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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.

 



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.




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.



Chris Weitz's
The Golden Compass
Opens December 7, 2007


Reviewed by Corey Shtasel-Gottlieb


It doesn’t take a wizard—or a little girl’s magical truth-telling device—to discover that The Golden Compass is the latest addition to 2007’s growing list of blockbuster letdowns. Dredged in special effects that even the purest of movie purists will enjoy, Compass appears to have all the makings of a sure thing. Really, it should work. Rarely do pre-teen heroism, dark world villainy and a beastly budget fail to produce vast success, and the cultish popularity of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials lends to the film a Harry Potteresque fan-base (read: children and nerdy adult Trekkies). So what happened, then? Why did I spend the better part of two hours wishing I’d stayed home and ordered A League of Their Own on Netflix?

I hesitate to plunge feet-first into an outright bashing of this movie, as it did have its redeeming features. There is a story here, a story that maintains flecks of Pullman’s creative genius despite Hollywood’s greatest efforts at blockbusterization. We join in the valiant journey of Lyra Belacqua, a spirited heroine who travels to the arctic North in hopes of saving her kidnapped friends. Lyra ventures alongside her beloved “daemon”, an animal spirit that hops around on screen like a Pixar Jiminy Cricket (the daemons quietly became my favorite part of the movie, mostly because they allowed me to ask myself what my own daemon would be—I’ve since decided that a St. Bernard might be the closest match to a hairy, docile Jewish man). Visually, her journey falls somewhere in between a ride on The Polar Express and a game of Mortal Kombat, a beautiful but graphic spin through the depths of childhood imagination. There is something undeniably compelling about this cinematography, especially when we’re granted courtside seats at a polar bear deathmatch (no doubt the one scene that twenty-something men will rely upon when justifying having seen this movie).

Ultimately, though, the movie lacks what I like to call ‘give a shittability.’
Too much of the storyline is mired in the film’s over-dependence on animation which, while impressive, quickly begins to feel like watching a friend play video games. It was difficult to follow exactly what was going on—I found myself waiting and waiting for a finally-this-makes-sense moment that never came. Sometimes, such confusion isn’t a bad thing; in Lord of the Rings, for example, we care enough about Frodo and Samwise and Gandolf to overlook the fact that half the time we don’t know what the hell’s going on with that ring.

Here, though, the appeal isn’t strong enough. Nicole Kidman, the film’s supposed big draw, plays the same weird good witch-bad witch that she seems to become every time out. Give her Cruella Deville or Princess Di or the freakin’ Unibomber, it won’t make a difference: she’ll still insist on using that eerie, toneless voice and smiling that Tom-Cruise-just-injected-me-with-his-scientology-tranquilizer smile. Call me biased, but I don’t think she’s any better here. Daniel Craig doesn’t offer much in addition, either, simply because we don’t see enough of him. In fact, I only even mention him here because my man crush on him as Bond refuses to fade. Actually, little Dakota Blue Richards might be the movie’s saving grace, as she makes her big-screen debut as an endearing and believable Lyra. Richards is more than just cute, she’s sincere, and she manages to avoid the too-old-for-her-body affect that makes the other Dakota (Fanning) creepy to watch. She’ll blow up, I think, assuming she stays away from too-cutesy roles…and Lindsay Lohan.

In the end, though, Richards isn’t enough to save The Golden Compass. There’s just not enough to care about, not enough to really invest in. Director Chris Weitz seems to have spent too much time with the green screen and not enough on plot development (really makes you thankful that this kind of technology wasn’t available when he was shooting Jim’s masturbation scene in American Pie, no?). I find it hard to imagine an audience that wouldn’t be left wanting by this film—the effects alone may make it worth seeing, but beyond that, it’s an expensive disappointment.


 



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.



Francis Lawrence’s
I Am Legend
Opens Friday, December 14, 2007

Starring: Will Smith; Emma Thompson

Reviewed by Marguerite Daniels

Vampire-Zombies may be scary, but they aren’t always the most convincing of film conventions and neither is the disease that cripples the most current installment of Richard Matheson's sci-fi classic I Am Legend. This blockbuster and eagerly-anticipated Will Smith vehicle is penned and produced by Akiva Goldsman and directed by the famed music video director Francis Lawrence. The disease in question is caused by a much-lauded cancer cure created by the smug Dr. Alice Krippin, played by Emma Thompson. The virus mutates which leads to a few slight and unfortunate side effects: it kills people or turns them into flesh-eating zombies. (How could that little tidbit been missed during the clinical trials?)

