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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.


Julian Jarrold’s
Becoming Jane
Opens Friday, August 3, 2007

Starring: Anne Hathaway; James McAvoy; Julie Walters; James Cromwell; Maggie Smith; Joe Anderson; Lucy Cohu; and Anna Maxwell Margin.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Tagline: "A woman especially if she has the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can." Jane Austen

The cast and crew of Becoming Jane took on a Herculean task when they imagined and depicted an early romance for Jane Austen. Their theory was that Austen must have had some experience with love that she used as inspiration for the romanticism of her novels. And in telling this tale, they had very few historical facts with which to work. There are a few small references to Tom Lefroy in the remaining Austen letters (Austen’s sister Cassandra burned most of Jane’s letters when Jane died). Nevertheless, the filmmakers did not simply tell a story of an imagined girlhood crush, they told a story that is filled with themes from Austen’s novels. So the film's title, Becoming Jane, should not be interpreted as to simply the film itself. By telling this story, the creative team channeled the spirit of Jane Austen and literally became Jane.

Here is a quote from the press release for the film: “Becoming Jane, a romantic drama starring Anne Hathaway (The Devil Wears Prada), presents a fresh and daring view of Jane Austen’s early years. Set in the late 18th century, the film portrays Austen’s encounters with the modern, roguish young Irishman, Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland) and imagines how their romantic encounter could have influenced some of her most famous novels that followed.”

Anyone who ventures to film one of Jane Austen’s stories ventures into a drawing-room-minefield. Austen has millions of fans to whom she is their Jane Austen, a member of the family of their heart. And these fans rigorously defend the honor of their heroine and the heroines of her novels by doing things such as expelling a collective “Hmph” when Kyra Sedgwick (playing the newly married Lizzie Bennet) kisses Matthew Macfadyen (playing Mr. Darcy) at the end of director Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice. (There was no kissing in the book.)

Screenwriters Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams had most definitely studied the Austen novels and the viewer is quickly transported into the world of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion. It is all there: the marriage market; the relationship between sisters; the romance; the emphasis on character and responsibility; and the suppressed carnality.

The Marriage Market: Jane Austen was born into a world where women of her class had only one option and that was to marry well. There were no colleges to attend; a smart young girl like Jane Austen could not even become a school teacher. And marrying well did not just require looks and charm, it required money. Austen’s novels are filled with details of this marriage market. No character is introduced without another character whispering just exactly what their income is in pounds per year. And in this world, a man or woman who ignored these monetary realities and married for love alone would not only consign themselves to financial ruin, they could easily take their families with them.

The Sisters: Jane Austen had a sister Cassandra to whom she was devoted. Cassandra’s fiancé died before they could be married and Cassandra remained unmarried and Jane’s confidante throughout their lives. This relationship between Austen and her sister was surely the basis for the relationships between Elinor and Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility and Lizzie and Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Having a sister must have been a comfort to Austen in her life and writing the character of the sister in her novels gave the Austen’s heroines someone in whom to confide and thus let us (the readers) see their hearts.

The Romance: One of the reasons I believe that Jane Austen’s novels are so beloved is that the heroines conduct their romantic life with honor. They behave the way that we (the readers) wish we had behaved in matters of the heart, always choosing the higher path and forever remaining a lady. And in this imaginary story, Jane Austen does not disappoint. Jane is shown to be magnificent character, as memorable as the beloved Lizzie Bennet of Pride and Prejudice.

Character and Responsibility: Jane Austen had a keen eye for human foibles and she gave this eye to her heroines. She also gave them an overwhelming sense of responsibility for their families. Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility) shoulders the burdens of her family. Anne Elliot (Persuasion) forgoes a romance with the poor but dashing Captain Wentworth so she can take care of her irresponsible father and sister. And in Becoming Jane, we see the genesis of Jane Austen’s character’s character; it is the soul of Jane Austen.

