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Leelee Sobieski and Al Pacino in John Avnet's 88 Minutes

Jon Avnet's
88 Minutes
Opens Friday, April 18th, 2008

Reviewed by Alejandra Serret


After sitting through 88 Minutes, it’s hard to believe that Al Pacino, the film’s star, is in fact the same man who played Michael Corleone (The Godfather Trilogy), Tony Montana (Scarface), and Lt. Colonel Frank Slade (Scent of a Woman), a role that won him the Oscar in 1992. These characters were interesting, complex, multi-layered, flawed—human. And yet, over recent years, the characters he has played have varied little: Detective Will Dormer (Insomnia), Walter Burke (The Recruit), Walter Abrams (Two for the Money), and his most recent, Dr. Jack Gramm (88 Minutes). They are so similar; they begin to blend, leaving little to the viewer’s imagination and to the actor’s creativity. We’ve all seen Pacino play the lonely, intense, slightly insane, middle-aged man. Unfortunately, his role in 88 Minutes as Dr. Jack Gramm does little to dissuade the sinking feeling that Pacino’s comfortable, and maybe even a bit content, to play the same character again and again.

88 Minutes, Directed by Jon Avnet (Up Close and Personal and Fried Green Tomatoes) and written by Gary Scott Thompson (The Fast and the Furious) is a psychological thriller. Dr. Jack Gramm, a forensic psychiatrist and respected professor, makes a living tracking and profiling serial killers. The film begins in 1997, with the grisly death of a young woman, the work of the notorious Seattle Slayer. Dr. Gramm’s testimony convinces the jury to find Jon Forster, played by Neal McDonough, guilty of the crime. Jump ahead to present day and it’s the night before Forster’s execution. Gramm receives a cryptic phone call stating that he has 88 minutes left to live. A series of incidents follow: his graduate student is found dead in her apartment, the woman he went home with the night before is also murdered (both women are, of course, killed in the same “Seattle Slayer” way), a bomb threat, and the persistent phone calls that remind him of how much time he has left. It is Gramm against the clock. He suspects everyone around him: his students (there are many—played by Leelee Sobieski, Benjamin McKenzie, Amy Brenneman), his friends/colleagues, his student’s boyfriend, the list goes on. As the film progresses and the plot unravels, we learn of Gramm’s difficult past and the significance of 88 minutes.

Suspense and an intricate, intelligent plot are necessary elements of a successful thriller. 88 Minutes’ weak plot does little to inspire suspense or even surprise. The greatest moments in a thriller are in collecting the clues and piecing them together. There was nothing of this in 88 Minutes. No subtle hints alluding to the truth, just a mess of over-acting and obnoxious “scary movie” stereotypes. It also falls into the trap of allowing the audience to believe that the killer could be anyone. A great thriller is not calculated by the number of possibilities it creates behind a mystery, but by how well construed a possibility is. At one point, every character (even Gramm himself) is a suspect, but there is no real motivation behind each of them. Without motive, the audience isn’t challenged. Gratuitous nudity, silly dialogue, and exaggerated acting (although not on Pacino’s part) bloat this film. At the end, I was neither surprised, nor interested. 88 Minutes misses the mark.


Louis Leterrier's
The Incredible Hulk
Opens Friday June 13, 2008

Starring: Edward Norton; Liv Tyler; Tim Roth; and William Hurt.

Reviewed by Adam Ritter

Help the Green One

It's been five years since that angry, just-the-other-side-of-irradiated…"hulk" last rampaged across movie screens, and not surprisingly, he's still mad as hell.

The Hulk's previous movie incarnation, though cleverly crafted and visually creative, angled for melodrama as fans were craving excitement. The disappointing box office seemed to SMASH hopes of an encore, but give Marvel credit for knowing there's plenty of green left in this franchise.

While NOT an origin story or technically a sequel (all the principals have been replaced with able and eager performers), this chapter more or less continues the Hulk's perpetual storyline, unencumbered by details of the first film.

Doctor Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) still pines for Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) and still races to control that raging spirit dwelling within. Can he find the cure before the relentless Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt, amazing as always) turns his curse into the military's next super weapon?

This of course, is the MacGuffin at the heart of all Hulk stories. What we really want to see is that startling metamorphosis that occurs when evildoers make Bruce Banner angry. You see, most people wouldn't like him when he's angry.

