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Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis’
Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters
Opens Friday, April 13, 2007

Reviewed by Allison Ford

Aqua Teen Hunger Force is just one of those TV shows…people either love it or hate it, without much in-between. When I first heard that they were making a feature film out of ATHF, I thought it would present certain challenges for the writers, namely the challenge of stretching a bizarre eleven-minute animated show into a ninety-minute film that’s not completely incomprehensible. I think it is safe to say that they succeeded as much as is humanly possible.

I’ll forego the suspense…the movie is funny. Its full title is Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters. It’s funny like, “Did they really just do that?” ATHF, for those who don’t know, is a show on the Cartoon Network about “three roommates living in the crappy suburbs of New Jersey and dealing with surreal and absurd circumstances.” (This quote is taken from the press kit.) The three main characters, Frylock, Master Shake, and Meatwad, are sentient fast-food products, and to say that they encounter “surreal and absurd circumstances” is an understatement indeed.

The movie tries to explain how Frylock, Master Shake, and Meatwad found each other and became the ATHF. They encounter a demonic piece of exercise equipment that threatens to take over the universe, and it is up to the Aqua Teens to restore galactic harmony. The Aqua Teens battle some of their usual crazy nemeses, including Ignignokt and Err, Dr. Weird and Steve, Oglethorpe and Emory, the Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past, and of course, their fat slob neighbor Carl, who tries valiantly to get laid with a “female” body builder. All in a day’s work, really.

Although the movie is funny, it’s not for everyone. And by “not for everyone,” I don’t just mean to exclude young children and evangelical Christians. To enjoy this movie, it requires a total re-evaluation of what it means for something to be funny. In the Aqua Teen world, it’s funny when they have to flee from a giant demonic poodle, and it’s funny to see the assassination of Time Lincoln and the ensuing white slavery. White slavery is funny!

For all its claims of plot and character, it is important to remember that ATHF is really a show about nothing. Well, technically it’s about a milkshake, a box of fries, and a hunk of meat who live in Jersey and sometimes do weird stuff. It’s got about as much in the way of plot as your typical Seinfeld episode, but it’s not really about the plot, is it? It’s about exploding kittens. And that’s funny.
ATHF is at the forefront of shows that regularly push the boundaries of humor. It goes to the places that the more timid fear to tread. South Park is one show notorious for tackling subjects that are totally beyond the realm of conventional taste. That fear isn’t unfounded, of course. Plenty of people aren’t amused by a movie about fast-food products and a possessed Bowflex. South Park succeeds because of the biting social commentary. Aqua Teen succeeds because of the sheer absurdity of it all. Just when it seems that things can’t possibly get any more bizarre, they do. The show promises to provide sarcastic, brutal laughs, and the movie itself delivers on that promise in spades.

The peril of a movie like ATHFCMFFT is that it runs the risk of being classified as brainless, stupid drivel. While it does succumb to some easy scatological references, the surprise aspect of the movie (and the TV show) is that it does really require some brains to appreciate the humor. It’s not highbrow by any means, but it’s no Will Ferrell movie either; talking down to its audience with broad, easy sight gags that slap you across the face with their banality. Most American comedy right now is obvious and lowbrow, pandering to the lowest common denominator. Shows that ask more of the viewer are few and far between. To appreciate the swift ruthlessness of this style of comedy requires focus. The jokes are quick, subtle, and usually hilarious. They’re also violent, offensive, and crass.

It’s almost refreshing to see films and TV shows willing to go to these lengths in the name of comedy, because they’re imagining an entertainment landscape of infinitely more possibility. I don’t mean to suggest that every episode of ATHF is brilliant, or that every single joke lands perfectly, but I enjoyed ATHFCMFFT much more than I thought I would. It’s not for everyone, but I hope that more writers follow in the footsteps of Aqua Teen creators/writers Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis. They are unafraid to remind us that it’s okay to laugh at the un-PC and the absurd. It’s even okay to laugh at exploding kittens, because let’s face it – exploding kittens are funny.

Log onto the trailer: apple.com/trailers




Paul Verhoeven’s
Black Book
Release Date April 4, 2007
In Dutch, Hebrew and German


Starring: Carice VanHouten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, Derek de Lint and Halina Reijn.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Paul Verhoeven’s new film Zwartboek (Black Book) tells a story about the ambiguity surrounding the so-called heroic resistance of the Dutch people during World War II.

Here is a synopsis from the Black Book press release: “A relentlessly gripping thriller about the Dutch underground set in the fall of 1944, the film marks master director Paul Verhoeven’s (Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers) return to his native Netherlands, revisiting the action filled World War II subject matter of his 1977 Dutch drama Soldier of Orange. Black Book is based on true events that span nearly a year around Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) a young, pretty Jewish woman who falls for a high-ranking Gestapo officer (Sebastian Koch) while seeking revenge for her family's murders.”

Black Book stars Carice Van Houten as Rachel, a pretty young Jewish torch singer who leaves her hiding place with a Christian Dutch family for a chance to reunite with her (also hidden) family and escape by boat to the unoccupied south. They are betrayed by her so called rescuers and everyone in Rachel’s family is murdered in front of her eyes. Rachel escapes by diving into the water.

