Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s
Opens Friday, October 27, 2006
Reviewed by Frank J. Avella
not an easy sit. It is not a fun sit or a particularly
pleasant one. It is, however, a sense-challenging,
hypnotic and transcendent piece of cinema.
Like Amores Perros and 21 Grams
before it, the film is a rather doomy and gloomy
meditation on what unites humanity. Collaborating
a third time, gifted director Alejandro Gonzalez
Inarritu and maze-obsessed screenwriter Guillermo
Arriaga once again mess with traditional narrative
space and time to create a potent visual and aural
experience that seems to be warning us to take
better care of our children.
three different story-segments on three separate
continents to deliver one punch of a flick. In
Moroco, a reckless young boy aims a newly-acquired
gun at a tourist bus, trying to prove to his brother
that the bullets can reach that far. This lapse
in logic results in the near-fatal shooting of
an American woman, who is traveling with her husband
after a family tragedy. Their children are back
at home in the US being cared for by a loving
nanny, who makes her own consequence-filled choice
to attend her son’s wedding in Mexico. Finally,
a sexually-awakened young deaf girl in Tokyo,
who recently lost her mother to suicide, is spurned
by each and every man and boy she attempts to
These plots, teeming
with loss, lack of communication and the need
for redemption hold Babel together pretty
sturdily. Inarritu is a master of image maneuver,
but here sound (or lack thereof) becomes just
as important to the narrative. Editing is crucial
as well, visually and sound-wise and the use of
deliberately jarring cuts work most effectively.
Lest he be accused
of filmic dazzle over substance, Inarritu has
assembled a terrific cast who provide their own
character nuances. They include: the fine Cate
Blanchett, Brad Pitt (who has a final reel phone
moment that is remarkable), the ubiquitous Gael
Garcia Bernal, the extraordinary Rinko Kikuchi
and Adriana Barraza, in a heartbreaking turn.
forces the viewer to examine his/her own prejudices.
but is NOT contrived or pandering in the way last
year’s Crash was. And although
there is a connection between all these characters,
it’s the human connection that is ultimately
Opens Friday, December 8, 2006
Reviewed by Frank
An admirable filmic
endeavor, Blood Diamond works more than
it doesn’t but that is mostly due to it’s
three lead performances.
A tale of recent
horrific greed and what it does to men, the movie
is set in Sierra Leone, Africa in 1999, and focuses
on an amoral diamond smuggler and a native fisherman
who’s family is torn apart by the explosive
war caused by those seeking the coveted gems.
Add an enterprising female reporter into the mix
and you have the makings of quite an intense story.
director Ed Zwick loves to fall back on his typical
bombastic, action-adventure-y style (painfully
evident in the irritating 2004 debacle The
Last Samurai) which robs the film of a lot
of it’s power.
Yet when he allows
the human element to take center stage, Blood
Diamond soars, specifically when depicting
the plight of the Djimon Hounsou character in
trying to find his family and, surprisingly, in
the film’s love story. It is most refreshing
to find a Hollywood film where two people ooze
sexual chemistry but never even get to kiss onscreen
(making the final reel all the more poignant).
as the mercenary Danny Archer, proves mighty impressive,
acting the shit out of the part and making all
the right choices. DiCaprio makes Danny real and
believable even when the script does all it can
to the contrary. Setting this performance side
by side with his razor-sharp turn in Martin Scorsese’s
The Departed places Leo at the top of
the acting game in this country right now.
and underrated Jennifer Connelly imbues the all-too
cliche’ role of the ambitious reporter with
humanity and wit. Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda in
The China Syndrome) and Megan Carter
(Sally Field in Absence of Malice) would
is raw, explosive and heartbreaking as Solomon
Vandy, a man who will do anything to find his
is very exciting to watch, although many of the
more violent scenes feel repetitive and look too
computer-generated. Zwick should have kept it
grounded in realism instead of resorting to cheap
But as the riveting
Constant Gardener did last year in exposing
the pharmaceutical industry, Blood Diamond
should succeed in making anyone craving a diamond
think twice before they make the purchase.
Q Allan Brocka’s
Opens Friday, March 23.
Reviewed by Frank
J. Avella at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival
is that rare gay film that does not strictly exist
to show pretty boys having sex. Now, while it
does, indeed, feature pretty boys having sex,
but these hotties happen to be richly nuanced,
complex human characters. That alone sets it apart
from your standard homoflick.
A pungently satiric
voice-over permeates the story of X, a sexy and
unapologetic male escort (to twelve, mostly elderly,
clients) who is living in a quasi-Noel Coward-esque
situation with his two gay roomies. Joey is a
promiscuous teen deeply in love with X who has
his own crush on newly-out hunk Andrew. X has
recently begun to service an agoraphobic older
gentleman named Gregory whose stories of his amorous
past force X to face a few emotional truths about
One of the chief
joys of Boy Culture is that it refuses
to force traditional heterosexual romance notions
on it’s homosexual characters, the way most
queer films do. These are gay men and an important
part of their culture is having sex. Hipgayhooray
to Brocka for realizing this.
The central performance
is key to Boy Culture’s success
and while Derek Maygar smolders with raw sexual
intensity, he is more than capable of the range
of emotions needed to take us inside X’s
paradoxically narcissistic and yet uncertain head.
The other two leads
aren’t quite as strong as Maygar. Daryl
Stephens’ Andrew appears a bit too tentative
and Jonathan Trent overflits a bit too much as
the crowd-pleaser, Joey--which isn’t to
say they don’t have solid moments. Patrick
Bauchau delivers a potent and memorable performance
represents a nice step forward in queer cinema.
Brian W. Cook’s
Colour Me Kubrick
Reviewed by Frank
J. Avella at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival
If Philip Seymour
Hoffman can win an Oscar for impersonating Truman
Capote then, by God, John Malkovich must win one
for impersonating Alan Conway impersonating Stanley
One of the great
joys of the Tribeca Film Festival so far, Colour
Me Kubrick is a wickedly yummy, semi-truthful
account of an audacious and quite unbelievable
Cook and screenwriter Anthony Frewin (both of
whom are past Kubrick collaborators) have crafted
one of the most original works in recent memory,
perhaps since--ironically enough--Being John
Around the time
of the making of Kubrick’s final film Eyes
Wide Shut in the late 1990’s, a man
by the name of Alan Conway got away with pretending
to be the elusive auteur, despite the fact that
he looked nothing like Kubrick and never really
bothered to educate himself about the master’s
body of work.
