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Joe Wright’s
Atonement
Opens Friday, December 7, 2007

Starring: Keira Knightley (Cecilia Turner) ; James McAvoy (Robbie Turner); Saoirse Ronan (young Briony Tallis); Romola Garai (Briony Tallis at 18); Harriet Walter (Emily Tallis); Brenda Blethlyn (Grace Turner); and Vanessa Redgrave (present day Briony). Based on the novel by Ian McEwen

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

British director Joe Wright has fulfilled the promise he exhibited with 2005’s Pride and Prejudice with his helming of the lushly gorgeous Atonement. Set in 1935 during the start of World War II, the story is awash in class struggle, jealousy, repression and sexuality.

Thirteen year old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is an aspiring writer and a child of privilege. Born into the upper class of England, Briony lives with her parents and older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) in a story book country house. And in what should have been one glorious day spent in the beautiful English countryside, Briony misinterprets a series of events and ruins the lives of her sister and her sister’s secret lover, the house keeper’s son Robbie (James McAvoy).

The English class caste system was in a state of flux in 1935 and Robbie’s aspiring to romance Cecilia was emblematic of the coming changes in class structure. Robbie had been sent to Cambridge as a scholarship student at the same time that Cecelia had been away at Cambridge.

On that fateful day, the hottest day of the year, Robbie accidentally breaks a vase, a piece of which falls into a fountain. Cecelia is furious about the loss of the vase and strips to her underwear and dives into the fountain to retrieve the missing piece and emerges sopping wet and for all purposes naked. The stripping, diving and emerging are observed by the jealous and naive Briony who misinterprets both this and a series of other overheated events that occur that same day.

The next part of the film is set during World War II. Robbie, whose prospects for professional success and love have been ruined by Briony’s lies, is in France fighting the Germans. The English have been routed and are waiting at Dunkirk to be rescued in a scene that echoes Dante’s Inferno. Both Cecelia and Briony are working as nurses in London. Briony has come to her senses and realized what a horrible sin she committed when she was a naïve, class-conscious, thirteen-year-old, know-it-all. Briony desperately wants her sister and Robbie to forgive her, but the lives she ruined have become Humpty Dumpties and nothing she can do can put them back together again.

In the last segment we see the now dying Briony (Vanessa Redgrave), a successful novelist at the end of her life, being interviewed for a television show. And we learn that Briony’s entire life has been spent wishing for a forgiveness/atonement that has never come.

And as for the cast:The multi-talented Keira Knightly (the Pirate movies and Wright's Pride and Predjudice) is stunningly beautiful as Cecelia. Her scenes with James McAvoy explode with eroticism. McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) has definitely proven to be one of the (if not the) most talented young English actor of his generation. And young Saoirse Ronan does a brilliant job of portraying the multi-faceted young Briony as a basically good young woman who is so confused by her emerging sexuality that she commits a monstrous act of evil. And Romola Garai as the eighteen year old Briony is heart breaking as she strives for forgiveness by submerging her soul in the quest to help wounded British soldiers. And what can I say about the incomparable Vanessa Redgrave that has not already been said except to say “Ditto.”

Joe Wright did a beautiful job putting together this multi-layered story of love, war, jealousy and grief. Atonement is destined to be a classic; it is definitely a movie I will not soon forget.

12/13/2007: According to this article on MSNBC.com, Atonement received seven nominations for the Golden Globes, the largest number of nominations for any 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.




Tom Wilkinson, Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell in Cassandra's Dream

Woody Allen's
Cassandra's Dream
Opens Friday, December 28, 2007

Starring: Ewan McGregor; Colin Farrell; Hayley Atwell; Sally Hawkins; and Tom Wilkinson.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

What would you be willing to do to save your life? Not from death but to save yourself from dying of boredom or worse, to save yourself from having to live without the use of your knees?

Woody Allen's Cassandra’s Dream tells the story of two lower-middle-class London brothers - the upwardly mobile Ian (played by Ewan McGregor) and his gambling-addicted loser brother Terry (played by a Colin Farrell you have never seen before). Ian wants more from life than his present existence, one where he works in the family restaurant and dates cute waitresses. And one beautiful day, while driving through the countryside in a “borrowed” vintage sports car (Terry is a mechanic), he sees Angela (played by a gorgeous Hayley Atwell) stranded on the side of road attempting to fix her disabled car. It is love at first sight and jump starts Ian’s desire to become a player in life by investing in a hot-but-dubious-sounding real estate deal in California.

Meanwhile Ian’s brother Terry has a different kind of problem: Terry is addicted to gambling. When he wins, it is intoxicating. Terry won so big one time at the dog track that he was able to buy a sail boat named Cassandra’s Dream which he named after the winning dog in the race. But sometimes Terry does not do so well and recently Terry lost ninety-thousand pounds to some not-so-nice men. And this is ninety-thousand pounds that Terry has no prayer of ever being able to pay back.

But never fear; there is salvation in sight. These shlubby boys have a rich uncle who has relocated to California and who now comes to London for a visit. Uncle Howard (played by Tom Wilkinson) is everyone’s dream uncle. He has never had children himself and dotes on his sister’s boys.

So we are then treated to a darkly funny family conference. Uncle Howard and the boys meet and both boys explain that they each need ninety-thousand pounds – Ian to invest in his real estate deal and prove himself worthy of the beautiful Angela and Terry to live the rest of his life without the use of crutches. Uncle Howard smiles kindly and says of course. He does not even seem to be listening as the boys promise to pay him back. But then Uncle Howard tells his darling nephews that he needs a small favor in return. Uncle Howard also needs to save his life and he will be happy to save his nephews lives if they will do the same for him.

And thus the die is cast. The boys have been asked to perform a morally reprehensible act and if they do not do it, they will both lose not their physical lives but their present existence. But if they do help out dear Uncle Howard, how will they be able to live with themselves afterwards?

