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Gena Rowlands and Parker Posey
Broken English

Zoe R. Cassavetes’
Broken English
Opens Friday, June 22, 2007

Starring: Parker Posey; Drea de Matteo; Gena Rowlands; Melvil Poupaud; Justin Theroux; Tim Guinee; and Peter Bogdanovich.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams


Zoe R. Cassavetes’ Broken English is Sex and the City for the Lost in Translation set. Set in New York, it tells the smoky story of a New York single woman whose life has been reduced to the long-gone-down-lonesome-blues.

Here is a quote from the press release: “ Parker Posey plays Nora Wilder, a thirty-something Manhattanite who is cynical about love and relationships. Plugging away at her job in a posh downtown hotel, Nora can't help wondering what it is she has to do to find a relationship as ideal as her friend Audrey's (Drea De Matteo) "perfect marriage." It doesn’t help that her overbearing mother (Gena Rowlands) takes every opportunity to remind Nora that she's still unattached. After a series of disastrous first dates, she meets Julien (Melvil Poupaud), a seemingly devil-may-care Frenchman with a passion for living. Expecting another disastrous ending, Nora tries to avoid making the same mistakes and in doing so finds herself in Paris for the first time, with a new outlook on life and love.”

Nora is disaffected and with good reason. Her friend Audrey’s marriage is boredom at best and the only men left for Nora to date are the leftovers from the grand and glorious marriage marriage market that most New Yorkers enter in their mid to late twenties. Once you hit thirty, the only choices left are jerk and jerkier.

And then she meets a hot Frenchman, Julien (played by Melvin Poupaud) and something clicks. But Nora is still burdened with the baggage of her passive aggressive dating style and after all, the guy does live in Paris. So they go to Paris to find him, but Nora also takes along all of her self destructive impulses and…….

This film has a tone and a feel that is quintessentially New York and it tells a deeply psychological story of sadness and loneliness. It is a story of how people create their own lives by their own expectations and nothing can really change unless they change first.

Zoe Cassavetes’ follows in her family’s tradition of creating intense emotional films. Parker Posey does a magnificent job playing a woman whose life may not be that far from her own. Drea DeMatteo (of Adrianna in the Sopranos fame) creates yet another New York character that is filled with both cynicism and longing. And Melvil Poupaud is just plain sexy and if the French have more of him, they should import them to New York.


Taika Waititi’s
Eagle vs Shark
Opens Friday, June 15, 2007

Reviewed by Ryan Eagle

In the vein of Revenge of the Nerds and Napoleon Dynamite, the desperate, the disenfranchised, the oddballs and outcasts of the world have once again risen to stardom. Writer/director Taika Waititi’s offbeat comedy Eagle vs Shark is not quite a romantic comedy nor does it fall under any other genre that comes to mind. In this film a tragically unfulfilled and sympathetic woman named Lily (Loren Horsley) inexplicably sets her sights on a man named Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) who Waititi describes as having, “All the very worst traits of every male you’ve ever known, including myself, all plonked into one package.” Over the course of their troubled connection Jarrod’s repulsive social awkwardness tests Lily’s saintly disposition. The film’s humor grows out of this perpetual sense of unease and works quite well.

The Kiwi cast and crew give this production, shot on location in and around Wellington, New Zealand, a modest, close-knit feeling. The story is very much a “day in the life” take on courtship – however unfortunate it might be – and engages its audience with an impressive commitment to its loopy reality.

Clement’s deadpan portrayal of a man with no sense of humor is itself a comedic bull’s-eye. Clement, whose current dealings with HBO are priming the writer/actor for mainstream acclaim, has toured internationally as a stand up comedian and his chops are clearly evident in this role. Loren Horsley, manages to pull off a character that requires her to be at once charming, sweet and painfully unhip. She tackles the challenge admirably making Lily a dynamic and rich if misguided character.

