Movie Reviews

'Joanna' tells a haunting tale

'Joanna' tells a haunting tale

The sudden and permanent disappearance of loved ones -- so appallingly common in Poland during World War II -- was an unspeakable thing for adults, an unthinkable one for children. But they are forced to do much painful thinking and speaking about it in director Feliks Falk's "Joanna."

The title character of this gut-wrenching drama, set in Krakow during the Nazi occupation, is a gentle young woman whose soldier-husband has not been heard from since the first days of the war. Joanna (Urszula Grabowska), a devout Catholic and an optimist, is better off than most: She has an education, a large comfy apartment and strong family support.

But she also has a brave -- most would say foolishly soft -- heart, which leads her to shelter a little Jewish girl named Roza (Sara Knothe), whose mother was caught during a vicious Nazi round-up.


`Black Thursday' recalls tragic time in Poland

Americans like to think that we and Ronald Reagan had something significant to do with the "victory over Communism" and the collapse of the Soviet empire in eastern Europe.

Poles know better. And no better demonstration of their historical truth has been rendered than in "Black Thursday" ("Czarny Czwartek"), director Antoni Krauze's devastating docudrama of the genesis of the workers' revolt that brought down Russia's puppet regime in Poland.

"Black Thursday" illuminates a seminal piece of the liberation story never told before on film, namely the first Polish shipyard protests of 1970 -- pre-Lech Walesa. Its protagonist is Bruno Drywa (Michal Kowalski), a sweet, low-key, devoted family man (and jokester) who is not politically involved at all. Bruno is solely concerned with his wife, Stefa (Marta Honzatko), and kids and providing a merry Polish Christmas for them at a time when the government has just announced huge milk and food price increases.


'Woman With Five Elephants' translates into a fine documentary

Svetlana Geier in "The Woman With the Five Elephants."

The woman is 85-year-old Svetlana Geier. Her five elephants include a juvenile, an idiot, a killer, some brothers and demons.

"The Woman With the Five Elephants" is a remarkable documentary portrait of the world's greatest Dostoyevsky translator, whose sharp mind, piercing blue eyes and astonishing life will captivate you.

Ukrainian-born Geier's gift for languages was her only "dowry," she says, and became her greatest survival skill under the Nazis in World War II, when Ukraine was horribly caught between two monsters, Hitler and Stalin, and their multiple atrocity-filled invasions. Marked for death as a collaborator by the Soviets, she retreated with the Wehrmacht and spent the rest of her life in Germany, working on definitive translations of Dostoyevsky's novels -- five fat pachyderms, indeed: "Crime and Punishment," "The Idiot," "The Devils," "A Raw Youth" and "The Brothers Karamazov."


Sandler's 'Jack and Jill' runs up funny hill

Adam Sandler (as "Jill") and Katie Holmes in "Jack and Jill."

Most amazing thing about "Jack and Jill," the delicious new Adam Sandler comedy, is not that he plays the dual role of twins. Nor is it that a great actor named "Al Pacino" falls in love with Jill. It's the casting of the Al Pacino character. Lots of people (like the Brits Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon) do terrific Al Pacino impersonations. But Mr. Sandler has bypassed them and, instead, hired -- Al Pacino.

In the yarn at hand, LA ad executive Jack Sadelstein is desperate to land the big Dunkin Donuts commercial, kicking off its bold new product-challenge to cappuccino: Dunkaccino. But Jack is equally desperate -- and much distracted -- by a need to survive his dreaded annual torture: the four-day Thanksgiving visit of twin sister Jill.


`Viola': A semi-mesmerizing, semi-Shakespearean mystery

            As “Evita” teaches us, The Big Apple for South Americans is not New York but Buenos Aires, that huge, sophisticated metropolis where a little avant-garde theater troupe is performing "Twelfth Night"---or bits and pieces of it---in the story at hand.


'Amigo' explores the imperialist Philippine-American war

The rain in Spain's domain fell mainly in the Philippines -- a five-week monsoon season in which the drenched American occupiers were "going bug-house crazy."