Cassandra’s Dream is the latest of Woody Allen’s London films. The film is gloomy and realistic. The mood is set by Phillip Glass’s haunting score and Vilmos Zsigmond’s (who also shot Melinda and Melinda) cinematography. But unlike Allen's other London films, Dream is not darkly elegant like Match Point or quirkily funny like Scoop; it is more of a Bud Light version of Allen’s New York based masterpiece, Crimes and Misdemeanors.

But in Dream, Allen does not relent in the downward thrust of his plot like he did in Crimes and Misdemeanors. Allen allows the characters to find their own destiny with no whimsical twists of fate or self-justifying moralizing to catapult them to a different outcome.

All the actors do fine jobs. Ewan McGregor plays the charming cad with his usual insouciance. Colin Farrell is a revelation as the loser brother; there is none of his usual “I’m a movie star” posturing. Newcomer Hayley Atwell does a fine job of playing the just-reachable goddess. And in a small part, Sally Hawkins (as Terry’s wife Kate) does a great job of impersonating Woody Allen’s muse, Scarlett Johansson (Hawkins could pass for Johansson's sister). But the real acting kudos go to Tom Wilkinson who is subtly hysterical in his role as the loving uncle who comes for a visit with just a bit of baggage for his nephews to carry.

 



Jon Poll’s
Charlie Bartlett
Opens Friday, February 22, 2008

Starring: Robert Downey; Anton Yelchin: Hope Davis: Kat Dennings: Murphey Bivens

Reviewed at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival by Wendy R. Williams

Charlie Barlett is a quirky charming saga that tells the story of the new guy at a suburban a high school, a charismatic misfit who parlays his unassuming wit and charm to become the most popular kid on campus. And along his route to becoming “prom king,” he falls in love with the principal’s quasi-Goth daughter Susan (a charming Kat Dennings with lots of red lipstick) and finds his nemesis in person of the manically-depressed-alcoholic-high-school-principal, Mr. Gardner (Robert Downey, Jr.).

Here is a quote from the Tribeca Film Festival press release, “Failing to fit in at a high school run by a disenchanted principal (Robert Downey, Jr.), awkward Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) is running out of options for making friends--until he names himself the school "psychiatrist." When he starts doling out advice, and the occasional pill, to classmates, his popularity soars in this witty take on teenage insecurity.”

This movie is funny on so many levels. Charlie lives in gothic mansion with his eccentric mother Marilyn (played by the mega talented Hope Davis), with whom he has a Hansel-and-Gretel-in-the-woods relationship. The family obviously has money (there is a chauffeured Bentley), but are also obviously over come by some mysterious melancholy. There are so many hysterical scenes: (1) Charlie looking up psychiatric drugs in pharmacological texts and then surfing psychiatric couches describing the exact symptoms that can be cured by the pill-of –the-month (2) Charlie setting up his psychiatric office in the men’s room (he in one stall the supplicant in the other – Catholic anyone?). This movie has an amazing tone and the credit can only be given to the director, John Poll. He kept his symphony under tight control.

And now about Robert Downey in his role as the principal, Mr. Gardner. Downey plays Gardner as a total whack job, but as the scariest kind of whacko – the one where all of the rage is tamped down so far you can only “see” it when the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. The scene where Downey is drunkenly shooting mechanized toy boats in his swimming pool should be taught in acting class. He is terrifying but he also seems trustworthy??? He is enraged by Charlie; but who doesn’t become enraged when forced to watch someone else walk on water?


 


Mike Nichols'
Charlie Wilson’s War
Opens Friday, December 21, 2007

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Charlie Wilson’s War is yet another hotly anticipated holiday release that was immediately pummeled by a gaggle of quasi-critics (those self-appointed Oscar “experts” you’ve heard so much bashing about this season) as not worthy of all the expectation hyped upon it. Well, firstly, the expectation was hyped by these gurus of nada themselves, proving once again that ‘those who can’t’ love to build up and then immediately tear down.

The good news, my film friends, is that the “chosen” few were fucking wrong (not the first time) and full of shit (not surprising) for Charlie Wilson’s War is not only one of the most sharply written, deftly directed and masterfully acted films of the year, it’s a fan-frikkin’-tastically funny comedy as well, something the season is sorely lacking.

Aaron Sorkin, who began his career as a playwright (A Few Good Men) and then moved very quickly to episodic TV (The West Wing) and has recently moved back to Broadway (The Farnsworth Invention) has penned a smart, savvy, satiric look at one man’s ablilty to manage the impossible...with a little help from his friends.

The film follows the womanizing, boozing liberal Congressman from Texas known as “Goodtime Charlie” along an unexpected journey to free the Afghans from the Soviet stronghold, after the invasion of 1979. Wilson is the perfect Washington operator. He knows the right people and knows how to get things done. When he asks for five million dollars for something the CIA is planning, he gets it--no questions asked.

Charlie is, initially, hoodwinked into this challenge by the wealthy and powerful Houston socialite Joanne Herring, played with delight and relish by a stunning Julia Roberts. This may not be the pretty woman we’re used to (especially in that fright wig) but she sinks her teeth in solidly here and delivers.

It’s Joanne who arranges a key meeting between Charlie and the Pakistani president. Toss in a sardonic and bitter CIA op (played perfectly by Philip Seymour Hoffman) as well as Israelis and Arabs (who were brought together for the first and ONLY time) and Charlie has the ammunition he needs (figuratively and literally) to aide the Afghans in their plight against the, then, Soviets. Of course, helping with the defeat must never reflect back to the U.S.

Much information is tossed at the audience in the movie. Some of it will not brain-stick during the first viewing, but it doesn’t have to. It’s fine to simply grasp the crux of what is going on and the unbelievable achievement one man and a few enemy countries were able to accomplish. The results proved terrific (the end of the cold war with the fall of the Soviet wall) and terrible (much of the training of the Muslims created a breeding ground for the Islamic fundamentalists that would go on to hate America and seek revenge...)

There’s been some controversy about the original ending being forced-cut by Universal because Wilson and Herring did not appreciate being connected, even peripherally,to what would eventually be the 9/11 attacks--so they allegedly sought legal counsel and twisted a few studio arms. Regardless, the point is felt, even though the current ending feels too abrupt. Otherwise the film moves fluidly and is finely edited (by Oscar winner John Bloom).

