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Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Andrew Dominik's
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Opens September 21, 2007

Reviewed by Alejandra Serret

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, written and directed by Andrew Dominik, tells the story of how the notorious outlaw’s life ended. Based on Ron Hansen’s novel of the same title, Dominik pays homage to classic westerns through slow, rhythmic story telling, voice-over narration, and the occasional distorted shot—rounded at the edges giving the illusion of looking through a magnifying glass. New Zealand born Dominik approaches his second feature length film (the first is 2000’s Chopper) with Terrence Malick-like grace. He gives the film time to unfold, anchoring the characters in a substantial storyline.

Like Malick, Dominik took the risk of losing viewers along the way, but his lyrical cinematography is captivating. At times the voice-over seems unnecessary — viewers can see that Jesse James is sitting at the kitchen table flipping a deck of cards over absentmindedly. The narration that accompanies the scene initially feels like over kill. Yet as the scene progresses the soothing tone and beautiful prose matches the fluidity of the action, creating a harmonic pairing.

The film opens with the James gang executing their last big heist—a train robbery in September of 1881 — a mismatched bunch looking for a last score. Robert Ford, played skillfully by Casey Affleck, is among them. A ninteeen-year-old, fidgety, eager-to-please Ford, stays on with Jesse James, after the robbery. Slowly, his idolatry is exposed: small magazines of the original James crew kept beneath his bed, a list of unique commonalities he shares with Jesse (of which he can recite with too much ease), and his longing to be accepted. Jesse James, then thirty-four years old, appears accustomed to such flattery, but maintains a sense of unease, which grows into paranoia.

Dominik follows various members of the James gang as they go their separate ways. The lazy-like unraveling of the subplots pays off as they merge to strengthen the main current that holds it all together: Jesse James’ death, his incredible fame.

The all-star cast allows The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to flourish: Brad Pitt’s subtle craziness and paranoia, Casey Affleck’s quiet obsession, Sam Rockwell’s constant fear and guilt. Like the film’s cadence, the actors take their time, allowing themselves to fully embody the characters.
The film ends with James’ death and the celebrity status he is raised to: his body kept on ice for weeks to accommodate thousands of visitors, the photograph of his corpse that sold for two dollars a piece, and the play of his death which filled the theater for weeks. Robert Ford played himself, killing James an estimated 800 times. While James had been a wanted man, Ford began his own demise by killing his idol. Notorious, not as a gunslinger or American Outlaw, but as a coward, Ford was later killed to right what many felt, was a wrong.

Dominik creates a truly breathtaking film: filled with picturesque scenes and gorgeous acting. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford savors the story of an American legend, divulging of it with grace and ease.

 


 



Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Sidney Lumet's
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Opens Friday, October 26, 2007

Reviewed by Alejandra Serret

Sidney Lumet is a little guy. He’s short, slight in frame, has fury eyebrows, and small hands. A quick comparison to Scorsese seems too easy and yet, like the better-known, younger director, Lumet is a genius behind the camera. At eighty-four years old his career has burgeoned with films like Dog Day Afternoon, The Wiz and Serpico, working with greats at their peak—Pacino, Brando, Hoffman, as in Philip Seymour (although this one is up for discussion). Lumet is as they say, a legend.

At it again, decades after his most noted work, Lumet brings us Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead: a film best described as a Greek tragedy of a dysfunctional family unable to pull themselves from their destructive path. The tragic characters in turmoil: the father who is too hard on his eldest son, the younger brother who strives for his elder brother’s attention, the much loved mother/martyr, jealousy, adultery, and betrayal. Lumet tells their story in a non-linear way exposing the family’s unraveling in the opening scene—a robbery gone horribly wrong. (Actually, the film begins with a provocative sex scene between Andy (Hoffman) and his wife Gina, played by Marisa Tomei.)

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Andy, a character that is manipulative and scheming. Ethan Hawke plays the younger, less intelligent brother. Both Hawke and Lumet argue that the more obvious casting choice would have been the reversal—Hawke as the calculating older brother and Hoffman as the self-loathing, self-deprecating Hank. This option, however, allowed them both to play with more challenging, less-expectant character traits. Hawke found it hardest to play such a moral-lacking, weak character, but took the role for its attachment to Lumet—an opportunity he thanks Hoffman’s success for.

The tangled plot unwinds in a non-linear way divulging portions of itself at a time. From the beginning, viewers know that partners-in-crime Andy and Hank plan the nearly perfect crime: the robbery of a local mom and pop jewelry store. The catch is that it is their mother and father’s store, one they are intimate with. Their seemingly flawless plan goes haywire, resulting in their mother’s death. Without the matriarch at their center, the family crumbles. The males are unable to lay their expectations to rest—Charles, the patriarch of the family, played by Albert Finney is hardest on Andy. Andy vies for his father’s affection and Hank fights for Andy’s. It’s the never-ending cycle that stays unresolved.

The caliber of acting speaks volumes of this film, which is at once surprising and expected. Lumet stays true to his nature and does not disappoint. His experience has kept him sharp, allowing for precise and beautiful story telling in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.