Rachel then joins a resistance cell being run by a charismatic Dutch leader, Gerben Kuipers (played by Derek de Lint). There she helps with missions run by a dashing young doctor, Hans Akkermans (played by Thom Hoffman). The stakes for the cell become extremely high when Kuipers young son is captured and is marked for execution by the Nazis.

Rachel “volunteers” (she is really begged) to infiltrate the Nazi headquarters and place a bug in the office of the Commander. She does this by turning herself into the blonde (in both places) Ellis and seducing a charming SS Officer, Ludwig Müntze (played by Sebastian Koch). Müntze gives her a job at headquarters where she befriends another young Dutch woman, Ronnie (played by Halina Reijn).

And here the plot becomes more complicated. The Nazis are predictably horrid but the head of the SS in Amsterdam, Müntze, is a truly decent man who collects stamps and is trying to find a way to prevent further loss of life in what is quickly becoming a losing war. And Ellis and Müntze fall in love; he even hires her after he determines that she is Jewish and not truly a blonde.

Director Paul Verhoeven was righteously pilloried in the United States for his direction of the Joe Eszterhas scripted Showgirls. This writer director team had created the memorable Basic Instinct, but went down in flames with the paint-by- numbers script of Showgirls. (It has had an amazing afterlife being projected on the walls at clubs and parties - - I have some of the dialogue memorized). They were also sunk by Elizabeth Barkley’s puppet-on-a-string acting style (she was undoubtedly hired after she took off her clothes but before she read a line).

And in Black Book, Verhoeven returns with another hot sexual protagonist. But this time, he has a decent script (credited to Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman)
and Carice Van Houten as his lead. Van Houten is an amazing actress (remember her name); she can say a paragraph of dialogue with just one look in her eyes. And her love interest is the equally hot and talented Sebastian Koch. Van Houten and Koch burn up the screen with their love scenes. And it is obvious that these characters truly love each other (according to the press and the actors at the press junket, this is true in real life also).

And Van Houten and Sebastian are not the only talented actors in the cast. The actors portraying the members of the resistance (especially De Lint and Hoffman) and even the swinish Nazis are all excellent.

This film truly sizzles; there is lots of full-frontal nudity, although some of it is from characters you might prefer not to see naked. But hot love scenes aside, the most memorable parts of the movie are after the Nazis lose the war. Then we see some of the same mess that we are presently dealing with in Iraq. The incompetent conquerors ham-handedly deal with their new fiefdom, allowing atrocities to occur at the hands of the same monsters they were supposedly oppressing. The heroes are not heroes and the villains are as human as their foes. And they have their own Abu Ghraib. As in all of life, nothing is ever really what it is supposed to be and no one is what they seem. Everything and everyone is painted in varying shades of grey.

 




Q Allan Brocka’s
Boy Culture
Opens Friday, March 23, 2007

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival

Boy Culture is that rare gay film that does not strictly exist to show pretty boys having sex. Now, while it does, indeed, feature pretty boys having sex, but these hotties happen to be richly nuanced, complex human characters. That alone sets it apart from your standard homoflick.

A pungently satiric voice-over permeates the story of X, a sexy and unapologetic male escort (to twelve, mostly elderly, clients) who is living in a quasi-Noel Coward-esque situation with his two gay roomies. Joey is a promiscuous teen deeply in love with X who has his own crush on newly-out hunk Andrew. X has recently begun to service an agoraphobic older gentleman named Gregory whose stories of his amorous past force X to face a few emotional truths about himself.

One of the chief joys of Boy Culture is that it refuses to force traditional heterosexual romance notions on it’s homosexual characters, the way most queer films do. These are gay men and an important part of their culture is having sex. Hipgayhooray to Brocka for realizing this.

The central performance is key to Boy Culture’s success and while Derek Maygar smolders with raw sexual intensity, he is more than capable of the range of emotions needed to take us inside X’s paradoxically narcissistic and yet uncertain head.

The other two leads aren’t quite as strong as Maygar. Daryl Stephens’ Andrew appears a bit too tentative and Jonathan Trent overflits a bit too much as the crowd-pleaser, Joey--which isn’t to say they don’t have solid moments. Patrick Bauchau delivers a potent and memorable performance as Gregory.

Boy Culture represents a nice step forward in queer cinema.




Brian W. Cook’s
Colour Me Kubrick

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival

If Philip Seymour Hoffman can win an Oscar for impersonating Truman Capote then, by God, John Malkovich must win one for impersonating Alan Conway impersonating Stanley Kubrick!

One of the great joys of the Tribeca Film Festival so far, Colour Me Kubrick is a wickedly yummy, semi-truthful account of an audacious and quite unbelievable story.

Director Brian Cook and screenwriter Anthony Frewin (both of whom are past Kubrick collaborators) have crafted one of the most original works in recent memory, perhaps since--ironically enough--Being John Malkovich.