Remember the Maine?

The theory of the Spanish-American War (1898-1902) was regime change and nation-building. The practice was something different. How could the United States go from idealistically anti-imperialist (our rationale for kicking the Spanish out of Cuba) to violently imperialist in the Philippines just a few months later?


Put a Hitch in your getalong with `Hitchcock Across the Pond’ series

Saturday, October 1, 2011

"I have the perfect cure for a sore throat: Cut it.”
---Alfred Hitchcock

If Congress really wanted to do something useful, they'd pass a law making it a misdemeanor to watch any Hitchcock film on TV -- and a felony for "Psycho."


'50/50' skillfully mixes cancer, comedy and caring

Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays a cancer patient in "50/50."

The title "50/50" refers to a cancer victim's chance of survival. It also reflects the film's comic/dramatic ratio -- and the chance of disaster in trying to combine the two.

There's nothing malignant about our hero, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the handsome young man you may have seen running around Downtown Pittsburgh recently in pursuit of Bat people). Here he's Adam, a centered 27-year-old who is so straight that he waits for "Don't Walk" to change to "Walk" at 5 a.m. with no cars in sight.

Adam's well-ordered life is progressing just fine, thank you, in its quietly uneventful way. He likes his job at a Seattle public radio station, and he has a satisfactory if not exactly thrilling relationship with Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), his live-in girlfriend. The closest thing to a problem he has is best bud Kyle (Seth Rogen), his diametric opposite -- a sloppy, potty-mouth, ne'er-do-well womanizer who hates Rachael and constantly badgers Adam to find another Eve. Kyle is a pain in the neck.

But Adam has a pain in his back. That drives him to his doctor, who callously delivers the news that he has a rare form of spinal cancer. Chance of beating it? You guessed it -- 50/50.


'The Interrupters' chronicles those trying to stem the tide of violence

Ameena Matthews is surrounded by a crowd in "The Interrupters"

Many years ago, a big booze-drenched summer party I attended went from rowdy to out-of-control. Two guys started swearing and fighting over a hysterical girl, who was egging them on. When beer bottles started flying and shattering, I made the exective decision to intervene. "Don't do it," said the co-host. "Somebody has to," I replied, heroically. When I did, the combatants instantly refocused their rage on me. I remember ducking one bottle by an inch, as I beat a hasty retreat -- mission far from accomplished.

Movie? What movie?

Oh, yes. It's called "The Interrupters," and one of its lessons is that if you want to be a conflict-mediator, you had better know what you're doing.


Decades of film violence absorb the shock value of 'Straw Dogs'

James Marsden and Kate Bosworth in "Straw Dogs."

Sam Peckinpah's loathsome landmark "Straw Dogs" (1971) was a faithful follow-up to his blood 'n' guts groundbreaker, "The Wild Bunch" (1968). As founder of a genre, he gave cinema its seminal "beauty of violence" entries -- the dubious gift that keeps on dubiously giving.

"Everyone has a breaking point" was the original "Straw Dogs" idea, recycled here and now in writer-director Rod Lurie's adaptation of Gordon Williams' novel "The Siege of Trencher's Farm." Fans or foes of the '71 film will recall Dustin Hoffman in the hero's role of David Sumner, a wimpy American math professor who moves with his sexy wife Amy (Susan George) to rural Cornwall in order to finish writing a book.

In Lurie's version, David (James Marsden) is a Hollywood screenwriter moving back to Amy's old home and hometown in the deep South -- the aptly named Blackwater, Miss. -- to finish his script on the Siege of Stalingrad.

"Why you makin' a movie about a bunch of Russians?" the locals ask. Because it hails "a fortitude they didn't think they had," replies David -- soon to face a Stalingrad siege of his own. But right off the bat, he runs afoul of the natives by trying to buy beer with a debit card and turning down their fried pickles.



Subscribe to RSS Feed