Tom Hanks is doing some of his best work now. Along with Road to Perdition, this is one of his sharpest performances. He’s unafraid to give Charlie the faults and freckles that make him who he is. This is not a Jimmy Stewart turn (and it easily could have been). Hanks humanizes Charlie for us so we can understand and appreciate the folly of politics and of personal judgments. Hanks does what the Harrison Fords of the industry are afraid to do, he takes chances with his film selections and with his craft. The results are an ever expanding repertoire of fascinating characters as well as choices..

A special mention to the wonderful Amy Adams (Enchanted), who is one of the few girls in the film Charlie does not sleep with as well as the perennially political Ned Beatty, always on his game.

Director Mike Nichols is a craftsman who has made some truly great films (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Silkwood and the made for TV masterwork, Angels in America). Charlie may not make that list but it stands proud with his most stellar work.




Paulo Morelli’s
City of Men


Starring: Douglas Silva, Darlan Cunha, Jonathan Hassgensen, Rodrigo Dos Santos, Camila Monteiro, Naima Silva, Eduardo “BR” Piranha, Luciando Vidigal, and Pedro Henrique.

Reviewed by Marguerite Daniels

20 years ago a green Dan Quayle drew comparison between himself and John F. Kennedy and received the famed verbal smack-down response from Lloyd Bentsen who uttered: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.” Sadly, the same can be said of Paulo Morelli’s City of Men, a film which is being billed as a companion piece to the Oscar®-nominated City of God, directed by Fernando Meirelles. City of Men is no City of God.

There are obvious similarities: the names of the films are similar, both films are shot in the favelas of Rio, both are coming of age stories, and both films share the same young actors, but unfortunately for City of Men it lacks the searing direction found in the original film and the matching-monikered television series. The film borrows the frantic action-filled high adrenalin rush of City of God but doesn’t deliver the poignant desperation of the original film, and without perilous anxiety the film falls flat.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t like City of Men, I liked it fine, but I really wanted to love City of Men as much as I loved City of God and City of Men, the television series. In City of Men we are reintroduced to Acerola “Ace” (played beautifully by Douglas Silva) and Laranjinha “Wallace” (the endearing Darlan Cunha). Those familiar with the television series (and it does pay to have familiarity with the television series before seeing this film) will be pleased to see Ace and Wallace fully grown at eighteen. Both are enduring personal hardships: Ace has become a father, and Wallace is searching for the father he never knew. While they seek to understand themselves, a secret from the past threatens to destroy both of them, and the two young men are thrust into opposing sides of a gang war. And what a scary gang war it is. Everyone’s lives are altered in the favelas as the ruling drug dealer is challenged. Innocent people die, families are torn apart. None of this is new territory for the series. The new theme in City of Men deals with how the lack of fathers in the favelas affects the young people. Alas, the long-lost father theme isn’t subtly executed. Viewers of the film are repeatedly told that Ace shouldn’t be like his father and abandon his son. When Wallace finally locates his father (played masterfully by the ruggedly handsome Rodrigo Santos) the audience is told over and over again that he’s a bad father for not caring for his son.

Of course, we already know all of this. The boys have grown up in dangerous, gun-infested shantytown, after all. What’s of greater concern in this film is a theme that is never explored: even with present and available paternal units, how could our fair heroes find safe-havens in such squalor? The same economic divide that creates the environment still exists, and the missing daddy issue just seems pat. Without real social change in Brazil, criminal enterprises will continue to prosper.

So, ok, City of Men isn’t a great film, but the art direction presented by Adriano Goldman (Director of Photography) and Rafael Ronconi (Art Director) is equally picturesque and haunting, and I’ll be purchasing the soundtrack (kudos to composer Antonio Pinto) as soon as it is available. I suppose this is a classic example of familiarity breeding contempt since I know the story of Ace and Wallace well. Over the past six years I’ve watched Ace and Wallace grow-up. I guess I simply yearned for a more poignant vehicle for their send-off.




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.



Kevin Lima’s
Enchanted
Opens November 21, 2007


Starring: Amy Adams; Patrick Dempsey; James Marsden; and Timothy Spall.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

To say Amy Adams is enchanting in Enchanted is redundant--to the third power actually. Anyone who saw her hilarious and heartbreaking turn in Junebug, two years ago, knows just how extraordinary this actress is. This is a star-making performance, no question. One that will rightly garner Adams an Academy Award nomination. What is so remarkable about Kevin Lima’s new film is just how much it lives up to Adams’ talents!

Enchanted is the first live action/animation blend that I have ever seen that actually investigates what it is like for a cartoon to become human…for a drawn fairy princess (to be) to become a flesh and blood woman bursting with confusion, lust and her own newfound idiosyncrasies. (It’s not rated R so it doesn’t go THAT far—this is still Disney!) And thanks to Adams we are privy to her inner world and we watch her move from her one-dimensional demeanor, excitedly and with trepidation, to exploring full three-dimensionality!

I do not feel the need to give away any of the plot. Suffice to say; you’ve seen it all before…until you haven’t!

Disney gets lots of props for not just allowing the creative forces at work to skew and satire their precious film characters, heritage, image, etc…but to do it in such a clever and deliciously whacky way. This never feels like a paint-by-numbers Hollywood film.

The movie has the chutzpah to poke fun at many animated (and musical) conventions such as: having characters burst into song for no real reason and the delightful staple of summoning nearby creatures to help out our heroine. The latter is brilliantly turned upside down in the number: “Happy Working Song” when Adams asks the help of a slew of nearby pigeons, rats and cockroaches to help clean Patrick Dempsey’s (yes, McDreamy!) apartment. It is an instant classic clip as we watch with joy and horror as these vermin infest the screen, all led with happy glee by Adams! Even the character’s name, Giselle, is a fun riff on past Disney heroines.

