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


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boy Culture represents a nice step forward in queer cinema.




Brian W. Cook’s
Colour Me Kubrick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bill Condon’s
Dreamgirls

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 



Todd Field’s
Little Children

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

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See it. You will not leave the theatre unaffected.




Scott Frank’s
The Lookout
Opens March 30, 2007

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 




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

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

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 




Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson in Seraphim Falls

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

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

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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


 




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

Reviewed by Brian Shirey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Reviewed by Ryan Eagle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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