Around the time of the making of Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut in the late 1990’s, a man by the name of Alan Conway got away with pretending to be the elusive auteur, despite the fact that he looked nothing like Kubrick and never really bothered to educate himself about the master’s body of work.

The real Kubrick lived a hermetic existence in the last three decades of his life.

In the film, Conway sweet talks to bed young guys as well as con many other folks out of money, time and amenities.

Using many an odd American accent and wearing the most outrageous frocks, Malkovich delights as the charlatan with no moral conscience. This is the performance of his career and Malk is a marvel frame after delicious frame.

The self-reflexive jokes are hysterical as well. At one point in the film Conway (posing as Kubrick of course) is asked what he is working on next. His reply: “3001: A Space Odyssey with John Malkovich in the lead.”

Cook pays homage to the great Kubrick by using the same rich colors he used in his films, even borrowing the same music. Camerawork, art direction and costumes are all superb. The pic is cut together masterfully and Bryan Adam’s original score soars.

Colour Me Kubrick is the reason festivals like Tribeca exist: to introduce the world to refreshing, innovative films that defy genre and easy description but provide cinema-goers with a richly rewarding experience. Kudos to the filmmakers for their daring; to the real Conway for his unapologetic chutzpah and to John Malkovich for his unabashed fearlessness.



Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s
Dreaming Lhasa
Opens Friday April 13, 2007

Reviewed by Ryan Eagle

Dreaming Lhasa is the first narrative film from documentary veterans Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam. The story, grounded in the context of a documentarian’s quest to record interviews of Tibetan refugees in northern India, bounces between narrative drama and documentary underpinnings. Interspersed throughout the story are interviews that Karma, played by Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso, is piecing together for her film project. This example of play between documentary and drama is only one parallel the film shares with its real world counterparts. We are left with a film that is not quite a stand-alone drama and not really a documentary either. For all of its humanitarian zeal and best intentions, the film, placed in this genreless limbo, suffers.

Many in the cast, like Gyatso – one of the films central characters – are new to acting. With celebrities, athletes and the like popping up in films left and right, the line between trained actors and rookies has been blurred of late. Charisma can sometimes bridge the gap and when that fails, a solid script can bolster sub par performances. In Dreaming Lhasa, the stretch was a bit too far for either to cover. I was constantly jerked out of the story by the rigidity of so many of the actors’ performances.

The movie turned out to be an “unintentional documentary.” The subplots ran paper-thin. The love story didn’t quite work. It seemed belabored just like the tenuous exchanges of dialogue. I tried to put aside my discomfort with the acting and enjoy the fruits of the film borne of its documentary soul. Shots of the Himalayan vistas, of Indian villages, of hermitages and monasteries all shone through giving a true glimpse of a world and a people underrepresented in film. Most compelling were the clips from Karma’s interview subjects. In them the stories of Chinese brutality toward Tibetan peoples grabbed my attention the way the caged drama in the film could not.

When you go to a sushi bar, you don’t order a steak. You get what you know the place does well. You get what you know you can count on. Though their vision from the start was to branch out into narrative film, I wish this had been another documentary from Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam. I wish I could have been brought deeper into the Tibet and the India represented in the film. And so I wouldn’t scold a sushi chef for putting a steak on the menu, I just wouldn’t order it.

It is a demanding ordeal to work on subject matter close to one’s heart. For how could people live with a less than stellar result when telling a story so dear to them? Steven Spielberg, for example, has spoken of making Schindler’s List as one of the most taxing experiences of his life. Perhaps it was the love of Tibet and the angst of knowing the suffering of its people that drew executive producer Richard Gere to help make this film. Certainly the subject matter was a driving force for filmmakers Sarin and Sonam. This brain trust did achieve their goal of spreading the message about Tibet’s dire situation. The way in which that message was realized, however, is simply shy of what such a powerful story demands.

For more information, log onto: dreaminglhasa.com



Gregory Hoblit’s
Fracture
Opens Friday, April 20, 2007


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

In the last two decades, as murder mystery thrillers have become terribly twist-oriented, moviegoers have come to expect these sharp turns and last minute plot shocks and revelations.

Audiences have always enjoyed a good shock. The popularity of Hitchcock proves that. Imagine the jolt one must have felt sitting in a theatre in 1960 and discovering that Norman Bates was...his own mother in Psycho! And think on the simultaneous thrill and frustration felt by 1974 cinemagoers as Hercule Poirot explained that “they all did it” in the Sidney Lumet classic Murder on the Orient Express. These were films with clever reveals that enhanced the plot. You could go back and see all the pieces to the puzzle--which made the film even better the second time.

The 80’s brought us movies like: Jagged Edge; The Morning After and Suspect. These films taught audiences to expect some type of surprise and kept them guessing until the final scene.

The 90’s saw suspenseful Grisham courtroom dramas like The Firm, The Client and A Time to Kill which kept the shocks coming but were strangely satisfying, while Jagged-type ripoffs like Final Analysis and Primal Fear (both, ironically, starring Richard Gere!) were all about the twist--pushing the credibility envelope.