Julian Schnabel's
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
French with English Subtitles
Opens November 30, 2007

Starring: Mathieu Amalric (Jean-Dominique Bauby); Emmanuelle Seigner (Céline Desmoulins); Marie-Josée Croze (Henriette Durand); Anne Consigny (Claude); and Olatz Lopez Garmendia (Marie Lopez).

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Julian Schnabel (Basquait, Before Night Falls) has made a gorgeous, sensual feast of a film about the sad story of Jean Dominique Bauby, the editor of Elle France, who at the young age of forty-three suffered a stroke that left him in "locked-in" condition. Unable to move any part of his body except his left eye, Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric), wrote a book (also titled The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) about his experience.

Working from a script by Ronald Harwood (The Pianist, Love in the Time of Cholera, Oliver Twist) the first half of the film is told through the camera-eye of Bauby's left eye. As the story opens, we as Bauby's eye, awake to see kindly worried people hovering over our bed telling us that we have had a stroke and now that we are awake we should be just fine. Then one of the doctors asks Bauby to say his name, he does and no one hears him except us, the film audience.

Bauby then narrates his own movie, telling us the story of his old and new life. Bauby's affliction has not made him into a saint. He is instead the same sardonic hedonist that he was before the accident.

The story follows Bauby's work with his gorgeous therapists, Henriette (played by Marie-Josée Croze) and Marie (Schnabel's wife Olatz Lopez Garmendia). Henriette devises a method by which Bauby can communicate with the world - a chart with the letters of the French alphabet arranged in most-used order. She painstakingly goes through the alphabet and Bauby blinks when she reaches a letter that he wishes to use. Bauby signals that he would like to write the book that he had contracted to write before the accident and the therapist make arrangements with his publisher to have yet another beautiful woman take dictation, Claude (played by Marie Anne Consigny).

This film is never maudlin; it is beautifully shot by Janusz Kaminski, also Steven Spielberg's cinematographer. We leave the viewpoint of Bauby's eye and see the world around him. The hospital room is a green marvel and the hospital itself is located by the sea; the entire setting is lovely. And to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, oh the things Bauby saw. Bauby receives visitors, the gorgeous mother of his three children, Celine (played by Emmanuelle Seigner). We see them on the beach with Celine's skirt being lifted by the wind. His equally gorgeous children visit and play in the sand. And Bauby's beautiful view of the world is not restricted to his present "diving bell." We follow the butterfly of his imagination as he remembers his past and takes flights of fancy into the future. And we follow him as he drives former girlfriend to Lourdes, her hair beautifully blowing in the wind. Bauby was a lustful man and the film is permeated with Bauby's (and Schnabel's) lust for life.

Bell is one of the best films I have seen this year and that is quite a complement with films like Gone Baby Gone and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead for competition. Schnabel won the prize for Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for Bell and this film will surely be an Oscar contender for Schnabel, Harwood, Kiminski and the talented (and gorgeous) cast.


 







Abby Cornish, Cate Blanchett and Clive Owen

Shekhar Kapur’s
Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Opens Friday, October 12, 2007

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

All the majesty, the pomp, the grandeur, the visual splendor and the tour de force acting that made 1998’s Elizabeth so incredibly riveting can once again be enjoyed in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. And while it is not the gem the original was; it is not the disappointment many assumed it would be.

This sequel (in a planned trilogy) is an intense thrill ride that plays a bit too fast and loose with history but presents a few intriguing notions that go against the grain of conventional portrayals of the Virgin Queen.

One is her alleged love of Sir Walter Raleigh (a roughish and charming Clive Owen). Not to give too much away, but this love story takes a bit of a different turn than most others in its portrayal of the Queen Bee and her seafaring suitor.

A second (and wonderfully surprising) twist is how the film views Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton). Almost always seen as a victim, a martyr, here she is actually depicted as a conniving and ambitious woman who craves the throne more than she cares about her Catholicism.

At the heart of this film is an attempt to truly explore the woman and her fears, not just the Queen and her triumphs.

It’s 1585 and all is not well in Britain. Having ruled for over three decades, the Queen must now deal with the threat of the Inquisition via Catholic Spain as well as the threat to her throne, by way of Mary Stuart. In addition, she is manipulated into searching for a husband that can provide her with a proper heir. Dealing with her own aging and the ominous threat against her country, Elizabeth preps for the greatest battles of her life.

The visual and aural bombast in Elizabeth: The Golden Age is more than a tad overdone, and the script (by William Nicholson and Michael Hirst, who wrote the first one) isn’t as crisp and fine-tuned as the original but Cate Blanchett’s towering performance more than makes up for these missteps.

In a role played by Glenda Jackson, Helen Mirren and Bette Davis, just to name a few of the diva-licious dames who have taken Elizabeth I on, Cate Blanchett manages to reach deep within and expose her demons. Don’t get me wrong, when she needs to she chews the scenery like she is expected to, but in the quieter moments lie the key to her exploration--specifically early on in scenes with her pet lady-in-waiting, Bess (a delightful Abbie Cornish). There are glimmers of a sexual attraction, jealousy, adoration and genuine love that seep through her tough exterior. Bravo Blanchett for her amazing gifts. Another nomination deservedly beckons.