The three new songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz are wonderful, with “That’s How You Know” having a particularly Oscary ring to it.

Besides the sensational Adams, James Marsden should be singled out for a stellar Prince of a performance. Marsden, once an Ally McBealer, currently seen in Hairspray, is one of the most underrated actors working today. And there seems to be no limits to his talents.

Finally, the film is a Valentine to the greatest city in the world: New York—and specifically, Manhattan. Central Park, Lincoln Center and, in particular, Times Square, are photographed with such love that we understand why Giselle is so taken with our fair city, that she would want to permanently stay and not return to the magical kingdom she came from.




David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s
The Eye
Opens Friday, February 1, 2008

 

Starring: Jessica Alba (Sydney Wells); Alessandro Nivola (Dr. Paul Faulkner); Parker Posey (Helen Wells); Rade Serbedzija (Simon McCullough); Fernanda Romero (Ana Christina Martinez); and Chloe Moretz (Alicia Millstone).

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Read the Interview with Jessica Alba

Directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud took on quite a challenge when they decided to remark the Pang Brother’s Hong Kong based film, The Eye. The Eye has become a bit of a cult classic with lovers of horror films. I saw the original and reviewed it when it was part of the Lincoln Center Film Society’s Hong Kong Film Series in 2002.

Both versions of The Eye tell the story of a young woman who has been blind since early childhood. Her vision is restored when she receives a corneal transplant. But with her new sight comes horrifying images of people who dying. Our heroine then consults a doctor (a psychiatrist in the Hong Kong film and a neural specialist in the Moreau/Palud film).

The remake is now set in Los Angeles and our heroine Sidney Wells (Jessica Alba) is now a concert violinist. There are other differences between the films. In the Hong Kong version of the film, the heroine’s doctor and friends are open to the possibility of the supernatural. In the Moreau/Palud film, everyone thinks Sidney has had a mental breakdown; her doctor, Dr. Paul Faulkner (played by Alessandro Nivola; her sister Helen (played by Parker Posey); and the conductor of the symphony, Simon Mc Cullough (played by Rade Serbedzija).

Sidney’s mind has become a living horror house. She is constantly visually assaulted: There are dead people in her elevator and her hallway and every night at 1AM she awakes to visions of people screaming as the burn to death.

No one believes Sidney, so she does what any seeing/thinking person would do, she goggles transplant memories using her Braille computer and printer. Sidney finds information about a phenomenon known as cellular memory. This is the supposed tranfer of a donor's memories with transplanted body parts. Sidney then convinces her very skeptical doctor to help her find her donor, the woman Sidney sees when she looks in the mirror. Sidney and Paul then travel to a small town in Mexico to find out what happened to her donor, Fernanda Romero (played by Ana Christina Martinez). And when they do, they find the source of the horror.

So, how does everyone do? Jessica Alba played Sidney as a very contained character who does everything that is humanly possible to stay centered when her entire world begins to crater into the abyss. Alessandro Nivola gives a nuanced performance as the skeptical doctor. Parker Posey does a fine job of playing the part of the supportive but disbelieving sister and she does so without any of her usual quirks. And little Chloe Moretz was heart breaking as the brain cancer patient who befriends Sidney in the hospital.



 



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.


Bryan Gunner Cole’s
Day Zero
Opens Friday, January 18th, 2008

Starring: Elijah Wood (Aaron Feller); Jon Bernthal (James Dixon); Chris Klein (George Rifkin); Ginnifer Goodwin (Molly Rifkin); Elisabeth Moss (Patricia); Ally Sheedy (Dr. Reynolds).

Reviewed by John Janusz

Day Zero is a drama set in a near-futuristic America at a time when the national draft has been reinstated. Three best friends from high school are now in their early thirties as they each simultaneously receive their thirty day draft notice. The film focuses not on the war itself, but the lives of the three protagonists and their reactions to being drafted from the moment they receive their notice up until their deployment.

The film features: Elijah Wood as Aaron Feller, a neurotic writer who makes weekly visits to his shrink (Ally Sheedy); Chris Klein as George Rifkin, a yuppie lawyer; and Jon Bernthal as James Dixon, a fearless NYC cabdriver. All three come from different backgrounds, live different lifestyles and view enlisting in the military in different ways. George comes from a wealthy family, is happily married (to Ginnifer Goodwin) and has a successful career. He desperately searches for any way he can escape his military obligation and continue on his current life course. Dixon, on the other hand, does not come from a wealthy family, is not in a serious relationship and does not have a successful career. However, he is intent on going into battle in order to defend the freedom of choice that he currently enjoys. The tension grows between the two as they rationalize their respective opinions on the matter. Aaron takes a completely different course and (in an attempt to prepare himself for the life of a soldier) makes a Top 10 Ten List of things to do before he reports for duty that includes actions that range from skydiving to sleeping with a prostitute.

Overall, the film is intriguing due to the possible relevancy of a semi-thought-provoking plot. Aaron, George and Dixon have three distinctly varied reactions to their draft notices, and a viewer is likely to agree or disagree with each of them as well as ask oneself what one might do given the same predicament. The film then develops a sympathetic background story for each of its characters before revealing what resolution each comes to on Day Zero.


 

 


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.



Jason Reitman’s
Juno
Opens December 25, 2007

Reviewed by Corey Shtasel-Gottlieb


There is a movie each year, it seems, that emerges quietly and suddenly to touch audiences with its unassuming charm. Such a film works by repackaging the depressing and the mundane into a product that allows us to laugh at ourselves—to find humor where sadness typically lives. In 2007, that movie is Juno. Witty, ballsy writing and an endearing cast allow Juno to function successfully as both biting and adorable. A story of real substance emerges from behind the curtain of the prototypical dark comedy, producing a final product that is raw and hilarious and true to life. It may not be the year’s best picture, but Juno will be remembered as the sleeper film that took 2007 by surprise.

