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


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

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 



Lars Von Trier’s
The Boss if It All
Opens May 23, 2007


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Lars Von Trier is, most assuredly, one of the most maddening, clever and devious filmmakers working today. Whether operating on a grand thematic (if not set-wise) scale with the groundbreaking Dogville and Manderlay or telling redemptive cinematic tales with Breaking the Waves and Dancer the the Dark or fashioning seemingly simple yet dense yarns as he did with the underrated film, The Idiots, there is possibly no other filmmaker working today who infuriates as much as he fascinates. Love him or loathe him, he continues to push the boundaries of cinema with each new work.

The Boss of It All is no exception.

At the outset of the film, Von Trier’s voice announces the audience should enjoy “a cozy time.”

The plot involves the owner of an IT company, Ravn (Peter Gantzler), who decides he wants to sell the money-losing firm. The fly in his convoluted ointment is the fact that he has been hiding behind a made up “boss of it all” that the staff has never met. When a possible buyer insists on speaking with the actual boss, Ravn has no option but to hire a has-been/never-was actor (Jens Albinus, fantastic in The Idiots) to play the “boss of it all.” But all hell breaks loose when he begins taking his part a bit too seriously.

The cast is uniformly good and the film has some hilarious moments. Albinus, in particular, proves once again that he’s a comic master.

Boss is bitterly satiric but not overtly so, the way his last two gems were. One can see subtle but rich allusions to his own experiences directing artists. With Kristoffer, the Albinus role, he is able to comment quite brutally on the artistic temperament of actors. Von Trier has a reputation for alienating his thespians. Nasty encounters with Nicole Kidman and the cast of Dogville were repeatedly reported and Bjork ceremoniously announced that because of her experience with Von Trier while doing Dancer in the Dark, that she would never make another film. And so far she hasn’t.

This is an artist who isn't afraid to mock himself first and then attack everyone else, including the audience AND their senses. He is constantly challenging the ways we watch films as well, whether it be with his Dogma manifesto, the hand held shaky-cam technique he perfected with Breaking the Waves or here, in The Boss of It All, with jarring yet intriguing framing choices. The new process is called Automavision where, apparently, the computer makes the framing decisions. The result will annoy some but makes for a truly original film going experience.

Von Trier is one of the few true genius helmers working today. He has recently expressed angst about filmmaking since he’s fallen into depression and cannot make movies in such a state. Let us pray to the film gods that he is cured of this soon since, like Pedro Almodovar, Clint Eastwood and very few others, we NEED his visions onscreen to give cine-lovers that much needed giddy elation as well as hope for the future of the medium.



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.



Dan Klores’
Crazy Love
Opens Friday, June 1, 2007

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

When we think of the 50s – that gentler era of poodle skirts and white gloves, of Cadillacs with radios playing doo-wop hits full of lilting promises of eternal (and chaste) love – we tend to believe that romance was simpler, truer and more pure. Courtships we sense, happened more organically and sweetly, infused with a certainty that the love that was slowly blossoming was undeniably meant to be. While the story of Linda Riss and Burton Pugach was replete with such idyllic details, the whole picture reveals something slightly different.

When told in full, their saga sounds like a combination of a Freudian case study and an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But it’s actually a stranger-than fiction true story and the subject of Dan Klores’ documentary Crazy Love, opening this Friday in select New York theaters.

As the screen lights up, the year is 1957, and Pugach is a small-time, slightly shady entertainment lawyer with big Hollywood dreams and a wife and daughter at home. Cruising around the Bronx in his flashy new Caddy, he sees the fresh-faced, lovely Linda lingering in Joyce Kilmer Park, and is immediately struck by the thunderbolt. A textbook case of love at first sight. Determined to possess this beauty, he begins the chase right away.

At first Linda wasn’t convinced, but persistence, charm, and nights at the Copa soon won her over. Jealousy, ridiculous demands, and a faked divorce decree started to turn her off, but she couldn’t seem to sever ties completely. Nevertheless, she eventually kicked Burt to the curb and became to engaged to a gallant young military officer.

