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Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis’
Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters
Opens Friday, April 13, 2007

Reviewed by Allison Ford

Aqua Teen Hunger Force is just one of those TV shows…people either love it or hate it, without much in-between. When I first heard that they were making a feature film out of ATHF, I thought it would present certain challenges for the writers, namely the challenge of stretching a bizarre eleven-minute animated show into a ninety-minute film that’s not completely incomprehensible. I think it is safe to say that they succeeded as much as is humanly possible.

I’ll forego the suspense…the movie is funny. Its full title is Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters. It’s funny like, “Did they really just do that?” ATHF, for those who don’t know, is a show on the Cartoon Network about “three roommates living in the crappy suburbs of New Jersey and dealing with surreal and absurd circumstances.” (This quote is taken from the press kit.) The three main characters, Frylock, Master Shake, and Meatwad, are sentient fast-food products, and to say that they encounter “surreal and absurd circumstances” is an understatement indeed.

The movie tries to explain how Frylock, Master Shake, and Meatwad found each other and became the ATHF. They encounter a demonic piece of exercise equipment that threatens to take over the universe, and it is up to the Aqua Teens to restore galactic harmony. The Aqua Teens battle some of their usual crazy nemeses, including Ignignokt and Err, Dr. Weird and Steve, Oglethorpe and Emory, the Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past, and of course, their fat slob neighbor Carl, who tries valiantly to get laid with a “female” body builder. All in a day’s work, really.

Although the movie is funny, it’s not for everyone. And by “not for everyone,” I don’t just mean to exclude young children and evangelical Christians. To enjoy this movie, it requires a total re-evaluation of what it means for something to be funny. In the Aqua Teen world, it’s funny when they have to flee from a giant demonic poodle, and it’s funny to see the assassination of Time Lincoln and the ensuing white slavery. White slavery is funny!

For all its claims of plot and character, it is important to remember that ATHF is really a show about nothing. Well, technically it’s about a milkshake, a box of fries, and a hunk of meat who live in Jersey and sometimes do weird stuff. It’s got about as much in the way of plot as your typical Seinfeld episode, but it’s not really about the plot, is it? It’s about exploding kittens. And that’s funny.
ATHF is at the forefront of shows that regularly push the boundaries of humor. It goes to the places that the more timid fear to tread. South Park is one show notorious for tackling subjects that are totally beyond the realm of conventional taste. That fear isn’t unfounded, of course. Plenty of people aren’t amused by a movie about fast-food products and a possessed Bowflex. South Park succeeds because of the biting social commentary. Aqua Teen succeeds because of the sheer absurdity of it all. Just when it seems that things can’t possibly get any more bizarre, they do. The show promises to provide sarcastic, brutal laughs, and the movie itself delivers on that promise in spades.

The peril of a movie like ATHFCMFFT is that it runs the risk of being classified as brainless, stupid drivel. While it does succumb to some easy scatological references, the surprise aspect of the movie (and the TV show) is that it does really require some brains to appreciate the humor. It’s not highbrow by any means, but it’s no Will Ferrell movie either; talking down to its audience with broad, easy sight gags that slap you across the face with their banality. Most American comedy right now is obvious and lowbrow, pandering to the lowest common denominator. Shows that ask more of the viewer are few and far between. To appreciate the swift ruthlessness of this style of comedy requires focus. The jokes are quick, subtle, and usually hilarious. They’re also violent, offensive, and crass.

It’s almost refreshing to see films and TV shows willing to go to these lengths in the name of comedy, because they’re imagining an entertainment landscape of infinitely more possibility. I don’t mean to suggest that every episode of ATHF is brilliant, or that every single joke lands perfectly, but I enjoyed ATHFCMFFT much more than I thought I would. It’s not for everyone, but I hope that more writers follow in the footsteps of Aqua Teen creators/writers Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis. They are unafraid to remind us that it’s okay to laugh at the un-PC and the absurd. It’s even okay to laugh at exploding kittens, because let’s face it – exploding kittens are funny.