The real Kubrick
lived a hermetic existence in the last three decades
of his life.
In the film, Conway
sweet talks to bed young guys as well as con many
other folks out of money, time and amenities.
Using many an odd
American accent and wearing the most outrageous
frocks, Malkovich delights as the charlatan with
no moral conscience. This is the performance of
his career and Malk is a marvel frame after delicious
jokes are hysterical as well. At one point in
the film Conway (posing as Kubrick of course)
is asked what he is working on next. His reply:
“3001: A Space Odyssey with John
Malkovich in the lead.”
Cook pays homage
to the great Kubrick by using the same rich colors
he used in his films, even borrowing the same
music. Camerawork, art direction and costumes
are all superb. The pic is cut together masterfully
and Bryan Adam’s original score soars.
Colour Me Kubrick
is the reason festivals like Tribeca exist:
to introduce the world to refreshing, innovative
films that defy genre and easy description but
provide cinema-goers with a richly rewarding experience.
Kudos to the filmmakers for their daring; to the
real Conway for his unapologetic chutzpah and
to John Malkovich for his unabashed fearlessness.
Opens Friday, October 6, 2006
by Frank J. Avella
So Martin Scorsese
doesn’t have a best director Academy Award.
Neither does Robert Altman. What do the two master
filmmakers have in common besides being seventies
mavericks, without Oscars, who are still working?
Well, both happen to be turning out some of the
best films of the new millennium. Neither show
any signs of slowing down. And both have made
spectacular films this year (Altman’s is
Prairie Home Companion).
to feel most at home when he’s tacking crime.
And The Departed, ironic title notwithstanding,
is quite the filmically fascinating homecoming
for him. Scorsese’s brilliant technique
has gotten more interesting to watch and his ability
to glean the best from his actor’s is perfectly
evident in his new pic.
and especially bloody in the final reel, The
Departed is also wickedly witty with moments
of intense and dizzying suspense.
Loosely based on
a Hong Kong thriller, Infernal Affairs,
and inventively penned by William Monahan, the
story revolves and unravels around a powerful
mobster named Costello and the two cops who work
for him--one of whom is actually operating as
an informer. How these two VERY different officers
(one a street-smart thug, the other an ambitious
slickster) manage to try to outwit one another
and Costello is part of the exhilarating plot.
finally proves he’s deserving of all the
praise that was heaped upon him when Titanic
docked nine years ago. The ferocity he brings
to the role of hothead Billy Costigan propels
him to the ranks of serious actor. It’s
a stirring performance.
The always dashing
Matt Damon cuts quite the nasty yet paradoxical
figure as Costello’s inside man, Colin Sullivan.
Damon charms even when he’s cutthroat.
In a film filled
with fantastic acting, Mark Wahlberg manages to
steal every scene he is in as a vulgar, no-nonsense
sergeant. If there’s any justice this overlooked
thesp will finally snag an Oscar nomination.
Adding to the luster
of the fine ensemble are wonderful turns by Vera
Farmiga, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Ray Winstone.
The casting of
Jack Nicholson as the feared mob boss Costello,
may have appeared odd to some and I’m sure
certain critics will yelp that Nicholson is simply
doing his old shtick. Bollocks to those fools!
Nicholson manages to etch a dastardly and horrific
portrayal of a vicious brute who has grown rightfully
paranoid. Yes, he’s a raving nut, but Jack
tempers the character with a surprising bored-with-his-life
spin. It’s one of the year’s best
performances from one of our best and most treasured
is like cinematic hashish. It makes you feel
joyous. A rare emotion you want to keep alive...for
as long as you can! Thank you, Mr. Scorsese!
Reviewed by Frank
Four years ago Rob Marshall revitalized the movie
musical with the delicious and delightful Chicago
which went on to deservedly win the Best Picture
Academy Award. Since then we have been assaulted
with such hodgepodge cinema-horrors asPhantom
of the Opera and The Producers,
near destroying all hopes for the future of the
genre...until now. Thank God for Bill Condon (the
Chicago screenwriter, irony notwithstanding).
Condon has proven
himself a fantastic filmmaker with the remarkable
Gods and Monsters in 1998 (which won
him the Best Original Screenplay Oscar) as well
as the controversial and highly underrated Kinsey
This year he has
taken a so-so Broadway show and turned it into
a dazzling, insightful and invigorating film.
One that will be a force to be reckoned with come
The simple rise-to-fame
story of a Motown-esque trio and the avaricious
manager that guides them is given a fanciful and
much-improved screen adaptation. Condon is a master
of the visual (borrowing occasionally from Rob
Marshall) and his magical use of mirrors and sweeping
camerawork is a tribute to the original Dreamgirls
creator, Michael Bennett.
The Broadway musical,
Dreamgirls, was ‘loosely’
based on Diana Ross and the Supremes. Everyone
figured that one out. The film version is even
more tongue-in-cheek obvious with Knowles looking
and sounding like Ms. Ross in key moments from
her early career.
The joy of what
Condon has done is that we never feel that the
actors are bursting into song just to burst into
song. The songs are actual performed musical numbers
until halfway through the film when he seamlessly
makes the transition to musical dialogue, culminating
with Effie’s soul-piercing, “And I
Am Telling You.”
While I highly
recommend Dreamgirls, the film is not
perfect. There are a few wince-inducing cliche’
moments and certain characters who don’t
quite achieve three-dimensionally. But the good
far outweighs the not-so-good.
The heart and soul
of the film is Effie and she is brilliantly embodied
by Jennifer Hudson. This is a staggering film
debut and Hudson is assured an Oscar nomination
and, probably, the award itself. (Her only real
competition, in my mind, is Cate Blanchett who
sears the screen with her raw intensity in Notes
on a Scandal).
power-ballad, “And I Am Telling You,”
long associated with Jennifer Holiday (who had
a hit single with it in the early 80’s)
makes the song her own in a marvelous moment of
desperation. But it’s her second tour de
force number, “I Am Changing” that
proves the moving and defining showstopper of
Knowles’ Deena Jones isn’t a very
strongly defined character through most of the
film, but in the final reel where she belts the
killer new song, “Listen”, we are
finally allowed a peek into what makes Deena tick.