The Carnality: In Jane Austen’s world carnality does exist but it is off on the sidelines of the stories - thunder off in the distance. In Sense and Sensibility, Colonel Brandon’s ward becomes pregnant while unwed. In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia was certainly doing something she was not supposed to do when she ran off with Wickham. But in the film Becoming Jane, we see the carnality of the time. Jane Austen grew up on a working farm where she was surely exposed to the reality of sex. People had huge families and just where did all those pigs come from any way? In the film, we see LeFroy in a whorehouse, jumping into a river stark naked and in the scene where he first meets Jane, he reads a highly erotic passage from a nature book to her and quickly suggest that she read Tom Jones. Rabid Janites will undoubtedly be put off by some of this baseness. They may prefer to continue to view their Jane as a string of pearls on a white lacy dollie. But any sensible person must realize that Jane Austen herself must have been exposed to the realities of sex if not to the act of sex itself.

So how did our filmmakers do? To quote a character from an Austen novel, “Very well, indeed.”

The film is charming, poignant and fun, just like the Austen novels. The viewer is quickly transported back into 18th century England with the beautiful shabby chic homes. It is a time when people had time to visit and talk and village life was a social life.

And the romance between Jane and Lefroy is beautifully told. Jane Austen is depicted as a fearless heroine, a lady who knows her own heart and mind. And she has a worthy romantic interest in the irascible Irishman, Tom Lefroy. Theirs is a romance of both the mind and heart. And it is a romance that could so easily have gone a less honorable way because Lefroy certainly shows the capacity to be a cad like Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, but he becomes much more when he falls both in lust with Jane and in love with her mind.

All of the actors do superb jobs playing their roles. Anne Hathaway plays a beautiful spirited Jane Austen. James McAvoy plays a roguish, sexually attractive Tom Lefroy. And the films boast an amazing supporting cast: Julie Walters as Jane’s mother; James Cromwell as her father ; Maggie Smith as Lady Gresham (a Lady Catherine De Bourg-like character). Director Julian Jarrold is certainly to be commended for helming this beautiful film.

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.


Eytan Fox’s
The Bubble (Buah, Ha-)
Opened September 7, 2007

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 2007 Newfest

As far as I’m concerned (and with great respect to Save Me) the best film shown at this years Newfest and one of the best of the year so far is Eytan Fox’s The Bubble. This West Side Story for today tackles the controversial with great wit and inspired power.

Romeo meets Romeo at a checkpoint along the Israeli-Palestinian border and pretty soon the Jew and the Arab have fallen in love. Just how doomed is this relationship? Well, the gifted Fox (he co-wrote the excellent script with Gal Uchovsky) allows the men to get to know one another and allows us to truly believe in their love. We are also glaringly aware of the political goings on around them.

Ohad Knoller (Yossi & Jagger) is Noam, the Israeli and Yousef ‘Joe’ Sweid is Ashraf, the Palestinian. Both deliver effective and affecting performances. Sweid is particularly compelling. The entire ensemble is to be commended. In addition to the two leads, Daniela Virtzer is a stand-out as Lulu, Noam’s gal-pal and Alon Friedman is very good as the flamboyant Yelli.

Maverick director Eytan Fox gave us Yossi & Jagger a few years back and here he proves he’s an international filmmaker to watch as he deftly handles the heavy themes presented with great humor, pathos and understanding.

I really loved this film and everything it had to say about the nature of religious conflict and the, unfortunate, never ending promise of retribution. It can be seen as a plea or a depiction of the way things will always be. Depends on where you fall on the glass half-full/empty question.

The Bubble is unsettling, thought-provoking and daring. I highly recommend it.


Frank Oz's
Death at a Funeral
Opens Friday, August 17, 2007

Starring: Matthew Macfadyen; Keeley Hawes; Andy Nyman; Howard Ewen Bremne; Daisy Donovan; Alan Tudyk; Jane Asher; Kris Marshall;
Rupert Graves; Peter Vaughan; Thomas Wheatley; Peter Egan; Peter Dinklage; Brendan O'Hea; and Jeremy Booth.