New Zealand-based indie band “The Phoenix Foundation” supplies the upbeat and unfamiliar soundtrack. Just like the film, the band is genreless, but fun to experience. Along with the odd music, brief interludes of stop motion animation strung throughout the story add to the film’s quirkiness. The film’s characters are more like caricatures of people than realistic portrayals of them. And just as an artist’s caricature explores reality by distorting it, so does Waititi explore facets of human nature by disproportionately showcasing qualities like hubris, vanity, innocence and vulnerability to name a few. Many if not most of the supporting roles are one-dimensional. Nearly all are pathetic, yet in this strange setting they are oddly endearing.

Only Lily seems to have been constructed with a round, dynamic character in mind. All of the other roles in this film represent singular emotions like, for example, the terminally distraught father or bafflingly enthusiastic brother. These flat characters are what knock the film off its axis and turn the world of Eagle vs Shark into the type of reality one gets from a funhouse mirror – recognizable, but skewed. In Eagle vs Shark the audience could easily overdose on the collective absurdity, just as I presume Waititi had intended from the beginning.

For more information, log onto: eaglevsshark.net




Patrick Wilson and Claire Danes in Evening

Lajos Koltai's
Evening
Opens Friday, June 29, 2007

Starring: Eileen Atkins; Glenn Close; Toni Colette; Hugh Dancy; Claire Danes; Marnie Gummer; Vanessa Redgrave; Natasha Richardson; and Patrick Wilson.

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

Just off an idyllic rocky coast, a young woman, swathed in virginal white, lies curled up in a small wooden sailboat. On the overlooking crags, an elderly woman, dressed in a spangled black gown, watches the girl affectionately, attentively, from a distance.

The young girl awakes – from a trance or a dream? – and looks up, anxiously, expectantly toward the older woman.

“Where’s Harris?” she asks, her voice querulous, anxious, expectant.

So begins Evening, the poignant, transcendent, and incandescent new film directed by Lajos Koltai and adapted by Susan Minot and Michael Cunningham from Minot’s novel of the same title.

This opening scene is, in fact, a dream or a delusion, generated from the mind of a dying second-string jazz singer, Ann Lord Grant (Vanessa Redgrave), confined to her bed, stuck between ruminations on and analysis of the sum total of her life and sometimes laconic, sometimes acute and pissy reactions to her current state of terminal illness.

The young girl she watches over in the dream is her former self, the young Ann Lord (Claire Danes), a college student who’s naïve, charming but slightly awkward, unsure of her ability or desire to pursue a singing career.

As old Ann dreams and ponders and curses fate in the confines of her sickbed – in a film replete with stellar performances from a cast chock-full of today’s finest actors, Redgrave is the center that holds the film together; schlumped over in bed with scraggly hair and no makeup, she’s still a gorgeous, dynamite force of nature – she calls out the name “Harris,” calling him the great love of her life and hinting that she and Harris were somehow involved in the death of a mutual friend of theirs.

This comes as a complete shock to Ann’s two grown daughters Nina (Toni Colette) and Constance (played by Redgrave’s real-life daughter, Natasha Richardson). Later on in the film, there’s an incredibly tender and well played scene between these two that takes all the clichés about grown-up children finally appreciating what their parents went through raising them and turns them into something subtle, honest and beautiful.

Nina wants to solve the Harris mystery; Constance thinks it’s best, at this late date, to let sleeping dogs lie. Of course, as is often the case with sisters, there’s another, deeper dimension to this conflict. Constance is the confident, capable supermom and wife, whereas Nina is the only slightly recovered bête noire of the family, who can’t tell her committed and smitten rocker boyfriend that she’s pregnant. She’s conflicted; half of her wants the boyfriend and the baby, and half of her is terrified that she’ll be making a terrible mistake – a mistake like the one she’s beginning to think her mother might have made. For their respective personal reasons, Constance wants to view their mother’s life as inherently happy, whereas Nina wants to see it as unhappy, tinged with bitterness and resentment of half-successes and missed opportunities.

Again, the issues run deeper. The differences between the sisters’ choices in life are often a source of friction between them, as they make each one question the decisions they made; choices they pretend they’re completely comfortable with. Again, a huge amount of credit is due to Koltai, Minot, and Cunningham – and obviously, to Richardson and Colette – for taking on this well mined territory and not sliding into Lifetime-movie schlock. Nina and Constance bristle against each other, and even flat-out fight, but even in these tensest of moments, an incredible amount of love, laughter, and mutual appreciation always shines through.