It’s a wonderful moment for Knowles as she
is allowed to express what she has been repressing
for too long.
Jamie Foxx is saddle
with playing a rather villainous cad but he gives
the part depth and a strange poignancy. It’s
good work from the Ray-man.
turn by Eddie Murphy is, indeed, the best performance
of his career--but, let’s face facts--that
isn’t saying much! However, Murphy is strong
and in his last few scenes, where he doesn’t
say much, is quite impressive.
Anika Noni Rose near-steals all her early scenes
with quite the comic gifts. The script seems to
let her fall by the wayside, which is unfortunate
since she’s another potential star on the
Tech credits are
outstanding across the boards with spectacular
photography by Tobias Schliessler as well as fabulous
costumes (by Sharen Davis), perfect period production
designs (by John Myhre) and razzle-dazzle editing
(via Virginia Katz).
One walks away
entertained by the film and blown away by Ms.
Opens Friday, February 9, 2007
Reviewed by Frank
The good news is
Hannibal Rising is better than Red
Dragon! The not-so-good news is that, when
you strip it down, it’s a pretty standard
revenge thriller. But, I must admit, it is a prettified
dandy of a tasty one!
The latest chapter
in the Hannibal franchise attempts to answer the
burning question, “Why does he do what he
This is the first
film written by the author Thomas Harris, who
was approached by producer Dino De Laurentiis
about the idea of answering the oft-asked query.
The movie begins
in Eastern Europe in 1944 as a 9-year old Hannibal
watches his parents succumb to a violent end.
He and his younger sister, Mischa, are taken prisoner
by a group of mercenary Lithuanian bandits and
he is soon witness to an unspeakable act that
changes him forever.
Eight years later,
Hannibal flees his orphanage and ends up in Paris
at the home of his Japanese aunt, the Lady Muraski.
Plagued by what occurred years earlier, the boy
becomes hellbent on vengeance, seeking out the
war criminals and making them pay for what they
did to his sister.
From the film’s
first arachnid visual shot to it’s spectacularly
gruesome series of stunning slayings, Hannibal
Rising is always engrossing and absorbing,
even when the script is cliche’ and tiresome.
Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) has
fashioned a stark and brutal but simultaneously
gorgeous and sumptuous looking film and impresses
with his directorial choices.
(A Very Long Engagement) has the difficult
role of Hannibal. Difficult because he isn’t
Anthony Hopkins. That said, the actor is delectably
devilish as Lector. Frightening when he needs
to be and chilling when we least expect it. And
he seems to relish the role. He is a fine cannibal,
thespian, Gong Li (Raise the Red Lantern),
is especially fascinating as the enigmatic Lady
Muraski. Incredibly sexy and protective of Hannibal,
Li shows a remarkable poignancy in her portrayal,
yet we are able to completely buy into her spurts
Dominic West (Chicago)
makes the most of his underwritten but still intriguing
are splendid throughout, specifically Ben Davis’
photography and Allan Starski’s production
The chief problem
with the film lies in Thomas Harris’ screenplay.
I don’t doubt that Harris is a talented
writer, but screenwriting is not his forte. To
bring up one of many script issues: no less than
three main character lost their entire families
in the war.
Harris madly misteps
in making the bandits so evil they have no nuances
whatsoever. I realize this was probably done to
gain sympathy for Lector, but we go into the film
feeling a strange kinship with him because of
Hopkins’ remarkable, Oscar-winning portrayal.
These villains are so horrific that we relish
in their twisted and gory demises which makes
the film have a great deal more in common with
most revenge flicks or even a generic slasher
pic than with Silence of the Lambs.
The film seems
to be afraid to truly probe why the boy becomes
a cannibal, which is frustrating because there’s
where it could have dipped into the original.
And the reasons presented for his turning to serial
killing are understandable if pat.
Hannibal is a borderline
hero in Hannibal Rising. which is such
a shame and does a disservice to his character.
Still, the movie is a thrill ride and I found
myself quite entertained.
Chris Rock, Kerry Washington
and Gina Tores in I Think I Love My Wife
I Think I Love My Wife
Opens March 16, 2007
Starring: Chris Rock;
Kerry Washington; Gina Torres; and Steve Buscemi.
There is no doubt that Chris Rock is a meg-talented
man! Just for starters, he is hysterical. And
he looks at the middle-class black experience
with an unflinching eye; this guy is a truth teller.
And with his desire
to tell true stories about black middle class
families, he and fellow screen writer Louis C.K.
set out to remake a French film for American audiences,
Eric Rohmer’s Chloe in the Afternoon.
Chloe is the story of a happily (?) married
businessman who develops an afternoon friendship
with the former mistress of an old friend.
I think the story
Rock was trying to tell was that of a Casper Milk
Toast suburban father who hears the siren’s
call to a wild and wonderful single life and is
forced to reexamine his priorities. But somehow
it just doesn’t quite work.
Chris Rock (as investment banker protagonist Richard
Cooper), and Kerry Washington (as afternoon delight
Nikki), seem to be on entirely different story
paths – almost like they each had their
own director. Rock is acting in a comedy about
a married businessman who is enticed to enter
into an affair with a character that could have
easily been played by a young (or for that matter
present day) Goldie Hawn. Washington is telling
an entirely different story. She is acting in
a drama about a young woman who is at a crossroads
in her clubbing life and is on the cusp of a decision
to leave her world and join the world of middle
class married couples. In the spirit of the ancient
Buddhist proverb that states that, “When
the student is ready, the teacher will appear,”
Washington’s character Nikki wants to take
Rock’s “Coop” out for a test
ride to see just how he feels. But Nikki has already
made up her mind and is simply testing her “null
The movie is best
with the scenes about the black experience of
suburban life. The scene about the conversations
that black couples always have when they
go out to dinner together (the Michael Jackson
bit etc.) is utterly hysterical. And the scenes
where Rock’s movie wife Brenda (played by
Gina Torres) attempts to raise two black children
in a white paradise are very evocative and telling.
And the movie is to be applauded for showing the
true life of hot young club chicks. When Washington’s
character Nikki moves out of her boyfriend’s
apartment, she moves into a SRO in a beat up building
in Harlem; there are no Friends style
Steve Buscemi does
a fine job playing Rock’s co-worker, George.
