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Katharina Otto-Bernstein’s
Absolute Wilson
Opens Friday, October 27, 2006


Starring: Robert Wilson, Suzanne Wilson, David Byrne, Susan Sontag, Philip Glass

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

We travel through the world unseen and unseeing; each with our own internal TV sets showing only one show: our show, our own personal view of the world. But then on the same pathway traveled by many, a Diane Arbus stops and takes a photo of someone walking on the sidewalk, a subject she saw that no one else saw. Or a Philip Perkis stops by the side of a road and takes a photo of a desolate field as other travelers whiz by asking, “How much longer, aren’t we there yet?”

Robert Wilson, the subject of Katharina Otto-Bernstein’s documentary Absolute Wilson, is an artist who definitely sees the world differently. Wilson was born and raised in Waco, Texas, the learning disabled homosexual son of the town mayor and his lovely but distant wife. Waco was then and is still a bastion of the Southern Baptist Church and the home to Southern Baptist Baylor University. Young Robert had trouble fitting in with his life. He was clumsy and did not talk until he was five and when he started talking, he stuttered. His only friend was the socially unacceptable son of his family’s black housekeeper.

And from this seemingly unpromising beginning came the artist Wilson. As a child he received some advice from his sister’s dance teacher Byrd Hoffman that he should simply slow things down. And slow things down he did and by doing so he saw a different world.

Young Wilson tried to fit in, even enrolling his dyslexic self in the University of Texas to study law. But it was to no avail. He was miserable until he “came out” to his family and relocated to New York to study architecture at Parsons. Once in New York of the 1960’s, he was fascinated by the revolutions that were taking place in theater and dance and he vastly preferred the joy of working in the artistic world to studying for school (he did graduate, barely).

Absolute Wilson tell the chronological story of Wilson’s life: covering his great successes in Europe; the play he staged in the Shah’s Iran that took seven days to perform; Einstein on the Beach (with composer Philip Glass); and his battle to stage the CIVIL wars during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (it was never staged in its entirety). The film also tells the story of how although Wilson is revered in Europe he is less well known in the United States. And the film tells the story of Wilson’s work with disabled children including the deaf mute child that Wilson adopted. Wilson is fascinated with the way these children see the world and borrows what he perceives to be the images in these disabled children's internal TV’s.

Wilson’s lens on the world is from another dimension of time and space. He sees vivid colors, huge spaces filled with nothing, eloquence in silence and power in stillness. It is a different world and one well worth visiting. Bravo to Katharina Otto-Bernstein for telling the story and to Robert Wilson for simply being the
story.

For more on the film, log onto: www.absolutewilson.com.

Quad Cinema| 3 34 West 13th Street

Lincoln Plaza Cinemas Broadway | 3Between 62nd and 63rd



Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s
Babel
Opens Friday, October 27, 2006


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Babel is not an easy sit. It is not a fun sit or a particularly pleasant one. It is, however, a sense-challenging, hypnotic and transcendent piece of cinema.

Like Amores Perros and 21 Grams before it, the film is a rather doomy and gloomy meditation on what unites humanity. Collaborating a third time, gifted director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and maze-obsessed screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga once again mess with traditional narrative space and time to create a potent visual and aural experience that seems to be warning us to take better care of our children.

Babel follows three different story-segments on three separate continents to deliver one punch of a flick. In Moroco, a reckless young boy aims a newly-acquired gun at a tourist bus, trying to prove to his brother that the bullets can reach that far. This lapse in logic results in the near-fatal shooting of an American woman, who is traveling with her husband after a family tragedy. Their children are back at home in the US being cared for by a loving nanny, who makes her own consequence-filled choice to attend her son’s wedding in Mexico. Finally, a sexually-awakened young deaf girl in Tokyo, who recently lost her mother to suicide, is spurned by each and every man and boy she attempts to seduce.

These plots, teeming with loss, lack of communication and the need for redemption hold Babel together pretty sturdily. Inarritu is a master of image maneuver, but here sound (or lack thereof) becomes just as important to the narrative. Editing is crucial as well, visually and sound-wise and the use of deliberately jarring cuts work most effectively.

Lest he be accused of filmic dazzle over substance, Inarritu has assembled a terrific cast who provide their own character nuances. They include: the fine Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt (who has a final reel phone moment that is remarkable), the ubiquitous Gael Garcia Bernal, the extraordinary Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza, in a heartbreaking turn.

Babel forces the viewer to examine his/her own prejudices. but is NOT contrived or pandering in the way last year’s Crash was. And although there is a connection between all these characters, it’s the human connection that is ultimately felt.


Edward Zwick’s
Blood Diamond
Opens Friday, December 8, 2006

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

An admirable filmic endeavor, Blood Diamond works more than it doesn’t but that is mostly due to it’s three lead performances.

A tale of recent horrific greed and what it does to men, the movie is set in Sierra Leone, Africa in 1999, and focuses on an amoral diamond smuggler and a native fisherman who’s family is torn apart by the explosive war caused by those seeking the coveted gems. Add an enterprising female reporter into the mix and you have the makings of quite an intense story.

Unfortunately, director Ed Zwick loves to fall back on his typical bombastic, action-adventure-y style (painfully evident in the irritating 2004 debacle The Last Samurai) which robs the film of a lot of it’s power.

Yet when he allows the human element to take center stage, Blood Diamond soars, specifically when depicting the plight of the Djimon Hounsou character in trying to find his family and, surprisingly, in the film’s love story. It is most refreshing to find a Hollywood film where two people ooze sexual chemistry but never even get to kiss onscreen (making the final reel all the more poignant).

Leonardo DiCaprio, as the mercenary Danny Archer, proves mighty impressive, acting the shit out of the part and making all the right choices. DiCaprio makes Danny real and believable even when the script does all it can to the contrary. Setting this performance side by side with his razor-sharp turn in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed places Leo at the top of the acting game in this country right now.

The extraordinary and underrated Jennifer Connelly imbues the all-too cliche’ role of the ambitious reporter with humanity and wit. Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome) and Megan Carter (Sally Field in Absence of Malice) would be proud.

Djimon Hounsou is raw, explosive and heartbreaking as Solomon Vandy, a man who will do anything to find his family.

Blood Diamond is very exciting to watch, although many of the more violent scenes feel repetitive and look too computer-generated. Zwick should have kept it grounded in realism instead of resorting to cheap entertainment.

But as the riveting Constant Gardener did last year in exposing the pharmaceutical industry, Blood Diamond should succeed in making anyone craving a diamond think twice before they make the purchase.




Olvier Martinez and Agnes Bruckner in Blood and Chocolate

Katja Von Garnier’s
Blood and Chocolate
Opens January 26, 2007

Starring: Agnes Bruckner; Hugh Dancy; Olivier Martinez; Katja Riemann;
Bryan Dick; Chris Geere; Tom Harper;

Screenplay by Ehren Kruger from the story by Annette Curtis Klause.

Reviewed by Ed Carey

Blood and Chocolate tells the story of an unrequited love between two young lovers, one werewolf and one human. Agnes Bruckner plays the protagonist Vivian, a rebellious werewolf who longs for more than the thrill of the hunt or the relative safety of the pack. Fans of the Gothic horror genre will be all too familiar with some of the conventions of this story about a pack of werewolves called the loup garoux, living in the city of Bucharest, Romania.

Fans of films like Underworld or any of the Anne Rice novels will be familiar with this character’s dilemma. Vivian falls in love with a human, Aiden (Hugh Dancy), and is willing to forego her clan to be with him. We learn right off the bat that humans in America slaughtered her family and she suffers from survivor’s guilt. Now, she lives with her aunt in Bucharest and she has been picked to be the next bride of the pack leader, Gabriel (Olivier Martinez), because of some vague prophesy that she will help lead the loup garoux into a new age of hope.

The film spends a lot of time setting up the romance between Vivian and Aiden, which of course conflicts with her betrothal to Gabriel and the wishes of the pack. Her cousin Rafe (Bryan Dick) has ambitions of his own and leads a group called “The Five,” which actually doesn’t seem to have any significance in the plot. Rafe finds out about Vivian’s fling, informs Gabriel and is killed pursuing Aiden, setting the whole pack against Vivian and Aiden. We learn very little about the loup garoux, a specific type of werewolf able to transform into wolves at will that were once revered by humans as gods, much like the animal gods in Greek or Native American mythology. Now, feared and hunted by humans, the only safe place left for them is Bucharest where they have ruled for centuries.

We don’t really get an idea of why they were once revered or their more noble aspects, as they have succumbed to fear and greed; Gabriel rules over the city like a mafia don or criminal warlord. The only glimpse we get into their culture is the hunting ritual, which takes place on the first night of the full moon and involves the entire pack chasing some unworthy human (someone usually a threat to the pack) through the woods in order to tear him to shreds. If the human makes it to the river, he wins his life, which of course never happens (okay, almost never happens).

The relationship between Vivian and Aiden, a comic book artist running from his past, consists mostly of longing glances and stolen embraces. We’re treated to some slow-motion scenes of Vivian and Aiden walking through the streets or running through a fountain, while a typical romantic score plays overhead. None of the dark sensuality of Rice’s novels or Kate Becksinale’s heroine in Underworld is found here, making the romance just another part of the plot. The chemistry between these two characters doesn’t go beyond adolescent love.

Blood and Chocolate borrows from many sources, most notably Klause’s novel, but fails to distinguish itself or its mythology from these other tales. Unclear whether the novel explores the history of the loup garoux more clearly, the tale does differ in many aspects from the source material, particularly the ending.

After the film sets up the main conflict, between Vivian and the pack (her “family” and their plans for her), the second half of the film devolves into a suspense thriller with the werewolves pursuing Vivian and Aiden through the city of Bucharest, ending in a climactic fight scene at a factory where Aiden heroically tries to rescue Vivian, charging in with silver bullets blazing. All of the werewolves are revealed to be treacherous and murderous, except for Vivian whose adolescent innocence prevents her from succumbing to bloodlust even when Aiden offers his own cut wrist out to her. It appears werewolves do not need to hunt, but do so only out of tradition and fear. Vivian and Aiden escape the city with their lives after defeating Gabriel, off to find romance in the city of love, Paris. How cliché can you get?