Here’s where story becomes a little less Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon and a little more Twilight Zone-meets-Jerry Springer.

Shortly before her wedding, Burton hired a known thug to go to Linda’s door with a mayonnaise jar full of lye. The man threw it in her face, blinding her for the rest of her life.

The gory details of Burt and Linda’s ill-fated relationship were splashed across the front pages of the city papers. After a highly publicized trial, Burt was sent to prison, and Linda tried to move on. But she could never fully escape Burt. Even when incarcerated, he constantly proclaimed his everlasting love, proposing to Linda on camera in two separate TV interviews. After he was paroled, Pugach’s attorney suggested a meeting between Burt and Linda. Linda agreed.

Shortly afterwards, in 1974, they were married and became tabloid sensations yet again. In spite of an apparently blissful married life, Burt and Linda found themselves at the center of a media maelstrom once more in 1996, when Burton’s mistress pressed charges of sexual harassment and intimidation against him.

Clearly taking the words of Tammy Wynette to heart, Linda continued to stand by her man, coming to court in full regalia to post her husband’s bail, repudiating the mistresses’ charges and brushing off the infidelity, blithely stating that cheating is what all husbands do. She appeared as a character witness at the subsequent trial, and he got off with a misdemeanor.

And they lived happily ever after, at least in that kvetchy, retired couple sort of way. They seem content enough as they nag each other about what to order during the early bird special at their favorite Floridian diner.

Clearly, Klores has got his hands on one hell of a bizarre story, and he manages to execute its narration well. The only problem is that he doesn’t to know exactly what sort of story he’s trying to tell. Crazy Love wants to be a philosophical examination of the strange and inexplicable vagaries of the human heart – a story about how love can oddly triumph (or at least endure) in spite of the horrible things couples can sometimes do to each other. But Klores never really makes the case that what we’re seeing is an example of what the French call the amour fou. As a result, the audience can’t help but wonder if what we’re looking at is actually crazy love, or just plain craziness.

To his credit, Klores does a lot of things right. With the help of his editor (and co-producer) David Zieff, he documents the bizarre developments of the Pugachs’ relationship with subtle suspense and precision. He takes his time, revealing all the outrageous twists and turns deftly and inconspicuously, achieving maximum shock effect. Klores and Zieff also do wonderful work evoking the nostalgic stereotypes of the 50s and juxtaposing them against the seedier reality of this truly weird romance. While the strains of girl-group pop songs play, demure shots of Linda in her bathing suit, posing happily with friends and family, pop up in sharp relief. These wistful montages are then arrestingly intercut with the harsh, twisted facts of Burt and Linda’s story. The effect is powerful and startling.

Another great asset is the interviews with Linda Riss. A perfect example of the brassy, straight talking dame who used grace the screen in every Hollywood comedy, she faces the camera unabashedly, shielded by the large, rhinestone-encrusted sunglasses that conceal all traces of her disfigurement. She has no problem telling it like it is, calling Burt on all his looniness, dishonesty and quasi-romantic pablum. She’s an absolute delight to watch, but her dynamite personality leads to an unavoidable question. Why would such a tough, sexy, with-it lady ever agree to marry the crazy loser who harassed and maimed her? The filmmakers never seem to directly ask Linda that question, nor do they inquire about her inability to completely sever herself from Burt. The rest of the movie doesn’t give any kind of satisfactory answer either. When Linda tells the cameraman that she figured a lifetime of marriage was probably the best way of punishing Burt for what he’d done to her, it seems that this one-liner response is probably the closest to the truth that Crazy Love will take us.

We certainly don’t find any enlightenment in the far too numerous and extensive interviews with Burt Pugach. While he clearly sees himself as some kind of misguided Romeo and knight errant, it soon becomes apparent that he’s actually just a self involved, obnoxious, and probably dangerous sociopath. As his testimony wears on, his platitudinous and absurd explanations for his inexcusable and terrifying behavior become irksome, painful and tedious. In the end, the viewer may feel that a life sentence of being nagged at the diner is not nearly severe enough.