But Buscemi’s wild and whacky talents are
not tapped in what is a straight side kick role.
I Love My Wife is a film that could have
benefited from an outside director who could have
taken a step back, seen the big picture and synchronized
the two main character’s story lines (and
perhaps utilized Buscemi). But as I said before,
Chris Rock is a mega-talented man and I bet he
has all of this figured out by the next time one
of his films leave the paddock.
Letters from Iwo Jima
Opens Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Reviewed by Frank J. Avella
is one of the greatest directors working today.
Quite simply put, in his twilight years he has
managed to create some of the most original and
indelible cinematic achievements ever.
In 1992, he reinvented
the western with Unforgiven. Two years
ago, he re-envisioned the boxing movie in a way
that was startling and refreshing with Million
This year he wasn’t
afraid to tell the complex and painful tale of
the allies landing on Iwo Jima in Flags of
Our Fathers, and the very disturbing and
unpopular aftermath--once the flag boys came home.
Now, less than
two months later, in a rare and admirable move,
Warner Brothers and Dreamworks are releasing his
companion piece to Flags, Letters from Iwo
Jima, completely told from the Japanese perspective.
It is, far and away, the best film of 2006.
I have seen many
films this year (over 150) and some have been
quite impressive. A few (Little Children,
The Departed, The Queen) could
have easily been chosen the best of any other
year. Any year that did not include Letters
from Iwo Jima.
The power of Letters
lies in it’s telling a simple story in a
new and exciting way.
In most Hollywood
war movies, there are good guys and bad guys.
The good guys die for the noblest of causes. The
bad guys are evil and when they perish, we are
happy. The twain shall never meet. It cannot.
Who would the audience root for? And when there
are Americans involved, they must always be the
good guys. They have to be. And there is always
honor in dying for a cause. There must be, otherwise
we’d have no justification for war.
these notions out to sea and demands the viewer
look at war and the “enemy” in a human
way. The genius of his method is that he uses
the structure we expect from the genre and then
forces us to see different things from it. He
shows us how quickly and easily the lines of friend/enemy
blur. We see a people that are, gads, just like
us--fighting for their beloved country and constantly
thinking about their families back home. But isn’t
that what our men did in WW2? Isn’t that
what they are doing right now in Iraq?
These people are
Japanese. They were part of the evil Axis of Power.
We hated them. We wanted them dead. We nuked them.
decision to tell a sympathetic story about the
Japanese must have raised many an eyebrow. His
choice to have the film completely spoken in the
Japanese language must’ve sent shock waves
through both studios. Yet he achieved what no
other American director could. He has made a foreign-language
film that feels like it was actually made in Japan.
Finally, the story
Clint has decided to tell is not of an arrogant,
victorious group of soldiers, but of a people
doomed to defeat, who go into the battle with
this foreknowledge. They know they will die. They
know they will never see their loved ones again.
And still they fight. With dignity. And a touch
of sadness. Not since Richard Attenborough’s
underrated 1977 epic, A Bridge Too Far,
has an ill-fated moment in history been so daringly
takes great pains to make the viewer understand
the Japanese mindset when it comes to dying for
ones country, suicide and the importance of honor
at all costs.
Inspired by a book
of Japanese correspondences, the script was written
by Iris Yamashita, based on a story by Ms. Yamashita
and Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar
Baby, Flags of Our Fathers). The
main characters include: the suave Lt. Gen. Tadamichi
Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) who masterminded the
digging of the tunnels; Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya)
a baker who has no desire to be a part of the
battle; the gung ho Lieutenant Ito (Shidou Nakamura)
and an Olympic equestrian Baron named Nishi (Tsuyoshi
Unlike the aforementioned
Bridge Too Far which was peppered with
an all-star cast, Eastwood has chosen mostly unknown
Asians, directing them in a language he is unfamiliar
with. The surprising result is one the best acting
ensembles of the year.
The film is nicely
grounded by Watanabe’s dignified and nuanced
performance. He commands the screen as he commands
his troops. Ninomiya is a revelation as Saigo,
a character filled with conflicting feelings.
It’s emotionally rich work and he deserves
Made in thirty-two
days on the Warners lot right after Flags
completed shooting, with a budget of $20
million, Letters from Iwo Jima is a brutal,
devastating and profound cinematic gem and placed
with Flags, one of the most astonishing
filmic experiences in the history of the medium.
I, for one, cannot
wait to see what Clint is going to do next.
(On an interesting
Academy Awards note, in 2004 the never-Oscared
Martin Scorsese went into the homestretch as the
front-runner with The Aviator. Out of
nowhere Warners decided to release Million
Dollar Baby months ahead of schedule. That
film and Eastwood took home the Oscars. This year,
Scorsese was pretty assured of his first Oscar
for The Departed, that is until Letters
was rushed into a year-end release, qualifying
it for 2006. Now sentiment may rule the day and
Scorsese may finally win his much deserved award.
But if the Oscar was being given on merit alone,
Clint would be taking home his third Best director
Opened Friday, October 6, 2006
Reviewed at the 2006 New York Film Festival
Reviewed by Frank
premiered at the New York Film Festival and opened
Friday, October 6th
The less written
about Little Children, the long-awaited
follow-up to Todd Field’s riveting In
The Bedroom, the better. Not because it isn’t
a good film. Quite the contrary, Little Children
is, by far, one of the best film’s of 2006.
Based on the novel
by Tom Perrotta, the pic has been admirably adapted
by Mr. Perrotta and Mr. Field to tell a startling
and penetrating story. Field masterfully directs
his actors, all of whom deliver rich and nuanced
performances, some of the most intrusive you’ll
see onscreen this year.
To give away too
much about Little Children or discuss
key scenes would be to rob the audiences of one
of the most rewarding filmgoing experiences. Suffice
to synopsize that the plot focuses on a gaggle
of suburbanites whose lives intersect (mostly
around a playground) in surprising, exciting,
uncomfortable and, ultimately, profound ways.
But realize, Little
Children is no contrived bevvy of manipulations
along the lines of last years ridiculously overrated
Crash.The film is filled with fascinating
themes rarely explored onscreen so intelligently.
And the tone is somewhere between where realism
and melodrama meet.