Then came M. Night Shaymalan who (good, bad or otherwise) set the expectation in stone. Beginning with The Sixth Sense in 1999, his films were all ABOUT the twist ending regardless of the genre. It could be spooky (Sense) or supernatural (Signs) or just craptacular (Unbreakable). What mattered, what defined the film WAS the twist. Copycat movies began to spring up everywhere. Some were good (The Others), most were lousy. But one thing was for certain, moviegoers were now trained to crave twistifying moments, regardless of how much it might compromise the film or it’s characters.

So the new goal of the non-hack screenwriter and director of any type of mystery or thriller or courtroom drama has become an unfair and near-impossible one: to give audiences the jolts and surprises they’ve come to crave while remaining true to their story and characters. If they can do this without gimmicking out, then they deserve our respect.

Fracture, Gregory Hoblit’s vastly entertaining new thriller, manages just fine. The audience gets its twists, but NOT at the expense of the more important and ‘artistic’ elements of the film. And thanks to the two principle cast members and solid production values, the film transcends its ‘necessary’ surprise plot reveals, which is a very good thing because I saw the first one coming a movie-mile away and the second one became pretty obvious as well!

The simple plot of Fracture involves Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins) who discovers his wife (the stunning and always underused Embeth Davidtz) is cheating on him and decides to murder her. He then chooses to defend himself in court. Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling), the ambitious assistant district attorney is assigned the case. His last case before he moves onto a much more lucrative position. The Sleuth-esque machinations of these two make up the rest of Fracture as Willy becomes embroiled in Crawford’s mind-fucking moves.

Hopkins, in his first criminal role since Hannibal Lector, is fiercely assured and perfectly creepy. A master cinema-thespian, he instantly gains our sympathies, despite the fact that he’s committed a heinous crime. Hopkins gives so much--sometimes in a simple glance or a brief facial expression. The film also plays to our memory of Lector, which is another reason why it’s easy to like him.

Gosling is the perfect foil for Sir Anthony, playing brash and ballsy but showing his vulnerability. This is a rich and impressive performance that in another actor’s hands could have amounted to a character we could not give two hoots about.

While the script is a lot less clever than it wants us to believe it is, Gregory Hoblit is to be applauded for putting together a thrill ride with psychological nuance. Oh, and did I mention there are a few twists tossed in?

 



Carl Colpaert’s
G.I. Jesus
Opened April 6, 2007


Reviewed by Ryan Eagle

Writer/director Carl Colpaert and producer Lee Caplin decided to make G.I. Jesus after Caplin came across a blurb in a newspaper that touched on US armed forces recruiters being kicked out of Tijuana for offering US citizenship to Mexicans in exchange for enlistment. The lead in G.I. Jesus, played by Joe Arquette, is based on this model. The film deals with the character’s post traumatic stress disorder on return from his tour of duty in Iraq. Jesus’s plight is an examination of just how much of one’s self has to be sacrificed for a chance at legal citizenship.

The film deals with every stock argument for and against the war in Iraq. We learn through unimaginative dialogue that the poor and marginalized are on the front lines, that innocent civilians are often killed along with militants, that the separation from loved ones is ever present on both sides of a war and that the burden of readjustment to society after taking lives and witnessing carnage is a constant struggle. This is to name only a few of the topics juggled in the rushed and inarticulate script. Many of the film’s ideas are valid, even sympathetic, but to throw so many of them together and present them in such a haphazard manner as happens here leaves the story muddied and incoherent. Interspersed with the amateurish scenes that comprise the story are pieces of stock footage from the war in Iraq. Most of these graphic scenes of actual war, tinged the now familiar night-vision green, serve as Jesus’s flashback fodder. The scenes themselves are gritty and cold, but their effect on the film is far less impactful.

The story does have a linear structure. It carries the protagonist from his return flight to Los Angeles to what we are told is a happier life back in Mexico. Along the way are flashbacks upon flashbacks, conversations with people who don’t really exist and (excuse the overused, but unavoidable term) – surreal scenes with military types, friends and family. At each one of these stops along the way, the story grows a tangent that it does not follow. These dozens of different tracks leading nowhere cloud the narrative even further.

The last thing any film – especially one about war – should do is spoon-feed the audience. It’s fine to ask questions without making absolute pronouncements as to their answers. There must, however, be a compelling force behind any opinions and any imagery that appear on the screen. G.I. Jesus deals with very real, very important problems for the military and the civilian public as well, but because of the unpolished production value and thrown toget




Lasse Hallstrom’s
The Hoax
Opens Friday, April 6, 2007

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The Hoax is quite simply the best film of 2007 so far and should land Richard Gere a seriously-long-overdue Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Based on the incredulous, true story of Clifford Irving and the wild tale he concocted about being the chosen biographer of legendary recluse Howard Hughes in order to finally get recognition as a writer, the film brilliantly comments on how easy it is to manipulate and play politics with people when power and celebrity are involved.

In 1972, Irving deceived the entire staff at McGraw Hill and came dangerously close to having a complete fabrication published and recognized by the world as fact.

But before all the smoke cleared, the plot twists and we learn of an even more underhanded yet extraordinary hoax that masterminds from someone savvy enough to know how to take perfect advantage of opportunity when it pounds down your door.

