Movie Reviews

Ending doesn't fully repay 'The Debt'

Ciaran Hinds, left, and Helen Mirren must face the past in "The Debt."

I hate to see a film snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (and hate having to say it), but John Madden's "The Debt" is a lamentable case in point: It is three-fourths of a brilliant spy thriller, cruelly sabotaged -- like its heroes' mission -- by a botched endgame.

This isn't Helen Mirren's fault, nor that of Tom Wilkinson or Ciaran Hinds. They play Rachel, Stephan and David, three retired Mossad agents who were sent to East Berlin in 1966 to find and kidnap Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel -- the notorious "Surgeon of Birkenau" -- and bring him back to Israel for trial.

By 1997, when "The Debt" opens, the trio has long been revered by their countrymen for the mission's heroic success. Rachel and Stephan were married and divorced in the interim, but their adoring daughter has just written a best-selling book celebrating her parents' exploits.

So why does Rachel look so sour, and Stephan so dour, about the new shower of adulation?

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3

'Tabloid': a meaningless, yet enjoyable, movie on the sexual exploits of a former Miss Wyoming

Joyce McKinney in 'Tabloid'

Joyce McKinney falls somewhere between "The Book of Mormon" and the Book of Merman, as in Ethel. She's a one-woman show, her life is a three-ring circus, and "Tabloid" tattles the titillating tale in 60-point type.

Director Errol Morris is better known for (and served by) piquant political documentaries on things such as the Vietnam War, Holocaust denial and Abu Ghraib torture. Evidently needing a break from the rough stuff, he turns to bizarre burlesque: Ms. McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming, moved to Utah and fell madly in love with Corvette-driving Kirk Anderson, a young missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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3

John Turturro's 'Passione' jilts some, seduces others

John Turturro's 'Passione' jilts some, seduces others

If Italian is the preeminent language of passion and music, the city of most passionate musical plenty is Naples. Singing is a required not acquired taste there, and in John Turturro's razzle-dazzling, feature-length, MTV-like documentary on the subject.

"Passione: A Musical Adventure" is a loving ode to Neapolitan music by a man better known as actor than director. Mr. Turturro -- a longtime Coen Brothers favorite from "Miller's Crossing" and "The Big Lebowski" to "Barton Fink" -- has played countless equally quirky characters for the likes of Martin Scorsese ("Color of Money"), Spike Lee ("Do the Right Thing") and Robert Redford ("Quiz Show").

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3

'Snow Flower' and the Secret Fan' illustrates ties that bind

Li Bingbing, left, and Gianna Jun play dual roles.

Let's put the footnote at the beginning: Was there ever a more barbaric practice (masking as elegance) than foot-binding?

Seven-year-old Snow Flower and her friend Lily undergo that torture at the same time, but with very different life results, in a sprawling epic called "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan."

Bound feet are not the least of their bonds in rigid 19th-century China. From cultural crippling and arranged marriages through isolation and revolution, they will be sustained by a deep but problematic loyalty to one another -- matched as laotong (eternal sisters) by a coded contract hidden in the folds of a silk fan.

That's half the story -- the epic, scenic half.

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3

Harsh 'City of Life and Death' pulls no punches depicting Nanking atrocity

The siege of Nanking, China, in 1937 is the focus of "City of Life and Death."

The Chinese were the Asian equivalent to Japan of European Jews to the Nazis: an inferior race to be freely and justifiably exterminated at will. If any doubt remains that the Japanese were every bit as monstrous as the Germans in World War II, the film at hand should lay it permanently to rest.

"City of Life and Death" is a devastating quasi-documentary epic about the events of December 1937, when Japan's Imperial Army conquered the short-lived Chinese capital of Nanking -- slaughtering 300,000 soldiers and civilians in the process.

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This clever, quirky 'Trip' is worth the journey

Steve Coogan, left, and Rob Brydon excel in verbal jousting in "The Trip."

Steve Coogan -- playing Steve Coogan, actor and celebrity food critic -- is disgruntled at the outset. It's been ages since he was gruntled. But he's seriously disgruntled today. Seems he took an assignment to tour the North country's finest restaurants as a getaway junket with his hot girlfriend, but she backed out at the last minute, and he's forced to dig low in the depth chart for a substitute companion: his best and most annoying friend, Rob Brydon -- played by Rob Brydon.

BBC fans familiar with that dysfunctionally dynamic duo will delight in their latest teaming in "The Trip," a condensed feature-film version of a largely improvised six-part sitcom series, directed by the wonderfully idiosyncratic Michael Winterbottom. Yankees unfamiliar with Coogan & Brydon should take a chance on being delighted, too.

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3.5

'Nostalgia for the Light' explores cosmos, Chilean carnage

The search for celestial bodies and human ones are companionate pursuits in "Nostalgia for the Light," the latest of Patricio Guzman's relentless Chilean documentaries -- and by far the eeriest.

Mr. Guzman takes his search, and his audience, to the highest and driest place on Earth: Chile's immense Atacama Desert, 10,000 feet above sea level. It is a kind of alien planet in itself and the perfect vantage point for telescopes to scan the cosmos for others.

But it was also the perfect place to hide monstrous crimes -- and the evidence thereof. Thousands of those who disappeared after 1973 under the brutal Pinochet military regime were murdered there, their bones long since merged with the arid dirt.

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3

Chess-themed 'Queen to Play' heady but humorless

Kevin Kline and Sandrine Bonnaire in "Queen to Play"

Better Living Through Chess is the message and the medium of "Queen to Play," a pleasant dramedy set very pleasantly in Corsica -- the perfect place for a game that serves not just as a metaphor for life, but as a form of mental Viagra.

The intellectile dysfunction is suffered by Helene (Sandrine Bonnaire), a middle-aged chambermaid. One fine morning, while going about her occupational drudgery at an upscale resort, she spots an affluent young American couple playing chess on the veranda of their suite.

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2

'L'Amour Fou' explores the exquisite, beautiful and tragic life of Yves Saint Laurent

'L'Amour Fou'

In the realm of interplanetary time travel, the planet known as France during the 1950s-1970s seems longer ago and further away than Luke Skywalker's galaxy in "Star Wars."

"L'Amour Fou" (Crazy Love) lovingly chronicles the reign of its cultural emperor, Yves Saint Laurent. In the course of it, director Pierre Thoretton fashions both a bio-documentary and a dark Meditation on the Miserably Rich and Famous.

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2.5

'Midnight in Paris' a charming rom-com in gorgeous setting

By Barry Paris Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Anybody need a Cannes opener?

The French did, and Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" lifted the lid quite nicely last month. Out popped a bon-bon of a rom-com that should now charm Yankee audiences as much as the Euro-chic.

The last Allen movie to kick off France's big annual film festival was his hilarious "Hollywood Ending" back in 2002. This Cannes opener is a bit more electric, equipped with a cameo appearance by the French first lady.

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