The brilliant ensemble
is flawless, beginning with a magically transformed
Kate Winslet. Always mesmerizing, this is her
finest hour (which is saying a great deal when
you stack up her work in Sense and Sensibility,
Titanic, Iris and Eternal
Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and solidifies
her standing as the most outstanding actress of
terrific in Hard Candy earlier in the
year, delivers a career-making turn. It would
be too easy to overlook the importance of his
potent portrayal of a perfect looking, all-American
jock who has never grown up.
Jackie Earle Haley
is to be commended for taking on a difficult role
and fearlessly diving into it with his entire
being. It’s remarkable work from an actor
who hasn’t been seen in movies in a few
The beautiful Jennifer
Connelly fascinates with her role as the perfect
wife. Powerhouse Phyliss Somerville impresses
as a fiercely protective mother. Noah Emmerich
amazes in a role that could easily have been one-dimensional.
Also of note is Jane Adams who appears briefly,
yet leaves quite the lasting impression.
is an incredibly smart and extraordinary piece
of cinema. It is unafraid to explore its characters,
warts and all, and delve into their psyches. Sometimes
what is discovered isn’t very easy to watch
but is worth the anguish.
See it. You will
not leave the theatre unaffected.
Opens March 30, 2007
Reviewed by Frank
For those of us
who thought last year’s overhyped Little
Miss Sunshine was really a Hollywood-movie-wannabe
dressed up in faux indie garb, The Lookout
is quite the refreshing antidote. It’s the
While it may be
seemingly unfair to compare a quirky, grittily
pungent neo-noir flick to a quirky and admittedly-funny
road-movie comedy, they do share the ‘quirky’
gene. LMS felt contrived-quirky while
The Lookout’s quirks seem genuinely
Scott Frank (the Elmore Leonard pics: Get
Shorty & Out of Sight) makes
a most promising directorial debut. And while
he stays within his safe crime caper parameters,
he also shows he can master the art of the character-study
while immensely entertaining his audience.
plot is centered on golden boy Chris Pratt (Joseph
Gordon-Levitt), a midwesterner who leads a charmed
life: he’s a high school sports god with
rich parents and a gorgeous girlfriend. But one
fateful day, he loses everything--including his
short term memory--in a freak car crash that he,
pretty much, causes.
is now barely able to do day-to-day chores without
reading from notes on a piece of paper. He is
employed as a janitor in a bank and lives with
a blind curmudgeon named Lewis (Jeff Daniels).
Into his rather-pathetic
life breezes shady Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode)
who claims to have dated Chris’ sister in
high school. Gary introduces our boy to Luvlee
(Isla Fisher), a sexy stripper who makes Chris
feel sexually alive again. But Gary has a master
plan: to rob the bank where Chris works. The mayhem
that ensues infuses the film with its gripping
If film selection
counts for anything (and it does) Joseph Gordon-Levitt
is one of the brainiest and commendable risk-takers
on the indie scene. He has nicely rid himself
of the Tiger Beat stigma that followed his stint
on the hilarious TV show, 3rd Rock from the
Sun, proving quite chilling and effective
in 2005’s disturbing Mysterious Skin and
last year’s Brick. In The Lookout
he etches another skilled and character-invasive
portrait. This guy isn’t afraid to strip
away the bullshit onscreen and it’s fascinating
to watch. If he keeps it up, he’ll find
himself in Gosling-Oscar-nomination-land!
Matthew Goode was
so good (you can intend the pun or not) as the
affluent tennis player in Woody Allen’s
Match Point. Here, he is unrecognizable,
transforming himself into a conniving and sleazy
manipulator. This actor is an amazing chameleon!
The once matinee-idol-y
Jeff Daniels has physically turned into Jabba
the Hut, but his acting chops have never been
better and here he does some of his best work
since his first film, Terms of Endearment,
twenty-four years ago.
Isla Fisher is
quite good as the coulda-been cliche’ stripper
with a heart of gold--we hope...
The film has a
few minor irritations: some plot points are never
cleared up and a few dots are left unconnected--especially
about Gary and Luvlee’s real motivations
(I always suspected they were siblings who were
related to one of the accident victims and were
seeking revenge). Carla Gugino disappears from
the canvas way too quickly. And the ending was
a bit too pat for my taste. But, trust me; these
caveats do not take away from a terrific film
that deserves to find a huge audience!
Opens January 5th New York City
Zellweger; Ewan McGregor; and Emily Watson.
Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams
(of Babe fame) Miss Potter
tells the story of an odd little duckling named
Beatrix Potter, who grew up to become the writer
and illustrator of some of the world’s most
beloved children’s books:"The Tales
of Peter Rabbit" and "Jemima Puddle-Duck."
Beatrix was born
in 1866 into an English middle class family which
had aspirations to be upwardly mobile socially.
Beatrix’s mother planned to have her daughter
advance the family by making an advantageous marriage.
had been a lonely child (her mother was overbearing)
and had retreated into a world of fantasy. And
it was a world of fantasy that sprung from her
love of nature and the land. She would spend long
hours in her room, practicing drawing her many
pet animals. And all this drawing culminated in
the first illustrated Peter Rabbit book which
she “womanfully” kept presenting to
publishers, only to be rejected time and again.
But as in all good
stories, finally there is some light. She takes
the book to Warne Brothers Publishers and while
one of the brothers thinks the book is silly,
another of the brothers thinks that this simple
little book would be a fine project for the youngest
brother of their family, Norman (Ewan McGregor).
likes the book and what’s more, he likes
Beatrix. He introduces her to his family, including
his feminist sister, Miller (Emily Watson). And
what’s more, he collaborates with Beatrix,
giving her opinions the respect that she has never
received at home. And they fall in love, much
to the chagrin of her parents who are horrified
to think about their daughter marrying a man who
works for a living. There is a true irony here
because by the time Beatrix and Norman truly fall
in love, Beatrix has become a widely popular children’s
book author with her own income, so she is also
working for her living.
The movie then follows Beatrix through the rest
of her life as she buys a farm and moves to the
Lake District and recreates in her life the fantasy
world of nature that she loved as a child. During
her time in the Lake District, Beatrix bought
many farms to prevent them from being purchased
by developers. And when she died, she gave these
working farms to the National Trust.
This movie is charming.