Although the film takes place in the 1970’s, it feels contemporary because it hints at today’s scams, cover- ups and other such ‘gates’.

Howard Hughes seems like the perfect titan to scam since he was such a mythical figure. Jonathan Demme’s quirkily terrific 1980 film Melvyn and Howard depicts yet another, very different, hoax--this time perpetrated by a midwestern milkman named Melvyn Dummar (Paul LeMat). Although Dumar was a swindler, that movie was more of a sweet, comic fable. The Hoax, on the other hand, is a riveting drama - almost a thriller. And we truly find ourselves rooting for...the hoaxer!

Much of the credit must go to the helmer. This is quite the departure for Lasse Hallstrom whose previous credits include: the delightful romantic confection Chocolat; the Academy-friendly Cider House Rules; as well as the less successful but fun Casanova (which was released directly on the heels of Brokeback Mountain to make certain everyone KNEW Heath Ledger was straight, dammit!!! He also immediately married and had babies just to bang the point home...hmmm...but I digress...)

Hallstrom has never been more assured as director. This is his finest work.

The script, by newcomer William Wheeler, is crisp, intelligent and clever but quite charming and pleasant when it needs to be.

Gere dives brains first into the role of his career and plays the shit out of it. It’s a simultaneous treat and absolute agony watching him as Irving since we know he’s a fraud. Gere makes us want to believe he’s actually telling the truth. He makes us want Hughes to pop out of anonymity for the three seconds it would take to exonerate him.

Alfred Molina, as Irving’s accomplice Dick Suskind, is perfect portraying a complete wreck of a person. It’s a poignant and hilarious turn.

An unrecognizable Marcia Gay Harden adds her talents to the part of Irving’s wacky painter wife. She plays her like a satiric version of her Oscar winning turn as Lee Krasner in Pollock and, as always, steals every scene she is in.

Hope Davis (an actress I have never liked) is quite effective as the prickly yet gullible publisher and Julie Delpy is perfectly silly in what amounts to a cameo part as real life actress Nina Van Pallandt. (Incidentally, I just watched Robert Altman’s unjustly maligned Quintet the other night and Van Pallandt had quite a fascinating part in that 1979 gem!)

Clifford Irving could have easily been portrayed as a sham, a flim-flam man who deserved to be laughed away. Instead, the filmmakers have wisely chosen to probe the psychology of this interesting person, what motivated him to do what he did and how he almost got away with it. In doing so, The Hoax reflects tellingly on our current culture and what it shows becomes glaring and downright scary.




Chris Rock, Kerry Washington and Gina Tores in I Think I Love My Wife

Chris Rock’s
I Think I Love My Wife
Opens March 16, 2007


Starring: Chris Rock; Kerry Washington; Gina Torres; and Steve Buscemi.


There is no doubt that Chris Rock is a meg-talented man! Just for starters, he is hysterical. And he looks at the middle-class black experience with an unflinching eye; this guy is a truth teller.

And with his desire to tell true stories about black middle class families, he and fellow screen writer Louis C.K. set out to remake a French film for American audiences, Eric Rohmer’s Chloe in the Afternoon. Chloe is the story of a happily (?) married businessman who develops an afternoon friendship with the former mistress of an old friend.

I think the story Rock was trying to tell was that of a Casper Milk Toast suburban father who hears the siren’s call to a wild and wonderful single life and is forced to reexamine his priorities. But somehow it just doesn’t quite work.

Chris Rock (as investment banker protagonist Richard Cooper), and Kerry Washington (as afternoon delight Nikki), seem to be on entirely different story paths – almost like they each had their own director. Rock is acting in a comedy about a married businessman who is enticed to enter into an affair with a character that could have easily been played by a young (or for that matter present day) Goldie Hawn. Washington is telling an entirely different story. She is acting in a drama about a young woman who is at a crossroads in her clubbing life and is on the cusp of a decision to leave her world and join the world of middle class married couples. In the spirit of the ancient Buddhist proverb that states that, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” Washington’s character Nikki wants to take Rock’s “Coop” out for a test ride to see just how he feels. But Nikki has already made up her mind and is simply testing her “null hypothesis.”

The movie is best with the scenes about the black experience of suburban life. The scene about the conversations that black couples always have when they go out to dinner together (the Michael Jackson bit etc.) is utterly hysterical. And the scenes where Rock’s movie wife Brenda (played by Gina Torres) attempts to raise two black children in a white paradise are very evocative and telling. And the movie is to be applauded for showing the true life of hot young club chicks. When Washington’s character Nikki moves out of her boyfriend’s apartment, she moves into a SRO in a beat up building in Harlem; there are no Friends style apartments here.

Steve Buscemi does a fine job playing Rock’s co-worker, George. But Buscemi’s wild and whacky talents are not tapped in what is a straight side kick role.

I Think I Love My Wife is a film that could have benefited from an outside director who could have taken a step back, seen the big picture and synchronized the two main character’s story lines (and perhaps utilized Buscemi). But as I said before, Chris Rock is a mega-talented man and I bet he has all of this figured out by the next time one of his films leave the paddock.



