Brighton Rock (Britain, 1947) Adapted from a Graham Greene novel, this 1947 British gangster film was quite a shocker in its day (Mutilated bodies! Gangland warfare! Double-crossing snitches!). It's still a solid piece of filmmaking by director John Boulting, even if some of the onscreen violence seems a bit tame by modern standards. After rackets runner Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough) murders a rival, a boozy barfly (Hermione Baddeley) who was hanging out with the victim right before he was killed begins snooping around. Meanwhile, Pinkie tries to get his small-time gang some respect on the street and cozies up to a young, innocent waitress (a radiant Carol Marsh), who's inadvertently connected to the crime. The script (co-written by Greene) is tough. So are the characters. Pinkie is ruthless, at one point tossing one of his cronies off a balcony. The film is also quite suspenseful, particularly during the long opening scene when thugs pursue an unfortunate victim through Brighton's daylight streets and into a dark carnival funhouse. This brutal British noir is grittier than many of its contemporaries in the U.S, where it was originally known as Young Scarface. That title is earned. Brighton Rock's lineage can be traced all the way to modern mob classics like The Godfather, Scarface and GoodFellas. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 5:15 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27 and at 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 28. *** 1/2 (Michael Gallucci)
Cop Out Reviewed at clevescene.com.
The Crazies Reviewed at clevescene.com.
Disengagement (Germany/Italy/Israel/France, 2007) The main storyline in this film by veteran Israeli director Amos Gitai concerns Ana (Juliette Binoche), a French woman who, in the wake of her father's death, leaves her husband and goes to the Gaza Strip with her half-brother (Liron Levo) to find the child she gave up for adoption years ago. It takes some time before she starts her journey, however. We first see a couple harassed by a customs agent as they're traveling on a train. Though a bit slow-going at times, the film is exquisitely shot and well acted. Set during the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip, it accurately captures the tension of the period. And the 45-year-old Binoche — who has aged quite gracefully — is superb as a lonely but likable woman attempting to come to terms with her past while simultaneously dealing with overwhelming political upheaval. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 9:35 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 28. ***(Jeff Niesel)
The Hand of Fatima (U.S., 2009) Rock scribe Robert Palmer covered music for Rolling Stone and The New York Times and wrote Deep Blues, a cultural history of the blues. His filmmaking daughter Augusta Palmer provides an overview of the late critic's career in this intriguing documentary. She explains how he would introduce young rock stars to guys like hill-country blues icon R.L. Burnside and recollects how he went to Morocco to hang out with the Master Musicians of Jajouka, returning home to spread the word about them. But The Hand of Fatima — the title refers to a piece of jewelry designed to ward off evil that Palmer brought back from Morocco and left to Augusta in his will — is also about how Palmer wasn't a very good father and abandoned Augusta's mother just after she was born. "He must have had a great hole inside himself," says Augusta's mother. That might be true, but his prose, which is used extensively in this film, still sounds compelling, as Augusta retraces his steps and goes to Morocco to revisit the places he went. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 3. ***(Niesel)
Harmony and Me (U.S., 2009) Harmony (Justin Rise) is a real loser who works a dead-end job and can't seem to get over the fact that his girlfriend Jessica (Kristen Tucker) has dumped his sorry ass. But while (500) Days of Summer took a clichéd storyline and applied a definitive twist, Harmony and Me stumbles to the finish line, never turning into anything the least bit compelling. When not venting to his best friend Carlos (Kevin Corrigan), Harmony is writing songs about Jessica's harsh treatment. The songs are just as bad as everything else in this slapped-together film, which doesn't benefit from writer-director Bob Byington's mumblecore aesthetics, like primitive set designs, amateur actors and actresses, minimalist cinematography. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24. **(Niesel)
They Came to Play (U.S., 2008) The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amatuers is an annual competition that lures novice players from around the world. As this documentary makes clear, it solicits a motley group of characters whose backstories make for more interesting footage than their actual performances (which, thankfully, we don't see in their entirety). We get to meet a few of the participants, including an ophthalmologist from Alabama, an AIDS patient living on disability, a divorcee from Paris who has spent her retirement practicing piano and a former cocaine addict, all of whom talk about how much the competition means to them. While the competition itself isn't very dramatic, the performers' life stories are. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 28. ***(Niesel)