The actors give quiet nuanced performances and
Chris Noonan (with the help of Richard Maltby’s
skillfully written script) tells a beautiful story
about one of literature’s favorite authors.
It is also beautifully filmed; the scenes in the
English countryside are gorgeous.
And this film will
definitely find an audience. At the press conference,
actress and producer Renee Zellweger was adamant
that this is not a chick flick. She felt strongly
that the film has universal themes about overcoming
obstacles and finding love and would appeal to
a wide audience. But I walked away from the film
filled with feelings of nostalgia for the charming
Potter books that I read to my children and also
for Potter’s charming drawings which I had
purchased to hang on the walls of their nursery.
And I bet if I attend a screening after it opens,
the audience will be filled with women just like
The Painted Veil
Opens Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Wendy R. Williams
Edward Norton; Naomi Watts; Live Schreiber;
Toby Keith; Diana Rigg; and Anthony Wong.
The Painted Veil (based on the W. Somerset
Maugham novel of the same name) is a poignantly
beautiful Merchant Ivory style period piece.
Here is a quote
from the press release: “Based on the
classic novel by W. Somerset Maugham, The
Painted Veil, set in the 1920s, is the
love story of a young English couple, Walter,
a middle class doctor, and Kitty, an upper-class
woman, who gets married for the wrong reasons
and relocates to Shanghai, where she falls in
love with someone else. When he uncovers her
infidelity, in an act of vengeance, he accepts
a job in a remote village in China ravaged by
a deadly epidemic, and takes her along. Their
journey brings meaning to their relationship
and gives them purpose in one of the most remote
and beautiful places on earth.”
by Naomi Watts) and her soon-to-be husband,
Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton), meet in London.
Walter is a scientist (bacteriologist) in town
on business and his main business seems to be
to “shop” for a wife. He is introduced
to Kitty (a pretty vain young woman) by her
father, a man who has an unmarried daughter
on his hands who is perhaps getting too close
to thirty. In 1920’s London, marriage
was still considered to be a financial transaction
and this is certainly the view held by Kitty’s
parents and by Walter. Walter is a young man
with prospects and he views the selection of
a wife the same way one would view purchasing
a home. And it never occurs to him that his
new wife would be anything but delighted with
the arrangement; he is not vain, he is simply
adding up the numbers.
certainly not a feminist, has a different view
of the world; she is bored, vapid and indecisive.
So off she goes to Shanghai as the new wife
of Dr. Walter Fane, the young scientist with
prospects. There she meets a dashing young diplomat,
English Vice Consul Charles Townsend (played
by Liev Schreiber) and embarks on a torrid affair
with as little thought beforehand as she gave
marrying a stranger and moving to Shanghai.
And this torrid affair is soon discovered by
her now horribly disillusioned and vindictive
husband who gives Kitty the choice of going
off to the provinces with him while he fights
a cholera epidemic or being divorced and disgraced.
It seems that Kitty's lover, Townsend, is an
old fashioned cad and no help whatsoever. So
off goes Kitty, with her flapper clothing and
lace umbrella, to unwillingly “stand by
her man” as he fights cholera in the provinces.
There the story
changes: Guangxi Province (the location of the
Walter’s new appointment) is a stunningly
beautiful place with soaring mountains and wonderfully
lush vegetation; the cinematography is breathtaking.
Walter is immediately thrown into his work and
Kitty is pretty much left to her own devices.
She meets the neighbor, Waddington (played by
Infamous’ incredibly talented
Toby Keith), who is living a life of dissolution
which is predictably attractive to Kitty. But
she also ventures into town where she begins
to spend time at the orphanage/hospital and
meets the nuns and the Mother Superior (played
by the incomparable Diana Rigg).
And for the first
time in her life, Kitty is needed for something;
there is an enormous amount of work to be done
at the orphanage and some very appealing orphans.
And by getting out of herself and giving of
herself, she begins to change. And as she changes,
she forces Walter to see her in a new light.
And Walter is
also forced to change and reexamine his rigid
view of the world by his interaction with the
local Chinese Colonel Yu (played by Chinese
actor Anthony Wong). Yu has a jaundiced view
of the help he is receiving from England, a
country that is both sending scientists to help
them and soldiers to shoot at them.
There are many
things that are wonderful about this film. The
acting is superb and skillfully directed. Naomi
Watts and Edward Norton react to each other
like a beautifully timed Swiss watch. And Liev
Schreiber, Toby Keith, Diana Rigg and Anthony
Wong are simply great in their roles. Ron Nyswaner
did a fine job of adapting Maugham’s novel
to the screen. And as I mentioned before, the
scenery is simply stunning and so are the sets.
But I have to
rave about the costumes; the costumes are simply
magnificent. Costume designer Ruth Myers (The
Addams Family and Emma) outdid
herself; Kitty’s clothes are gorgeous.
They change from the more frivolous flapper
dresses of the London and Shanghai scenes to
the softer colors in the provincial scenes,
but all of them could walk down the runway at
Bryant Park today.
Opens Friday, September 29, 2006
Opening Night Film of the New York Film Festival
Reviewed at the 2006 New York Film Festival
Reviewed by Frank J. Avella
Edgy and ballsy
simply for taking on a living monarch, Stephen
Frears’ The Queen also proves
to be a fascinating, smart and insightful chronicle
of one extraordinary week back in the late summer
of 1997 that would change the world view of
the Royals forever.
was a mythic figure alive. Her death--the death
of the “People’s Princess”--seemed
to overwhelm England and the world with a profound
grief that would quickly turn to anger (I recall
that Mother Theresa had the misfortune to die
the same week, receiving virtually a footnote
worth of media attention in comparison). Much
of that anger was directed at the Royal family,
specifically the Queen and how she publicly
refused to react to the tragedy.
Raised to behave
a certain way when it came to personal matters
like grief, Queen Elizabeth and the crowns remained
true to protocol form and stayed quiet at their
Scottish retreat in Balmoral as the world publicly
mourned. Were it not for the urgings of the
newly elected Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who
carefully talked the Queen into journeying to
London for a long overdue public statement,
it’s quite possible the English people
might have demanded the abolishment of the monarchy
itself. A gross overreaction? That is something
The Queen leaves for the viewers to
Peter Morgan has taken this audacious subject
matter and treated it with an intelligence and
understanding of all sides involved.