Meanwhile, through old Ann’s memories and reveries – often aided by the proddings of cipher-like, shape-shifting nurse (played with a fantastic mix of tenderness and practical pluckiness by Eileen Atkins) – the audience gets to go back into the past, and slowly discovers the truth about what really happened with Harris.

Koltai takes us back to Newport in the ‘50s, where the bohemian, fresh-faced Ann (played with a luminous youthful exuberance, vulnerability and subtlety by Claire Danes, who with this performance finally lives up to the great potential she showed so many years ago on My So-Called Life) arrives at the posh Newport estate of her college friend Lila (Marnie Gummer), who’s about to be married to a nice but dull society boy. Strictly against these nuptials is Buddy (Hugh Dancy), Lila’s brother and Ann’s friend, who hopes, that in between the revelry of a weekend of drunken carousing, singing, dancing, sailing and frolicking in the woods, Ann will find the time to talk Lila out of the wedding.

Dancy is another standout amidst a cast of excellent actors. In a conversation held at an advance screening of Evening, Minot credited Cunningham with developing Buddy’s character for the film, and there’s no doubt that it was an excellent choice. Buddy is a unique, compelling, charming and heartbreaking character – the only comparison that springs immediately to mind is Sebastian Flyte, the troubled, sexually confused aristocratic gadfly of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

Like Sebastian, Buddy both enjoys the pleasures of his life of privilege and abhors the pretensions that go along with it. He has a complicated relationship with alcohol and isn’t sure whether he’d like to kiss his girl or his boy friends. These complexities are combined with an irresistible, infectious urge to drain every Dionysian pleasure out of life, and an overwhelming desire to squeeze out every moment of happiness while the fruit is still ripe.

Dancy’s portrayal of Buddy sways through all of these elements like a beautiful, heartbreaking gavotte. An actor discovered through BBC adaptations of literary classics, Dancy has wasted too much of his time and considerable talent playing Price Charming roles in B-rate romantic comedies and using his smoldering, Byronic good looks to great effect in Burberry ads. It’s a great pleasure to see his impressive talent put to exquisite use in Evening. His ruddy, wine-filled face, alternating expressions of enthusiasm and hope, dejection and despair, happiness and exuberance, fear and vulnerability, is a remarkable ever-changing canvas that is both entertaining and heartbreaking as the film moves on.

Buddy wants his sister Lila to marry the oft-mentioned Harris (Patrick Wilson), the poorer, nobler, and more emotionally stable friend of the family who sails with Buddy and holds him up whenever he gets a little too loud or too wobbly. Lila is indeed in love with Harris, but Harris has gently but summarily rejected her advances, and so she’s decided to go ahead and marry a man she’s ambivalent to, much to the delight of her mother (played with perfect pinchy WASP-iness by an insanely coiffed Glenn Close).

The one Harris is really interested in is Ann, and the chemistry between the two – which even surpasses the lovely dancing duet they did to the tune of Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do” in a recent Gap ad – is a wonder to behold. It’s slow and realistic, yet simmering with the unique erotic tension of the possibility of first real love. Audience members in an advance screening complained about Wilson’s wooden stiffness in his portrayal of Harris. However, anyone who’s seen his incredible performance as a conflicted, closeted Mormon in HBO’s televised version of Angels in America knows that a stiff exterior with volcanic emotions bubbling just below the surface is Wilson’s specialty. When, at Lila’s wedding, Ann and Harris break into a spontaneous duet of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “Time After Time,” all question of wooden stiffness melts away. There is only the exhilarating unpredictability of new, sparkling flirtation and romance and all the exciting promises they hold.

This blossoming, surreptitious romance is made even more of a treat for the audience by the efforts of cinematographer Gyula Pados, who make their surreptitious interludes in the woods foggy, magical and mystical – full of that very midsummer madness and bacchanals that date back at least as far as ancient Greece. It’s gorgeous looking and sensational and powerful enough to make a viewer feel as if she’s falling in love for the first time herself.