Set on a definitively Minnesotan middle class landscape, Juno tells the story of Juno Macguff (Ellen Page), a high school sophomore who finds herself pregnant after a one-night romp with best friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). Spooked by a less than comforting trip to the abortion clinic, Juno decides to give her baby up for adoption. Her awkwardly evolving relationship with the adoptive parents-to-be (played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) is painfully humorous, as she belly-flops gracelessly into their white-bread lifestyle. Such is the way in which she approaches each of pregnancy’s seemingly fragile obstacles, trampling over maternity outfits and ultrasounds like a bull in a china shop. At face value, Juno may be the picture of inelegance, but in truth she is just the opposite: super witty and free-spirited, she exudes a depth of confidence that is admirable, even shocking, for a person in her situation. She embraces her role as the elephant-in-the-room with a self-deprecating sincerity that renders her deeply lovable. The core of the film’s success resides in screenwriter Diablo Cody’s development of such a character.

Embedded within the story of Juno’s pregnancy is her relationship with Paulie Bleeker, the film’s ultimate boy-next-door. Bleeker is Juno’s soft spot. A goofy gold headband and tiny track shorts uniform his innocent dorkiness; his quiet sensitivity clashes with typical depictions of teenage fathers. Like Juno, he appears to appreciate his own awkwardness for what it is, though his admission at the film’s end that “Actually, I try really hard” makes clear that he is a bit less secure. Nevertheless, his lack of cynicism is disarming, and melds almost seamlessly with Juno’s no-bullshit approach. The love story into which the film ultimately evolves is a product of this dynamic—it is untraditional, perhaps unrealistic, but mostly just, well, sweet.

The strength of Juno’s storyline is complemented by first-rate acting on all cylinders. Ellen Page makes the movie. She is so fully entrenched in this role, so believable, that I find it difficult to believe that she is not Juno Macguff in real life. This is, without question, her coming out party, a performance that should be awarded with her first Oscar nomination. Cera is good, too. Although he doesn’t deviate much from his soft-spoken Superbad shtick, he is perfect for the part. It is the supporting acting, though, that elevates Juno to next-level quality. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney are excellent as Juno’s father and stepmother, and not merely from a comedic perspective; both portray a depth of emotion that gives credence to the notion of parents as actual people. The same is true of Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, whose stereotypical yuppyness melts to reveal a real, struggling couple at movie’s end. These are the types of performances that will provide Juno the same warm reception that made Little Miss Sunshine a hit in 2006.

In one of the strongest years for film in recent memory, Juno stands out among 2007’s brightest. Smart, funny, and original, it infuses something dark and taboo with genuine warmth. It is a must-see.


 

 



Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi's
Persepolis
Opens Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

A film about angst and rebellion under the thumb of an oppressive Islamist regime may, at first glance, seem like unlikely holiday movie-going fare. Nevertheless, tales of the resiliency of the human spirit and the triumph of rebellion and dignity in the most of trying of political circumstances are very much in keeping with the greatest story every told. With that in mind, there's no better way to keep the seasonal joie de vivre going than by checking out Persepolis, the visually arresting, earthy and affecting animated film adapted form Iranian author Marjane Satrapi's intensely personal graphic novels.

The film's narrative spans the course of both books; beginning with the young Marjane witnessing the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Islamist revolution, following her to school in Vienna then back home to Tehran and finally off to Paris to begin a new life as an artist.

As graphically striking as Satrapi's print illustrations are, the live animation gives the story a new vitality and depth. Shaded entirely in blacks, whites, and greys, the illustrations and images manage to convey a wide variety of emotions: the warm and homey feel of Marjane's close-knit family, the eerie and magical depictions of young Marjane's fantasy world, the traditional Persian aesthetic of the segments that explain Iranian history, the neo-noir punk feel of Marjane's sojourn in Vienna, and the bleak, ominous look of the scenes of political protest and rebellion. The visual complexity of Persepolis is truly dazzling; it looks unlike any film you've ever seen.

As much as the narrative of Persepolis is inexorably entwined with the history of modern Iran, it really is a much more universal story – that of a smart, tough, rebellious girl struggling to come into her own when all the weight of circumstance and society are fighting against her. One of the great delights of seeing the story on celluloid is that the character of Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes Benites as a girl and by Chiara Mastroianni as a teenager and adult) really comes to life. To see the character develop from a fearless kung-fu-loving young badass to a moody and an outraged teen and finally a defiant, self-confident woman is heartrendingly real. The superb cast of powerful, memorable characters is rounded off by Marjane's formidable and supportive parents (voiced Simon Akbarian and Mastroianni's real-life mother, Catherine Deneuve), and her doting but gutsy grandma (the incomparable Danielle Darrieux).

In this day and age, when oppressive regimes stamp out personal freedoms across the globe, Persepolis is an empowering call to arms; a strong reminder that the human desire for liberty can thrive under the most difficult circumstances. A more inspiring Christmas message would be difficult to find.




Sylvester Stallone's
Rambo
Opens Friday January 25, 2008

Rambo Returns With a Republican

Starring: Sylvester Stallone; Julie Benz (Dexter); Paul Schulze (The Sopranos); Matthew Marsden (Resident Evil: Extinction, Black Hawk Down); Graham McTavish (HBO's Rome); Rey Gallegos (American Wedding); Tim Kang (Third Watch); Jake LaBotz (Ghost World); Maung Maung Khin and Ken Howard.

Reviewed by Francesca C. Simon

The presidential campaign is a battleground with a cast of Democratic and Republican hopefuls tossing insult grenades, spitting out accusations at machine gun speed and looking for ways to launch surprise attacks that will catch their enemies off guard. Legislative voting record body parts flying through the airwaves, mouth to mouth combat on the campaign trail and midnight hour strategizing under the cover of media darkness makes a bloody setting for the final scenes of the 2008 Presidential Election in November. It sort of sounds like a Rambo movie, right?!

We who watch the action always wait for the hero to arrive in the final hour to ensure victory. Republican John McCain’s hero may have just arrived armed with a movie to add additional ammunition to McCain’s war hero arsenal! Sylvester Stallone – the embodiment of the war veteran Rambo – has endorsed McCain. In New York to promote his new movie Rambo, which will blast into theatres today, Stallone told Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade that typecasting McCain as President would be the right maneuver.