The truly amazing
feat is accomplished by the fearless Helen Mirren
who allows the audience to understand this complex
and difficult figurehead and forgive her proprietary
ways. Mirren’s superb performance is a
meticulous combination of perfect mimicry of
speech and movement as well as ingenius incorporation
of backstory psychology--she enables us to empathize
with this superwoman without feeling the need
to pander by sentimentalizing her. It’s
enough to know that she was NOT destined to
become Queen at birth. The throne was thrust
upon her and she was forced to rule. She did
so without ever looking back and Mirren’s
portrayal embodies this strong, courageous,
ensemble are extraordinary as well. Michael
Sheen, in particular, shines as the young, ambitious
yet starstruck Blair who is truly trying to
save the day: “Will someone please save
these people from themselves.” Blair feels
tremendously for the Queen and Sheen dazzles
in a powerful third act speech defending her
majesty to his disillusioned staff.
are grand across the boards. Special kudos to
Alexandre Desplat’s most effective score.
decision to use real footage, especially that
of Diana, proves incredibly potent and adds
to the film’s relevance. The director
and screenwriter are to be commended for never
spilling over into satire or costume drama.
The Queen is fantastically rich cinema
with refreshingly complicated characters. It
also contains one hell of an Oscar worthy lead
Queen opens this years New York Film Festival.
For more information
on the Film Festival: http://www.filmlinc.com/nyff/nyff.htm.
Pierce Brosnan and Liam
Neeson in Seraphim Falls
David Von Ancken’s
Opens Friday, January 26, 2007
Neeson; Pierce Brosnan; Anjelica Huston; Angie
Reviewed by Wendy
David Von Ancken’s
Seraphim Falls is a chase movie with
three stars: Liam Neeson; Pierce Brosnan; and
the gorgeous State of New Mexico. The film is
set in the period after the United States Civil
War, a war that pitted brother against brother
and tore our nation apart. Seraphim Falls
is definitely a western-without-white-hats;
it is dark in the tradition of Clint Eastwood’s
The Unforgiven, Nick Cave’s The
Proposition and even Sidney Pollack’s
In the opening
sequence we see Pierce Brosnan’s character
Gideon being shot by a gang/posse and escaping
by going over a waterfall. Then in the movie’s
first twenty minutes, there is no dialogue from
Gideon; but Brosnan’s character Gideon thoroughly
holds the audience’s attention as he tends
to his wound and manages to avert capture by his
nemesis, Carver (played by Liam Neeson) and his
The film then follows
Carver and Gideon as Carver chases Gideon through
the freezing cold of the mountains down to the
heat of the salt flats. Neeson’s Carver
is a man filled with hatred, a man who has lost
his humanity and is left with only a Captain-Ahab-like
obsession to kill Gideon. The film is at its best
during these chase scenes; the survival elements
of the story are very compelling.
Both Brosnan and
Neeson give incredible performances; they are
two actors who would be spell-binding reading
the Manhattan phone book. And yes they are both
Irish and this is a Western. But in the 1860’s,
both the north and the south of the United States
were filled with Irish immigrants. And one of
the intriguing elements of this movie is that
it is easy to see that these two men were actually
more alike than not, but the circumstances of
the war had made them into bitter enemies and
in the case of Neeson’s Carver, destroyed
In the press notes,
Von Ancken states that he started writing the
script (with co-writer Abby Everett Jaques) with
the desire to write a chase movie and then he
settled on the time, place and plot. If the film
has any fault, it is the deus-ex-machina they
used to move their story along. Angie Harmon (of
Law and Order fame) plays a frontier
woman who can’t figure out how to break
through a glass window. And Gideon and Carver
stumble upon just about every group of people
who could possibly have been in New Mexico at
that time in history: gangs of thieves; railroad
crews; religious groups who are anti-Mormon. And
there are some surreal characters in the story
(including the amazing Ms. Angelica Huston) who
seem to have wandered in from the Western next
door. But plot devices aside, this film is gorgeous
(kudos to cinematographer John Toll), the chase
scenes are compelling and the actors are magnificent.
Von Ancken has done a fine job directing his first
There is a strong
anti-war message in the film. Here are two men
who could have been friends if they had met at
a different time of life who have been turned
into mortal enemies by the horrors of the civil
war. They are Irish but they could just as easily
been Sunni and Shiite.
The Centerpiece Film at the 2006 New York Film
Opens November 3, 2006
by Brian Shirey
There aren’t many
filmmakers these days who could be categorized
by that old-time Hollywood standby, the “woman’s
director.” Actually, there are none -- except
for Pedro Almodovar. In Volver, the Spanish
auteur doesn’t disappoint, unfolding a tale
of three generations of women living in La Mancha,
Spain that is alternately hilarious, warm, wry,
disturbing, and, in a manner virtually patented
by Almodovar himself, gently surreal.
Death is the organizing principle behind Volver’s
very engaging script. The film opens on a shot
of women polishing gravestones of loved ones,
which leads to the introduction of Raimunda (Penelope
Cruz) and Sole (Lola Dueñas), sisters who
lost both their parents in a fire some years earlier.
Rounding out the all-female cast are Paula, Raimunda’s
teenage daughter, and Agustina, a neighbor who
serves to draw out some of the story’s many
secrets. Therein, by the way, lies the challenge
to reviewing Volver: So much of it is
about discovery and revelation, any full plot
synopsis might flirt with ruining the film’s
Early on in Volver, the women visit Aunt
Paula, a doddering old lady who has an uncanny
ability to take care of herself despite her infirmities.
Almodovar brilliantly observes here how women
interact with each other. As a filmmaker, he can
be gloriously over-the-top. “Colorful”
is in my parlance to describe his style, but it’s
as much about the look as the tone. In these early
scenes, however, he steps back to show us a community
of females with decidedly working-class backgrounds,
who are committed to family above all and for
whom health and well-being are the primary subjects
of conversation. You can almost feel how much
Almodovar loves them; their presence focuses everything
about his direction. The first fifteen minutes
of Volver show us all we need to know
about the characters before the story begins,
but they also contain: non-stop talk, two different
kissing rituals, feasting on phallic wafers and
no men whatsoever.
Finally, a guy appears -- Raimunda’s husband.
