Short Takes on Several Recent Films

October, 2011,

Thanks to some computer glitches, which have, now been resolved (and some travel which took me away from my keyboard) here are quick reactions to the films I’ve seen recently-

 

Sarah’s Key-Not since “Sophie’s Choice” has the burden of guilt carried by Holocaust survivors been so vividly presented - - but the comparisons end there. Kristen Scott Thomas searches for the survivors of a family of French Jews in which an older sister bears responsibility for mistakes made in hiding her younger brother. But the improbability of the storyline and a subplot concerning Thomas’ deteriorating home life drain the vitality out of what could have otherwise been a riveting film.  The Verdict? Out of the gate with great style and class, but crosses the finish line as mere soap opera melodrama.

 

The Debt- Yet another thriller centered on events which transpired in the aftermath of the Nazi’s racial depredations in WWII, this one deals with an improbably-composed Israeli “hit squad” sent into Communist East German to capture a vicious German doctor who conducted experiments on Jewish civilians. There’s a great cast here (Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Claran Hinds) playing across generations is a tale of 3 agents who spend their lives grappling with the truth or falsity of there mission. Despite a clever plot twist which makes the audience reevaluate their grasp of the opening reel, the acting never gets beneath a formulaic script and the plot’s resolution has Mirren involved in one of the goofiest fight scenes of recent memory. The Verdict? Lots of superior actors and one good red herring in the storyline do not a compelling movie make.

 

Contagion-Director Steven Soderbergh takes an all-star cast through a chilling examination of how the world the world’s population would be to the outbreak of a new highly contagious virus. When mysterious deaths begin to sprout in the upper Midwest, doctors trace its source to Hong Kong, but the body count rises as the race for a solution is found. The   storyline is both plausible and truly frightening, but there are so many characters in the film that audiences will have a hard time identifying with them however desperate and brave their individual actions might be. Soderbergh has made a clever film with a highly satisfy resolution, but he and his large cast of A-list stars never get under your skin, producing a movie that’s disturbing and oddly unsatisfying, despite its many fine qualities. The Verdict? Close to satisfying, but doesn’t quite deliver all the dramatic punch it should have.

 

Higher Ground Actress Vera Farmiga, (who devastated George Clooney in 2009’s Up In The Air) makes her directorial debut in this small but thoughtful examination of religious fundamentalism. Working from a script based on

The memoir “This Dark World”, Farmiga plays a woman who struggles to understand and integrate the religious imperatives embedded in her childhood and subsequent marriage. The film has an almost painfully tiny budget that renders its presentation with a visual austerity what neatly underscores the theological points at issue, but while the director maintains a clear-eyed attitude towards her subject, the characters are presented with honesty and a good bit of sympathy. Farmiga’s performance towers over the fellow actors, but she never allows her role to supplant their contributions. The Verdict? Flat out, the best film about the meaning and impact of religious fundamentalism since Robert Duval’s The Prophet. This one’s worth seeing for its candid examination of a subject too many contemporary audiences would rather denigrate or simply ignore.

The Guard-Another low budget independent directorial debut, this one from Irish screenwriter John Michael McDonagh.  His screenplay involves an especially garrulous, foul-mouthed Irish cop (Breeden Gleeson) and an up-tight FBI agent (Don Cheadle) who team up to foil a drug-smuggling operation on the west coast of Ireland. While the dialogue is uniformly profane, McDonagh’s ability to create one-liners for his wickedly funny cast of offbeat Celts (and their ability to deliver them with dead-pan faces and impeccable timing) makes this one of the funniest movies of recent memory. Not for those who cringe at bar room profanity or those who don’t like a fair number of literary references coming from the mouths of career criminals - - but if you’ve got an ear for oddly perfect line lines coming from a group of actors who physical appearance is as amusing as their dialogue, this one’s for you. The Verdict?  Laugh out loud funny, but don’t do that…you’ll miss the next verbal gem.

 

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