The novel written for young readers appears to have more three-dimensional characters based on a description of the story at wikipedia.org, even though the film is supposedly geared towards a broader audience and went through the trouble of aging the teenage characters into their early twenties. Vivian does have a choice to make between Aiden and the pack, but she spend most of the film dealing with the machinations of Astrid (her aunt, who in the film aids in their escape) and Rafe with Gabriel even coming to her rescue towards the end.

Even without comparison to the novel though, the film offers very little in the way of compelling narrative or emotional context. It becomes difficult to care for any of these characters, while the mythology of the loup garoux serves as nothing more than background to the plot and the city of Bucharest nothing more than a striking visual backdrop for the story (the novel takes place in America, but the director wanted to use real wolves as opposed to computer graphics). The wolves however provide no greater purpose but to be used in drawn out sequences with wolves running through the forest in slow-motion. If the director had worried as much about the story as the visuals in this film, then perhaps it wouldn’t have been such a cliché of a suspense thriller.

 


 

 

Gaston Biraben’s
Cautiva
Opens November 9, 2006

Starring: Bárbara Lombardo; Susana Campos; Hugo Arana; Osvaldo Santoro; Noemí Frenkel; Lidia Catalano; Mercedes Funes; Silvia Baylé; Luis Gianneo.

Reviewed by John Harris

In some of our bleakest childhood moments, many of us have wondered, "Where did I really come from?" In the beginning of Gaston Biraben’s Cautiva, a young Argentinean woman celebrates her fifteenth birthday at an emotional gathering of family and friends. Soon afterwards, she is summoned by her Catholic school principal and told she must meet with a mysterious Argentinean judge. For children, there is no habeas corpus, no constitutional rights. They are compelled to do what they are told. When she asks to speak with her parents, she is told that will not be permitted until she speaks with the judge. A shattering secret awaits her which will completely change her life.

Cautiva is a film with subtle moral complexity There are two kidnappings committed upon Cristina (played by the incandescent Barbara Lombardo in her first feature film role), one by her adoptive parents when she was an infant and then the legal “return” kidnapping by her grandmother and the judge when she is fifteen. The Judge (played by Hugo Arana) tries to explain why he has committed this legal "kidnapping" and is returning her to her biological Grandmother. Her "parents" are not to know where she is going, he explains. He must go about his business furtively and in time she will come to understand why.

Cristina is turned over to her grandmother (played by Susana Campos) and her name is changed back to Sofia Lombardi. Slowly she begins to unravel the mystery of her past, going through an initial stage of denial, then anger, then finally acceptance of the fact that her own parent’s death may be in part attributable to the adoptive parents that she grew up loving.

All the actors give excellent performances in a morality tale told in shades of gray. Inspired by the book by Rita Arditti, “Searching For Life. The Grandmothers Of The Plaza De Mayo And The Disappeared Children Of Argentina,” Mr. Biraben has crafted a thought provoking cautionary tale on the abuse of power, and ultimately, on the nature of evil itself. There is no black and white in Mr. Biraben's universe, just an endless array of choices. The timing of the release of this film, considering the overwhelming results of our recent elections, should give us all pause to think.

Cautiva opens Friday November 10, 2006 at Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street

 



Joey Lauren Adams’
Come Early Morning
Opens November 10, 2006

Starring: Ashley Judd; Jeffrey Donovan; Laura Prepon; Diane Ladd; Scott Wilson

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Actress Joey Lauren Adams, the memorable Alyssa in Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, had a story she was dying to tell. It was a story about Lucy, a hard-times girl from the hard-drinking-God-fearing South, who just can't get her life together. Adams is from the South and according to the press notes, Adams first thought about playing Lucy herself. But then decided that she really wanted to direct and cast the lovely and talented Ashley Judd.

Judd is also the South; she is the youngest daughter of country star Winona Judd and definitely knew this world before. Judd has also played a lower class Southern gal before in 1993’s critically acclaimed Ruby in Paradise.

Here is a quote from the film’s press release: ”Come Early Morning tells the story of Lucy (Judd), a hard-working, Southern woman, whose personal life has been reduced to a spiral of late nights and one-night stands. When Lucy meets Cal (Jeffrey Donovan), a newcomer to town, she is finally forced to confront her fears as he challenges her accept a more meaningful relationship. Lucy must decide whether to push Cal away or face the demons that have left her incapable of intimacy and growth. She begins a spiritual journey toward love and redemption that takes her, and the film, to an entirely unexpected and original place.”

Adams has told a compelling story about a world that few outside the south know exists. It is a world populated by carousing ass-kicking drunks who occasionally haul their hung- over-asses to church on Sunday morning just cuz that is what they have always done and they like the music. They are not hypocritical Christians who act better than thou during they day. They are the real sinners of the old saying, “A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” L. L. Nash. And religion is as much a part of their life as beer and chicken-fried steak.

Ashley Judd does a fine job of bringing Lucy and all her complexities to life. Jeffrey Donovan gives a solid performance portraying the love interest that Lucy can't get her shit together enough to appreciate. And Bravo to Adams for bringing this, her first feature, to the screen. .

Come Early Morning opens November 10, 2006 in NY Metro area at the Loews Village 7, Clearview Manhasset Theater, Clearview Tenafly Cinema 4, NJ, and the
Clearview Cinema 100 White Plains




Karen Moncrieff's
The Dead Girl
Opens December 29, 2006


Starring: Toni Collette; Brittany Murphy; Marcia Gay Harden; James Franco;
Josh Brolin; Rose Byrne; Giovanni Ribisi; Kerry Washington; Mary Steenburgen; and Mary Beth Hurt.

The Dead Girl is a dark sad film about the death of a drug addicted hooker and the effect her death has on a group of seemingly diverse people. There are five separate stories in the film and we only meet the “dead girl” Krista (played by Brittany Murphy) in the last story, which is the only one that takes place before the murder.

The first story (The Stranger) is actually the creepiest. Toni Colette plays Arden, a sad-sack of a woman who is the live-in caretaker for her verbally abusive mother (played by Piper Laurie). Arden discovers the dead girl and unwillingly becomes something of a local celebrity. This celebrity attracts the amorous attentions of Rudy, a grocery clerk played by Giovanni Ribisi. It seems that the dead mutilated woman is a turn on for Rudy so Arden and Rudy have weird bondage sex filled with dirty talk about serial killers. And this experience so liberates Arden (who fortunately walks away from her sexual encounter) that she is able to confront her mother. But don’t be turned away by my description, you won’t be able to turn your eyes away from this scene and may need a bath afterwards.

The next story (The Sister) tells the story of Leah, a clinically depressed forensic student played by Rose Byrne. Rose works on the body of the “dead girl” and sees some resemblance to her sister who has been missing for several years. Rose desperately wants to believe that this corpse is her sister so she can have some closure. In fact, just the wisp of belief that she may have found her missing sister, frees her to also have sex (with a lab student who has the hots for her). But her mother (played by Mary Steenburgen) refuses to believe that her daughter has been found. In the end, it is determined that the body is not her missing daughter and Rose returns to her sexless depression.

The third story (The Wife) is actually the psychologically darkest. Mary Beth Hurt plays Ruth, another sad-sack of a woman whose husband (Ned Searcy) has the habit of leaving for unexplained absences, leaving her alone to manage his storage business. Ruth (supposedly a devout Christian) believe he is sleeping with prostitutes and harangues him incessantly. But he leaves anyway, so one night she decides to investigate and finds some horrifying souvenirs in one of the storage units. She is then faced with a dilemma and makes a shocking decision which robs her of any semblance of a higher moral ground.

The fourth story (The Mother) tells the story of Melora, the dead girl’s mother (played by Marcia Gay Harden). Melora drives to California from Oregon to try to find out what happened to her now dead daughter. She goes to the run down motel that it her daughter’s last known address where she meets Rosetta (Kerry Washington), the drug addicted hooker who turn out to have been her daughter’s lesbian lover. The two women form an unlikely friendship and through the friendship Melora learns two secrets about her daughter’s life: one about why her daughter ran away from home and one that will change Melora’s life in a positive way.

And finally in The Dead Girl, we meet Krista (a fragile Britanny Murphy) herself. We see her interactions with one of her customers (a leeringly disgusting Josh Brolin) and her desperate attempts to get a ride to go see her three year old daughter on her birthday, the trip that cost her life.

This film is beautifully acted and is blessed with great dark cinematography (Michael Grady). Karen Moncrieff has done a great job of telling her story in Babel like fashion. If there is any criticism it is that the film is just too dark. It is hard to really feel for people when there seems to have never been anything worth living for in their lives. So the viewer becomes just a voyeur. But hey, this film has truly memorable voyeuristic moments.


 



 


Gabriel Range’s
Death of a President
Opens Friday, October 27, 2006

Starring: Hend Ayoub; Brian Boland; Becky Ann Baker; Robert Mangiardi; Zahra Abi Zikri; Jay Patterson; Jay Whittaker; Michael Reilly Burke; James Urbaniak; Neko Parham; Seena Jon; Christian Stolte; Chavez Ravine; Patricia Buckley; Patrick Clear; and Malik Bader.

Tagline: Do not rush to judge.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Let's get one thing straight: this film does not glorify violence nor does it incite violence. Instead it is a thought provoking exploration of the United States’ culture of violence and of our present administrations assault on our civil liberties.

Here is a quote from the film’s press release: Death of a President follows the investigation of the fictional assassination of President George W. Bush in October 2007. Combining real archival footage with a credible but fictional story, Death of a President presents a fascinating and thought-provoking political thriller.”

Filmmaker Gabriel Range has stated that he picked the fictitious assassination of President George Bush as a catalyst so he could explore how our present administration would react to such a horrific event.

The film is formatted like a documentary; Range uses actual news clips of President Bush interspersed with film he (Range) took of protest groups in Chicago. These film clips are interspersed with interviews with people who were supposedly with the President in Chicago on the day of the assassination and also with the Secret Service agents who were charged with his protection and with the FBI agent who was in charge of the investigation afterwards. The film also shows interviews with the wives of the two suspects: a Syrian engineer and the father of a slain African American soldier.

This film is riveting without being exploitative. You never see the President being shot, only the lead up to the assasination and the aftermath. This film is also incredibly sad. I walked out of the film depressed with this one thought, “How can a nation who was founded on the wonderful principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, have gone so far off course?”