Klores has said that he wanted to make a movie about love and marriage in the 50s. If he had pushed this angle further – questioning Linda her about her loneliness, her expectations about marriage, and the societal and historical obligations that might have influenced her decision – he could have gotten a more complete story, one that got closer to the truth of these people’s lives. Alas, Crazy Love, just like Linda’s decision to marry Burt, remains an unsolved and unsatisfying mystery.


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.




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


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Garry Marshall’s
Georgia Rule

Opens May 11, 2007

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Georgia Rule begins with a powerful moment between an impatient mother and her unruly daughter that sets the tone for the film and defines their relationship pretty thoroughly. Both are angry and rebellious. There is obviously something way out of whack. A few scenes later, the demanding grandmother is added to the mix and the film really kicks into gear as the fem-gen triad is complete.

The basic plot follows teen terror Rachel (Lindsay Lohan) who has been hauled to Idaho by her mom, Lily (Felicity Huffman), and dumped off on Lily’s estranged mother, Georgia (Jane Fonda). This seemingly steely matriarch lives by a set of rules that Rachel must follow. When Georgia discovers a horrific secret (that may or may not be true), she summons Lily back and all three women must confront festering demons.

Director Garry Marshall, quite comfy with comedy--especially when they star Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride)-- proves that he is just as deft at handling work where the weight is on the dramatic (as he did in the underrated Frankie and Johnny). The blend here is a bit odd and disconcerting at times but works more than it doesn’t.

The funniest moments in Georgia Rule come from great line deliveries (mostly from Fonda) as opposed to pratfalls or slapstick. There is nothing screwball here, one must just accept the unconventional tone changes that the thoughtful and funny script (by Oscar nominee Mark Andrus) provides. The story does it’s best to avoid most cliche’s and attempts to examine a very serious and complex question. I just wish it had done so more deeply. I also wanted the screenplay to probe the relationship between Lily and Georgia much more than it did. Too often the film’s focus is on Rachel and that’s when it suffers most.

Post-Monster-in-Law, Georgia Rule marks Fonda’s second film after a 15-year absence and she proves she is up for the challenge and ready to challenge the challenge! Her Georgia is a cornucopia of paradoxical feelings: joy; fury; confusion; regret and defiance. It’s amazing to watch the expressive Fonda face (one can see Henry quite scarily). In scenes where she barely has dialogue, she manages to draw your attention away from the others with a simple look. It’s a terrific, tough and, at times, subtle performance.

Huffman, always interesting to watch, has the difficult job of playing the least likable and defined of the three, but she’s able to give the part more than is on the page.

Lohan is another story. Yes, she delivers lines well but too often I was aware that that she was just speaking written words. I rarely believed that she WAS Rachel. She may be a good actress one day but that day is not yet upon us. She is way out of her league here. I kept imagining what Rachel McAdams would have done with the part. Ah well...

Fonda was recently asked if Lohan had asked for any advice during filming and Fonda responded that she hadn’t. What a shame. To have a titan like Fonda there in the same room and not look to her for ANY guidance. That’s the ultimate in arrogant, juvenile behavior.

Dermot Mulroney, Cary Elwes and newcomer Garrett Hedlund are all effective in their limited secondary-boys roles, especially Mulroney.

Georgia Rule is not your typical Hollywood pic and may turn some people off with what appears to be a cavalier manner of dealing with a serious theme. I don’t see it that way. It’s a DIFFERENT way of dealing with the subject. And although the ending goes for the obligatory, here it feels like a necessary catharsis. Sometimes there can be redemption.





Emanuele Crialese’s
Golden Door (Nuovomondo)
Opens Friday, May 25, 2007

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival

There is a miraculous one-minute sequence in Emanuele Crialese’s unrelentingly harsh and utterly absorbing Golden Door that captures more than most feature-length films do in a two hour span. It also remarkably and densely defines many of the movie’s themes.