Scott Frank’s
The Lookout
Opens March 30, 2007

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

For those of us who thought last year’s overhyped Little Miss Sunshine was really a Hollywood-movie-wannabe dressed up in faux indie garb, The Lookout is quite the refreshing antidote. It’s the real indie-thing.

While it may be seemingly unfair to compare a quirky, grittily pungent neo-noir flick to a quirky and admittedly-funny road-movie comedy, they do share the ‘quirky’ gene. LMS felt contrived-quirky while The Lookout’s quirks seem genuinely character-infused.

Renown screenwriter Scott Frank (the Elmore Leonard pics: Get Shorty & Out of Sight) makes a most promising directorial debut. And while he stays within his safe crime caper parameters, he also shows he can master the art of the character-study while immensely entertaining his audience.

The Lookout’s plot is centered on golden boy Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a midwesterner who leads a charmed life: he’s a high school sports god with rich parents and a gorgeous girlfriend. But one fateful day, he loses everything--including his short term memory--in a freak car crash that he, pretty much, causes.

Flashforward: Chris is now barely able to do day-to-day chores without reading from notes on a piece of paper. He is employed as a janitor in a bank and lives with a blind curmudgeon named Lewis (Jeff Daniels).

Into his rather-pathetic life breezes shady Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode) who claims to have dated Chris’ sister in high school. Gary introduces our boy to Luvlee (Isla Fisher), a sexy stripper who makes Chris feel sexually alive again. But Gary has a master plan: to rob the bank where Chris works. The mayhem that ensues infuses the film with its gripping edge.

If film selection counts for anything (and it does) Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of the brainiest and commendable risk-takers on the indie scene. He has nicely rid himself of the Tiger Beat stigma that followed his stint on the hilarious TV show, 3rd Rock from the Sun, proving quite chilling and effective in 2005’s disturbing Mysterious Skin and last year’s Brick. In The Lookout he etches another skilled and character-invasive portrait. This guy isn’t afraid to strip away the bullshit onscreen and it’s fascinating to watch. If he keeps it up, he’ll find himself in Gosling-Oscar-nomination-land!

Matthew Goode was so good (you can intend the pun or not) as the affluent tennis player in Woody Allen’s Match Point. Here, he is unrecognizable, transforming himself into a conniving and sleazy manipulator. This actor is an amazing chameleon!

The once matinee-idol-y Jeff Daniels has physically turned into Jabba the Hut, but his acting chops have never been better and here he does some of his best work since his first film, Terms of Endearment, twenty-four years ago.

Isla Fisher is quite good as the coulda-been cliche’ stripper with a heart of gold--we hope...

The film has a few minor irritations: some plot points are never cleared up and a few dots are left unconnected--especially about Gary and Luvlee’s real motivations (I always suspected they were siblings who were related to one of the accident victims and were seeking revenge). Carla Gugino disappears from the canvas way too quickly. And the ending was a bit too pat for my taste. But, trust me; these caveats do not take away from a terrific film that deserves to find a huge audience!



Denis Henry Hennelly and Casey Suchan’s
Rock the Bells
Opens Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Pioneer Theater
http://www.twoboots.com/pioneer/

 

"Anything with Dirty makes me nervous," Chang Weisberg

Starring: Chang Weisberg, Carla Garcia, Brian Valdez, Wu-Tang Clan, Redman, Dilated Peoples, Sage Francis, Chali 2na + DJ Nu Mark (Jurassic 5), Eyedea + Abilities, MC Supernatural + Haj

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival

Have you ever wanted to know what it would be like to produce a rock concert? How it would be to the “man,” the guy who deals with the talent, the venue, local officials and the investors (his mother)? Or how about this: Just what would it be like if you were the guy who got all the original members of the Wu Tang clan together on a stage at a “sold out” rock concert at a grungy rock pavilion in San Bernardino, California?

Well, watching Rock the Bells is your chance to experience the entire thing from the comfort of an air conditioned theater seat. The documentary follows rock promoter Chang Weisberg (of Guerilla Union) in the summer of 2004 as he plans a hip-hop concert - to his realization that he has now invited almost “all” of the original members of the Wu Tang Clan so why don’t I just go for all of them - through to the sold-out-out-of-control-almost-a riot concert featuring RZA, GZA, ODB, Method Man, Ghostface, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, U God, and Cappadona (the unofficial 10th member of the Wu Tang Clan).

And filmmakers Denis Henry Hennelly and Casey Suchan were there for the entire ride. We see Chang at work in LA, promoting rap stars such as the totally bizarre white-boy-with-a-wig-rapper Sage Francis (who likes to say it with broccoli). We meet Weisberg’s wife, his mother and his loyal assistant – the three strong women behind the man. We see him mortgaging his house and his life to put together the money to finance the concert. And we see the freaked-out planning, as Weisberg relentlessly tries to put his dream together. The camera men even follow him to his meeting with the San Bernardino city council planning committee, where he tries to convince the powers-that-be that he is not going to inflict an Altamont on their city. Right.