For more information on this film, log onto: www.deathofapresident.com

For more reading on the subject of how we are now persecuting Arab Americans, not for terrorist acts but just because we think they look funny, read my theater column for June of 2006.
http://www.newyorkcool.com/archives/2006/June/theater_1.html.
Scroll down on the linked page to see the review of Alison Maclean and Tobiase Perse’s documentary film Persons of Interest.


 

Martin Scorsese’s
The Departed
Opens Friday, October 6, 2006

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

So Martin Scorsese doesn’t have a best director Academy Award. Neither does Robert Altman. What do the two master filmmakers have in common besides being seventies mavericks, without Oscars, who are still working? Well, both happen to be turning out some of the best films of the new millennium. Neither show any signs of slowing down. And both have made spectacular films this year (Altman’s is Prairie Home Companion).

Scorsese seems to feel most at home when he’s tacking crime. And The Departed, ironic title notwithstanding, is quite the filmically fascinating homecoming for him. Scorsese’s brilliant technique has gotten more interesting to watch and his ability to glean the best from his actor’s is perfectly evident in his new pic.

Gritty, grisly and especially bloody in the final reel, The Departed is also wickedly witty with moments of intense and dizzying suspense.

Loosely based on a Hong Kong thriller, Infernal Affairs, and inventively penned by William Monahan, the story revolves and unravels around a powerful mobster named Costello and the two cops who work for him--one of whom is actually operating as an informer. How these two VERY different officers (one a street-smart thug, the other an ambitious slickster) manage to try to outwit one another and Costello is part of the exhilarating plot.

Leonardo DiCaprio finally proves he’s deserving of all the praise that was heaped upon him when Titanic docked nine years ago. The ferocity he brings to the role of hothead Billy Costigan propels him to the ranks of serious actor. It’s a stirring performance.

The always dashing Matt Damon cuts quite the nasty yet paradoxical figure as Costello’s inside man, Colin Sullivan. Damon charms even when he’s cutthroat.

In a film filled with fantastic acting, Mark Wahlberg manages to steal every scene he is in as a vulgar, no-nonsense sergeant. If there’s any justice this overlooked thesp will finally snag an Oscar nomination.

Adding to the luster of the fine ensemble are wonderful turns by Vera Farmiga, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Ray Winstone.

The casting of Jack Nicholson as the feared mob boss Costello, may have appeared odd to some and I’m sure certain critics will yelp that Nicholson is simply doing his old shtick. Bollocks to those fools! Nicholson manages to etch a dastardly and horrific portrayal of a vicious brute who has grown rightfully paranoid. Yes, he’s a raving nut, but Jack tempers the character with a surprising bored-with-his-life spin. It’s one of the year’s best performances from one of our best and most treasured actors.

The Departed is like cinematic hashish. It makes you feel joyous. A rare emotion you want to keep alive...for as long as you can! Thank you, Mr. Scorsese!


Bill Condon’s
Dreamgirls

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella


Four years ago Rob Marshall revitalized the movie musical with the delicious and delightful Chicago which went on to deservedly win the Best Picture Academy Award. Since then we have been assaulted with such hodgepodge cinema-horrors asPhantom of the Opera and The Producers, near destroying all hopes for the future of the genre...until now. Thank God for Bill Condon (the Chicago screenwriter, irony notwithstanding).

Condon has proven himself a fantastic filmmaker with the remarkable Gods and Monsters in 1998 (which won him the Best Original Screenplay Oscar) as well as the controversial and highly underrated Kinsey in 2004.

This year he has taken a so-so Broadway show and turned it into a dazzling, insightful and invigorating film. One that will be a force to be reckoned with come Oscar Nominations-morning,

The simple rise-to-fame story of a Motown-esque trio and the avaricious manager that guides them is given a fanciful and much-improved screen adaptation. Condon is a master of the visual (borrowing occasionally from Rob Marshall) and his magical use of mirrors and sweeping camerawork is a tribute to the original Dreamgirls creator, Michael Bennett.

The Broadway musical, Dreamgirls, was ‘loosely’ based on Diana Ross and the Supremes. Everyone figured that one out. The film version is even more tongue-in-cheek obvious with Knowles looking and sounding like Ms. Ross in key moments from her early career.

The joy of what Condon has done is that we never feel that the actors are bursting into song just to burst into song. The songs are actual performed musical numbers until halfway through the film when he seamlessly makes the transition to musical dialogue, culminating with Effie’s soul-piercing, “And I Am Telling You.”

While I highly recommend Dreamgirls, the film is not perfect. There are a few wince-inducing cliche’ moments and certain characters who don’t quite achieve three-dimensionally. But the good far outweighs the not-so-good.

The heart and soul of the film is Effie and she is brilliantly embodied by Jennifer Hudson. This is a staggering film debut and Hudson is assured an Oscar nomination and, probably, the award itself. (Her only real competition, in my mind, is Cate Blanchett who sears the screen with her raw intensity in Notes on a Scandal).

The aforementioned power-ballad, “And I Am Telling You,” long associated with Jennifer Holiday (who had a hit single with it in the early 80’s) makes the song her own in a marvelous moment of desperation. But it’s her second tour de force number, “I Am Changing” that proves the moving and defining showstopper of the film.

Beyonce’ Knowles’ Deena Jones isn’t a very strongly defined character through most of the film, but in the final reel where she belts the killer new song, “Listen”, we are finally allowed a peek into what makes Deena tick. It’s a wonderful moment for Knowles as she is allowed to express what she has been repressing for too long.

Jamie Foxx is saddle with playing a rather villainous cad but he gives the part depth and a strange poignancy. It’s good work from the Ray-man.

The much-ballyhoo’d turn by Eddie Murphy is, indeed, the best performance of his career--but, let’s face facts--that isn’t saying much! However, Murphy is strong and in his last few scenes, where he doesn’t say much, is quite impressive.

Broadway’s Anika Noni Rose near-steals all her early scenes with quite the comic gifts. The script seems to let her fall by the wayside, which is unfortunate since she’s another potential star on the rise.

Tech credits are outstanding across the boards with spectacular photography by Tobias Schliessler as well as fabulous costumes (by Sharen Davis), perfect period production designs (by John Myhre) and razzle-dazzle editing (via Virginia Katz).

One walks away entertained by the film and blown away by Ms. Hudson!

 



Panther Bior and Daniel Abol Pach
In the documentary God Grew Tired of Us
Photo Credit Newmarket/ National Geographic Films

Christopher Quinn’s
God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys of Sudan
Newmarket/ National Geographic Films
Opens January 12, 2007

Starring: Nicole Kidman; John Bul Dau; Panther Bior; and Daniel Abul Pach.
Reviewed by Armistead Johnson

It’s a frighteningly biblical order: kill every boy under age twelve, in the land.
Only, this order wasn’t just given in that book that’s in the nightstand of your motel room…it was given by the Muslim half of the civil war torn Sudanese government in the early 90’s. The result? Thousands and thousands of little boys, some with infant brothers or nephews in their little arms literally walked across Africa in search of safety.

With no food, water or adults to care for them on their exodus, most died. But some survived and found safety in Kenya after a ten year walk. They are called the Sudanese “lost boys. This is just a history lesson though…the film is about survival.

Now in their early twenties, the young men have been given the opportunity for a new life in America. God Grew Tired of Us chronicles the lost boys integration into the United States.

Some of the most charming moments of the film happen as the boys are being interviewed about their fears of America (“I have never used electricity…I hope I am strong enough.” Or “in America we will only be allowed one wife…this may be a problem for us.”) Ultimately the film is an indirect commentary on American culture. From watching the boys wonder who Santa Claus is and what he has to do with the birth of Jesus Christ, and not being able to find a single adult who can answer their question, to seeing a community band together in an effort to ban the boys from entering a local store in groups larger than two…the film gives us the opportunity to see who we are as Americans. From our genuinely generous American spirit in offering refuges asylum to our fear and anger when the refugees don’t arrive at Lady Liberty’s feet speaking English/skilled at a trade/knowing our customs/ready to discard African identity. God Grew Tired of Us raises the questions at the center of the immigration debate.

Ultimately the boys organize and flourish in the United States. They create a better life for themselves and their families while exposing the horrors in Sudan to the American people and politicians.

God Grew Tired of Us proves that while the dream now looks different, The American Dream is alive and well. The film opens in January of 2007.





Robert DeNiro’s
The Good Shepherd

Starring: Matt Damon; Angelina Jolie; Alec Baldwin; Tammy Blanchard;
Billy Crudup; Robert De Niro; Keir Dullea; Michael Gambon; William Hurt; and John Turturro.

Tagline: Edward Wilson believed in America, and he would sacrifice everything he loved to protect it.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

The Good Shepherd tells the story of the creation of the CIA through the story of an emotionally crippled man, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon).

The film starts in 1961 with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and flashes back to young Edward’s life. We see him as a young boy, whose father kills himself in his bedroom with a house full of company downstairs, an incident that seemingly so scars young Edward that he is never again able to truly trust another human being.

The film then follows Edward to Yale where he is inducted into Skull and Bones (shades of both President Bushes). But young Edward still has some hope of redemption; he loves poetry, which he studies under the tutelage of Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon). And he meets and falls in love with a beautiful young woman who is hard of hearing, Laura (played by Tammy Blanchard). But fate and another beautiful woman intervene, Edward is seduced by the daughter of a Senator, Clover (Angelina Jolie), who promptly becomes pregnant forcing a shot gun wedding and the loss of Laura. And in a compelling scene, Edward shows his true nature when he willingly spies on Dr. Fredericks at the request of a fellow member of Skull and Bones, costing the good doctor his position at Yale. And then war breaks out and this to-the-manor-born young man is inducted into the OSS and sent to England to learn to be a spy.

And there, he is surprised to find that Dr. Fredericks is again his teacher – he had been spying for England while he was at Yale and now he is Edward’s spymaster. And the story continues throughout Edwards’s years with the OSS, his neglect of his wife and son (who he does not see until after the war), his role in the formation of the CIA and his career in the CIA through the Bay of Pigs disaster.