A huge steamship is about to leave Italy for the USA. The camera is set up high in the sky (seemingly on a cloud). We can only see a small part of the ship with passengers about the deck. Onshore are a slew of others - people who will probably never leave their homeland. As the gigantic vessel slowly begins to leave shore, we start to see actual water separating the two. Those onboard are looking out to those on land and vice versa. The viewer soon becomes aware of the life altering event that is taking place for those who are outbound. One begins to speculate on exactly what must be going through the minds of the masses who were courageous enough to leave their life and loved ones--their culture--on the gamble that a better world awaits them. They embark on a potentially life-threatening adventure of sorts. One also thinks about those left behind. Those who will continue to toil and survive, but who will always wonder what their lives might have been like HAD they taken the chance so many are taking right before their eyes. The shot is broken by the loud roar of the steamship. All eyes are jarred out of the trance. For a fearless few, the voyage has begun.

And it’s that perilous trek to America in all it’s painful and fraught detail, that Golden Door focuses on--and the story of one family, in particular.

Salvatore Mancuso dreams of a new life in a new world for himself, his mother and his four children. He longs to escape his grim reality.

The film opens in the mountains of Sicily as the Mancusos prep for their departure. Most are game. But grandma is a superstitious villager who has no desire to leave what she knows. She eventually relents and we follow the family from the frenzy of getting to the ship to the harrowing scenes on onboard and, finally, the shocking and invasive third act at Ellis Island (where they cannot even see the New World because the fog is so thick).

Throughout, the pic is peppered with fascinating fantastical moments that include Mancuso’s dream of being showered in gold coins (which, ironically, turns out to be dirt) as well as his hopes that America is a country boasting swimming seas filled with milk.

Crialese presents an honest, gripping and, yes, enchanting portrait of one family’s brave odyssey to the proverbial land of opportunity. The pic is reminiscent of the Italian Neo-realism films of the 1940’s (Rossellini’s work comes to mind). It sometimes feels so real that you may think you’re watching a documentary.

As he did with the wonderful film, Respiro (which I saw in Palermo, Sicily in 2002), Crialese’s camera penetrates beyond the surface of his characters’ outer appearance and allows us to journey into their hearts, minds and, sometimes, even their souls. He, fearlessly, allows moments to linger and lets his actors faces do what dialogue rarely can do--invade and sometimes betray their feelings.

Vincenzo Amato (Respiro) personifies the cautiously hopeful immigrant. His Mancuso is simultaneously fierce and sweet. He is a man who wants the best for his loved ones. Someone who wishes to transcend his status but someone who is not ashamed of who he is or where he comes from. He is also someone who is ready to marry a woman, simply because she needs him to. If I didn’t have the press notes to remind me that Amato is a trained actor, I would have sworn he was someone Crialese found in the mountains of Sicily. That is the best compliment I can pay him.

The film is filled with terrific character portraits (and I use that word deliberately because each is like an artist’s incisive painting) including: Charlotte Gainsbourg (The Science of Sleep) who plays the enigmatic Lucy; Francesco Casisa and Filippo Pucillo (both in Respiro) as Mancuso’s obliging sons as well as Aurora Quattrocchi, who is perfectly steely and unwavering as Fortunata, the family matriarch.

Production values are stunning from the stark cinematography to the mood-enhancing and sometimes anachronistic choice of music (two Nina Simone cuts) to the pace-perfect editing.

Golden Door was Italy’s 2006 Foreign Language film entry into the Oscar race. How such an extraordinary gem was overlooked (along with Almodovar’s Volver--Spain’s entry) is a question only the misguided few who selected the nominees can answer.

I don’t recall any other film that so meticulously, courageously and imaginatively depicts the emigration experience. Certain films have touched upon it. Jan Troell’s The Emigrants and The New Land are impressive achievements but mostly focused on life in America as do others like Crossing Delancy and The Godfather Part Two. Rarely has a movie allowed us to go along for the agonizing and exhilarating voyage.