The score by Craig Armstrong and AR Rahman is a force unto itself. The costumes are grand. The art direction is sumptuous. The editing is dazzlingly frenetic. And the camera-work is dizzyingly mesmerizing. It’s all over-the-top, but completely right for this film and the recreation of the famous defeat of the Spanish Armada is a triumph of cinema-wizardry.

Prior to this battle, Elizabeth is told that she must flee her home since the Spanish threat is imminent. Instead, she dawns her body armor, saddles her stallion and rides out to meet her soldiers. There she delivers a rousing speech that gives the film its heart and soul. It’s a glorious moment. A glorious performance. A fine film.




Casey Affleck, Morgan Freeman and Michelle Monaghan

Ben Affleck's
Gone Baby Gone
Opens everywhere Friday, October 19, 2007

Reviewed by Alejandra Serret

When I hear Ben Affleck’s name associated with a project I can't help but wonder if the moment has arrived in which he can assert himself as a Hollywood powerhouse and detach himself from career blunders like Gigli, Jersey Girl and Paycheck. His recent work as George Reeves in Hollywoodland (while it bombed at the box office) brought him close, not only displaying true talent but a desire to challenge himself artistically. After spending the majority of his career in front of the camera, he is most impressive behind, with his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. It’s been 10 years since Ben Affleck wowed audiences with Good Will Hunting, which he co-wrote and acted in, winning an Oscar. He has again proved his worthiness with his adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel Gone Baby Gone, like his other work (i.e. Mystic River), it explores Boston’s grimmer side.

South Boston natives/private investigators/lovers Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Genarro (Michelle Monaghan) work to uncover the mystery surrounding the disappearance of four-year-old Amanda McCready. Familiar with the streets and people of Dorchester, the partners dive head first, investing themselves in finding her. While the Boston Police Department may have experience on their side, Kenzie and Genarro have connections and understand the street mentality. The chilling truth they unearth tells the story of a neglected child and the community she lives in—at once coming together and coming apart.

Ben Affleck is able to execute a genuine tone and cadence in Gone Baby Gone through his dedication to authenticity—from the actors to the setting and technique. The film begins with deliberate, almost poetic shots of Dorchester. Affleck captured the beauty of the ordinary, which became heightened through a traumatic event. His younger brother Casey Affleck, who has recently garnered positive buzz with his portrayal of Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, delivered perfectly, owning his role as Patrick Kenzie.

Casey Affleck’s subtlety exposes a genuine talent allowing viewers to become invested in Amanda’s plight and the desire to see her home safely. While his performance raises the film’s potential, it’s the cast chemistry that makes it a true success. Michelle Monaghan is believable and not overshadowed by Morgan Freeman (police chief Jack Doyle) or Ed Harris (police detective Remy Bressant). While both veterans deliver as expected, it’s in the more unexpected roles that the film shines. Amy Ryan, who plays Helene McCready, and Jill Quigg, as her best friend Dottie, capture the jargon, accent, and attitude. Ben Affleck showcases his attention to detail and his dedication to accurately portraying a city in the ways that it is both bad and good. He does Lehane justice through his adaptation and vision of Gone Baby Gone.


 



Penelope Cruz in The Good Night

Jake Paltrow's
The Good Night
Opens October 5, 2007

Reviewed by Alejandra Serret


There are few storylines not yet explored through film. It's the way they are executed that sets them apart, makes them worthwhile, intriguing. Jake Paltrow attempts just this with The Good Night — his directorial debut. While the Kauffmanesque content aims high, it falls short, leaving too many holes and collapsing the plot.

Martin Freeman plays a fallen Rock Star named Gary who suffers creatively, spinning him into depression. His days of artistic freedom and celebrity have passed, sinking him into self-deprecation, indifference, and awkwardness. Gary's crumbling self-esteem affects his relationship with long time, live-in girlfriend, Dora, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Annoyed with Gary’s inability to let go of his Rock Star expectations, Dora becomes indifferent. Late night masturbation and robotic I love you’s before turning out the lights and rolling over for bed dictate their relationship.

The plot dives into interesting when Gary finds happiness in his dreams. He meets dark beauty Anna, played by Penelope Cruz, a woman with whom he can be completely comfortable and confident. With each night his dreams become more lucid thrusting him into a fantastical world. With research and meetings with lucid dream guru Mel, Danny DeVito, Gary begins to live for sleep. His throbbing obsession weighs heavily on his already failing relationship. He doesn’t even notice when Dora leaves.

Things begin to change when he meets real-life Anna, a famous model. She is not the woman he has grown to know through his dreams and his attempts to make her so bring out her anger, waking him from his lucid trance, making him miss Dora.

The moral of the story? Things are always better in dreams? People are not always who we expect? We should appreciate the people we love while we have them? While Jake Paltrow aims to convey this expected outcome in a new way it isn’t believable. Gary’s transformation—the lesson he learns isn’t completely felt. So Anna may not be the woman of his dreams but I can’t believe that Dora is. Freeman and Gwyneth Paltrow achieve a level of indifferent disgust in the film’s beginning that is hard to shake by the end. While the storyline experiences occasional hiccups, the stellar acting nearly brings it together. The Good Night, while a great attempt, lacks in cohesiveness.