“I like McCain a lot. A lot,” Stallone tells Kilmeade on Fox News’ morning show “Fox and Friends" which aired today, Friday, January 25, 2008. “And you know, things may change along the way, but there’s something about matching the character with the script. And right now, the script that’s being written and reality is pretty brutal and pretty hard-edged like a rough action film, and you need somebody who’s been in that to deal with it.”

That sums up Stallone in the new Rambo movie which he helped write and directed single handedly. This film comes almost twenty years after the last film in the series and this time the setting is northern Thailand. John Rambo is running a longboat on the Salween River near the Thai-Burma (Myanmar) border where the Burmese-Karen conflict, continues to rage after six decades. The film setting is based on fact. The Burmese-Karen conflict is the world's longest-running civil war and is currently raging in real life into its 60th year. It is a brutal saga of genocide.

"I thought the Burmese setting would be ideal because it's a story that's not just about Rambo. It's actually happening. It's true," says Stallone. "From the time I heard about it and began researching it, I thought, 'If I could just combine the two – raising “awareness of the Karen-Burmese civil war and giving the audience a good adventure story – that would be perfect.” It seems he has succeeded.
Rambo is a bloody reminder of the reality of war that shoots through the heart and mind the painful images of young American men and women in military uniforms falling on foreign soil wounded, bleeding and breathing their dying breath with the hope that their sacrifice will not be in vain. This movie punches you in the gut with the horrific bloody sights and high caliber blasting sounds of real war. This is ninety minutes of war – not a ten second news clip.

We first see Rambo (who is living a solitary, simple life in the mountains and jungles of Thailand) face to fang with a gigantic poisonous snake, which he captures and sells. No noble career here. Two human rights missionaries Sarah (Julie Benz) and Michael (Paul Schulze), plead with him to carry them up the Salween River, so they can deliver medical supplies and food to the Karen tribe, who are victims of genocide at the hands of the Burmese military junta.
Rambo first refuses but finally responds to Sarah, who is the only female in the missionary group. She speaks softly and imploring him to help them. We’re not quite sure what makes Rambo change his mind, but he lets everyone know that he’s only making the trip for Sarah. Rambo makes the run up the river, drops them off and returns to his solitude. But less than two weeks later, pastor Arthur
Marsh (Ken Howard) finds Rambo and tells him the missionaries have been captured by the Burmese army. He knows that Sarah will suffer abuse in the hands of the brutal military and so he agrees to take a group of mercenaries up river to rescue the missionaries. The adventurous effort begins and the action moves into full gear.

“I think Sarah stirs something in Rambo, his innate sense of good versus evil,” explains Stallone. “He sees this beautiful young woman, and her doctor boyfriend, who are willing to risk their safe and comfortable lives to help people they don't even know who live on the other side of the world. That awakens something in him. By saving Sarah, and trying to save the missionaries, he's also saving part of himself.”

Don't look for deep character development in this movie. There's no deep passion between the missionaries Sarah and Paul although they're engaged. The mercenaries fuss, cuss and spit – but none of them really move you. There's no insight into the vicious Burmese Major Tint, epitome of evil, effectively played by Muang Muang Khin. This man was, in real life, a resistance fighter for the Karen rebels. There is no back story of village families or idealistic soldiers. But the feel of the film is fiercely authentic. Stallone urged the casting of native Karen/Burmese who were from the region and knew about the factual Karen/Burmese conflict. So real Karen refugees, amputees, land mine victims and former Burmese soldiers were hired and this indeed adds a depth of horror and desperation to their performances. The familiar frames of rice paddies, dense jungle and the splattering of blood and guts will bring back many bad memories of Vietnam for many viewers. The acting is, well, action-oriented. But Julie Benz should get a special award from somebody for all the mud, blood, running, rain, and noise she had to endure.

Stallone says he never intended to write and direct Rambo but says he didn’t want to face any regrets. “When someone else does it, you have regrets and it doesn’t have your personality.” This movie is pure Stallone from start to finish. This is not the oiled-up, slick and righteously vicious Rambo. He walks with the weight of weariness on his broad shoulders. This is a man weathered by war, steeped in self-reflection and wondering whether he can face the world again. His performance as Rambo mirrors the reality of the human experience of maturity; how we all slow down, weigh our options, and sometimes, somehow manage to come out of the past to live in the future. The lines and scars on the face of sixty-60-year-old Stallone relay the message that war is always hell and it never changes – except for the equipment and the location. And yet we must always survive despite our suffering and find our way back into an ever evolving world to bear witness to the value of life.

Sylvester Stallone directs and stars as Rambo, filmed on location in and around Chiang Mai, Thailand. RAMBO is based on the characters created by David Morrell. Written by Art Monterastelli and Sylvester Stallone. Rambo is produced by Avi Lerner, Kevin King -Templeton and John Thompson. Executive Producers Jon Feltheimer, Peter Block, Harvey Weinstein , Bob Weinstein. Executive Producers Danny Dimbort, Boaz Davidson, Trevor Short. Executive Producers Andreas Thiesmeyer, Florian Lechner Randall Emmett, George Furla.



Alex Gibney’s
Taxi to the Dark Side
Opens Friday, January 18, 2008

Reviewed at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival by Julia Sirmons

“Americans want to believe that we’re more moral than the rest of the world,” says a military interrogator interviewed in Taxi to the Dark Side, a gripping new documentary about the US military’s torture policy. The comment provokes the film’s director, Alex Gibney, to ask the man if he shares that belief. He pauses for a moment. “I think that’s bullshit,” he replies.

It’s a sentiment that will doubtless be shared by everyone who sees Taxi, a powerful and well executed film that boils over with an infectious outrage, and that establishes Gibney (who also directed 2005’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) as a powerful and confident voice in contemporary documentary filmmaking.