The underlying theme of this film is Edward’s search for truth. But the reality is that Edward becomes so paranoid that he is unable to recognize truth and beauty when it is right in front of him. He professes love of his son and tries valiantly to be the father that he never had, but he has no idea what that might mean. He is so emotionally closed-off that he cannot be a husband or open his eyes to a world that just might be different from the closed Wasp society into which he was born. The world was changing but Wilson was only able to see what he had been taught should be there.

By trying to tell the story of the creation of the CIA from its inception in 1947 through the Bay of Pigs, the film has bitten off a huge bite of time and story. And some of the events/stories are understandably underdeveloped. But what makes the movie truly great is the devastating quiet performance from Matt Damon. Similar in tone to the performance given by Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, Damon is desolation walking as he takes us through his years as the CIA’s true believer. And as we have seen over and over again with true believers, he finally is tripped up by his own Achilles heel. As they say, “When you swim with sharks…….” well, in the end, everyone is compromised.

The other actors give outstanding performance: Alec Baldwin does a solid FBI director; Williams Hurt was born to play a CIA man; Tammy Blanchard shines as Edward’s lost deaf sweetheart; Michael Gambon, well he is Michael Gambon and that says it all; Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci do outstanding jobs in bit parts; John Turturro is a total surprise as a CIA thug; and Billy Crudup is mesmerizing as a Kim Philby style British agent.

Well, what about Angelina Jolie? Angelina Jolie does her all but casting her as the ignored-home-bound wife was a puzzling choice. Jolie’s beauty is so megawatt that she sucks all the air out of any room she is in simply by walking into it. This is no criticism of Ms. Jolie; she did her best to pull it off. But as in the old playwriting adage, “You can’t bring a gun onto a stage without firing it at the end of the play,” some explanation needed to be given for how Edward could be married to one of the most beautiful women in the world and neither he not anyone else around seems to notice.

One final thought: The Good Shepherd was directed by Robert DeNiro and produced by Martin Scorsese. I have always been interested in how a director like the Taiwanese-born Ang Lee can so accurately depict American and English culture. And I have surmised that it is because he was not born here and that has kept his eye from being distracted by all of our cultural noise and allowed him to see us clearly. And so DeNiro has taken a look at American Wasp culture through an outsider’s eye with equally devastating results. The scenes from Skull and Bones, the CIA camps with their dining halls, the social events, the family parties …..this film would be interesting to watch just for these history lessons alone.




Steven Shainberg’s
Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
Opened November 10, 2006 (NY Only)


Starring: Nicole Kidman; Robert Downey, Jr.; Jane Alexander; Harris Yullin; and Ty Burrell.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams


Steven Shainberg’s (of Secretary fame) film Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus is a dreamlike reinvention of Arbus’ life and an attempt to use the art of film to portray the inspiration that compelled Arbus (played by Nicole Kidman) to leave her semi-conventional life as the wife of a fashion photographer in Greenwich Village and become a world class photographer. In the same manner that a modern art portrait only represents the feeling or essence of a subject, this film does not attempt to tell the real story of Arbus’ life, but only a story about how Arbus might have felt.

The film is mostly set in the apartment house where Arbus (played by Nicole Kidman) lives and works with her husband Allan Arbus (played by Ty Burrell) and children. Her apartment is a marvel of 1950’s beige chic, as is Kidman at the beginning of the film and her parents (played by Jane Alexander and Harris Yullin) throughout the film. And one night, while hosting a fashion show for her father’s fur line, Arbus escapes for a moment to look out the window when she catches a glimpse of her new upstairs neighbor, Lionel (played by Robert Downey, Jr.). Lionel is wearing a mask so all she can see are his eyes, but that one glimpse bewitches Arbus and compels her to don a blue dress and make the journey up the stairs and into Lionel’s blue world. Lionel is a sophisticate who lives in an apartment with beautiful deep blue walls and a huge roman tub in his bathroom (I told you this was a fantasy). Lionel is also a wigmaker and former circus freak who suffers from a rare form of hirsuteness that makes him look like a sexy version of the Wookiee in Star Wars.

Lionel befriends Arbus and introduces her to his world of circus freaks. And by doing so, he opens her eyes to see herself as what she really is - a voyeur. The film then continues with her story as she tries to integrate her world upstairs (of the imagination) with her real life downstairs.

There are metaphors in the film. Arbus’ parents are famous furriers and Lionel is covered with fur and Arbus feels compelled to both liberate herself from the oppressiveness of her parents and to liberate Lionel from his earthly covering of fur.

This is also the kind of film that you either love or hate (I loved it). Arbus has become an icon to many people. She had an unflinching eye on the world and her portraits have attracted a cult following. And because she was such a powerful artist, most of her admirers feel like they own her and own their own interpretation of her. And many critics have objected to this fanciful portrayal of her life, stating that Arbus herself was the ultimate realist and not some piece of modern art to be interpreted at will.

But I think this film will survive the initial shock to the senses and develop a cult following. Because all art takes a while to “settle in” with the eye.

The film is extremely well acted and boasts a stellar cast. Robert Downey Jr. and Nicole Kidman have a lot of chemistry together; they work equally well as pals and as lovers. Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (using Patricia Bosworth’s biography of Diane Arbus as inspiration) had written a sophisticated and fanciful script. And Shainberg has told his story of compulsion in a masterful way; it is a story of magnets and iron and their inevitable collision.


Peter Webber’s
Hannibal Rising
Opens Friday, February 9, 2007

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The good news is Hannibal Rising is better than Red Dragon! The not-so-good news is that, when you strip it down, it’s a pretty standard revenge thriller. But, I must admit, it is a prettified dandy of a tasty one!

The latest chapter in the Hannibal franchise attempts to answer the burning question, “Why does he do what he does?”

This is the first film written by the author Thomas Harris, who was approached by producer Dino De Laurentiis about the idea of answering the oft-asked query.

The movie begins in Eastern Europe in 1944 as a 9-year old Hannibal watches his parents succumb to a violent end. He and his younger sister, Mischa, are taken prisoner by a group of mercenary Lithuanian bandits and he is soon witness to an unspeakable act that changes him forever.

Eight years later, Hannibal flees his orphanage and ends up in Paris at the home of his Japanese aunt, the Lady Muraski. Plagued by what occurred years earlier, the boy becomes hellbent on vengeance, seeking out the war criminals and making them pay for what they did to his sister.

From the film’s first arachnid visual shot to it’s spectacularly gruesome series of stunning slayings, Hannibal Rising is always engrossing and absorbing, even when the script is cliche’ and tiresome.

Director Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) has fashioned a stark and brutal but simultaneously gorgeous and sumptuous looking film and impresses with his directorial choices.

Gaspard Ulliel (A Very Long Engagement) has the difficult role of Hannibal. Difficult because he isn’t Anthony Hopkins. That said, the actor is delectably devilish as Lector. Frightening when he needs to be and chilling when we least expect it. And he seems to relish the role. He is a fine cannibal, thank you.

China’s great thespian, Gong Li (Raise the Red Lantern), is especially fascinating as the enigmatic Lady Muraski. Incredibly sexy and protective of Hannibal, Li shows a remarkable poignancy in her portrayal, yet we are able to completely buy into her spurts of violence.

Dominic West (Chicago) makes the most of his underwritten but still intriguing Inspector Popil.

Tech accomplishments are splendid throughout, specifically Ben Davis’ photography and Allan Starski’s production design.

The chief problem with the film lies in Thomas Harris’ screenplay. I don’t doubt that Harris is a talented writer, but screenwriting is not his forte. To bring up one of many script issues: no less than three main character lost their entire families in the war.

Harris madly misteps in making the bandits so evil they have no nuances whatsoever. I realize this was probably done to gain sympathy for Lector, but we go into the film feeling a strange kinship with him because of Hopkins’ remarkable, Oscar-winning portrayal. These villains are so horrific that we relish in their twisted and gory demises which makes the film have a great deal more in common with most revenge flicks or even a generic slasher pic than with Silence of the Lambs.

The film seems to be afraid to truly probe why the boy becomes a cannibal, which is frustrating because there’s where it could have dipped into the original. And the reasons presented for his turning to serial killing are understandable if pat.

Hannibal is a borderline hero in Hannibal Rising. which is such a shame and does a disservice to his character. Still, the movie is a thrill ride and I found myself quite entertained.


 

Nicholas Hytner's
The History Boys
Opens Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Nicholas Hytner's impressively faithful adaptation of Alan Bennett's smash West End and Broadway hit play, The History Boys, retains the spirit of the stage production but loses some of the bite. Still, it's smart, sassy and insightful and how terrific is it that the entire original cast has been retained for movie (as well as the director)!

The stage version was directed quite cinematically at a dazzling, dizzying pace. The film is surprisingly less visually exciting but the dialogue crackles with sardonic wit and the performances are uniformly superb.

The setting is a Yorkshire school in the early 1980's. Eight boys are being prepped for their applications to the most elite of English universities. The character-driven plot revolves around the three different teachers who are in charge of guiding these boys towards their respective futures.

Richard Griffiths, outstanding in the stage play, delivers a wonderful performance here as the eccentric and grabby Hector, but seems more a supporting player. Stephen Campbell Moore is perfect as Irwin, the less artistic, more pragmatic educator who not-so-secretly lusts after one of the boys.

Rounding out the teacher trio is the incomparable Frances de la Tour (tired of teaching about "centuries of masculine ineptitude!"), who was fabulous onstage and is even better onscreen. Give this woman a Supporting Oscar nomination now! And give her more films! She is bloody brilliant!

As for the boys, Samuel Barnett, arguably the standout onstage, is perfectly fine but two other lads seem made for the big screen. The hyper-sexy Dominic Cooper charms as Dakin. This boy has movie star looks and the talent to back it up. Also showing major screen charisma is Jamie Parker as Scripps.

I think the film would have benefited from a longer running time since it feels abridged. And, as with the stage production, I was never keen on the seemingly contrived tragedy that ends the piece. But I was impressed with the way Bennett and Hytner handled the ending.

All in all, The History Boys is worthy effort, for fans of the play and for newbies alike.



Douglas McGrath’s
Infamous

Opens Friday, October 13, 2006

Starring: Sandra Bullock; Peter Bogdanovich; Daniel Craig; Jeff Daniels; Hope Davis; Toby Jones; Gwyneth Paltrow; Michael Panes; Lee Pace; Isabella Rosselini; and Sigourney Weaver.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Douglas McGrath has pulled off a stunning feat. He “remade” last year’s critically acclaimed hit Capote and has quite impossibly made it better.