Log onto the trailer: apple.com/trailers




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


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

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 



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


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

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

The Boss of It All is no exception.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Garry Marshall’s
Georgia Rule

Opens May 11, 2007

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Carl Colpaert’s
G.I. Jesus
Opened April 6, 2007


Reviewed by Ryan Eagle

Writer/director Carl Colpaert and producer Lee Caplin decided to make G.I. Jesus after Caplin came across a blurb in a newspaper that touched on US armed forces recruiters being kicked out of Tijuana for offering US citizenship to Mexicans in exchange for enlistment. The lead in G.I. Jesus, played by Joe Arquette, is based on this model. The film deals with the character’s post traumatic stress disorder on return from his tour of duty in Iraq. Jesus’s plight is an examination of just how much of one’s self has to be sacrificed for a chance at legal citizenship.

The film deals with every stock argument for and against the war in Iraq. We learn through unimaginative dialogue that the poor and marginalized are on the front lines, that innocent civilians are often killed along with militants, that the separation from loved ones is ever present on both sides of a war and that the burden of readjustment to society after taking lives and witnessing carnage is a constant struggle. This is to name only a few of the topics juggled in the rushed and inarticulate script. Many of the film’s ideas are valid, even sympathetic, but to throw so many of them together and present them in such a haphazard manner as happens here leaves the story muddied and incoherent. Interspersed with the amateurish scenes that comprise the story are pieces of stock footage from the war in Iraq. Most of these graphic scenes of actual war, tinged the now familiar night-vision green, serve as Jesus’s flashback fodder. The scenes themselves are gritty and cold, but their effect on the film is far less impactful.

The story does have a linear structure. It carries the protagonist from his return flight to Los Angeles to what we are told is a happier life back in Mexico. Along the way are flashbacks upon flashbacks, conversations with people who don’t really exist and (excuse the overused, but unavoidable term) – surreal scenes with military types, friends and family. At each one of these stops along the way, the story grows a tangent that it does not follow. These dozens of different tracks leading nowhere cloud the narrative even further.

The last thing any film – especially one about war – should do is spoon-feed the audience. It’s fine to ask questions without making absolute pronouncements as to their answers. There must, however, be a compelling force behind any opinions and any imagery that appear on the screen. G.I. Jesus deals with very real, very important problems for the military and the civilian public as well, but because of the unpolished production value and thrown toget


 




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably, both.


 


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

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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!




John Carney’s
Once
Opens May 16, 2007


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Paprika
Opens Friday, May 25,2007

Reviewed by Corey Ann Haydu

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

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

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

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

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


 


Marc Evan’s
Snowcake
Opens April 27, 2007

Starring: Alan Rickman; Sigourney Weaver; Carrie-Anne Moss; James Allodi; and Emily Hampshire.

Quote from the press release: “Snow Cake is a film about friendship, snow, acceptance, obsessive cleaning, a dog called Marilyn, and about finding the warmest of friendships in the coldest of places.”

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival


Marc Evan’s entry in the Tribeca Film Festival, Snowcake, tells a story of a tragedy as seen through the eyes of Alex (played by Alan Rickman), a repressed Englishman who was driving through a snow-covered Ontario Province when his SUV is hit by a tractor trailer. Alex had just picked up Vivienne (played by Emily Hampshire), a young hitchhiker who had the innocence and charm of a precocious child. Vivienne was killed instantly, while Alex survived without a scratch.

The accident wasn’t Alex’s fault, but he is nevertheless overcome with remorse and wishes to talk to Vivienne’s mother. Clyde (played by James Allodi), the local cop is suspicious of Alex, not because he thinks he caused the accident but because he has checked Alex’s background and found out that he was just released from prison for manslaughter.

Nevertheless, Alex goes to Vivienne’s mother’s home in Wawa, Ontario with the intention of apologizing to her for the inadvertent death of her daughter. Alex arrives at her home only to find that Linda (played by Sigourney Weaver), Vivienne’s mother, is a highly functioning autistic who knows her daughter is dead (Clyde told her), but is incapable of knowing what that means emotionally. Linda lives in her own world of ritual, illuminated by her fantastic love of light patterns and sounds. Linda also loves to eat pristine snow, thus the name Snow Cake.