The White Ribbon Winner of the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival, the latest — and most accessible — work to date by Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke (Cache, The Piano Teacher) is a mesmerizing fable about the (possible) roots of Nazism. Set in pre-WW I Germany, the film is narrated by a schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) who looks back on the curious events that occurred in the seemingly bucolic village of Eichwald many years earlier. While it includes some of the same irrational cruelty and otherworldly weirdness that have marked earlier Haneke movies like Funny Games (both versions), this is more classical in style (you can see echoes of both Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman) and story structure, and it exerts the same inexorable pull as a great yarn. As always, Haneke reveals his secrets only gradually, but Christian Berger's stunningly beautiful, Oscar-nominated B&W cinematography insures that you're hooked every step of the way. The fact that The White Ribbon features what may well be the first genuinely innocent characters in Haneke's entire oeuvre — the kindhearted teacher and the 17-year-old nanny he chastely courts and eventually marries — might explain why even non-fans have embraced this film. The fact that it's possibly his masterpiece could be another. Cedar Lee Theatre. (Milan Paurich) ***
Witchcraft Through the Ages (Sweden/Denmark, 1922/1968) This is the 76-minute 1968 re-release of the 104-minute silent documentary re-enactment of medieval-European views of the devil and all his works, with filmmaker Benjamin Christensen as a fat, long-clawed and tongue-lolling Satan, corrupting lust-afflicted clergy and wives in the 15th and 16th centuries. Christensen's intent was not to promote superstition but to debunk it, showing quivering old village crones and defenseless girls victimized by churchmen and baseless gossip; modern-science psychology explains it all in the end. But what sticks is imagery that depicts the primal fear and torture-forced confessions that fueled witch-hunt hysteria. Witches soar on broomsticks, cutout monsters chew sinners, some stop-motion and strikingly costumed demons throw convents into chaos, all like medieval woodcuts come to nightmare life. Nudity and morbid violence (actually quite mild on both counts) inspired this film's frequent banning, though this '68 version, with narration by William S. Burroughs (neatly replacing long minutes of explanatory title cards) and a jazz soundtrack featuring the violin of Jean-Luc Ponty, borders on being more of "head" film than a hardheaded skeptical expose of the occult. Recall that the Age of Aquarius was in full swing, the Church of Satan was booming in San Francisco, and Ouija boards outsold Monopoly. So much for irony as a teaching tool. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 25 and at 11:45 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26. ***(Charles Cassady Jr.)
Avatar It's been a dozen years since king of the world James Cameron won a boatload of Oscars for Titanic. He apparently spent the downtime thinking about how to revolutionize movies with Avatar, his bloated and exhausting sci-fi epic about a tribe of tall, tailed and blue-hued creatures called Na'vi. It's also one of the most visually stunning movies ever made. The film is set in 2154 on the forest planet of Pandora, where wheelchair-bound marine Jake Scully (Terminator Salvation's Sam Worthington) is recruited for an ongoing project that fuses human and Na'vi DNA, resulting in "avatars" that look like Na'vi but retain human thoughts. It's all very scientific, confusing and geeky. With a new body capable of sprinting as fast as any animal on Earth, Jake's mission is to infiltrate the Na'vi so the military can mine the precious minerals their homes are built on (again, it's all very scientific, confusing and geeky). It doesn't take long for Jake to fall for one of the Na'vi (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek's Uhura) and rethink his assignment. Avatar is pure sci-fi hokum with one-dimensional characters, heavy-handed narration and an unsurprising love story. But you've never seen a movie like this before. *** (Michael Gallucci)
Crazy Heart "I used to be somebody, but now I'm somebody else," has-been country crooner Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) says with just the slightest tinge of irony at the beginning of this C&W variant on The Wrestler. Writer-director Scott Cooper's debut feature borrows a page or two from such previous twangy sudsers as Tender Mercies and Payday without ever quite finding an identity of its own. Of course, Bridges' majestic, stunningly lived-in performance is more than enough reason to see this modestly compelling sleeper. And as a Tim McGraw-esque country superstar determined to help Blake stage his big comeback, Colin Farrell is equally impressive. Their emotionally charged, exquisitely moving scenes together are the best parts of the film. The only weak link in an otherwise nonpareil cast (which includes Mercies star Robert Duvall as a friendly saloon keeper) is Maggie Gyllenhaal as the single mom/alt-weekly reporter who has a tough-to-swallow May-December fling with daddy surrogate Blake. Cedar Lee Theatre. *** (Paurich)
Dear John Set in Charleston, South Carolina, Dear John targets young adults with the story of a soldier, John Tyree (GI Joe's Channing Tatum), an erstwhile roughneck who falls in love, while on leave, with Savannah, a pretty, virginal college student (Amanda Seyfried) he considers "too good" for him: She doesn't drink or smoke, and she builds houses for the poor. Savannah and John become inseparable and vow to write letters every day during his deployment. Fate intervenes in the form of 9/11, and John feels duty-bound to reenlist. The waiting proves too much for Savannah, who soon writes the titular "Dear John" letter saying she's engaged to another man. Devastated, John decides to stay in the Army and, years later, performs a selfless act to help Savannah's dying husband. Writer Nicholas Sparks is fixated on old-fashioned tropes like diaries and letters, and so John's Army resembles a 1940s war movie, without the Internet and with heavy mail sacks. The story, altered somewhat from the book, is fairly ridiculous, but it pushes emotional buttons (soldiers, patriotism, terrorism, cancer), and will likely trigger some audience sobs. Viewed as a collection of individual, lovely sequences, however, Dear John isn't half bad. ** 1/2 (Pamela Zoslov)
Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief You'd think a best-selling book series about kids with mythical powers would at least try to divert attention from the inevitable Harry Potter comparisons for its initial turn on the big screen. But The Lightning Thief, the first film based on Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson & the Olympians books, is directed by Chris Columbus, the same guy who helmed the first two (and most undeveloped) Harry Potter movies. There are some differences between American Percy and Brit Harry — most significantly, Percy's roots are in Greek mythology instead of budding wizardry. But like Harry, Percy takes two friends (yep — one's a boy, the other's a girl and both are demigods) along on his adventures. Turns out teen Percy (Logan Lerman) is the son of Poseidon. After Zeus' lightning bolt is stolen, Percy and his pals go on a quest to get it back. Columbus directs to entertain rather than impress, so a lot happens in The Lightning Thief, but not much sticks with you. The CGI beasts and action scenes get special attention, but there's not much development in mood or character (Percy is dyslexic and has ADHD — interesting facets to his personality that are barely explored). At least the grown-up stars seem to be having fun with their brief roles, especially Pierce Brosnan as a mentoring centaur, Rosario Dawson as a bitchy Persephone and Uma Thurman, hamming it up as Medusa. ** 1/2 (Gallucci)
Shutter Island With Shutter Island, director Martin Scorcese has made a spectacular return to the suspense-thriller genre he last tackled in 1991's Cape Fear. Both films veer close to horror at times, but while Cape Fear traded in more visceral shocks, Shutter Island is psychological and atmospheric. It centers on U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man haunted by his past. As a soldier, he witnessed the horrors of the Dachau concentration camp. Then, after returning home from the war, he lost his wife (Michelle Williams) in a fire. Along with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy has been sent to investigate the disappearance of an inmate from Shutter Island, a foreboding hospital for the criminally insane. That anyone could have escaped seems impossible. Even stranger, the marshals find their investigation blocked at every turn by the very people who asked for their help — head doctors Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Naehring (Max Von Sydow). It soon becomes clear that the missing patient is just one piece of a much larger puzzle. *** 1/2 (Robert Ignizio)
Valentine's Day Never has the importance of opening weekend been more obvious than with the release of this one-day holiday movie, whose success hinges on the idea that women will drag their romance-challenged menfolk to a V-Day comedy. The movie, directed by 75-year-old Garry Marshall (Happy Days, Pretty Woman), is a labored, wheezing affair, with an all-star cast more populous than It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. The idea is a roundelay of L.A.-set relationship stories, but there are so many plots, interchangeable actors (Topher Grace, Ashton Kutcher) and people in half-written parts (Queen Latifah as a sports agent, Taylor Swift as a cheerleader, Jessica Biel as, unbelievably, a wallflower) that the result is eye-crossing confusion rather than amusement. The most developed stories have Jennifer Garner as a schoolteacher in love with a caddish doctor (Patrick Dempsey), while her florist pal (Kutcher) secretly yearns for her, and Anne Hathaway as a phone-sex worker whose naughty career repels her straitlaced suitor (Grace). Hector Elizondo and Shirley MacLaine show up as long-married grandparents, and Julia Roberts plays an Army captain who bonds with Bradley Cooper aboard an airplane. Katherine Fugate's script furnishes too many situations and too few laughs, though the movie gets points for the surprising gay twist in a macho character's story. ** (Zoslov)
The Wolfman A remake of a 1941 horror film, The Wolfman follows the broad outlines of the original. Lawrence Talbot (Benecio del Toro) returns to his ancestral home upon learning that his brother has been killed. There, he reunites with his father (Anthony Hopkins) and promises his brother's fiancée (Emily Blunt) that he will get to the bottom of this tragedy. The locals point the finger at a troupe of gypsies camped nearby, and Lawrence visits the camp looking for answers. He arrives just in time to witness a violent attack by a werewolf. During the attack, Lawrence is bitten but survives, which means he too is now doomed to transform into a monster when the moon is full. With such a good cast and a simple, classic story, what could go wrong? Plenty. This film has no confidence in its ability to hold the audience's attention. It's constantly making noise and moving the camera, inserting special effects in mundane scenes that don't require them, and rushing through character development and story to get to another gory werewolf attack. But the biggest problem is that there's no pathos in Del Toro's portrayal of Talbot. At least Rick Baker's update of the classic monster makeup is impressive. * 1/2 (Ignizio)