The story is still the same: An effete Capote (played by Toby Jones) leaves his sophisticated-supper-club-Manhattan-lifestyle to travel to Holcomb, Kansas to write a piece for The New Yorker magazine on how the savage murder of an innocent farm family, the Clutters, has changed the town. This visit to the heartland morphed into a six year trek into the heart of darkness and produced Capote’s masterpiece, the nonfiction novel "In Cold Blood.” And the writing of “In Cold Blood” so changed Capote that he never completed another novel.

Infamous is based on George Plimpton’s oral biography, "Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career." So we see Truman through interviews with his glitterati friends: Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver); Bennett Cerf (Peter Bogdanovich); Dianna Vreeland (Juliet Stevenson); Gore Vidal (Michael Panes); Marella Agnelli (Isabella Rosselini); Slim Keith (Hope Davis).

The film opens in a supper club with Truman sitting with his good friend Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver), the wife of the head of CBS, Bill Paley. They are listening to Peggy Lee (Gwyneth Paltrow in a stunning bit part) sing Cole Porter’s "What Is This Thing Called Love?" Lee falters during the singing (seemingly overcome by some private emotion), and Truman is mesmerized, setting the tone for the story to come.

The opulence of the opening scene is in stark contrast to what we see next as Truman, accompanied by his childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock) of the just-about-to-be-published "To Kill a Mocking Bird" fame, travels by train to Kansas to conduct his interviews. Taking Lee with him to Kansas was a brilliant move on Capote’s part because Lee (unlike Capote) has retained her small town Alabama ways and her “just folks” manner helps introduce Capote (who might as well have arrived from outer space) to the people of the town. And the contrast between Holcomb and Manhattan is beautifully depicted in Infamous. Dark and dreary scenes from Holcomb are juxtaposed with Truman’s return trips to Manhattan, where he gleefully regales his sophisticated friends with his “stories from the road.”

When Capote arrived in Holcomb he famously told the Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels), of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (who later became Capote’s friend and source) that he did not care if he solved the crime, he (Capote) was just there to tell the story of how the murders affected the town. Dewey, of course, desperately wanted to solve the crime (the Clutters were his friends) and he did. And when he did, Capote’s mission changed. What had started out as a brief visit to the heartland to write a small story, became his life’s mission ending six years later when the killers, David Hickock (Lee Pace) and Perry Smith (Daniel Craig), were executed by hanging.

Infamous delves deeply into Capote’s relationship with Perry Smith. Much has been written about how Capote was in love with Smith and how he exploited this love to get his story. Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Perry is dangerously sexual and the polar opposite of Jones’s effete Capote. To get Smith to trust him and tell him what happened that night, Capote exposes his heart to Smith They both suffered from the same abandonment issue:their mothers had committed suicide. But emotional attachment or not, Capote had a book to sell and this book could not be published into the situation in Kansas was “resolved.” So having made this emotional connection with Smith, Capote's book and his life could not progress until Smith was hanged. And hanged he was in a gruesomely compelling scene.

The cast for Infamous is stellar. All the actors give compelling performances especially Jones’s Truman Capote and Craig’s Perry Smith (Craig is the new James Bond). Sandra Bullock is a complete surprise as Nelle Harper Lee. She gives such a quietly grave performance she is almost unrecognizable. And the sets and costumes are incredible. It is such a treat to see upper class 1959 Manhattan; the Metropolitan Museum should really consider a retrospective.

 


Clint Eastwood’s
Letters from Iwo Jima
Opens Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Clint Eastwood is one of the greatest directors working today. Quite simply put, in his twilight years he has managed to create some of the most original and indelible cinematic achievements ever.

In 1992, he reinvented the western with Unforgiven. Two years ago, he re-envisioned the boxing movie in a way that was startling and refreshing with Million Dollar Baby.

This year he wasn’t afraid to tell the complex and painful tale of the allies landing on Iwo Jima in Flags of Our Fathers, and the very disturbing and unpopular aftermath--once the flag boys came home.

Now, less than two months later, in a rare and admirable move, Warner Brothers and Dreamworks are releasing his companion piece to Flags, Letters from Iwo Jima, completely told from the Japanese perspective. It is, far and away, the best film of 2006.

I have seen many films this year (over 150) and some have been quite impressive. A few (Little Children, The Departed, The Queen) could have easily been chosen the best of any other year. Any year that did not include Letters from Iwo Jima.

The power of Letters lies in it’s telling a simple story in a new and exciting way.

In most Hollywood war movies, there are good guys and bad guys. The good guys die for the noblest of causes. The bad guys are evil and when they perish, we are happy. The twain shall never meet. It cannot. Who would the audience root for? And when there are Americans involved, they must always be the good guys. They have to be. And there is always honor in dying for a cause. There must be, otherwise we’d have no justification for war.

Eastwood chucks these notions out to sea and demands the viewer look at war and the “enemy” in a human way. The genius of his method is that he uses the structure we expect from the genre and then forces us to see different things from it. He shows us how quickly and easily the lines of friend/enemy blur. We see a people that are, gads, just like us--fighting for their beloved country and constantly thinking about their families back home. But isn’t that what our men did in WW2? Isn’t that what they are doing right now in Iraq?

These people are Japanese. They were part of the evil Axis of Power. We hated them. We wanted them dead. We nuked them.

Clint’s provocative decision to tell a sympathetic story about the Japanese must have raised many an eyebrow. His choice to have the film completely spoken in the Japanese language must’ve sent shock waves through both studios. Yet he achieved what no other American director could. He has made a foreign-language film that feels like it was actually made in Japan.

Finally, the story Clint has decided to tell is not of an arrogant, victorious group of soldiers, but of a people doomed to defeat, who go into the battle with this foreknowledge. They know they will die. They know they will never see their loved ones again. And still they fight. With dignity. And a touch of sadness. Not since Richard Attenborough’s underrated 1977 epic, A Bridge Too Far, has an ill-fated moment in history been so daringly depicted.

Letters takes great pains to make the viewer understand the Japanese mindset when it comes to dying for ones country, suicide and the importance of honor at all costs.

Inspired by a book of Japanese correspondences, the script was written by Iris Yamashita, based on a story by Ms. Yamashita and Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers). The main characters include: the suave Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) who masterminded the digging of the tunnels; Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) a baker who has no desire to be a part of the battle; the gung ho Lieutenant Ito (Shidou Nakamura) and an Olympic equestrian Baron named Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara).

Unlike the aforementioned Bridge Too Far which was peppered with an all-star cast, Eastwood has chosen mostly unknown Asians, directing them in a language he is unfamiliar with. The surprising result is one the best acting ensembles of the year.

The film is nicely grounded by Watanabe’s dignified and nuanced performance. He commands the screen as he commands his troops. Ninomiya is a revelation as Saigo, a character filled with conflicting feelings. It’s emotionally rich work and he deserves recognition.

Made in thirty-two days on the Warners lot right after Flags completed shooting, with a budget of $20 million, Letters from Iwo Jima is a brutal, devastating and profound cinematic gem and placed with Flags, one of the most astonishing filmic experiences in the history of the medium.

I, for one, cannot wait to see what Clint is going to do next.

(On an interesting Academy Awards note, in 2004 the never-Oscared Martin Scorsese went into the homestretch as the front-runner with The Aviator. Out of nowhere Warners decided to release Million Dollar Baby months ahead of schedule. That film and Eastwood took home the Oscars. This year, Scorsese was pretty assured of his first Oscar for The Departed, that is until Letters was rushed into a year-end release, qualifying it for 2006. Now sentiment may rule the day and Scorsese may finally win his much deserved award. But if the Oscar was being given on merit alone, Clint would be taking home his third Best director trophy...)


 



Todd Field’s
Little Children

Opened Friday, October 6, 2006
Reviewed at the 2006 New York Film Festival

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Little Children premiered at the New York Film Festival and opened Friday, October 6th

The less written about Little Children, the long-awaited follow-up to Todd Field’s riveting In The Bedroom, the better. Not because it isn’t a good film. Quite the contrary, Little Children is, by far, one of the best film’s of 2006.

Based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, the pic has been admirably adapted by Mr. Perrotta and Mr. Field to tell a startling and penetrating story. Field masterfully directs his actors, all of whom deliver rich and nuanced performances, some of the most intrusive you’ll see onscreen this year.

To give away too much about Little Children or discuss key scenes would be to rob the audiences of one of the most rewarding filmgoing experiences. Suffice to synopsize that the plot focuses on a gaggle of suburbanites whose lives intersect (mostly around a playground) in surprising, exciting, uncomfortable and, ultimately, profound ways.

But realize, Little Children is no contrived bevvy of manipulations along the lines of last years ridiculously overrated Crash.The film is filled with fascinating themes rarely explored onscreen so intelligently. And the tone is somewhere between where realism and melodrama meet.

The brilliant ensemble is flawless, beginning with a magically transformed Kate Winslet. Always mesmerizing, this is her finest hour (which is saying a great deal when you stack up her work in Sense and Sensibility, Titanic, Iris and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and solidifies her standing as the most outstanding actress of her generation.

Patrick Wilson, terrific in Hard Candy earlier in the year, delivers a career-making turn. It would be too easy to overlook the importance of his potent portrayal of a perfect looking, all-American jock who has never grown up.

Jackie Earle Haley is to be commended for taking on a difficult role and fearlessly diving into it with his entire being. It’s remarkable work from an actor who hasn’t been seen in movies in a few decades.

The beautiful Jennifer Connelly fascinates with her role as the perfect wife. Powerhouse Phyliss Somerville impresses as a fiercely protective mother. Noah Emmerich amazes in a role that could easily have been one-dimensional. Also of note is Jane Adams who appears briefly, yet leaves quite the lasting impression.

Little Children is an incredibly smart and extraordinary piece of cinema. It is unafraid to explore its characters, warts and all, and delve into their psyches. Sometimes what is discovered isn’t very easy to watch but is worth the anguish.

See it. You will not leave the theatre unaffected.