Cate Blanchett in
Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There
Opens November 21, 2007


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

In a season of ambitious filmic endeavors, Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, which is “inspired by the life and work of Bob Dylan” stands as one of the most ambitious, and as such, divisive pics of 2007.

The one and seemingly ONLY thing most folks agree on is Cate Blanchett’s performance. Her Dylan is simply astonishing. But more on her later.

I’m Not There is mock-docu-pastiche of sorts, a cinema mosaic of various incarnations that embody the essence of the many different Dylans, through the years, as the man reinvented himself—funneled through the brilliant and inventive mind of Mr. Haynes. The notion is that one can never truly capture a person onscreen--their essence. You can read all the books, articles, listen to all the music--interview all the loved (and not so loved) ones and even talk to the subject himself, and still not really get a good idea who that person is. And Dylan, the icon, is even more mysterious than most.

In I’m Not There, Haynes has impressively created a host of persons who, together, may give some representation of the enigmatic artist. It’s a fascinating premise and he has, single-handedly, reinvented the (oh, so stale) biopic. Does it work? Well, now that depends. The film is not a failure, nor is it a resounding success (to this critic, anyway). Yet it’s very much like my perception of Dylan, flawed but extraordinary (at times).

The six Dylans include: an 11-year old African-American folk singer who calls himself Woody Guthrie (the appealing Marcus Carl Franklin); the progressive singer on-the-verge known as Jack Rollins (the always interesting Christian Bale); a difficult Hollywood actor named Robbie (Heath Ledger); a reclusive Billy the Kid (Richard Gere); an-Arthur Rimbaudish poet (an effective Ben Whishaw) and, the Dylan centerpiece (de resistance!) Jude (wholly embodied by Blanchett), the curly-mopped superstar, leading the sweet life (yes, La Dolce Vita)! All these Dylans are presented in a maddening, yet poetic, mosaic-like structure.

I greatly admire the film, but that isn’t the same as loving it. Actually, I haven’t felt so perplexed about my own reaction to a film in a very long time.

The Blanchett sequence borrows generously from Fellini, specifically Otto e’ Mezza (8 1/2), and in there might lay my chief problem with I’m Not There. I adore Fellini. He’s one of my favorite auteurs. Fellini (along with Bergman) was able to concoct his own personal vision hatched from his lunatic/genius head, put it onscreen and, somehow, it was miraculously accessible--most of the time. Haynes’ film is most definitely personal, almost too personal—somewhat impossible to penetrate. He has distilled his own Dylan from all his research and all his love. So it feels like it’s exclusively Haynes’ Dylan—and not one we can embrace or even understand. Yet, perhaps that is the point. Perhaps it’s okay for this film to be a trip into the mind of Haynes via Dylan (instead of vice versa). I’m truly not certain. Perhaps after repeated viewings I will come to totally embrace the pic…or loathe it.

What does work, works supremely well. Heath Ledger is quite powerful and his scenes with Charlotte Gainsbourg are wonderful to watch. And there are many sequences that astound (specifically one that involves Allen Ginsberg and Jesus Christ—I will say no more). The Gere scenes are less enthralling and that has less to do with the actor than with the fact that those moments never meld with the rest of the film.

But as soon as Cate Blanchett blasts onto the screen as the freaky, androgynous Dylan the movie takes off to tremendously joyous heights. Blanchett has proven that there isn’t much she can’t do. From Elizabeth onward, she has shown her versatility and her bravery in making choices. No one else in her peer group (with the possible exception of Kate Winslet) can come close to her remarkable body of work these last ten years.

Her Jude isn’t so much an impersonation—although she is the closest to a real Dylan that we get (whatever that means), it’s an exhilarating immersion into Haynes’ most richly written ‘subject.’ Blanchett’s scenes are what one remembers most after the credits roll and the lights come up.

I love the film’s theme of identity, certainly something that all artists (all people probably) struggle with. Haynes puts forth the notion that ultimate freedom is escaping the pigeonholing and being able to reinvent yourself as you go through different life cycles. (Jane Fonda is a great example of an artist who has metamorphosed more than most and has always fascinated with her next incarnation.) And why not? Isn’t that what a realized life should be? Constantly searching for answers to that eternal ‘why am I here’ question?

I came to this film as someone who appreciates Dylan--the power of his music. I wouldn’t call myself a fan. The film made me crave more. So I went right out and picked up the four-hour Scorsese documentary and I bought a few Dylan CDs. I am very happy I did. If the film does the same for others, then maybe we’ll all develop our own visions/notions of Bob Dylan and who he is…who he needs to be…to us--individually.



Robert Redford's
Lions for Lambs
Opens Friday, November 9, 2007

Reviewed by Allison Ford

In the war against terror, the biggest threat to our nation is neither the enemy, nor our government leaders. The biggest threat is our own complacency. Robert Redford’s brilliant and electrifying new film, Lions for Lambs, fairly explores themes such as personal responsibility, the duties of a free press, and idealism in education. It is not an indictment of obstinate Republicans, and it is not a sentimental plea for troop withdrawal. It is a fair and ruthless debate of our position in the war and how we got there, and a call to arms for the millions of Americans who are outraged, yet apathetic.