Naturally, this relationship comes as a great blow to Buddy, who isn’t sure whether he’d rather kiss Ann or Harris, and is afraid (like Sebastian Flyte) that his family and surrogate family will steal his friends (and possible loves) away, or that somebody else may be having fun without him. This deadly cocktail of feelings of betrayal can and will lead, we all know, lead to an unhappy end and the collapse of all these beautiful romantic dreams.

Here again, Koltai, Minot, Cunningham and editor Allyson C. Johnson perfectly manage the delicate movements between past and present, managing the tension like virtuosi, giving the audience enough information on each side of the story to leave them wanting more; desperate to see what we already know will happen, as well as what we know we’ll never see and what we hope against hope will never occur, even though we know it’s inevitable.

In the present time, the sisters make peace and find their own happiness, while thanks to a visit from the now aged Lila (played by Meryl Streep with all the delicacy and perfection we’ve come to expect from her) the dying Ann comes to terms with her unresolved issues with Harris, looking over her rich, full life, and concurring with Lila’s conclusion that “nothing is a mistake.”

A user comment on IMDb has already dubbed Evening a “great chick flick”. This same moniker – which can mean box office gold, but also a snooty attitude from critics – was used for the adaptation of Michael Cuninngham’s novel The Hours, a mega-indie powerhouse that made a huge impact, both at the box office and on the awards circuit.

So forget about chicks and dudes; let your sexual predetermination fall by the way side for 117 minutes. Are you interested in love, youth and beauty? The existential crises that make us wonder what our lives could have been? The impending threat of mortality and the questions it raises, both for the dying and those left behind? Do you have a pulse? Then forget about your chromosomes, and go see Evening.




Adam Shankman’s
Hairspray
Opens Friday, August 20, 2007


Starring: John Travolta; Michelle Pfeiffer; Christopher Walken; Amanda Bynes; James Marsden; Queen Latifah; Brittany Snow; Zac Efron; Elijah Kelley; Allison Janney; Taylor Parks; and Nikki Blonsky.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Tracy Turnblad (played by darling newcomer Nikki Blonsky) is a “big” little girl with big hair and an even bigger heart. She lives in John Water’s 1960’s Baltimore with her even larger shut -in mother Edna (played by John Travolta in a fat suit) and her loving but strange father Wilbur (played by the loving but strange Christopher Walken). Tracy and her best friend Penny Pingleton (the adorable Amanda Bynes) attend high school where they are among the misfits – Tracy because of her size and Penny because she is quashed by an over-protective mother (the always hysterical Allison Janney) who won’t even let her watch the local teenage dance TV show, the Corny Collins show. Tracy and Penny “love” the Corny Collins show and Tracy’s biggest dream is to be one of the show’s dancers.

Cute little Tracy (with the blessing of her father and the trepidations of her over-protective mother) catches the eye of Corny Collins when he sees her dancing at a high school dance. Corny decides to cast Tracy as one of the dancers, much to the chagrin of the show’s producer Velma Von Tussle (played by the always amazing Michelle Pfeiffer) and her daughter Amber Von Tussle (the third of the adorable teenage Hairspray actresses, Miss Brittany Snow).

Once Tracy is on the show, she wows the TV audience with her take-no-prisoners dancing style; Tracy also catches the eye of local heartthrob Link Larkin (played by teenage heart throb Zac Efron). Tracy also shocks Mrs. Von Tussle (who did not like Tracy’s size to begin with) when she announces that she (Tracy) would like for every day to be Negro day. (Negro Day is the one day a month when the show features black dancers and performers).

Tracy then befriends the local Negros: Motor Mouth Mabel (played flawlessly by Queen Latifah); Seaweed, a charismatic dancer who quickly falls for Penny (played by Elijah Kelly); and Little Inez (Taylor Parks), Mabel’s daughter whose dancing rivals Tracy’s in style and enthusiasm.