This film hit me on a deeper level than I had expected. Perhaps it’s because I happen to be the son of an immigrant from Sicily. Perhaps it’s because it is simply an astonishingly great work.

Probably, both.


 


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

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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!



Paprika
Opens Friday, May 25,2007

Reviewed by Corey Ann Haydu

Satoshi Kon’s new feature length anime film, Paprika, is a complicated, exciting and larger-than-life Japanese adventure film. Anime is traditionally associated with popular children’s programming like Pokemon, but Paprika is a decidedly adult anime feature, complete with violence and nudity. The film follows the warrior/superpower principles that are the staple of Japanese anime film and television. However, this film mixes in a scientific theme and an exploration of the dream world that has distinct depth and creativity.

Paprika is the story of Dr. Atsuko Chiba, a woman with dual lives: one as a straight laced scientist and the other as a fearless warrior. Both of her two selves fight to stop the misuse of the “DC Mini”, a new invention that allows for exploration of the mind through interfering with people’s dreams by entering into their dream-worlds. Used correctly, the invention is an exciting step forward, but used without permission, the device is destructive and frighteningly powerful.

The basic plot of Paprika is solid and interesting enough to hold adult attention spans despite its anime roots. The dream world is a fascinating territory that is rarely explored in film and Paprika uses how little we know about dreams to its advantage. The fantasy element of the film is well crafted and unique. It explores the dream world with grand fearlessness, placing unusual importance on our sub-conscious selves. This is refreshing and compelling, particularly in the anime medium.

The complicated plot and themes are a strength but also a weakness. The anime characters get caught in detailed exposition, the action and fighting sequences are fantastical to the point of being overly distanced from any human reality and the film is difficult to connect to. However, when Kon focuses in on the characters relationships and uses these emotions and personalities to fuel the action, the film is impressive and intelligent.

Paprika is an arresting experience, if not an amazing film. The animation is lovely and the characters are smart and layered despite their animated status. It is always rewarding to see filmmakers experimenting and creating distinctive work in any medium. Hopefully Paprika will find its audience and succeed as a film that reaches those open to its unusual point of view.




Stephen Fell and Will Thompson's
Unborn in the USA

Opens Friday, June 15, 2007

Reviewed by Allison Ford

A good documentary may be unemotional, but it is never without a point of view. Unborn in the USA, a new documentary on the Pro-Life movement in America, walks a very thin line here, and its fair, unflinching portrayal of its subjects is both its blessing and its curse.

It is exceptionally difficult to separate the film from its politics and only critique its technical merits, considering that I spent nearly every moment of the film in a white-knuckled furor. The filmmakers, Will Thompson and Stephen Fell, were seniors at Rice University, where, as part of a Documentary Production course, they were required to create a portrait of a person they did not know. They chose the leader of the Texas Right-To-Life committee, and the project continued to grow.

Their documentary presents a series of interviews with a wide variety of pro-life activists. We see college students being fed rhetoric by Focus On the Family, a convicted murderer and clinic bomber who explains that he was acting on behalf of Jesus, and a woman who makes tiny dolls to represent fetuses. In giving the subjects an unobstructed voice, the filmmakers have allowed the pro-life agenda to express itself in its own terms, and let their actions speak for themselves.

Some of the subjects are sane, thoughtful, and rational, and some of them are not. Many come from groups with names such as “Missionaries to the Preborn,” and “Army of God.” They scream, they proselytize, they threaten and obstruct. What is obvious is that, despite its attempts to be secular, this movement is inextricably intertwined with evangelical Christianity. There is not a single interviewee that is not religiously affiliated, or at least filmed sitting in front of a row of bibles. As the activists speak to the camera, their condescension is palpable. Despite their claims to be “loving” and “charitable,” many of the interviewees quickly resort to hate speech and smug declarations of moral superiority.