The parallel action of Lions for Lambs takes place over the course of one hour, as events unfold in Washington DC, California, and Afghanistan. Tom Cruise plays an ambitious Republican senator, dangling the exclusive scoop on his new military strategy in front of a TV journalist, played by Meryl Streep. Redford plays a college professor, charged with reigniting the idealism and passion of his most promising student. Michael Pena and Derek Luke play courageous young soldiers in Afghanistan, embodying the human face of these two debates.

The film’s central theme is the decision to do what is right, rather than what is easy. Political ideologies and motivations for the war are discussed and debated brilliantly between Cruise and Streep. She listens to the buzzwords and evasive platitudes offered by Cruise, a hawkish Presidential hopeful staking his political career on a suspicious new military tactic. Cruise is as slick and slippery as any DC spin doctor, rationalizing the human cost of military action, and wearing blinders to the possibility of error. He embodies all those who choose righteousness over peace. They debate not only the government’s missteps in miring the country in war, but also the complicity of the media, which has wholeheartedly perpetuated the government’s idea of the facts, and forced this distorted version of truth upon the American people. At the end of the day, who is truly responsible - the government for creating the story, the media for selling it, or Americans for buying?

Robert Redford, as a political science professor at an unnamed California university, debates human potential, passion, and idealism with his disillusioned student, played by Andrew Garfield. Redford bemoans the indifference in the youth of today, who have become jaded and disappointed with the politics of hypocrisy, and Redford seeks to inspire Garfield to have the courage to try to make a difference. As they say, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.

Two-thirds of the film’s action takes place in offices – despite the impassioned performances, they are merely debating; having conversations. The film’s interesting juxtaposition is the inaction of conversations versus the immediacy of the story of the soldiers fighting to survive. They play out a poorly-devised military tactic, which was dreamed up by a politician who has never seen combat. The American soldiers featured are also former promising students of Redford’s. They are the heroes of the movie; two gifted inner-city kids who lay their lives on the line for a nation full of citizens who feel that “supporting the troops” means a yellow ribbon sticker on their SUVs. The film bluntly reminds us that even as the politicians and pundits bicker and argue, there is a real human cost to our inaction and poor decisions.

The characters in the film are challenged to have courage – to take a stand, to say No, to fight for what it is that they believe. Meryl Streep finds the courage to doubt and to question, and to reject what the policymakers in DC want her to believe and report. In his office, Tom Cruise asks, “How many times are you people going to ask the same questions?” Streep replies, “Until we get the answers.” She represents a lone voice of conscience in the news media; one dissenter, unwilling to continue propagating the lies and half-truths. The soldiers volunteer for battle, to not sit and wait for others to solve the problems. At the end of the film, Redford’s student faces a choice, and stands on the precipice of deciding between continuing in his blasé, peaceful existence, and taking action to be a force of change.

Redford’s character laments at no other time in our history “have such lions been led by such lambs.” This film portrays the lack of real, courageous leadership from those in power. It implies that servicemen and idealists are the lions, courageous and righteous, while the insulated, protected government leaders are the lambs. However, the deeper symbolism of the lamb is even more powerful. The real metaphorical lambs of the story are the common soldiers. They are led into battle by those who should be protecting and shepherding them, and the result is the slaughter and sacrifice of our best and brightest. The soldiers in this film are promising students, called into action by their patriotism and then pushed into danger by the smug self-righteousness of politicians like Cruise, who are safely shielded from the consequences of error.

Lions for Lambs is a smart, stylish, and fearless film, highlighted by superb performances and Redford’s razor-sharp direction. His maverick take on American politics is not an indictment of any one viewpoint. The only condemnation is of cowardice. Most of the scenes in the film are debates, and they are ruthlessly engaging, because we have the opportunity to watch our most masterful screen actors at work. Cruise and Streep engage in a high-stakes game of evasion that leaves the audience breathless, even as the characters themselves barely raise an eyebrow. Lions for Lambs is not merely a war drama – the engagement of the audience doesn’t happen through action and gunfire.

Ultimately, our country’s fate depends on the actions of all of us. We will not succeed or fail based on a handful of lawmakers or journalists, and it is impossible to lay all the blame for past mistakes at the feet of one man or political party. The film portrays the human element of conflict, and reminds us of the tragic consequences of inaction and hubris. Lions for Lambs is a stark reminder that changing the course of history is the right and responsibility of every single American, and it challenges us to have the courage to do so.




Robert Redford's
Lions for Lambs
Opens Friday, November 9, 2007

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs may be earnest and idealistic and slightly simplistic in it’s presentation, but it’s actually a film about ideas made by a skilled filmmaker who appears to be very concerned about the state of our country. The lambasting the film is getting from the very media outlets it calls to task is not surprising, but it is disheartening.

Don’t be fooled by the misguided critiques of oh-so-evolved journalists who feel superior to the dialogue Redford is trying to encourage. The reason the film works so well, and it does, is that it refuses to speak from a position of superiority. It will not condescend. Redford asks some terribly important questions. The pic also boasts a smart script, deft direction and impressive performances.