Sofia Coppola’s
Marie Antoinette
Reviewed at the 2006 New York Film Festival

Yet another Queen has been anointed onto the New York Film Festival throne.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Sofia Coppola’’s follow up to the sublimely meditative, Lost in Translation and her haunting directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides, proves that she’s a filmmaker to be reckoned with. Forget her pedigree. Okay, that’s impossible. So let’s blatantly announce that, like her genius father, she is capable of making small personal films as well as stunning, sweeping sagas. And, also like her father, her cinematic vision is distinctly her own.

Marie Antoinette is an exciting and invigorating film about France’s notorious 18th Century queen that has the power and majesty of Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth and mod satiric sensibility of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless.

Based on the 2002 book by Antonia Fraser, Coppola’s heroine is a lonely and confused teen thrust into an opulent, decadent world she was none too prepped for.

From the pink opening credits, set to an 80’s rock score, where Marie ‘eats cake’ and stares directly at the camera with a kind of jaded irony. to the scene where she must leave all of Austria behind and enter France naked, Coppola’s creates a sumptuous milieu, brimming over with protocol, pomp and pomposity.

Marie is quite effectively played by Kirsten Dunst, who, ironically enough, gave one of her best screen performances in Coppola’s Virgin Suicides. Dunst goes even further here etching a vivid portrait of a naive teen forced to take on ridiculous responsibilities and live under a massive and judgmental microscope. Dunst’s Marie is sometimes silly, occasionally vapid and usually perplexed. She’s alluring, but not deliberately so. And she’s naturally charismatic without being an egotist. Since the film basically hinges on the casting of the title character, Coppola can be applauded for choosing wisely.

Jason Schwartzman, nepotism notwithstanding, is an odd selection for Louis XV!, yet he brings an unexpected poignancy to the bland and usually impotent future King of France.

The divine Judy Davis plays the Contesse de Noailles and perfectly captures the court attitude of the day. The rest of the supporting cast includes Asia Argento; Shirley Henderson; Molly Shannon; Rip Torn; Marianne Faithfull and the chameleonic Steve Coogan. It’s a uniformly fine, if peculiar, ensemble.

Aiding Coppola in creating her “candy and cake” world are a splendid team led by awesome production designer KK Barrett, ace DP Lance Acord and genius costume designer Milena Canonero. Brian Reitzell is the terrific music supervisor and producer.

Coppola should also be lauded for spinning an ingenious feminist view on the story of Marie Antoinette. Scenes involving Marie being blamed by EVERYONE for her husband’s sexual inadequacies are quite off-putting.

Despite an unsatisfying ending (ten more epilogue minutes could have made the difference), Marie is one of the year’s finest film achievements.




Chris Noonan’s
Miss Potter
Opens January 5th New York City

Starring: Renee Zellweger; Ewan McGregor; and Emily Watson.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Chris Noonan’s (of Babe fame) Miss Potter tells the story of an odd little duckling named Beatrix Potter, who grew up to become the writer and illustrator of some of the world’s most beloved children’s books:"The Tales of Peter Rabbit" and "Jemima Puddle-Duck."

Beatrix was born in 1866 into an English middle class family which had aspirations to be upwardly mobile socially. Beatrix’s mother planned to have her daughter advance the family by making an advantageous marriage.

Beatrix, however, had been a lonely child (her mother was overbearing) and had retreated into a world of fantasy. And it was a world of fantasy that sprung from her love of nature and the land. She would spend long hours in her room, practicing drawing her many pet animals. And all this drawing culminated in the first illustrated Peter Rabbit book which she “womanfully” kept presenting to publishers, only to be rejected time and again.

But as in all good stories, finally there is some light. She takes the book to Warne Brothers Publishers and while one of the brothers thinks the book is silly, another of the brothers thinks that this simple little book would be a fine project for the youngest brother of their family, Norman (Ewan McGregor).

Norman, however, likes the book and what’s more, he likes Beatrix. He introduces her to his family, including his feminist sister, Miller (Emily Watson). And what’s more, he collaborates with Beatrix, giving her opinions the respect that she has never received at home. And they fall in love, much to the chagrin of her parents who are horrified to think about their daughter marrying a man who works for a living. There is a true irony here because by the time Beatrix and Norman truly fall in love, Beatrix has become a widely popular children’s book author with her own income, so she is also working for her living.

The movie then follows Beatrix through the rest of her life as she buys a farm and moves to the Lake District and recreates in her life the fantasy world of nature that she loved as a child. During her time in the Lake District, Beatrix bought many farms to prevent them from being purchased by developers. And when she died, she gave these working farms to the National Trust.

This movie is charming. The actors give quiet nuanced performances and Chris Noonan (with the help of Richard Maltby’s skillfully written script) tells a beautiful story about one of literature’s favorite authors. It is also beautifully filmed; the scenes in the English countryside are gorgeous.

And this film will definitely find an audience. At the press conference, actress and producer Renee Zellweger was adamant that this is not a chick flick. She felt strongly that the film has universal themes about overcoming obstacles and finding love and would appeal to a wide audience. But I walked away from the film filled with feelings of nostalgia for the charming Potter books that I read to my children and also for Potter’s charming drawings which I had purchased to hang on the walls of their nursery. And I bet if I attend a screening after it opens, the audience will be filled with women just like me.




John Curran’s
The Painted Veil
Opens Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Starring: Edward Norton; Naomi Watts; Live Schreiber; Toby Keith; Diana Rigg; and Anthony Wong.

John Curran’s The Painted Veil (based on the W. Somerset Maugham novel of the same name) is a poignantly beautiful Merchant Ivory style period piece.

Here is a quote from the press release: “Based on the classic novel by W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil, set in the 1920s, is the love story of a young English couple, Walter, a middle class doctor, and Kitty, an upper-class woman, who gets married for the wrong reasons and relocates to Shanghai, where she falls in love with someone else. When he uncovers her infidelity, in an act of vengeance, he accepts a job in a remote village in China ravaged by a deadly epidemic, and takes her along. Their journey brings meaning to their relationship and gives them purpose in one of the most remote and beautiful places on earth.”

Kitty (played by Naomi Watts) and her soon-to-be husband, Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton), meet in London. Walter is a scientist (bacteriologist) in town on business and his main business seems to be to “shop” for a wife. He is introduced to Kitty (a pretty vain young woman) by her father, a man who has an unmarried daughter on his hands who is perhaps getting too close to thirty. In 1920’s London, marriage was still considered to be a financial transaction and this is certainly the view held by Kitty’s parents and by Walter. Walter is a young man with prospects and he views the selection of a wife the same way one would view purchasing a home. And it never occurs to him that his new wife would be anything but delighted with the arrangement; he is not vain, he is simply adding up the numbers.

Kitty, while certainly not a feminist, has a different view of the world; she is bored, vapid and indecisive. So off she goes to Shanghai as the new wife of Dr. Walter Fane, the young scientist with prospects. There she meets a dashing young diplomat, English Vice Consul Charles Townsend (played by Liev Schreiber) and embarks on a torrid affair with as little thought beforehand as she gave marrying a stranger and moving to Shanghai. And this torrid affair is soon discovered by her now horribly disillusioned and vindictive husband who gives Kitty the choice of going off to the provinces with him while he fights a cholera epidemic or being divorced and disgraced. It seems that Kitty's lover, Townsend, is an old fashioned cad and no help whatsoever. So off goes Kitty, with her flapper clothing and lace umbrella, to unwillingly “stand by her man” as he fights cholera in the provinces.

There the story changes: Guangxi Province (the location of the Walter’s new appointment) is a stunningly beautiful place with soaring mountains and wonderfully lush vegetation; the cinematography is breathtaking. Walter is immediately thrown into his work and Kitty is pretty much left to her own devices. She meets the neighbor, Waddington (played by Infamous’ incredibly talented Toby Keith), who is living a life of dissolution which is predictably attractive to Kitty. But she also ventures into town where she begins to spend time at the orphanage/hospital and meets the nuns and the Mother Superior (played by the incomparable Diana Rigg).

And for the first time in her life, Kitty is needed for something; there is an enormous amount of work to be done at the orphanage and some very appealing orphans. And by getting out of herself and giving of herself, she begins to change. And as she changes, she forces Walter to see her in a new light.

And Walter is also forced to change and reexamine his rigid view of the world by his interaction with the local Chinese Colonel Yu (played by Chinese actor Anthony Wong). Yu has a jaundiced view of the help he is receiving from England, a country that is both sending scientists to help them and soldiers to shoot at them.

There are many things that are wonderful about this film. The acting is superb and skillfully directed. Naomi Watts and Edward Norton react to each other like a beautifully timed Swiss watch. And Liev Schreiber, Toby Keith, Diana Rigg and Anthony Wong are simply great in their roles. Ron Nyswaner did a fine job of adapting Maugham’s novel to the screen. And as I mentioned before, the scenery is simply stunning and so are the sets.

But I have to rave about the costumes; the costumes are simply magnificent. Costume designer Ruth Myers (The Addams Family and Emma) outdid herself; Kitty’s clothes are gorgeous. They change from the more frivolous flapper dresses of the London and Shanghai scenes to the softer colors in the provincial scenes, but all of them could walk down the runway at Bryant Park today.



Stephen Frears’s
The Queen
Opens Friday, September 29, 2006
Opening Night Film of the New York Film Festival
Reviewed at the 2006 New York Film Festival


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Edgy and ballsy simply for taking on a living monarch, Stephen Frears’ The Queen also proves to be a fascinating, smart and insightful chronicle of one extraordinary week back in the late summer of 1997 that would change the world view of the Royals forever.

Princess Diana was a mythic figure alive. Her death--the death of the “People’s Princess”--seemed to overwhelm England and the world with a profound grief that would quickly turn to anger (I recall that Mother Theresa had the misfortune to die the same week, receiving virtually a footnote worth of media attention in comparison). Much of that anger was directed at the Royal family, specifically the Queen and how she publicly refused to react to the tragedy.

Raised to behave a certain way when it came to personal matters like grief, Queen Elizabeth and the crowns remained true to protocol form and stayed quiet at their Scottish retreat in Balmoral as the world publicly mourned. Were it not for the urgings of the newly elected Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who carefully talked the Queen into journeying to London for a long overdue public statement, it’s quite possible the English people might have demanded the abolishment of the monarchy itself. A gross overreaction? That is something The Queen leaves for the viewers to decide.