So the die is cast and change is about to hit Baltimore. Nikki, her newly energized mother Edna, Amanda and the troupe of amazingly talented black dancers led by Motor Mouth Mabel want to integrate the Corny Collins show. And in this goal, they have help from Corny himself; Corny isn’t a racist and he can see that adding black dancers would be good for the show. Velma is totally opposed; she is both anti-fat and racist and her only goal is to make a star of her Mini-Me, her bland and blond daughter, Amber.

Hairspray (the 2007 ) works. It is charming, good hearted, big and wonderful, just like its star, little Tracy. The film is not quite as subversive as the original 1988 John Water’s Hairspray film mostly because John Travolta plays Edna as an
almost-real-woman in contrast to Divine’s subversive over-the-top Edna. But real or not, he is very funny and the scene where Travolta and Walken dance in the backyard with a backdrop of hung laundry is simply wonderful.

But there are so many wonderful moments in this film: Michelle Pfeiffer is amazing as the snooty racist Velma and her costumes are sixties marvels. And Nikkii Blonsky was an incredible find for the role of Miss Tracy Turnblad.

Director Adam Shankman created some wonderful dance numbers and managed to hit exactly the right tone with film; the film is campy and fun but always manages to keep one toe on the ground. The costumes and sets are candy-colored marvels. Hairspray, with its message of tolerance and hope, is a film that is truly fun for the entire family.




George Ratliff’s
Joshua
Opens Friday July 6, 2007



Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Joshua is a creepy, paranoia-inducing suspense thriller that feels like a hybrid of: The Shining; The Squid and the Whale; The Omen; The Bad Seed and Rosemary’s Prodigy...I mean Baby! And as much as appropriation comes into play, writer/director George Ratliff (along with co-screenwriter David Gilbert) shows enough originality to keep an audience on the edge of their seats and not rely on cheap gimmicks and cheesy effects.

Uber-wealthy Manhattanite parents Brad and Abby Cairn (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga) have just had their second child, Lily. Their first born, nine-year old Joshua, is a frightfully serious, intellectually superior, musical prodigy. He’s also a very eccentric and odd boy who can appear sweet and precocious...but it’s quite possible that Joshua is actually some sort of Satanic terror who is, quite literally, bent on destroying his family. Or he may be a sociopath in the making. Or, perhaps, he truly is just a misunderstood and neglected child who is too smart for his milieu--craving love and attention. Or maybe he’s...a demon. I dare you to choose!

Ratliff’s keep-you-guessing narrative is simultaneously infuriating and riveting and the script walks a fine line between the believable and the ridiculous. Yet, in the end, the film works masterfully.

Jacob Kogan perfectly embodies Joshua, a boy who may scare the shit out of you one moment and have you feeling sorry for him the next.

The ensemble work exceptionally well together with Sam Rockwell delivering a terrific performance as the frustrated father. Rockwell is especially hilarious in the latter half of the pic as he begins to suspect there is something awry with his boy. As his stresses mount, he becomes a bit unglued and it’s in these father-to-son ‘stare-down’ scenes where the film proves it’s mettle as a taut, tense and true thriller.





Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart

Michael Winterbottom’s
A Mighty Heart
Opens Friday, June 22, 2007

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Michael Winterbottom is one of the most prolific and fascinating filmmakers working today, yet he receives no accolades for his work and is less celebrated than lesser directors. This is a serious shame since he is one of the most passionate and best directors around. With his last few films he has made a serious study in diversity: The Road to Guantanamo; Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story; 9 Songs; Code 46; In this World; 24-Hour Party People; The Claim; and Welcome to Sarajevo. If there is one constant, it’s the fact that he continues to go back to political films. And the results are always extraordinary.

Prior to her Academy Award for Girl Interrupted, Angelina Jolie was one of the few promising and daring actresses on the horizon. Her astonishing performance in the HBO film Gia proved this. Unfortunately, her post-Oscar choices have not been the wisest (Tomb Raider anyone?) and her acting career has been recently overshadowed by her celebrity, which is not exactly her fault. Recently, Jolie and her beau Brad Pitt have decided to use their media exposure to speak out about political and social causes, with mixed results.

The merging of these two strong filmic figures (Winterbottom and Jolie) could have spelled disaster--another bleeding heart liberal Hollywood pic (anyone remember Kim Basinger in I Dreamed of Africa?). Lucky for us, Winterbottom refuses to compromise his artistry AND Jolie has returned to real acting.