While it shares many of the attributes that made Enron so powerful, Taxi is more of a mirror image than a carbon copy of Gibney’s previous film. Enron started with a story of corruption in the highest echelons of power (the malfeasance of company bigwigs Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling) and argued that it was indicative of a much larger culture of corporate greed and recklessness that pervaded an entire institution. Conversely, Taxi starts with a single incident perpetrated by interrogators at Bagram prison in Afghanistan (many of whom were later transferred to Abu Ghraib) and makes a persuasive case that this and other examples of detainee torture and homicide were not, as high-ranking military personnel maintained, the work of “a few bad apples,” but rather the result of willful obfuscation and vagueness from the top of the military chain of command, perpetrated with the intention of tacitly condoning violations of the Geneva Conventions.

The result, Gibney maintains, was that military personnel – particularly interrogators – never knew what protocol to follow when dealing with detainees. (He repeatedly stresses the fact that, despite numerous requests, staff at Bagram and Abu Ghraib never received written directives on what they could and could not do in interrogations.) This uncertainty, coupled with constant reminders of the threat of terrorism and an immense pressure for “results” (which generally meant extracting confessions, whatever the cost) led to abuse of power on a wide scale. In the end, it was the soldiers who were punished, while none of the superior officers (or government officials) who deliberately failed to guide or correct them have been charged, tried or disciplined.

Gibney starts off with the story of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver from a remote village arrested (on no evidence and the word of corrupt Northern Alliance troops) and detained in Bagram prison, where he died as the result of injuries sustained from brutal beatings. After the autopsy, the military coroner ruled his death a homicide. New York Times reporters Carlotta Gall and Tim Golden pursued the story, alerting the public to the issue of detainee torture.

From here, Gibney travels to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, effectively arguing that the chilling accounts and photos of prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib were part of a more widespread use of psychological manipulation – including humiliation, sensory and sleep deprivation, and intimidation – in prisoner interrogations by military personnel. He convincingly argues that responsibility for this policy goes back to the top of the power structure, particularly to Vice President Dick Cheney, who stated from the days immediately following September 11th that, in order to win the war on terror, America would have to travel to “the dark side.”

Just how dark that dark side became is revealed through photographs and videos taken within the various prisons and via interviews with a wide cast of characters, who each help to shed light on the many facets of corruption and incompetence that make up the story. Military experts and personnel of all ranks are interviewed, as well as detainees’ attorneys. John Yoo, co-author of the infamous “torture memo,” makes an appearance. So does Alberto Mora, the former Navy General Counsel who, upon receiving news of widespread detainee abuse, threatened to go public with the story if the Pentagon did not change its interrogation policies. Moazzam Begg, a British national detained for almost two years at Bagram and then Guantanamo, was an eyewitness to the abuse of Dilawar. He also delivers first-hand accounts of what detention for an alleged “enemy combatant” is like with a surprising amount of humor and grace, most notably when he describes the irony of being asked to testify against the soldiers who detained him.

The interviews with four of the officers charged in connection with Dilawar’s death provide some of the film’ most complex – but ultimately effective – moments. Gibney works hard to depict them as fall guys for much bigger fish while still making them accountable for the fatal blows inflicted on Dilawar’s body. Their stories of insufficient training and lack of support from superior officers are horrifying, but at the same time many of their own comments – sweeping and derogatory generalizations about Islam and Middle Eastern culture, a smirk or laugh that leaks out in the middle of a description of torture and humiliation – can be chilling and deeply disturbing. In the end, they are the best proof of one interviewee’s assertion that the military attracts people who are “just this side of the Marquis de Sade,” and therefore need strict codes of conduct to stay on the straight and narrow.

One of the reasons that Gibney is so good at arousing feelings of indignation and outrage in his audience is that, unlike other cinematic provocateurs like Michael Moore, he doesn’t rely on bombast or gimmicks to do his work for him. He lets evidence and rational argument speak for themselves. The individuals he is criticizing damn themselves with their own words, while Gibney skillfully contrasts their dissimulations and justifications with the cold, hard facts. A great deal of credit must also be given to Taxi’s editor, Sloane Klevin, who, in her first documentary film, masters the art of making an argument with sound and image. Taxi is undoubtedly a charged and passionate polemic, but it’s a very successful one. This is because it’s a highly filmic piece, which expertly uses all the tools available to make its case.

In an elegant and moving codicil, Gibney dedicates the film to his late father, Frank Gibney, who worked as a military interrogator in Japan during World War II. It was his father’s deep distress at the news of Abu Ghraib – which, in his own words, “destroyed” his faith in the American government – that prompted his son to make the film. One can only hope that, in finding an impassioned audience, the son’s work will fulfill the father’s dream of a country that lives up to the principles it is fighting to defend.



 

Gregory Hoblit's
Untraceable
Opens Friday, January 18, 2008

Starring: Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks, Joseph Cross, and Mary Beth Hurt

Reviewed by Marguerite Daniels

Everyone hates a serial killer, except for the immensely popular serial killer in Gregory Hoblit's Untraceable. In this eerie film written by Robert Fyvolent, Mark R. Brinkler and Allison Burnett, the murderer is applauded by thrill-seeking cyber-groupies who log-on to watch the killer as he tortures victim after victim. Fortunately Diane Lane's FBI Special Agent Jennifer Marsh is tracking the killer. There's something about Diane Lane that makes you want to applaud her characters whether they are purchasing a home in Tuscany or committing wanton adultery with Olivier Martinez. The same is true of Diane Lane's turn as Special Agent Marsh. Here, she is sharp, world-weary, and tenacious. Special Agent Marsh wears many hats; she's a tech-savvy cyber-sleuth, a loving and dedicated single mother to the adorable moppet, Annie (Perla Haney-Jardine), and she is a patient and tolerant friend who endures the constant meandering chatter of her co-worker Griffin (Colin Hanks). She also manages to look put-together despite a propensity to shroud herself in flannel tops and lumberjack boots. Special Agent Marsh raises her daughter along with her equally self-sufficient mother Stella Marsh (Mary Beth Hurt) a gardening phenom who baby-sits Annie whenever Jennifer runs off to solve a case.