The docu-drama plot involves three interwoven sequences. On a west coast university campus, Dr. Malley (Redford) debates a promising but apathetic student (an excellent Andrew Garfield) about his potential as a citizen of the world and why he should apply himself. In Washington, D.C., an ambitious Senator (Tom Cruise) is about to reveal a major war story to a seasoned and savvy TV journalist (Meryl Streep). The third segment involves two of Malley’s former students (Derek Luke & Michael Pena), now on the battlefield in Afghanistan.

The film is filled with talk, much talk. And how refreshing is that! Yet the film-speak is never dull…and when Streep and Cruise spar the results are riveting. Streep delivers yet another perfect performance and Cruise has his best role since Magnolia, eight years ago.

Much of the power of Lions for Lambs comes from the films condemnation of the media’s handling of the Iraq War at its outset. From the get go, most outlets just bought what was being fed to them from the White House hook, line and stinker (spelling error intended). They rarely questioned why. They simply reported the news according to the (then very popular) Bush Administration, worrying more about ratings and circulation than about doing their jobs as journalists. So many of these print and tele-media reps are now bashing the film…and the critics are doing their best to kill it.

Don’t let them.

Lions for Lambs is an important film that deserves to find an audience. For those of you who are tired of the cold, strictly-cerebral techno-dazzle of certain films that are being ridiculously lauded by the majority of critics, Lions is the perfect antidote. The film is a plea for action and if it galvanizes a handful of audience members into doing something as simple as actually voting in the next election, well, then, it served a greater purpose than most movies ever do.



Brian De Palma’s
Redacted
Opens November 16, 2007

Reviewed by Alejandra Serret

With movies like Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way, and Mission Impossible on his resume, Brian De Palma has successfully explored varying film genres. In 1989, he directed the controversial film Casualties of War, starring Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn, based on the Vietnam War and how it affected both civilians and soldiers.

Decades later he’s at it again with his most recent work Redacted: same argument, different war. With other politically charged films currently circulating the cinemas (i.e. Lions for Lambs and Rendition) Redacted is most electrifying and twice as effective, not only in message, but in delivery and vision. While De Palma explores the devastating consequences of the Iraq War, he does so through the examination of news coverage. How is the news filtered? How does it affect our perception of issues and events? How is it shaped in order to create a desired reaction?

To redact footage, is to edit it for publishing. “Redacted is often used to describe documents or images from which sensitive information has been expunged,” says De Palma. “The true story of our Iraq War has been redacted from the Main Stream Corporate Media. If we are going to cause such disorder then we must face the horrendous images that are the consequences of these actions.” In order to convey redaction, De Palma centers the film on a 14-year-old Iraqi girl’s brutal rape and death and of her family’s slaughter at the hands of US soldiers. He tells the same incident through three different lenses: a US soldier who videotapes everything in hopes of going to film school, and the American and Iraqi media.

The same event, once redacted, becomes three different incidents, seemingly unrelated. He jumps from one point of view to another with a mastered fluidity that avoids interruption. Instead, the constant movement depicts deep contrasts, adding to the central theme. De Palma allows the riveting documentary style footage to speak for itself, holding back when necessary. He shows the ripple effect this incident has on so many people—the victim and her family, the soldiers and their families.

De Palma closes the film with photographs of the Iraq War: images of wounded children being held by crying parents, dead civilians lying in the streets amongst rubble. He ends with silence and a montage of horrifying shots. His redaction is a point of view not yet given by the American mainstream media and is one that is impossible to expel.



Gavin Hood's
Rendition
Opens everywhere Friday, October 18, 2007

Reviewed by Alejandra Serret

Rendition comes at a time when charged films like Lions for Lambs and The Kingdom raise questions concerning America’s Foreign Policy and the fractured political divide it creates. Directed by Gavin Hood, most known for Tsotsi, Rendition focuses on the American Government’s use of extraordinary rendition, a practice that began under the Clinton era and has become more frequent since 9/11, “allowing for the abduction of foreign nationals, deemed to be a threat to national security for detention and interrogation in secret overseas prisons.” Most interesting about this film is that while it shows the policy’s harmful, even immoral practices, it also argues its multilayered complexities.

Screenwriter Kelley Sane tells the story through three separate threads that collide in the end. A terrorist act in northern Egypt results in the deaths of innocent civilians, including a CIA officer. Jake Gyllenhaal plays CIA officer Douglas Freeman, who is assigned to finding those responsible for the bombing. Yet he begins to question his work when he witnesses the brutal interrogation of Egyptian American Anwar El-Ibrahimi (played by Omar Metwally), a chemical engineer suspected of teaching the terrorists more effective ways of making bombs. American officers abduct Anwar upon arrival to Washington DC from Cape Town and put him on a flight to Egypt. He inevitably misses his connection to Chicago, where his pregnant wife Isabella El-Ibrahimi (Reece Witherspoon) and son await his arrival. Instead, Egyptian officers torture Anwar while head of the secret prison, Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor), questions him and the suspicious calls he received from supposed terrorists. Anwar’s fear, his inability to break, strikes a chord with officer Douglas. But Fawal has bigger problems. His daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) gets involved with a steadfast extremist endangering her family. Meanwhile Isabella El-Ibrahimi fights to find her husband. Her connection to an influential politician, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), unearths the intricacies with which the government works.