A Mighty Heart provides a detailed docu-cine-document of the kidnapping and brutal butchery of Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl in Karachi, Pakistan. Based on the account written by his wife, Mariane, the film is occasionally nonlinear and doesn’t follow any paint-by-numbers structure. What it does is tell a riveting and tragic story in edge-of-your-seat fashion.

On January 23, 2002, Daniel Pearl, while researching a story on the shoe bomber Richard Reid, disappears. A few days later, it is revealed he has been kidnapped by a group that calls itself the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty. The pic chronicles the events that occur before and after the kidnapping as seen through the eyes of his pregnant wife, Mariane...up until the horrific conclusion.

Although A Mighty Heart is a condemnation of terrorism, it asks us to, at least, understand both sides. It’s also a powerful reminder of just how piranha-like the media can be. One gets the feeling that the Brangelina paparazzi attacks may have inspired certain scenes.

Now, of course this is a Jolie vehicle, but she never overplays her character. It’s actually a fantastic bit of acting and the moment she discovers her husband is dead is devastatingly real.

Winterbottom continues to provide vital cinematic evidence of the current topsy-turvy, hate-obsessed world we live in. In depicting tragedies like the Pearl execution and the egregious human rights violations at Guantanamo, audiences are hopefully rattled, shaken, perhaps even stirred into taking some kind of action. One can hope, anyway.





Steven Soderbergh’s
Ocean’s 13
Opens Friday, June 8, 2007


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

As a huge fan of both Ocean’s 11 (a remake of the inferior Rat Pack Ocean’s 11 from 1960) and Ocean’s 12 (which received a lackluster response, mostly because it was way too clever for audiences and most critics), I had high hopes for the third saga involving Clooney and his clan.

I was a bit upset by the exclusion of Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones (sooo good in 12), but the addition of master thesp Al Pacino got me giddy again. And Ellen Barkin is always fun. But could Steven Soderbergh pull off three good movies in a row without copying and compromising? I am thrilled to report that the answer is...a resounding hell yes!

Considering the typical cavalcade of crap that Hollywood heaps on the public during the summer--and there is plenty this year to be sure--there are also a couple of surprisingly smart studio flix for the discerning cinemagoer who has exhausted the terrific indie and foreign pics playing. Knocked Up, as flawed as it is, fits the quality bill, and Ocean’s 13 scores a royal flush!

As a matter of happy fact, this installment may actually be the funniest and cleverest yet! (taking into account the prettification of everything onscreen and the artifice at play).

Director extraordinaire, Steven Soderbergh, has a sly way of working within a particular genre while simultaneously paying homage to it and satirizing it. (His unjustly maligned gem The Good German was another example, albeit a cooler, more experimental one.)

Soderbergh is rarely mean spirited. Ocean’s 13 can be seen, in fact, as a celebration of and tribute to the oh-so-many male bonding westerns, comedies and adventure pics from Hollywood past. George Clooney and Brad Pitt could easily be Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin or John Wayne and Dean Martin or even Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn!

In the latest slick saga, the gang reunite for revenge. One of the 11 have been unfairly treated by a brandy new villain and the group must reband to take down the evil titan. If 11 was a heist flick and 12 was about survival, 13’s theme is loyalty.

Reuben (madcap Elliott Gould) partners with swarthy Trump-esque casino maverick Willy Bank (Al Pacino, having a blast). When Bank double-crosses Reuben leaving him broke and broken, Danny Ocean and the team come to the rescue with an elaborate screw-him-good scheme that is both fantastical and preposterous. They even include nemesis Andy Garcia on the plan.

Ocean’s 13 is loaded with cool, breezy banter (perfectly uttered with utter understatement by Clooney and Pitt). Screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien are to be commended on their wit and whimsy.

Clooney and Pitt have better screen chemistry than most male/female stars. Many a highlight in the movie involve these two pals simply speaking.