Fortunately both the infected zombies and the disease that causes the afore mentioned beasties are battled by the ever-photogenic Will Smith who plays Lt. Col. Robert Neville, an intrepid military medical researcher, former Time Magazine “Man of the Year,” and perhaps the last man on earth. Will Smith’s Lt. Col. Neville is lonely save his loyal companion, the patient and fortuitously-adopted German Sheppard, Sam, and as the last healthy man in Manhattan he spends his days frolicking in a video store since Netflix is obviously no longer an option, looking for a “cure” for the disease that has decimated the human race, and fighting off the occasional CGI lion pride for gazelle that roam the island freely. At night, he barricades himself against the flesh-eaters in his extremely posh Washington Square home. He also searches in vain for other survivors, never losing hope that he isn’t the only human left alive.

In their new state, little has changed for the infected, who are former well-healed Manhattanites, living en masse in dark, shabby dwellings not so dissimilar to the cramped apartments they once shared with several other roommates. The zombies are creatures of the night and flee from bright lights the same way make-up laden women do after a long night of binge-drinking and dancing. The cannibals are also nattily attired, wearing the quintessential white wife-beater tank top, and the always chic micro-short. But as is the way with zombies, they don’t play well with others, and they tend to hunt and kill all living creatures be them man, dog or beast. Perhaps that is the greatest change in the New Yorkers, as zombies they aren’t terribly discerning about their food.

Will Smith, himself, is very good in this film despite the muddled screenplay he works with. He convincingly plays both endearing and batty, and we are treated to a host of Will Smith zombie-slayings, as well as an extended view of his taut and glistening pectorals and abs during a gratuitous work-out scene. Manhattan looks great, too, considering that an apocalypse has occurred. The eerily-empty city is no-worse-for-wear save a few weeds and is lovely in its somewhat wild state. Sadly the fault of I am Legend lies in its gapping-hole filed plot. The film opens well enough, but as it creeps on the audience must suspend belief because very few things are explained: Just how does the electricity still work in Manhattan if there is no one to monitor the power stations? How does a re-engineered measles virus/cure for cancer morph into a rabies-like virus? If the zombies are inhuman, why are they still wearing clothes and where do they shop? And just how does a military virologist and his family afford a brownstone in Washington Square Park?

With so many questions left unanswered the film loses focus, shying away from its darker elements and ending with a pat, pseudo-religious message regarding God’s will. Which is disappointing. Though the film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, perhaps it would have benefited from a director a bit more experienced than Lawrence, whose first film was 2005’s critically panned Constantine. After all, a film cannot stand alone on Will Smith’s broad and strapping shoulders.


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.



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

Reviewed by Allison Ford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t let them.

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




Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman's
Nanking
Opens Friday, December 14, 2007

Reviewed by Alejandra Serret

Nanking, a thoughtful documentary directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman and produced by Ted Leonsis examines the violent six week period in 1937 when Japanese troops invaded Shanghai and then capital Nanking, killing an estimated 200,000 and raping a reported 20,000. Seventy years later, archival footage, chilling interviews and first-hand, written accounts revive the horror of that time. While foreigners evacuated the country, twenty-two European and American Expatriates remained, creating the Safety Zone. Guttentag and Sturman focus the film here—on the two square mile area that helped protect some 200,000 Chinese refugees.

Nanking tells the horrifying and all too common story of the atrocities inflicted in times of war. Like other documentaries some of the hardest moments come with the testimonials—85 and 90 year old men and women reliving brutal rapes and beatings and the vivid murders of their parents, siblings and friends. Their palpable anguish that is still so visibly intact, courses through each story. While the survivors’ accounts give the documentary substance, interviews with several Japanese soldiers give it shape. How does someone justify unnecessary cruelty and violence? A baby stabbed through by a bayonet and his mother’s attempt to breast feed as she bleeds to death. Apparently one doesn’t have to justify brutality in times of war.

Guttentag and Sturman attempt to sear these glimpses and fragments of a life into the viewer’s memory. A very unique tool they use in order to achieve this is to cast actors to play the roles of the Safety Zone Committee Members: Bob Wilson a doctor (played by Woody Harrelson), Minnie Vaughn a professor (played by Mariel Hemingway), John Rabe a German Businessman and member of the Nazi Party (played by Jurgen Prochnow), George Fitch a priest (played by John Getz), and Lewis Smythe a Christian missionary (played by Stephen Dorff). By using actors to read the Committee Members’ first hand accounts, which they acquired through letters written to family and friends, Guttentag and Sturman were able to give words, a face and personality. They gave the letters texture. The archival footage spread throughout, works as the glue that holds all the varying parts together. Hard evidence of the carnage is impossible to forget and harder yet to argue against or deny (although many have tried).

Nanking succeeds in giving a poignant view of a period of time seventy years ago when average people banded together to save thousands. Without the help of weapons these professors, missionaries, priests and businessmen protected the innocent and made it possible for the truth to be heard. Guttentag and Sturman are thorough, allowing “The Rape of Nanking” to unfold within the details. It is often hard to watch and harder still to forget, yet Nanking is a must see.