The film conveys that this activism is spurned by a fanatically righteous indignation. The camera is not always kind, viewing them with an obviously skeptical eye, nor is it any kinder to the few pro-choice activists that make appearances in the film. While the pro-lifers are emotional Southern bible-beaters, the pro-choicers are seen as strident and godless.

The filmmakers have managed to create a rational, objective portrait of one of the most controversial social issues of our time. Far from the “docu-tainment” style of certain other filmmakers (that shall remain nameless), they don’t really seem to have made up their mind yet, and aren’t simply looking for clips to support a foregone conclusion. Although Thompson and Fell professed pro-choice leanings at the start of the project, they treat their interview subjects fairly, objectively, and dispassionately. They might have gone too far, though. In adhering so strictly to the rules of Documentary Production 101, the film lacks a sense of outrage or urgency that might have lent it more weight.

To anyone who has an opinion on the issue, either way, the film is extremely engrossing. The subject matter is so wrenching, so naturally full of divisiveness, it buoys the momentum, even as the film itself struggles to find footing. There is no obvious arc to the narration, and sometimes the interviews feel more like vignettes; little scenes strung together randomly. In more experienced hands, the wealth of material might have been edited more cohesively, but for first-time filmmakers, it is a remarkable effort. Fell and Thompson should be applauded for fearlessly taking on a subject so fraught with peril and emotion. Unborn in the USA takes us behind the front lines of a real war being fought all over the country, and while it doesn’t attempt to provide any new insight to the debate itself, it does remind us what’s at stake, and what many of us are fighting against.

For more information, log onto: firstrunfeatures.com/unborn_synopsis.html


 


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?


 

 



Luke Wilson’s
The Wendell Baker Story
Opens Friday, May 18, 2007

Reviewed by Ryan Eagle

The Wendell Baker Story was a pet project of Luke Wilson’s that has had to wait its turn for production and release. The collaborative effort that has all three Wilson brothers – Luke, Owen and Andrew – working together began shooting in the fall of 2003. In the time since, the brothers Wilson have put together a comedy that revolves around a kind hearted con man named Wendell Baker, played by Luke, and his fantastic voyage through romance, the Texas penal system, and a sort of hostage rescue mission staged from a vintage WWII airplane. The film should resonate with those who were fans of Luke and Owen’s work with Wes Anderson like The Royal Tenenbaums. Written by Luke, directed by Luke and Andrew and starring Owen, Luke and even Luke’s dog, Brother, this film is nepotism central.

Shot in Austin, the film is saturated with a hip, southwestern flavor. Music sets the mood for the laid back, easygoing protagonist. Classic performances from Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and other country greats provide the backbone for a great soundtrack. Feel good music sets the stage for an upbeat picture. While the film doesn’t quite get a ringing endorsement, the soundtrack does. This film’s strength is in the side dishes, not the entrée. Solid tunes are a huge plus and supporting actors come through as well.

The film leans heavily on impressive performances from Hollywood veterans like Harry Dean Stanton, Seymour Cassel and Kris Kristofferson. That’s not to say that Luke and Owen fail on screen, but reinforces the idea that seasoned pros offer the sort of depth that just can’t be extracted from the predictable, if funny sarcasm and charm of the younger Wilsons. Cassel and Stanton steal every scene they share with Luke. And Kristofferson does more with a few intense glances than most other supporting actors can muster with double the screen time. Will Ferrel gets a hefty cameo as Wendell Baker’s competition for love interest, Doreen, played by Eva Mendes. Ferrel’s scenes are short and sweet and his performances are as funny as anything in the picture.

Luke Wilson did a fine job creating a likeable miscreant in Wendell Baker. The story he wrote, however, is less carefully constructed than his own character. The film is funny and imaginative at times. It is also fragmented. A number of the scenes are successful, but they fail to mesh and therefore fail to make the movie a cohesive unit. Of course, Luke Wilson has not become bankable because he’s a brilliant screenwriter. As it stands, the story is a free spirited collection of off beat interactions and manages to be fairly entertaining.