There is a hilarious moment when Clooney is caught watching Oprah, tears welling. Pitt makes fun but is soon overtaken himself. Another terrific and truly poignant scene has the duo reflecting on how much Vegas has changed. They could very well be discussing Hollywood in general and motion pictures, in particular. But, with Soderbergh hard at work, classic Hollywood pics are not dead at all. They’re just reimagined and redesigned with new charismatic leading men (and sometimes women), and most importantly, with their souls intact.

The entire cast is to be commended on their joyous performances. Pacino, in particular, delights in playing evil and we love to...well we love him even if he’s evil!!! Newbie Ellen Barkin fits right in and is especially hysterical in her scenes with Matt Damon.

Tech credits, as always with the Ocean flix, are stupendous. Most outstanding is David Holmes’ score and Soderbergh’s camerawork (working under the pseudonym Peter Andrews).

This 13 proves quite the lucky number for summer moviegoers!


 



John Carney’s
Once
Opens May 16, 2007


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Once is a unique and engrossing film that ambitiously sets out to present an atypical love story in which songs are just as important as the script. A reinvention of the motion picture musical genre, if you will. Said songs are performed in the film a la Cabaret and The Commitments and not like Dreamgirls or The Sound of Music.

The result is a gritty yet charming film fable where realism always has the upper hand.

The story is as simple as they come: poor Irish boy (Glen Hansard) meets poor Czech girl (Marketa Irglova). He is a street musician who dreams of recording a cd of his work and going to London. She is a bit of an annoyance at first, but turns out to be musically inclined as well. She lives with her mother and infant daughter. Her estranged husband is in the Czech Republic. They bond over his music and begin a courtship that, at first, is all about getting the funds to record his demo cd.

Writer-director John Carney is a master at spell casting. He has fashioned a heartwarming, bittersweet flick while avoiding most of the cliché's of the musical and romantic-comedy genres.

Carney also knows that the key to the success of a film of this nature is in casting his two leads perfectly. And, although neither have any extensive screen experience (he was in The Commitments back in 1990 but is mostly the lead singer in a band known as The Frames, she has never acted before), they exude charm and charisma and have a plethora of endearing qualities that shine onscreen. They also have fantastic chemistry!

The original songs rock, literally and descriptively, with the ballad “Falling Slowly” proving one of the best. And when was the last time 10 original songs appeared in any film written SPECIFICALLY for the film??? Yentl in 1983? Just a guess. And most of these songs are terrific. When was the last time that a simple demo recording provided the dramatic climax of a film? And it sent chills down my back (in a good way!)

My only complaints: I wanted more time with the leads; I wanted to follow the Hansard character to London; I wanted to see what the Irglova character would do and I wanted to hear more songs. Come to think of it, those are the best complaints I’ve had about a film in a long while!

l


 


Fredi M. Murer's
Vitus

Starring: Fabrizio Borsani; Teo Gheorghiu; Julika Jenkins; Urs Jucker; and Bruno Ganz.


Reviewed by Ryan Eagle at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Vitus is the story of a child prodigy whose aptitude for classical piano, among other intellectual gifts, does battle with his yearning for a normal childhood. The film served as Switzerland’s 2006 Academy Award submission for Best Foreign Language Film. In Vitus, Director Fredi M. Murer used real-life piano prodigy Teo Gheorghiu for the title role. Opposite Gheorghiu acclaimed actor and Swiss native Bruno Ganz plays Vitus’s grandfather. The on screen relationship between these two actors alone warrants praise. The film works as a whole because of such individual performances as well as the playful tension strung through several subplots.

The overarching theme is a familiar one for stories about prodigies. At what point do the exploitations of talent outweigh the importance of an intact childhood? In this story, unlike the melancholic non-fiction approach in Scott Hicks’s Shine, Murer discusses conflict in a softer and more uplifting tone. Though the director has said he did not intend for the film to be a fairy tale, it does have idealized if not magical threads. The film is unapologetic about its verisimilitude – or lack thereof. It needn’t apologize because the tender packaging of this story complements the story itself.