Screenwriter Peter Morgan has taken this audacious subject matter and treated it with an intelligence and understanding of all sides involved.

The truly amazing feat is accomplished by the fearless Helen Mirren who allows the audience to understand this complex and difficult figurehead and forgive her proprietary ways. Mirren’s superb performance is a meticulous combination of perfect mimicry of speech and movement as well as ingenius incorporation of backstory psychology--she enables us to empathize with this superwoman without feeling the need to pander by sentimentalizing her. It’s enough to know that she was NOT destined to become Queen at birth. The throne was thrust upon her and she was forced to rule. She did so without ever looking back and Mirren’s portrayal embodies this strong, courageous, maddening monarch.

The surrounding ensemble are extraordinary as well. Michael Sheen, in particular, shines as the young, ambitious yet starstruck Blair who is truly trying to save the day: “Will someone please save these people from themselves.” Blair feels tremendously for the Queen and Sheen dazzles in a powerful third act speech defending her majesty to his disillusioned staff.

Production values are grand across the boards. Special kudos to Alexandre Desplat’s most effective score.

Frears’ decision to use real footage, especially that of Diana, proves incredibly potent and adds to the film’s relevance. The director and screenwriter are to be commended for never spilling over into satire or costume drama. The Queen is fantastically rich cinema with refreshingly complicated characters. It also contains one hell of an Oscar worthy lead performance!

The Queen opens this years New York Film Festival. For more information on the Film Festival: http://www.filmlinc.com/nyff/nyff.htm.


 


Ryan Murphy ‘s
Running with Scissors
Opens Friday, October 20, 2006


Starring: Annette Bening; Brian Cox; Joseph Fiennes; Evan Rachel Wood; Alec Baldwin; Alec Baldwin; Joseph Cross; Jill Clayburgh; Gwyneth Paltrow; Gabrielle Union; Patrick Wilson; and Kristin Chenoweth.


Have you ever wondered what would happen if you just didn’t do the things you are supposed to do? What would happen if put the needs of your inner wild child first and did not bother to raise your children or maintain your marriage? Or what would happen if you simply decided that the responsibilities of home ownership were “too much” and you never bothered to do the dishes, take down the Christmas tree, pay the bills, deal with the IRS or bury the cat?

Ryan Murphy’s Running with Scissors (based on the book Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs) tells the story of a world where the inhabitants have decided that they just “can’t be bothered” with anything that does not “turn them on.” It tells the story of the turbulent adolescence of author/protagonist Burroughs (Joseph Cross) and his relationship with his narcissistic mother, the failed poet Deirdre Burroughs (Annette Bening).

At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to the young Augusten (Jack Kaeding) who is living at home with his parents, Deidre and Norman. Deidre fancies herself a poet like Anne Sexton. Deidre explodes on the screen, a frenzy of self absorbed narcissism, alternately bewildering her alcoholic professor husband Norman (Alec Baldwin) and enchanting her son Augusten. That is, she enchants Augusten until she hands him over to her equally narcissistic psychiatrist Dr. Finch (Brian Cox) to care for while she pursues her artistic vision and hides from her supposedly (justifiably?) homicidal husband Norman.

The scene where Diedre and Augusten first approach Dr. Finch’s home is blackly hysterical. Dr. Finch lives in a gothic (but pink) monstrosity of a home and absolutely no one in his extended family of head cases believes in doing house work. The windows are covered with newspaper and the lawn is filled with junk.

And once he is drooped-off like a cat at the pound, Augusten finds both the inside of the house and its inhabitants to be equally messy: Dr. Finch’s ineffective wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh); his favorite daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow); Finch’s other dropped-off and adopted daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood; and a former member of the family Finch, the schizophrenic forty-year-old gay guy Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes). This is a household where literally anything goes and no one does anything that they don’t want to and a lot of things that they shouldn’t be doing like skipping school, playing with the electro shock machine and having sex with the forty year old schizophrenic when you are only thirteen years old yourself.

The scenes at the messy Finch household are juxtaposed against scenes of Deidre’s pretty homes where the increasingly insane prescription-drug-addicted Deidre holds poetry groups where she counsels the other women to put the “rage on the page” and conducts Lesbian relationships with suburbanite poet wannabe Fern (Kristin Chenoweth) and tough girl poet Dorothy (Gabrielle Union).

And Augusten is left to raise himself, to basically grow like Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But grow he did and as in all good coming of age stories, he extracts himself from his ragged cocoon and becomes his own personal butterfly.

Much has been written about how this is film a revisit to the world of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Squid and the Whale and about how we have heard this story before. But I have never seen a film that so acutely diced the extreme excesses of the "if it feels good, do it" 70’s as I saw depicted in Scissors. Yes, the film is broad, but it is also excruciatingly funny and very dark.

Scissors is blessed with a great cast. Bening’s Deidre is dazzling and her performance is certain to garner an Oscar nomination. Cross is quietly believable as the bewildered adolescent Augusten and Fiennes plays his part with such an insane frenzy that I had to read the credits to realize that this was the guy from Shakespeare in Love. Jill Clayburgh is almost unrecognizable as the downtroddenslob-of-a-housewife Agnes; she give a heart-breaking performance. And I have never seen Alec Baldwin give such a reserved performance; his depiction of a man who has no clue how to be a father is dead on. Gwyneth Paltrow and Evan Rachel Wood do a fine job of playing the two polarly opposite sisters. And Brian Cox’s portrayal of Dr. Finch does a lot to explain why two decades later we were treated to the backlash of the 1994 Republican revolution .

 





Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson in Seraphim Falls

David Von Ancken’s
Seraphim Falls
Opens Friday, January 26, 2007

Starring: Liam Neeson; Pierce Brosnan; Anjelica Huston; Angie Harmon.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

David Von Ancken’s Seraphim Falls is a chase movie with three stars: Liam Neeson; Pierce Brosnan; and the gorgeous State of New Mexico. The film is set in the period after the United States Civil War, a war that pitted brother against brother and tore our nation apart. Seraphim Falls is definitely a western-without-white-hats; it is dark in the tradition of Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven, Nick Cave’s The Proposition and even Sidney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson.

In the opening sequence we see Pierce Brosnan’s character Gideon being shot by a gang/posse and escaping by going over a waterfall. Then in the movie’s first twenty minutes, there is no dialogue from Gideon; but Brosnan’s character Gideon thoroughly holds the audience’s attention as he tends to his wound and manages to avert capture by his nemesis, Carver (played by Liam Neeson) and his posse.

The film then follows Carver and Gideon as Carver chases Gideon through the freezing cold of the mountains down to the heat of the salt flats. Neeson’s Carver is a man filled with hatred, a man who has lost his humanity and is left with only a Captain-Ahab-like obsession to kill Gideon. The film is at its best during these chase scenes; the survival elements of the story are very compelling.

Both Brosnan and Neeson give incredible performances; they are two actors who would be spell-binding reading the Manhattan phone book. And yes they are both Irish and this is a Western. But in the 1860’s, both the north and the south of the United States were filled with Irish immigrants. And one of the intriguing elements of this movie is that it is easy to see that these two men were actually more alike than not, but the circumstances of the war had made them into bitter enemies and in the case of Neeson’s Carver, destroyed his soul.

In the press notes, Von Ancken states that he started writing the script (with co-writer Abby Everett Jaques) with the desire to write a chase movie and then he settled on the time, place and plot. If the film has any fault, it is the deus-ex-machina they used to move their story along. Angie Harmon (of Law and Order fame) plays a frontier woman who can’t figure out how to break through a glass window. And Gideon and Carver stumble upon just about every group of people who could possibly have been in New Mexico at that time in history: gangs of thieves; railroad crews; religious groups who are anti-Mormon. And there are some surreal characters in the story (including the amazing Ms. Angelica Huston) who seem to have wandered in from the Western next door. But plot devices aside, this film is gorgeous (kudos to cinematographer John Toll), the chase scenes are compelling and the actors are magnificent. Von Ancken has done a fine job directing his first movie.

There is a strong anti-war message in the film. Here are two men who could have been friends if they had met at a different time of life who have been turned into mortal enemies by the horrors of the civil war. They are Irish but they could just as easily been Sunni and Shiite.


 



Barbara Kopple & Cecilia Peck’s
Shut Up & Sing
Opens Friday, October 27, 2006

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

In March of 2003, with the Bush administration readying for war with Iraq, Dixie Chicks’ lead singer Natalie Maines had the audacity to make a comment about how ashamed the Chicks were that President Bush was from Texas. These words were spoken on foreign soil--in England during their ‘Top of the World’ tour. Ironically, the Chicks were on top of the charts with a pro-troops song titled “Travelin’ Soldier.” Maines’ seemingly harmless between-song-banter was soon picked up by the international press and would soon make the group as infamous as Jane Fonda as well as the poster ‘chicks’ for redneck & right wing traitor fodder for years to come...still, actually...

Two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck (yes, Gregory’s daughter) have taken the last three years in the lives of the Dixie Chicks--the biggest selling female group in music history--and fashioned a documentary of the utmost political and social importance.

Shut Up & Sing unfolds in an absorbing, nonlinear style. It’s an intensely dramatic yet poignant portrait of how a singular moment can be taken and spun out of control by right wing extremists. At a time when all free speech and “unalienable rights” are in question in the once free United States of America...at a time when Homeland Security seems to govern all and questioning our leaders has become synonymous with being a traitor, Shut Up & Sing chronicles just how such insanities can happen and how, if we’re not careful, things could easily get worse

Kopple and Peck wisely choose to document the Chicks via a third-person style and, most effectively, via their music. Specifically, post-incident penned work like “The Long Way Around,” “Easy Silence” and, especially, “Not Ready to Make Nice” sear the ears with angry disbelief, sadness, pain and incredulousness. The songs speak volumes about who the gals really are vs. who certain conservative religious crackpots would have them be.

The fact that even now, with Bush’s numbers at an all-time low and the war proving catastrophic, the Chicks are still vilified by the country music community that once embraced them, is a terrifying and yet telling point about our country and the sheer lack of common sense and intelligence shared by a significant portion of the population. Call me pompous. Call me judgmental. But call me angry. And call me honest.