And finally it is the day and Hennelly and Suchan have twenty cameras working in what is reported to be 115 degree heat. There are huge lines of disgruntled fans that were forced to wait for hours in the broiling sun to get through the turnstiles, which are seemingly manned by high-school-drop-outs temping as security guards. The cameras follow Weisberg’s assistant and his mother as they sell thousands of dollars tickets from a ticket booth that looks like a tin box and must have felt like a brick oven. And we see the out-manned security guards peeling passed-our concert goers out of the crowd and hauling them outside to be revived with oxygen tanks. There are also moments of bizarre humor: Sage Francis looking like he dropped in from the documentary next door and Redman insisting that he had to have some weed before he would talk and then getting some and talking, all while the camera rolled away.

The day was filled with suspense; a suspense which is surprisingly compelling considering that it was mainly created by the need to get one of the rappers, a drugged-out Ole Dirty Bastard, out of his hotel bed where he is busy entertaining some new female acquaintances and performing pharmacological experiments. The cameramen interview Dirty’s clueless manager, who was seemingly hired for his job precisely because he did not have the skill set necessary to toss the hos’ out and throw Dirty in a cold shower. And we see rapper Rza, whose attitude at first was, “I’m here, why can’t he get here,” reluctantly consenting to act as an elder statesman and negotiate Dirty’s appearance and thus prevent a riot from the thousands of fans in the over-sold arena.

In the end, Dirty finally agrees to show and perform with the Clan and we are treated to the sight of Dirty sitting comatosely on the stage in all his cracked-out majesty, occasionally waving a finger at the out-of-control crowd. Because in the end, it was show business and the show must go on and it did. And the Wu Tang Clan did perform together for the very last time because Ol’ Dirty Bastard (Russell Tyrone Jones) died four months later of “unknown” causes. Rest in Peace to Mr. Jones (AKA Ol’ Dirty Bastard) and Bravo to the filmmakers and Chang Weisberg - you pulled it off and lived to tell us about it.



Marc Evan’s
Snowcake
Opens April 27, 2007

Starring: Alan Rickman; Sigourney Weaver; Carrie-Anne Moss; James Allodi; and Emily Hampshire.

Quote from the press release: “Snow Cake is a film about friendship, snow, acceptance, obsessive cleaning, a dog called Marilyn, and about finding the warmest of friendships in the coldest of places.”

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival


Marc Evan’s entry in the Tribeca Film Festival, Snowcake, tells a story of a tragedy as seen through the eyes of Alex (played by Alan Rickman), a repressed Englishman who was driving through a snow-covered Ontario Province when his SUV is hit by a tractor trailer. Alex had just picked up Vivienne (played by Emily Hampshire), a young hitchhiker who had the innocence and charm of a precocious child. Vivienne was killed instantly while Alex survived without a scratch.

The accident wasn’t Alex’s fault, but he is nevertheless overcome with remorse and wishes to talk to Vivienne’s mother. Clyde (played by James Allodi), the local cop is suspicious of Alex, not because he thinks he caused the accident but because he has checked Alex’s background and found out that he was just released from prison for manslaughter.

Nevertheless, Alex goes to Vivienne’s mother’s home in Wawa, Ontario with the intention of apologizing to her for the inadvertent death of her daughter. Alex arrives at her home only to find that Linda (played by Sigourney Weaver), Vivienne’s mother, is a highly functioning autistic who knows her daughter is dead (Clyde told her), but is incapable of knowing what that means emotionally. Linda lives in her own world of ritual, illuminated by her fantastic love of light patterns and sounds. Linda also loves to eat pristine snow, thus the name Snow Cake.

Alex is a decent man and he can immediately tell exactly what the loss of her daughter means to Linda: no one to plan the funeral; no one to take care of the dog; no one to handle the intrusive callers: and no one to take the garbage from the immaculate home (Linda does not do garbage). Linda’s parents are out of town and cannot be reached, so Alex reluctantly agrees to stay until after the funeral so he can “take out the garbage.”

The story then leaves the land of frozen snow and hearts; we see the thaw. Alex is pulled out of his shell to take care of all the human emotional needs that Linda cannot comprehend, much less handle. He arranges the funeral and deals with the remorseful driver of the truck that killed Vivienne. And in his search for someone to care for Marilyn, the dog, he meets and falls for a charming neighbor, Maggie (played by Carrie-Ann Moss).

Unlike many movies of this heart-felt-human-drama genre, Snowcake never fails to charm: it is even quite funny in places. Much of the film's success is due to Rickman’s beautiful quiet performance. He is totally believable as a man who has suffered two recent losses, but still has the capacity to open his heart to strangers. Sigourney Weaver also shines as Linda; she gives a very skillful portrayal of a highly functioning woman from what appears to be an entirely different world. Carrie-Ann Moss plays, Maggie, the local “good time girl” with a restrained elegance. And Emily Hampshire’s brief portrayal of Vivienne is a charming revelation. This is a young actress who has the talent to make it big. Bravo to Marc Evans’s for making this beautiful little film.