Hood plays with time in telling the story, allowing the separate parts to unfold effectively. The all-star cast, delivered as expected, giving strong yet somewhat predictable performances. Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin, Peter Sarsgaard, Jake Gyllenhaal, Reece Witherspoon and Omar Metwally produced solid work, yet were somewhat overshadowed by the looming theme at the film’s center. Rendition raises important issues: How far is too far when dealing with national security? How long will we let fear dictate how we treat others? Fanaticism exists everywhere. Rendition unravels deliberately to address these points. The film’s main character’s all believe in fighting for what they believe in, which is ultimately what tears them apart.


 


Kenneth Branagh’s
Sleuth
Opens October 12, 2007

Tagline: Two Men Fight Over a Woman You Never See

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

From the very opening the mood is eerie. It is evening: we see a car driving down a manicured driveway of an English country estate. The car stops in front of a manor house and a man, Milo Tindle (played by Jude Law) walks to the door and rings for admittance. The door is then answered by the other character in this two man film - the proprietor of the house, Andrew Wyke (played by Michael Caine). The die is thus cast and the games begun.

The minute Milo walks into the house his and our worlds are set a kilter. The interior of the house is a cold ultra modern high tech concrete and glass marvel, its style totally at odds with its surroundings. And as we quickly find out, Milo has not dropped by for a cordial cocktail with a neighbor. Milo has driven down from London to ask Andrew to divorce his (Andrew’s ) wife, a woman who is also Milo’s mistress.

We are then treated to three acts of a very treacherous game. Two men fight over the affections of one woman and then (as men do), they fight for power and domination. And after each campaign in the “game,” the power shifts and the players go to their psychic corners to retrench, reshuffle their wits and then resume the battle to its deadly end.

Michael Caine had starred in Sleuth before; in 1972 he played Milo (with Laurence Olivier as Andrew) with a screenplay written by Anthony Shaffer, based on Anthony Shaffer’s play of the same name.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago: Jude Law was looking for a film to produce and he settled on Sleuth; he then took a copy of the play script to renowned British playwright Harold Pinter (winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature) and asked Pinter if he would write the screenplay. Law then asked Kenneth Branagh to direct, and both Pinter and Branagh, hearing that the other was interested, decided to sign on. So in addition to a physical fight, Milo and Andrew have Pinter’s pithy script to lob at each other as they perform their death dance.

The film is stylish and fun. Film lovers should see this version of Sleuth just to watch Caine and Law, two fine actors at the top of their game. Branagh did a fine job directing (he did have wonderful actors and incredible script). And the setting (the interior of the house) is an architectural wonder that absolutely has to be seen on a big screen.



Milena Kaneva’s
Total Denial
Opens Friday, October 26, 2007
Cinema Village - 22 East 12th Street, NYC

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Melina Kaneva’s Total Denial tells the story of a historic lawsuit in the United States court system. Fifteen Burmese villagers sued UNOCAL (now Chevron) for their complicity in human rights violations in Burma. Unocal held a minority stake in a joint venture with the French oil company TOTAL to build a pipeline across Burma. But in doing so, they enlisted the help of the corrupt (and unelected) Burmese military government to maintain security. And in maintaining security, the Burmese military regime committed horrific human rights abuses.

Here is a quote from the press release for the film: “Total Denial cogently documents a major factor behind the Burmese military’s murderous crackdown. In 1992, two Western oil companies—the French TOTAL and the multi-national UNOCAL—embarked on a joint venture with the Burmese government to build a massive pipeline. For the past fifteen years, the Burmese army has acted as a security agency for the corporations, forcing local impoverished populations into lifelong slave labor to build the pipeline. Scorched villages, rape, torture and murder are routinely used to intimidate the people into submission to provide a cheap workforce; the hundreds of thousands have attempted to flee are barely surviving in the jungles and refugee camps.”

The film follows Burmese human rights activist Ka Hsaw Wa as he travels incognito through the jungles of Burma, talking to the villagers. It also shows him at home with his Western lawyer wife (Katie Redford) and two adorable children. And it is through this marriage between a native Burmese human rights activist and a western (US citizen) lawyer wife (they met when she was a human rights activist in a refugee camp in Thailand) that the idea of suing in the United States Court system was born. These two activists were founders of EarthRights International and they relentlessly pressed their case in the US Courts, resulting in a multi million dollar settlement in favor of the Burmese villager plaintiffs.

The film tells a powerful story but it also is a compelling reminder that one person can make a huge difference by having the courage to tell “truth to power”: Ka Hsaw Wa by never giving up his belief in justice and his love for his country; Katie Redford by traveling to Thailand to work with the Burmese refugees and then deciding to sue the oil company; and filmmaker Milena Kaneva for having the courage to travel to Burma and Thailand to film and tell this story.