The Wendell Baker Story is not about the intricacies of its characters or the nuances of its script. Enjoy the music, enjoy the ride and don’t think too much – kind of sounds like Luke Wilson’s general approach, doesn’t it?







Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's
28 Weeks Later
Opens May 11, 2007

Reviewed by Alison Ford

How much do we really expect from a sequel, anyways? More explosions, more guts ‘n gore, better special effects, a slightly-less-plausible plot? The basic challenge for any sequel is to retain what was unique and provocative about the original, while expanding the story and deepening the characters. This sometimes works for summer blockbusters and superhero franchises, but horror movies have it tougher, because guts ‘n gore is all they’ve got. Most sequels, also, naturally get judged against their predecessor, which can make things difficult for the sequel. The sequel should faithfully retain the essence of the original, while being able to stand alone as its own film.

The problem with 28 Weeks Later, sequel to the surprise hit 28 Days Later, is that it is a horror film, and the original was not. Despite the marketing and PR which sold it as a “sci-fi horror” flick, 28 Days Later wasn’t really about zombies (despite the actual presence of zombies). The film was really about human nature and the baser, more primitive instincts of survival. Sure there were zombies, but they weren’t the real bad guys, and they weren’t really the point of the movie.
28 Weeks Later is a film about zombies, period. Despite being produced by the creative team responsible for the original film, it has retained none of the peculiarly intimate moments, creepy subtlety, or sly social commentary. It’s a quirky British drama as reimagined by Americans who are mostly interested in blowing stuff up. Gone are the lighthearted and human moments between the characters, gutted in favor of bigger explosions. Gone is the screenplay that utilized stillness and silence, lost in favor of hackneyed dialogue and too much exposition. What’s left is a movie with a bigger body count, more guts ‘n gore, and better special effects…a classic sequel.

Despite its shortcomings when compared to the original, 28 Weeks Later is actually not a bad movie. Judged solely on its own merits, it’s fairly engrossing, although at times it owes more to films like Outbreak and Escape from New York than it does to 28 Days Later. The tone and feel is so vastly different, it’s hard to remember that it’s supposed to be a continuation of the first story.

The new plot, which picks up after Britain has been quarantined and declared virus-free, is just as eerily plausible as the first. As the American army coordinates the rebuilding, the virus finds a way to break back into the population via a “carrier,” who is infected but symptom-free. This time the outbreak is concentrated in London’s densely populated safe-zone, which creates the added fear of extermination by the army, which is currently ruling in a state of martial law.

The characters, which this time include two children, must flee not only the infected, but also the soldiers, who have been given the order for total extermination. Watching the illusion of control and its eventual breakdown is, of course, obviously reminiscent of current events, and a not-so-subtle commentary on the war in Iraq. There are many genuinely frightening moments, including a disturbing sequence shot in an abandoned subway tunnel. New director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (Intacto) utilizes much of the same frantic, searching camera style as Danny Boyle did in the original, albeit to lesser effect. It suits the pace of the movie, although there are strange, jarring flashbacks that seem contrived and out-of-place. Much of the grittiness that characterized the original is gone, except in the action sequences. Fresnadillo prefers a broader cinematic scope of wide-angle and aerial shots, which is well-utilized in the sweeping vistas of the abandoned city. Catherine McCormack is extremely creepy in her small part as the mother of the family. In two of the more devastating moments of the film, Robert Carlyle, as the devoted husband and father, abandons his wife to the infected in order to save himself, and two American soldiers (played by Rose Byrne and Jeremy Renner) risk their own lives for the children, who could provide a cure to the virus.

28 Weeks Later is best viewed as a horror movie in its own right. From a technical standpoint, the film has a decent amount of merit, including a decent screenplay and solid (if not terribly original) direction. However, it lacks the innovation and quirkiness that made the first film so interesting. As the follow-up to a truly unique and disturbing film, it disappoints, since all that’s left now is the zombies.


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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