Reviewed by Allison Ford

“Riotous mayhem and unfortunate mishaps” are not what usually happen at funerals. Not at the funerals that anyone I know has personally attended, anyways. Maybe if you’re British, these kinds of things happen often enough to be commonplace, but I’ve never been to a British funeral, so I can’t say for sure. I would imagine them to be intensely stodgy, somber affairs, where everyone wears black veils and sips tea and wears sensible shoes. I definitely do NOT imagine upended coffins, blackmail, hallucinogenic drugs, or nudity.

Death at a Funeral, the new black comedy directed by Frank Oz, explores the worst-case scenario for a proper upper-class British family that is trying desperately to remain dignified while chaos erupts all around them. Oz, best known as the voices of Yoda and Fozzie Bear, but also the director of such classic comedies as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Bowfinger, and What About Bob? has crafted a madcap, uproarious portrait of a dysfunctional family, complete with the requisite black sheep and skeletons in the closet.

In fact, this family seems to be comprised entirely of black sheep, except for the dutiful son, played by Matthew MacFayden, who tries to hold it all together as they attempt to give the family patriarch a proper send-off. Although played by venerable British actors, the characters in the film could belong to any family on either side of the pond; the narcissistic brother, the attractive cousin and her hapless fiancé, the chubby hypochondriac friend, the grieving mother who secretly enjoys the spotlight, and the cantankerous (and incontinent) great-uncle Alfie.

While the direction and acting are nearly flawless, the script is a bit contrived at times, and not always full of surprises. The dialogue tends to foreshadow the punchline of jokes before they have been fully played-out. When we meet the drug-dealing cousin, it’s pretty obvious that someone will mistake his Ecstasy for Excedrin. When we see the Mysterious Stranger lurking near the coffin, it’s not hard to figure out that he harbors a Big Secret. Madness ensues, and while Simon the Fiancé runs naked and hallucinating through the garden, Peter the Mystery Guest reveals his nefarious plot, and Uncle Archie tries valiantly to get to the loo in time. (Spoiler – he doesn’t make it.)

Although the idea that a family funeral is a perfect place for black comedy is universal, the film itself has a distinctly British feel. Much upper-class British comedy is based on emotion bubbling up beneath a buttoned-up exterior, and this comedy uses a perfect blend of highbrow and lowbrow comedic elements, from pithy bon mots to slapstick sight gags. A desperate, quintessentially British uptightness lays the foundation for characters to do desperately ridiculous things in the name of saving face. As Daniel, the stoic and dutiful son, Matthew MacFayden is calm and rational to a fault. We know that he harbors feelings of rage and fury, but his refusal to acknowledge them is what makes it hilarious when he’s eventually pushed over the brink. Alan Tudyk plays Simon, nervous about meeting his fiancé‘s stuffy father, and the tension between his raging inner life and calm outward façade makes it much more satisfying when he’s screaming obscenities on the roof.

Although some of the more contrived plot points feel quite American, the film makes no apologies for or explanations of its essential British-ness. They are relatable, though, and far from being American-imagined caricatures of the English (such as in Snatch). The Britain of this film is more Four Weddings and a Funeral than Benny Hill. The film also takes advantage of the feeling (among Americans, anyway) that anything is funnier when spoken in a British accent. Even British insults are funnier – calling someone a “wanker” feels much cleverer than calling them a “jackass.”

The film concludes with a primly happy ending, all the loose ends having been neatly tied up. Its success is owed more to the direction and performances than to the script, written by newcomer Neal Craig. While it does not contain some of the biting satire or social commentary of Oz’s earlier work, Death at a Funeral is a great lighthearted comedy. Frank Oz’s quirky direction as well as stellar performances by a great cast is what make this film a welcome respite from the rest of the end-of-summer doldrums.

For more information, log onto the movie's website:

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.