“We’re a sisterhood. We go through the good, the bad and the ugly all together,” states Emily Robison (the brunette). Yet the film pulls no punches in depicting the debates that went on while they were smack amidst the controversy. It also shows three mothers, wives, artists and superstars trying to cope with their lives, their music and...oh, yes...death threats and hatred from folks who were being told to crusade against them...for patriotic reasons...but, really, in the name of religion.

Shut Up and Sing should be required viewing for every citizen in these United States. It’s an urgent, powerful movie and it’s truly good filmmaking.




Pernille Fischer Christensen’s
Soap (En Soap)
Opens Friday, November 3, 2006

Reviewed by Frank J, Avella

Can an impossible-to-satisfy, impossible-to-like bitch find love with a self-esteemless, suicidal pre-operative transsexual?

The new Danish film, Soap (En Soap), attempts to explore the possibilities of just such an oddball connection.

In her directorial debut, Pernille Fischer Christensen displays a remarkable gift for casting and directing strong actors, allowing the camera to linger on her lead’s faces, via lengthy extreme close-ups.

Trine Dyrholm, who portrays Charlotte, is to be commended for tackling the least likable film character in any film in recent memory (one who isn’t a child molester or serial killer, that is) and forcing the viewer to accept that she’s only human. It’s a tribute to the courage of Christensen and Dyrholm that each time Charlotte shows a hint of vulnerability, she immediately does something reprehensible.

Equally good is David Dencik’s Veronica. Insufferably sad and pathetic, he/she’s also someone who has a desperate need to be loved. Someone longing to simply be touched.

Soap challenges sexual stereotypes as well as audience acceptance of fully-foibled, richly-flawed humans. In her telling of this seemingly silly love story, Christensen creates offbeat and engrossing cinema.





Terry Gilliam’s
Tideland
Opens Friday, October 13, 2006

Starring: Jodelle Ferland; Jeff Bridges; Meg Tilly; Janet Teer; Brendan Fletcher.


Welcome to a world with no adults present

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Terry Gilliam’s Tideland is a fanciful fairy tale and like most true fairly tales, it is a horrifying journey to a land of trolls and goblins. Tideland is based on Mitch Cullin’s novel of the same name and tells the story of an incredibly beautiful little girl, Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), who loses both her parents and is forced to fend for herself in a deserted Texas farm house with only her mental-case neighbors, Dell (played by the always amazing Janet McTeer) and Dell’s brother, the lobotomized man-child Dickens (Brendan Fletcher) for company.

Here is the synopsis from IMDB.com: “After her mother dies from a heroin overdose, Jeliza-Rose is taken from the big city to a rural farmhouse by her father. As she tries to settle into a new life in a house her father had purchased for his now-deceased mother, Jeliza-Rose's attempts to deal with what's happened result in increasingly odd behavior, as she begins to communicate mainly with her bodiless Barbie doll heads and Dell, a neighborhood woman who always wears a beekeeper's veil.”

Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame) has always been attracted to the world of surrealism and magic, taking his audience on wild trips to the worlds of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Fisher King. And Tideland is another spaced-out journey to a land that would best be viewed through a haze of weed.

The Tideland in the title refers to Jeliza-Rose’s failed rock star father Noah’s (the incredible Jeff Bridges) obsession with a Norse fairy tale about Vikings. He has a map on the wall of his Los Angeles home depicting this magical world and he calls his drug- addicted-sow-of-a-wife (an amazing turn by Meg Tilly in a fat suit) Queen Gunhilda. When the Queen croaks from a bad reaction to methadone, Noah and Jeliza-Rose take a bus trip to Texas to lay low in a deserted farmhouse that Noah bought for his now deceased mother.

But Noah has certainly not heeded the words of Santana and “changed his evil ways, baby” and he quickly succumbs to his vices, leaving his daughter with only her imagination, a jar of peanut butter, a trunk of her grandmother’s clothes and three Barbie doll heads for company. We are then taken on a trip into the rabbit hole of Jeliza-Rose’s imagination, which is only interrupted by occasional interactions with her bizarre neighbors who are only marginally helpful by supplying some food and a bit of taxidermy.

Tideland is a difficult film to watch. Gilliam grabs his audience’s hand and forces it into the fire. The scenes in the movie where the lonely Jeliza-Rose, dressed in her grandmother’s boas and make up, tries to seduce the thirty-year-old Dickens were so disturbing that several people walked out of the screening I attended. The movie is rated R for precisely that reason: “bizarre and disturbing content, including drug use, sexuality, and gruesome situations - all involving a child, and for some language.” No matter how much this viewer rationalized that children are interested in romance and this particular child could not help but be over-sexualized, it was still impossible to watch these scenes without wanting to scream, “Aren’t there any adults in this world?”

Tideland is a gorgeous film; the cinematography is eerily beautiful. All the actors give splendid performances and it is certainly some cast – Janet McTeer AND Jeff Bridges? Brendan Fletcher's portrayal of the lobotomized-manchild-Dickens is a Sci-Fi wonder, so other-worldly he could have been transported from a distant galaxy. And little Jodelle Ferland is poised to become a major movie star; she will compete with Dakota Fanning from now on.

www.tidelandthemovie.com


 





Pedro Almodovar's
Volver
The Centerpiece Film at the 2006 New York Film Festival
Opens November 3, 2006

Reviewed by Brian Shirey

There aren’t many filmmakers these days who could be categorized by that old-time Hollywood standby, the “woman’s director.” Actually, there are none -- except for Pedro Almodovar. In Volver, the Spanish auteur doesn’t disappoint, unfolding a tale of three generations of women living in La Mancha, Spain that is alternately hilarious, warm, wry, disturbing, and, in a manner virtually patented by Almodovar himself, gently surreal.

Death is the organizing principle behind Volver’s very engaging script. The film opens on a shot of women polishing gravestones of loved ones, which leads to the introduction of Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Dueñas), sisters who lost both their parents in a fire some years earlier. Rounding out the all-female cast are Paula, Raimunda’s teenage daughter, and Agustina, a neighbor who serves to draw out some of the story’s many secrets. Therein, by the way, lies the challenge to reviewing Volver: So much of it is about discovery and revelation, any full plot synopsis might flirt with ruining the film’s distinctive pleasures.

Early on in Volver, the women visit Aunt Paula, a doddering old lady who has an uncanny ability to take care of herself despite her infirmities. Almodovar brilliantly observes here how women interact with each other. As a filmmaker, he can be gloriously over-the-top. “Colorful” is in my parlance to describe his style, but it’s as much about the look as the tone. In these early scenes, however, he steps back to show us a community of females with decidedly working-class backgrounds, who are committed to family above all and for whom health and well-being are the primary subjects of conversation. You can almost feel how much Almodovar loves them; their presence focuses everything about his direction. The first fifteen minutes of Volver show us all we need to know about the characters before the story begins, but they also contain: non-stop talk, two different kissing rituals, feasting on phallic wafers and no men whatsoever.

Finally, a guy appears -- Raimunda’s husband. He’s a leering, sports-obsessed, beer-happy, good-for-nothin’ couch slug, which might be offensive if Volver was not such a fanciful parable about the resilient life force of the female sex. Consequently, also allowable are unlikely coincidences involving death, some sloppy (and comical) crime scene management, jarring plot turns, and most significantly, the inexplicable appearance of a ghost, played by Almodovar’s original muse, Carmen Maura. She’s the dead mother of Raimunda and Sole, but I’ll stop there…

Volver (which means “coming back”) then proceeds in the realm of the hyper-real, which Almodovar presents as a way of life for the women. They’re over-sensitive to nature, like the meaning of the river nearby, or the destructive power of the East wind. Raimunda and Sole harbor intense parallel secrets, not necessarily because they have to, but because there’s almost too much emotion involved. As the film proceeds, the cinematography gets more expressive. We see a great deal of life cycle imagery, from the giant power-generating fans in the Spanish countryside to Almodovar’s rather infamous (judging from his previous films) concentration on female breasts.

The performances are appropriately warm; there’s a sense that the ensemble spent a lot of time together before the cameras rolled. Maura is a marvel. She embodies the emotional weight caused by her character’s rather shocking presence, but still captures a sense of playfulness (as a ghost, she’s required to sneak around and hide) that is decidedly un-motherly. As Agustina, newcomer Blanca Portillo plays a maudlin role with a poignancy that is sharp and restrained. Dueñas has the most lightweight part, but she has her moments, too, particularly in a deftly performed scene of striking revelation that is a pivotal point to Volver’s last act.

All final praise, however, goes to Penelope Cruz, who I confess I’ve always found to be stiff and inexpressive, and her brain-dead Hollywood choices (I’m not talking about dating Matthew McConaughey) certainly never elevated her integrity as an actress. Sahara, anyone? In Volver, I first recognize the fact that Almodovar loves her, and Almodovar’s personal affection, which is the foundation of his entire art, must be a profound influence. But I don’t want to rob Cruz of credit. Raimunda is an extremely rich role that’s a bit of a rollercoaster, plus Cruz has to sing a song and command a compelling sub-plot that plays like a Hitchcock thriller. She braves through it all, and is always convincing, even in close-up. (This is not a cleavage reference).

It’s arguable that she’s too young and glamorous for the part, but Cruz’s beauty shows a weary edge here, and in the fiery earth-mother way in which she walks and dresses, I was reminded of Sophia Loren in her gritty 1960’s work with Vittorio De Sica (a la Two Women). Cruz’s performance deepens when she and Maura have a key scene late in the film. We learn more about Raimunda, and it’s powerful to realize that Cruz has been playing this emotional hurt all along. For his part, Almodovar covers the moment with a beautifully expressive camera move that raises the personal bond of this mother and daughter to a higher, and more universal, plane.

In the end, Volver is a celebration of women as survivors against the greatest of obstacles, even death. Almodovar, who directed Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Talk to Her, is a “woman’s movie buff,” too, so it’s no mistake when Volver shows us a character watching TV and the figure stretched across the screen is Anna Magnani, the famous Italian film actress known for her bravura passion and magnificent strength. She might just be the patron saint of Volver, but also of Almodovar’s career.

One final note: In the They Deserve It department, all the women in Volver collectively won the Best Actress Award at Cannes this year, and Almodovar won for Screenplay. Watch out, Oscar.







 

 

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