There will be several demonstrations next week against the Burmese regime, including a march to Cinema Village on Saturday, October 27, 2007.

Here is the schedule for this week and next week:

10/26/2007 (Friday) 4:30 pm to 6:00 pm at Chinese Mission to the U.N.

10/27/2007 (Saturday) 4:00 pm to 7:00pm at Union Square

11/2/2007 (Friday) 4:30 pm to 6:00 pm at Burmese Embassy, 10E 77 Street

11/3/2007 (Saturday) 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm at Union Square

The website for the coalition group is www.regimechangeinburma.org


Albie Hecht and Susan MacLaurys'
War Dance

Opens Friday, November 9, 2007

Reviewed by Alajandra Serret

Rose, a Ugandan girl of the Acholi Tribe stares into the camera. She has glossy skin, child-like cheeks, and strong features. The camera follows her as she walks, barefoot, along the unpaved road to a hut, where she lives with her aunt and young cousins. Her frayed school uniform fits snugly to her slender thirteen-year- old-body. She cooks, bathes the babies and washes the clothes. Like thousands of other children residing in Patongo, a displaced persons camp in Northern Uganda, Rose has survived a distinct misery particular to this part of the nation, ravaged for more than twenty years by civil war.

Shine Global, a production company founded by Albie Hecht and Susan MacLaury as a way to fund documentaries intended to “raise awareness of the abuse and exploitation of children” produced War Dance. While tragedy touches each story told in the film, the stronger theme is of hope and resilience. Filmmakers Andrea and Sean Fine focus War Dance on three specific children—Nancy, Dominic, and Rose—as they prepare for the National Music Competition held in Kampala each year, attended by contestants from 20,000 schools. Reaching the competition gives the children a sense of accomplishment and pride. War Dance gives insight into their lives as they practice and the sacrifices they make in order to make the dangerous trip to the capital city.

As viewers, we are able to make the journey with them. We learn of their desire to prove themselves, we learn of their haunting past and we see their strength. They compete in eight categories—their strongest being in traditional dance and music composition. Prior to the competition Rose tells of her joy, “I’m excited to see what peace looks like.” Sean and Andrea Fine divulge each child’s story slowly, allowing viewers to become invested in learning and hearing more. The Fine’s are careful to take their time—mixing some of the grislier moments with happy ones. We get to know of Dominic’s intense love of the xylophone and of his desire to become the greatest player in Uganda, while also hearing of his abduction by rebel troops and the weeks spent as a child soldier, “I have not yet had the courage to tell the truth. God would not be happy with me.” When they arrive in Kampala the anticipation is palpable. While their success is expected it still leaves goose bumps.

As is the case with successful documentaries, it is clear that Nancy, Rose and Dominic trusted Andrea and Sean Fine. They allowed them—and us—a glimpse of their pain but also of their ability to heal. War Dance is a beautifully filmed, lyrically told documentary of life through the eyes of incredible children. It is a reminder, not only of the strength of a child’s spirit, but of the power of film, music, and dance.


 


Goran Dukic's
Wristcuters
Opens Friday, October 19, 2007

Reviewed by Corey Ann Haydu

Wristcutters is a new indie flick that fits in well with this season’s influx of TV pilots and pop culture trends—the undead, and people living in alternate universes. Realism and science fiction have been mixing together with wildly successful results since the onset of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Ever since the success of Lost, though, the genre has really taken off, culminating this year with a frenzy of shows that put real people in unreal situations. Wristcutters is a film that is taking advantage of the easy success by making a decent movie inspired by a fantastic story.

The alternate universe of Wristcutters is a type of purgatory where everyone who has killed themselves go to live. This hell is exactly like life on earth, but a little worse. Crappy jobs, cramped dirty apartments and unpalatable landscapes all add to the depression, and this circumstance appears to be the punishment for offing yourself. The lead character, Zia (Almost Famous’ Patrick Fugit) has killed himself after breaking up with the love of his life. He enters suicide hell and quickly learns his ex-girlfriend has also killed herself. He decides to go look for her in the hopes of starting a new life after death with his love. This journey turns into a quirky road trip with two new friends, smarmy Eugene (Shea Whigam) and beautiful Mikal (Shannyn Sossaman). Mikal and Zia fall for each other and their struggle to be together becomes the real journey of the film.

The film is based on a short story that I would imagine is genius. The idea behind the film is quirky, unique and captivating. The film itself, however, falls short. It is appealing without ever really charming or engaging the audience. It is smart without ever being fun, and it is full of good acting with the exception of its lackluster lead. Fugit’s performance in Almost Famous was so inspired, that is it difficult to understand why he struggles to hold the audience’s attention in this movie. He holds his own, but never shines, and Whigam and Sossaman are so strong they steal the film from him. The characters are likeable and it is easy to root for the unlikely romance in an even more unlikely setting. But something is off, and it is more than just the dismal landscape, the depressing setting. The atmosphere is perhaps the biggest character in the piece and provides an unsettling, uncomfortable, morose world. Ultimately the loveliness of the characters and the quirky ideas are not able to usurp that depressing world and the film, like all of its characters, lacks life.

 

 


 

 

 

 


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