Juan Antonio Bayona's
The Orphanage
Opens in select theaters: December 28, 2007

 

Reviewed by: Alejandra Serret

Juan Antonio Bayona, a young and talented Spanish director has received much critical acclaim for his latest work, The Orphanage. A film, so creepy and well told, that genius film maker Guillermo del Toro, most noted for last year’s Pan’s Labyrinth, believed in the script, signing on as Producer. The incredible merit this film has received speaks to each aspect of the film: the acting, directing, pace, and tasteful elements of gore.

While I would agree that The Orphanage aims high and attempts to deviate from the same tired-over the top thriller, it falls short. This film’s praise is more a sign of the lack of top notch films made in this genre, than its actual excellence. Yes it’s a good film. Yes it’s entertaining. But no, it is not one that left me speechless or stunned or in tears, as some of the other reviews have stated. It is a thoughtful film and for this reason alone it is already set apart and on a different level than most scary films made today.

The Orphanage begins at a sprawling, country-side estate. Orphans, dressed in uniform, play tag. Fast forward thirty years and the main character, Laura, played by Belen Rueda, returns to the orphanage of her childhood with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and son Simon (Roger Princep). Laura hopes to renovate the old house and turn it into a home for disabled children. Yet from the beginning, strange things happen: the house groans and creaks in the night, her son makes imaginary friends to plays with, and a late-night visit from a so-called social worker. All, come to a head on the day of her school’s opening. Simon’s anger at his mother’s diverted attention culminates in a fight—and later, his disappearance. The next several months Laura and Carlos remain in the large house, awaiting their son’s return. Before Laura can learn the truth of her son’s whereabouts she must first confront her tragic past.

The ending comes together flawlessly, if a bit quickly. It does so in a way that shows the love between a parent and child. The film takes its time with Simon’s disappearance and his parent’s anguish yet the conclusion, while wonderful, is wrapped up too fast. The Orphanage is definitely worth watching as it attempts to do what so many other thrillers have forgotten.


 

 



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.



Brian De Palma’s
Redacted
Opens November 16, 2007

Reviewed by Alejandra Serret

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

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

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

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

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



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.


 


Alexandra Maria Lara in Francis Ford Coppola's Youth Without Youth

Francis Ford Coppola's
Youth Without Youth
Opens Friday, December 14, 2007

Starring: Tim Roth; Alexandra Maria Lara; and Bruno Ganz.

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

Filmgoers who feared that Francis Ford Coppola had, like Kurtz in Copolla’s Apocalypse Now, gotten forever lost in the jungle (or, that matter, in a vat of Merlot), will have much to rejoice about in Youth Without Youth, his first feature in ten years. Best summarized as a freewheeling metaphysical examination of love, mortality and linguistics (yes, linguistics), Youth is an ambitious, baffling and ultimately exhilarating, provocative film.

Adapted from the novel by Romanian intellectual and mind-bender Mircea Eliade, Youth tells the story of washed-up and embittered linguist Dominic Matei (Tim Roth). Depressed at the imminent threat of Nazi occupation – the film begins in Bucharest in 1938 – as well as his lack of progress on his history of language, Matei is on the verge of suicide when an errant lighting bolt causes a bizarre transformation that leaves him thirty years younger.

Matei is energized by the possibility of a new lease on life (not to mention an amped-up sex life), but many others are also interested in his miraculous transformation, including his doctor (the reliably superb Bruno Ganz), a sexy and deliciously loony young Nazi (Alexandra Pirici), and an American agent played by a smooth-faced young chippy most recently seen as a man with an Identity crisis (Matt Damon).

Eager to escape all this heat, Matei makes for the Swiss alps, where he encounters Veronica (the lovely and dynamic Alexandra Maria Lara) who may be the reincarnation of our hero's long-lost love and who, thanks to her own encounter with lightning, has a funny habit of speaking in ancient languages while serving as a conduit for spirits from ages past. The rest of the film follows Matei on a journey through Malta and India and, ultimately through time.

The climax is a bit far-fetched, and it's possible that Coppola bit off a bit more than the film could chew. Nevertheless, as my mind was completely blown by the conclusion, I couldn't help but be grateful that Coppola threw restraint to the wind and didn't end up making a more modest – but ultimately more boring – movie.

The metaphysical plot twists are certainly difficult to decipher, but there's something incredibly liberating about Coppola's decision to let the viewer revel in her own confusion, letting her mind wander over the various philosophical implications of Matei's strange voyage of the soul. Seductive photography by Romanian cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. and precise work by Coppola's long-time collaborator and editor Walter Murch emphasize the audience's dizzying disorientation.

In the end, Youth Without Youth is a passionate and deeply personal exploration of human anxiety, one that made me hope that the director, like his protagonist, has gotten a second chance.

 


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