He’s a leering, sports-obsessed, beer-happy,
good-for-nothin’ couch slug, which might
be offensive if Volver was not such a
fanciful parable about the resilient life force
of the female sex. Consequently, also allowable
are unlikely coincidences involving death, some
sloppy (and comical) crime scene management, jarring
plot turns, and most significantly, the inexplicable
appearance of a ghost, played by Almodovar’s
original muse, Carmen Maura. She’s the dead
mother of Raimunda and Sole, but I’ll stop
Volver (which means “coming back”)
then proceeds in the realm of the hyper-real,
which Almodovar presents as a way of life for
the women. They’re over-sensitive to nature,
like the meaning of the river nearby, or the destructive
power of the East wind. Raimunda and Sole harbor
intense parallel secrets, not necessarily because
they have to, but because there’s almost
too much emotion involved. As the film proceeds,
the cinematography gets more expressive. We see
a great deal of life cycle imagery, from the giant
power-generating fans in the Spanish countryside
to Almodovar’s rather infamous (judging
from his previous films) concentration on female
The performances are appropriately warm; there’s
a sense that the ensemble spent a lot of time
together before the cameras rolled. Maura is a
marvel. She embodies the emotional weight caused
by her character’s rather shocking presence,
but still captures a sense of playfulness (as
a ghost, she’s required to sneak around
and hide) that is decidedly un-motherly. As Agustina,
newcomer Blanca Portillo plays a maudlin role
with a poignancy that is sharp and restrained.
Dueñas has the most lightweight part, but
she has her moments, too, particularly in a deftly
performed scene of striking revelation that is
a pivotal point to Volver’s last
All final praise, however, goes to Penelope Cruz,
who I confess I’ve always found to be stiff
and inexpressive, and her brain-dead Hollywood
choices (I’m not talking about dating Matthew
McConaughey) certainly never elevated her integrity
as an actress. Sahara, anyone? In Volver,
I first recognize the fact that Almodovar loves
her, and Almodovar’s personal affection,
which is the foundation of his entire art, must
be a profound influence. But I don’t want
to rob Cruz of credit. Raimunda is an extremely
rich role that’s a bit of a rollercoaster,
plus Cruz has to sing a song and command a compelling
sub-plot that plays like a Hitchcock thriller.
She braves through it all, and is always convincing,
even in close-up. (This is not a cleavage reference).
It’s arguable that she’s too young
and glamorous for the part, but Cruz’s beauty
shows a weary edge here, and in the fiery earth-mother
way in which she walks and dresses, I was reminded
of Sophia Loren in her gritty 1960’s work
with Vittorio De Sica (a la Two Women).
Cruz’s performance deepens when she and
Maura have a key scene late in the film. We learn
more about Raimunda, and it’s powerful to
realize that Cruz has been playing this emotional
hurt all along. For his part, Almodovar covers
the moment with a beautifully expressive camera
move that raises the personal bond of this mother
and daughter to a higher, and more universal,
In the end, Volver is a celebration of
women as survivors against the greatest of obstacles,
even death. Almodovar, who directed Women
on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Talk
to Her, is a “woman’s movie buff,”
too, so it’s no mistake when Volver shows
us a character watching TV and the figure stretched
across the screen is Anna Magnani, the famous
Italian film actress known for her bravura passion
and magnificent strength. She might just be the
patron saint of Volver, but also of Almodovar’s
One final note: In the They Deserve It department,
all the women in Volver collectively
won the Best Actress Award at Cannes this year,
and Almodovar won for Screenplay. Watch out, Oscar.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Opens March 15, 2007
Lincoln Plaza Cinemas
Reviewed by Ryan Eagle
Director, Ken Loach’s
The Wind That Shakes the Barley examines
the evolution of the Irish Republican Army (IRA)
in 1920’s Ireland. From the first scene’s
traditional Irish game of hurling (clearly a mock
war between Irish youths) through the final scene
of the film, Loach and longtime collaborator,
screenwriter Paul Laverty, hammer away at war
as a world of self destruction instead of “us
versus them.” Granted, instances of the
English occupation of Ireland and the horrific
exploitation and terror that came with it gave
the story a plainly one-sided first act. But,
as the story moves forward, the conflicts deepen
The story unfolds
from the point of view of Damien, played by up-and-comer
Cillian Murphy. Damien decides against leaving
his village to practice medicine so that he can
fight for Irish independence with his compatriots.
The matter of a doctor taking life instead of
preserving it is just one of the instances of
incomprehensible struggle Loach depicts. As Damien’s
elder brother Teddy, played by Padraic Delaney,
becomes more prominent in the story, a very literal
brother against brother struggle mirrors the figurative
one that pits Irishmen against Irishmen.
The only peace
in this film comes from an important, yet silent
character. It is the bucolic Irish countryside
that gives the film its flavor. Ireland nurtures
the ensemble cast, giving the combatants in skirmishes
a place to hide, giving the families depicted
their centuries old homesteads and absorbing the
unspeakable scars left by scenes of torture, famine,
oppression and torment.
The tension usually
reserved in film to generate conflict is omnipresent
in The Wind That Shakes the Barley. First
with the English, then with rival Irish factions,
with brothers and friends as close as family,
the film drags viewers through an exercise in
misery. There is no comic relief. There are no
breaks from the downtrodden mood with drawn out
love scenes or so much as an inspirational melody
or two on the soundtrack. And because of this
single-minded construction of the abysmal state
of things in 1920’s Ireland, one feels closer
to understanding it all. It is an uncomfortable
process to sit for just over two hours through
scenes overstuffed with dread, fear and loss,
but how else should one feel when taking in such
who plays Damien’s love interest, Sinead,
articulates the point beautifully in her description
of working with Loach. “Stamina is the key,”
she says. “You have to focus and keep in
In a pivotal scene
and moving bit of acting, Fitzgerald collapses,
telling her family and her beau that she is not
strong enough. The fight has consumed both her
body, which looks like a rag doll and her will.
Seemingly endless struggle is the hallmark of
the film’s subject matter and depiction.
Loach and Laverty have not demystified war, but
their film has sucked the romance from it, which
drains and satisfies viewers at the same time.
For more information
on the film: thewindthatshakesthebarley.co.uk
IFC Center |323
Avenue of the Americas
Lincoln Plaza Cinemas Broadway| Between 62nd and