The film is set in Portland, Oregon, a city so picturesque in its grandeur that even the interiors of the homes are majestic. (Who knew that FBI work could afford plush linens, and sleek bathroom fixtures in a house situated in one of Portland's oldest neighborhoods?) What's nice about Untraceable is that we are given insight into the world of professional geeks. Special Agent Marsh and her partner Griffin work with a magnificent band of nebbish misfits who spend their days catching internet sexual predators and credit card crooks. These nerd/cop hybrids have been lulled into a seemingly peaceful world where they are free to indulge their innermost geek desires: they troll the internet and eventually hope to get laid through online dating. But sadly, as in real life, the geeks don't get laid. Instead, they receive an anonymous tip for a creepy new website, killwithme.com, that not only increases their workload, but puts them face to face with a dangerous serial killer. At first the killer seems to be a mean prankster; he places a sweet little kitten on a sticky trap, records the kitten's ordeal, and encourages his viewers to publicize the site as they watch the kitten die on camera. The site becomes an instant hit amongst cyber-pervs. As our intrepid FBI agents watch in horror, the killer moves on to gruesomely slaying bipeds as the site's popularity grows almost exponentially through word of mouth: the more people that log-on to watch the killer torture his victim, the faster the victim dies.

The killer stays one step ahead of the FBI by using an elaborate network of servers. Every time Special Agent Marsh and her team attempt to shut killwithme.com down, the website jumps to another server making the website untraceable.

There are product placements galore in this film (Windows Vista, anyone? How about a ride in Subaru Outback with OnStar road-side assistance?), but nerds and geeks can rejoice for the filmmakers have done their due diligence; the film is chock-full of authenticity and tech-speak. There is even an accompanying website http://killwithme.com/ where movie buffs are invited to play games while the serial killer taunts and threatens. The film does become a tad predictable when Special Agent Marsh is paired with a hunky homicide detective, Eric Box, played stoically by Billy Burke, and meets resistance from her inanely pig-headed boss, Richard Brooks (Peter Lewis), who doesn't heed his expert teams' warning and hastens the death of yet another victim. Also, the killer is obviously sinister and you wonder how he's able to charm his victims long enough to snare them. The basement he tortures them in is text-book dingy. This is common and familiar territory to movie-goers, and a few may loose interest. But under Gregory Hoblit's skilled direction the film ends with a thrilling surprise that makes its boiler-plate, serial killer movie tedium almost forgotten.


 


Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney in The Savages

Tamara Jenkins’
The Savages


Reviewed by Corey Shtasel-Gottlieb

A film rooted in themes of unyielding discomfort—guilt, aging, death, and the internal entropy that each invokes—must be next to perfect if it is to succeed. Too often do movies slide blindly into the realm of the ultra-weighty without just recognition of what exactly what they’ve exposed. Tamara Jenkins seems keenly aware of such a fate, though, as she has written and directed a film that radiates with the warmth that exists deep below the surface of human pain. The Savages is at once beautiful and tragic, a poignant glance at raw middle-agedness. Jenkins treads the tightrope between laughter and tears with a grace only attainable by one who lives what she writes. More than just gutsy, her depiction of people-getting-older is elegant. She pokes at the lump in our throats with barely decipherable touches, chipping away at our natural resistance to stories that hit too close to home. The end result is a feel-bad-feel-good movie that will leave viewers satisfied in their depression.

The Savages is the story of a disjointed family, forced to reconnect by the tragic realities of aging. Siblings Jon and Wendy Savage are pulled from their fairly average (if unfulfilled) adult lives by the rapid deterioration of their father, Lenny. As the film opens, a weathered Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) sounds dementia’s alarm by smearing feces on his apartment walls, painting a too-literal picture of the shittiness of getting older. Soon after, Lenny’s girlfriend dies suddenly, and his children are left to pick up the pieces of a man already too far broken to be rebuilt. That Jon and Wendy Savage are themselves so fragmented only intensifies the discomfort with which we observe this process. Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a relatively successful author teaching theater history in Buffalo, a man who seems to have just missed the mark in each phase of his life: he is not quite in shape, not quite upper-middle class, not quite married or settled or content. His nagging writer’s block reflects the emptiness that gradually burrows through his core, a wanting-more that surfaces in his sometimes condescending, sometimes bitter affect. Wendy (Laura Linney) is an unpublished playwright, self-medicating her way through temp jobs in Manhattan and an affair with her married, nympho neighbor. She is (like so many adults living alone for too long) narcissistic and unconvincingly optimistic.

The hidden scabs of both characters are uncovered when Jon and Wendy are forced to live together to care for their father. The film’s painful irony is that the Savage siblings can only find themselves as they watch the clock tick on their father’s life. Not unlike the lingering morbidity that made William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying a uniquely disturbing classic, The Savages functions atop a backdrop of human deterioration. The struggle to accept this as their father’s fate pushes Jon and Wendy to bear down—and even, sometimes, to smile—in the face of their own vulnerabilities. With this as her thread, Jenkins plays on the very human need to counter suffering with self-deprecating laughter.

Strong performances from both Seymour Hoffman and Linney allow Jenkins’ plotline the grittiness that it needs to succeed. As always, Seymour Hoffman brings unaffected passion and believability to his role. His versatility in 2007 (see also: Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead and Charlie Wilson’s War) must leave us expecting nothing less than greatness in everything that he touches in the coming year. And yet, here he may have been bested by Linney, whose portrayal of middle-aged neurosis is near perfect. She pinpoints the cross-section between chutzpah and instability with a rawness that makes us cringe. The on-screen dynamic that emerges between these two seasoned performers is special to watch, as they seamlessly spin sibling rivalry’s familiar tensions.

In effect, The Savages joins a list of well-written, well-acted films in 2007. While it fails to pack the blockbuster punch of movies like No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, it delves into the core of human emotion with unique force. It succeeds—as most films of its kind do not—as tragedy and comedy, both, making it well worth the price of admission.


 

 


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