vast and violent spectacle. "If you have the power to think," Igushi advises his oldest daughter, "you'll always survive somehow." Twilight Samurai illustrates how to keep its genre alive, by curbing the carnage and cultivating its powers of thought. SGK

Two Brothers
Dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud; writ. Alain Godard, Jean-Jacques Annaud; feat. Guy Pearce, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu, Freddie Highmore (PG)
Though Guy Pearce, playing a great white hunter, author, and looter of antiquities, has the largest speaking part, the leading men in Two Brothers are adorable tigers named Kumal and Sangha. What Babar did for elephants and Bambi for fawns, this film does for tigers: It humanizes them, which is preferable to demonizing them, but, given the film's dim view of our species as greedy, vain, and stupid, humanizing is a kind of libel. Two Brothers follows Kumal and Sangha out of the jungle and into the clutches of human captors, Kumal as a slave to the circus, Sangha into the private zoo of a pompous local potentate. "After this is all over," says Pearce's Aidan McRory, when the film is almost all over, "I'll never touch a gun again." Two Brothers offers a lesson in respect and restraint. Two Brothers concludes by announcing that, though there were 100,000 a century ago, only 5,000 tigers remain in the wild today. On the evidence of this film, it has been an incalculable loss to the acting profession. SGK

Writ. & dir. Alejandro Agresti; feat. Rodrigo Noya, Carmen Maura, Mex Urtizberea, Alejandro Agresti, Julieta Cardinali (PG-13)
Valentín is a lonely, sensitive boy struggling to find his place in a universe indifferent to his aspirations. Set in Buenos Aires in 1969, Valentín uses a child's-eye view to offer subtle glances at larger social themes. It is a few years before the 1976 coup that began Argentina's "dirty war," in which a junta killed tens of thousands of innocent victims. A disproportionate percentage were Jews, and when Valentín's grandmother disparages his missing mother as "an ungrateful Jew," a viewer is cued to ponder Argentina's dismal history of violent anti-Semitism. SGK

Films reviewed by:
GB: Gregg Barrios
JD: John DeFore
LMF: Laura Fries
SGK: Steven G. Kellman
WK: Wendi Kimura
AL: Albert Lopez
JM: Jonathan Marcus
AP: Alejandro Pérez
RP: Rich Perin
LS: Lisa Sorg
JW: Joe Weiss
EW: Elaine Wolff



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