Jake Kasden’s
The TV Set

Opens Friday, April 6, 2007

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival

The attempt to define satire is a key theme in Italian filmmaker Sabina Guzzanti’s scathing documentary Viva Zapatero! Satire can be political, as in Guzzanti’s very funny expose’, it can also be keen without being necessarily nasty. Sidney Lumet’s Network, one of the best films of the 1970’s, managed to be scathingly comedic as well as prophetically and wildly dramatic.

Jake Kasden’s The TV Set could be called the gentler cousin to Network. Where the Lumet masterpiece was dark and fearless, Kasden’s pic is calmer, almost sweet in it’s portrayal of the maniacal world of network television. And in that calm, lies the the truly frightening realities of who and what govern what gets to ultimately air.

The TV Set focuses on one particular sitcom pilot, ‘The Wexler Chronicles’, created by struggling writer Mike Klein (David Duchovny). From the get go he is forced into a series of compromises which begins to turn this highly personal project into another generic show. Klein must please Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), who is the head of the network and has some very definite ideas about what will work. The film follows the sitcom through forced changes and disastrous shootings leading up to the decision about whether it will make it onto the coveted Fall schedule.

Like Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christensen in Network,, Sigourney Weaver’s Lenny lives and breathes television. Lenny may not be powermad like Diana, but she’s an outrageous, ballsy bitch in her own right. Brilliantly embodied by Weaver (the part was originally written for a man and no dialogue was changed when Siggy came on board), Lenny is a frightening modern creation. Like Diana, she is pure television. From her very first line demanding: “Couldn’t we get Lucy Lawless?” to her appraisal of why the reality show “Slut Wars” is such a success: “If you can’t sell fourteen sluts in the Caribbean, you’ve got problems” to the way she sweetly tries to manipulate Duchovny’s character into seeing things her way: “Original scares me a little, you don’t want to be too original.” Weaver has a ball with this part and we have a ball watching her!

Duchovny is perfectly angst-ridden as the forever suffering (he literally has back spasms) Klein. Ioan Gruffudd brings a certain humanity to the role of Lenny’s recent BBC-acquired flunkie (hired to “class up the network.”) Newcomer Fran Kranz is hilarious as every writer’s worst nightmare actor. The entire ensemble work extraordinarily well together.

Son of genius filmmaker Lawrence Kasden (The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist), Jake has obviously had his own insane experiences with TV execs and proves he knows how to parlay that into good, biting cinema.

The TV Set is a glimpse into how utterly preposterous the industry has become and sheds light on the reasons why there have not been any remotely innovative sitcoms on network television in over two decades.



Ken Loach’s
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Opens March 15, 2007
IFC Center
Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

Reviewed by Ryan Eagle

Director, Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley examines the evolution of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1920’s Ireland. From the first scene’s traditional Irish game of hurling (clearly a mock war between Irish youths) through the final scene of the film, Loach and longtime collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, hammer away at war as a world of self destruction instead of “us versus them.” Granted, instances of the English occupation of Ireland and the horrific exploitation and terror that came with it gave the story a plainly one-sided first act. But, as the story moves forward, the conflicts deepen and tangle.

The story unfolds from the point of view of Damien, played by up-and-comer Cillian Murphy. Damien decides against leaving his village to practice medicine so that he can fight for Irish independence with his compatriots. The matter of a doctor taking life instead of preserving it is just one of the instances of incomprehensible struggle Loach depicts. As Damien’s elder brother Teddy, played by Padraic Delaney, becomes more prominent in the story, a very literal brother against brother struggle mirrors the figurative one that pits Irishmen against Irishmen.

The only peace in this film comes from an important, yet silent character. It is the bucolic Irish countryside that gives the film its flavor. Ireland nurtures the ensemble cast, giving the combatants in skirmishes a place to hide, giving the families depicted their centuries old homesteads and absorbing the unspeakable scars left by scenes of torture, famine, oppression and torment.

The tension usually reserved in film to generate conflict is omnipresent in The Wind That Shakes the Barley. First with the English, then with rival Irish factions, with brothers and friends as close as family, the film drags viewers through an exercise in misery. There is no comic relief. There are no breaks from the downtrodden mood with drawn out love scenes or so much as an inspirational melody or two on the soundtrack. And because of this single-minded construction of the abysmal state of things in 1920’s Ireland, one feels closer to understanding it all. It is an uncomfortable process to sit for just over two hours through scenes overstuffed with dread, fear and loss, but how else should one feel when taking in such specters?

Orla Fitzgerald, who plays Damien’s love interest, Sinead, articulates the point beautifully in her description of working with Loach. “Stamina is the key,” she says. “You have to focus and keep in there.”

In a pivotal scene and moving bit of acting, Fitzgerald collapses, telling her family and her beau that she is not strong enough. The fight has consumed both her body, which looks like a rag doll and her will. Seemingly endless struggle is the hallmark of the film’s subject matter and depiction. Loach and Laverty have not demystified war, but their film has sucked the romance from it, which drains and satisfies viewers at the same time.

For more information on the film: thewindthatshakesthebarley.co.uk


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