One of the most compelling instances of rebellion in the picture is Vitus’s “accident.” Deciding that he must cast off his special gifts, Vitus leaps from the second story of his house on wings that he and his grandfather have made from wood and fabric – a sort of flugtag inspired creation. After his fall, Vitus feigns a head injury that turns him into a normally functioning child. Only his grandfather – the boy’s best friend – is brought into the fold. From this new vantage point Vitus re-examines life and decides just how he might best experience his music and his passions. For all its admitted impracticality, the tension that springs from Vitus’s solution is palpable. How poignant that a child would sacrifice otherworldly gifts in attempt to blend in and garner attention for who he is rather than what he can do.

The roles of Vitus’s parents are played beautifully by Julia Jenkins and Urs Jucker. Both actors make their impressions on the film, but are able to take a step back from Gheorghiu, allowing the audience’s energy to focus on the child’s point of view. While love and expectations are generally rationed out by Vitus’s parents in pleasing ratios, Ganz’s portrayal of the doting grandfather tips the scales once again toward the idealized and maintains the cheerful tone of the film.

Vitus could easily have drifted into saccharin indulgence. Instead of succumbing to the pitfalls to which such films are prone, Vitus triumphs. But what else would you expect from a prodigy after all?



John Dahl’s
You Kill Me
Opens Friday, June 22, 2007

Reviewed by Ryan Eagle at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival

The problem with so many dark comedies is that they have plenty of dark and no comedy. You Kill Me is director John Dahl’s latest film about a hit man battling alcoholism and stumbling upon a fortifying relationship in the process. The balance between humor and pain makes for an unusually pleasing romantic comedy devoid of the predictable exchanges between male and female leads. Ben Kingsley is an unlikely choice to play Frank Falenczyk, an aging, liquor repository who is slipping up as his Polish mob family’s hired gun. After establishing his character’s honest and sincere approach to a livelihood that is less than angelic, the unlikely choice looks like the perfect one. Kingsley’s appeal as a damaged man is obvious to the audience from his first vodka laden scene. He is equally appealing to Téa Leoni who plays the part of Laurel, herself a damaged person who finds Frank’s straightforward approach to life irresistible. Theirs is a May/December romance that works well on the screen in part because of a script that doesn’t try to do too much.

Laurel accepts Frank’s alcoholism and his struggle to overcome it just as she accepts his profession, not because either one is terribly attractive, but because his honesty about what he does and the way he wishes to do it is a welcome change from what she’s used to. Just what has haunted Laurel in the past is not dragged out in the light. Omissions of pat explanations from the script, like those that would cheapen Laurel’s appeal in the movie were they present, are a hallmark of the delicate subtleties that set this film apart from many of its romantic comedy brethren. The film’s success is thanks to more than just a thoughtful script. Kingsley and Leoni share a dry comic sensibility that comes to life in a story filled with some unsavory subjects. Because both characters have been around the block and neither is game for the childish back and forth one associates with newfound romance, the onscreen couple exudes a freshness that younger Hollywood talent might not be able to sustain. Leoni is still beautiful in spite of her character’s darkness and Kingsley’s charm allows his role tremendous sympathy.

Hit men have been called “cleaners” in other films dealing with mobsters. Cleanliness indeed comes to mind when describing this movie. Frank is forthright when he opens up to Laurel and to strangers at his AA meetings. His conscience is clean. His temporary job while on hiatus from killing is preparing bodies in a funeral home – literally cleaning and even beautifying death. Even the liquor in this film is unmolested. Nearly all of the drinks drunk by all of the characters are neat. No ice, no mixers, no garnish. This no frills approach is refreshing and the film’s total commitment to it is easy to see.

Supporting performances by Dennis Farina, Philip Baker Hall, Luke Wilson, Bill Pullman and Marcus Thomas all help shoulder the film’s driving force, which is a man’s struggle to right his life through avenues of work and love. No supporting role overpowers a scene with either of the two main characters. Such scenes are not stolen by solid performances, but offered up to the greater good of the film as a whole.

You Kill Me lacks the flash of some mob movies and the graphic filler that is so often tacked on to films that can’t survive on mere suggestions of love, sex or violence. This is a thinking viewer’s mob movie and a dark, but clever comedy as well.


 




 

 

 

 


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