Alex is a decent man and he can immediately tell exactly what the loss of her daughter means to Linda: no one to plan the funeral; no one to take care of the dog; no one to handle the intrusive callers: and no one to take the garbage from the immaculate home (Linda does not do garbage). Linda’s parents are out of town and cannot be reached, so Alex reluctantly agrees to stay until after the funeral so he can “take out the garbage.”

The story then leaves the land of frozen snow and hearts; we see the thaw. Alex is pulled out of his shell to take care of all the human emotional needs that Linda cannot comprehend, much less handle. He arranges the funeral and deals with the remorseful driver of the truck that killed Vivienne. And in his search for someone to care for Marilyn, the dog, he meets and falls for a charming neighbor, Maggie (played by Carrie-Ann Moss).

Unlike many movies of this heart-felt-human-drama genre, Snowcake never fails to charm: it is even quite funny in places. Much of the film's success is due to Rickman’s beautiful quiet performance. He is totally believable as a man who has suffered two recent losses, but still has the capacity to open his heart to strangers. Sigourney Weaver also shines as Linda; she gives a very skillful portrayal of a highly functioning woman from what appears to be an entirely different world. Carrie-Ann Moss plays, Maggie, the local “good time girl” with a restrained elegance. And Emily Hampshire’s brief portrayal of Vivienne is a charming revelation. This is a young actress who has the talent to make it big. Bravo to Marc Evans’s for making this beautiful little film.



Oren Rudavsky’s
The Treatment

Reviewed by Ryan Eagle

In Oren Rudavsky’s debut fiction feature Chris Eigman plays a part familiar to many of cinema’s conflicted, disenchanted and crestfallen leading men – he is a teacher. The psychoanalytical “treatment” in Rudavsky’s film of the same name, is not so much the road to Jake Singer’s (Chris Eigeman) enlightenment as it is a thorn in his paw. This is thanks to the magnificent torment of his therapist, the Argentine-Freudian Dr. Ernesto Morales (Ian Holm). Eigman and Holm duel in every scene they share and in every one Holm draws first blood. The therapy sessions do not ease pain, they conjure it and inflict it on poor Jake Singer – and this comedic walk through the protagonist’s struggles is much better for it.

Jake Singer is the teacher who really cares about his pupils – the stereotypical type of character who “really wants to make a difference.” He has presumably fallen short of his father’s expectations, is insecure over his recent break up, and has begun stumbling around an emotional no man’s land. For all of the main character’s shortcomings, the script is sure to point out that we are to feel for singer and to pull for him. When backed into a corner by snobby, overbearing acquaintances he is quick-witted, almost coy. After melancholic reflection on what could have been with his ex, he reawakens via a gratifying relationship with a startling beauty played by Famke Janssen. Jake Singer is a modest but certain hero.

Without the sparring between Singer and Dr. Morales the story would lack its punch. With it, the exchanges between Singer and his pupils, his contemporaries, even his father, are lively and fresh. The biting sarcasm from the therapy sessions leaches into more plot-driven scenes and heightens the experience of both.

The Treatment revolves around the insecurities that crop up when a person constantly questions his approach to life. Dr. Morales functions in Jake Singer’s mind like an overbearing coach whose instruction does not help an athlete perform, but hampers his natural abilities by acting as a voice to be reckoned with instead of a constructive voice of encouragement. Much of the film’s complexity comes from the concession that it is useless to blindly follow one’s heart without using one’s mind for practical guidance. The story’s constant balancing act between feeling and reason mirror what productive therapy sessions might entail. For Morales, however, venom drives the agenda and Singer soon finds himself calling the shots.

Jake Singer’s treatment is the uncomfortable journey of a bungling good guy. He is the less than striking, well-intentioned everyman after the happiness he can see, but not quite reach.The film is both shot in Manhattan and based, to some
degree, upon the disparity of socioeconomic levels there. In this film Rudavsky's Manhattan is a pleasing look at vulnerability and the revelation that nobody is immune from insecurity...well, maybe just your shrink.




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

Reviewed by Ryan Eagle

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

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

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

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

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







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

Reviewed by Alison Ford

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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


IFC Center |323 Avenue of the Americas
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