Franc Reyes’
Illegal Tender
Opens Friday, August 24, 2007

Sin City invades Pulp Fiction in this smokin' hot gangsta flick

Starring: Rick Gonzalez; Wanda De Jesus: Dania Ramirez; Manny Perez; and Tego Calderon.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Fran Reyes has helmed a thrilling carnival ride with his new film, Illegal Tender. Tender tells the story of Millie, a smart (and hot) Puerto Rican mamma (played by Wanda De Jesus) who is quietly living in suburban Connecticut with her two sons: college student Wilson (played by Rick Gonzalez) and elementary school student Randy (played by the adorable Antonio Ortiz).

See this quote from the press release: “After the gangsters who killed his father come to settle a score, a teenage boy and his mother turn the tables on the killers. Producer John Singleton (Four Brothers, Hustle & Flow) and writer / director Franc Reyes (Empire) join forcers to tell the story of one family’s quest for honor and revenge as the hunted become the hunters in the new thriller Illegal Tender.”

Wilson is named for his father, Wilson De Leon Sr. (played by Manny Perez), a Bronx based Puerto Rican gangster who was murdered at moment of Wilson’s birth. Well, Wilson Jr. may now be a well-heeled Connecticut college student (he drives a BMW to class), but he is still pure Bronx, dressing in baggy pants and blasting gangsta rap from his Beamer’s speakers. He is more Bridgeport than Westport, more G Unit than Ralph Lauren.

Then one day Mamma Millie is shopping for groceries when she sees a “ghost,” a woman from her old Bronx neighborhood. She quickly grabs Ricky and runs home to inform Wilson that they have to move, “again.” (It appears that this is family that has been mansion surfing.) But Wilson has a great life and is less than receptive to his mother’s hysteria. He has an adorable girlfriend named Ana (played by Dania Ramirez), he is doing very well in school and he wants no part of this new move. He feels safe and just assumes that his mother is over reacting (as mothers occasionally do).

We then hit the top of the roller coaster. Mamma quickly tells Wilson that he is a man now and if he won’t leave, he needs to be prepared to defend himself and his girlfriend. And in one of the most unintentionally funny part of the story, Mamma takes her boy into the basement, unlocks the safe and distributes assault rifles to her understandably shocked son.

Mamma leaves and Wilson is then forced to defend his turf (and his girl) when the sins of his father’s past invade his luxurious Connecticut world. We are then treated to a scene from the Scream sequel that must have been filming in the sound stage next door as Ana (who is supposed to be "quietly" hiding in the basement so the bad guys and gals won’t find her), screams her heart out for what seems like five minutes. This is also unintentionally (I think) hysterical.

Wilson, who is rightfully perplexed by this turn of events, confronts his mother and makes her tell him the secrets of their past starting with just where did their money come from in the first place? (He just noticed that Mamma dosn't have a job.) So Mamma tells him. It seems that while they are from the Bronx, the root of their “problem” is the gang world of Puerto Rico; Mamma has a blood feud with a Puerto Rican based gangster, Javier Cordero (played by Gary Perez).

Wilson then decides to “cut the head from the hydra” and in this quest he gets ample help from his smokin’ mamma. Mamma Millie and Wilson travel to Puerto Rico where they undertake a Michael Corleone-type mission to make things right for their family.

This film is fun. I never once looked at my watch to see how much longer it would be; it moves. And yes, there are mixed genres – sometimes I was watching the Godfather and then it turned into Scream II. But there is so much to like. Wanda de Jesus is both heartfelt and hysterical as Millie and Rick Gonzalez gives a quietly sincere performance as the coming-of-age Wilson. And Tego Calderon bring in the goods as Choco, the more than capable assistant to Puerto Rican kingpin Javier Cordero. And you just have to see this film to see the two bad-ass Latina assassins (played by Mercedes Mercado and Carmen Perez) who are seemingly moonlighting from the set of Sin City II. They are pure camp.

Gavin Hood's
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
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

Goran Dukic's
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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