Thank goodness the brilliant doctor has not found a way to channel his fury into anything creative, like painting or writing or as we do at my house, by drinking.

Thus it's pretty straight forward mythology at play here. Some World War Hulk action would have been a delicious twist, but as you might expect, studio law demands Marvel exhaust all of the traditional material first.

Fans of the comic will therefore recognize the Hulk's menacing nemesis, The Abomination (and allusions to The Leader) as he tramples across the screen, though audiences' tolerance for computer generated MMA style fighting may be pushed to its limit, assuming there is one.

(Let me digress to mention that colorful metaphors are the bane of superhero movie reviews, since many of them actually seem to reference another comic character; e.g. Bane, Venom, Rampage, Mammoth, Juggernaut, Shrinkage…wait, strike the last one.)

Of course the recurring homage to past Hulk representations will not go unnoticed here and does not require a degree in comic geekdom to appreciate.

Although this Hulk is superior to its moody predecessor, more suspense certainly would have resulted in greater emotional payoffs. Bruce Banner never seems to struggle making the right decision, so the audience is not asked to invest anything in the outcome.

And even though special effects have clearly evolved far beyond green body paint, they are sometimes a heavy-handed alternative to some much needed humanity.

So while The Incredible Hulk writes a check his green ass definitely covers (that is if his fingers were nimble enough to manipulate a pen), he does not quite satisfy on the same level as Marvel's other summer blockbuster Iron Man, whose success the studio was naturally anxious to exploit.

Was it really necessary however, to rob fans of EVERY secret by actually incorporating Hulk's cameos into the trailer? Coming attractions used to entice, but now we are pummeled over the head by gamma-dosed ad blitzes.

It would be a surprise to be surprised in a movie these days.

Perhaps the only strategy to evade movie spoilers in this super-conducting information age is media abstinence….A complete commercial and print ad blackout (and ducking that Chatty Cathy friend of yours) up until the moment you set foot in the theater, like that collision avoidance system we engage after having TiVo'd the game.

These revelations not withstanding, if he smashes, you will come; so Go Green this summer puny humans, otherwise wait for the stealth of the Knight.

For more information about The Incredible Hulk, log onto the website.




Steven Spielberg’s
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Opens Thursday, May 22, 2008

 

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

After almost two decades, Indiana Jones is back and, I am stunned to report, he’s in better shape than ever. As a matter of fact, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (a bloody mouthful) is the best Indy yet! And I do not say that lightly.

I recently revisited the trilogy on DVD. The major revelation for me was how my least favorite, Temple of Doom, has now become my favorite; it’s certainly the strangest, but also the most original. Raiders of the Lost Ark, the most revered, seemed like a prologue (a damned good one).

After so many years and so many nixed scripts, David Koepp (with story credit going to series conceivers: George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson) manages a smart, clever and exciting screenplay filled with the expected as well as a good dose of the unexpected. In particular, the explanation of the origins of the crystal skulls is pretty creative and thought-provoking stuff.

It’s 1957, twenty years after Last Crusade, and the Cold War is at freezing temperature, the atomic age has arrived and UFO’s are the latest craze. Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” plays over the opening credits to perfectly ground us in a particular place and time.

Professor Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, not looking his age at all) has found himself the subject of governmental suspicion and is forced to take a leave from his University post. Here the filmmakers smartly capture the paranoia of the time where everyone’s patriotism can be called into doubt regardless of your past heroism and proven loyalty (hmmm…resonates pretty sharply today…)

Enter, Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), a young, hair-obsessed rebel riding a motorcycle who could be a hybrid (mutt, get it!) of James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and Sal Mineo. Mutt desperately needs Indy’s help.

Our generation-gapped duo soon find themselves being chased by Soviet spies, led by the cunning, calculating and captivating Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) who is described as “Stalin’s fair-haired girl,” despite her brunette cereal-bowl do. Irina and her gang of Reds are on a mission to realize the new annihilation frontier: psychic warfare.

Before you can say: Roswell, Indy is on the run and lands right in the midst of an atomic testing site. The insane way he survives a nuclear blast is one of the film’s best sequences and the screen tableau of Ford with mushroom cloud is unforgettable.

Soon, it’s off to Peru where Boy-hybrid and our snake-fearing hero become enmeshed in a search for yet another rare and life-changing archaeological find: the Crystal Skull of Akator, a legendary relic that has supernatural powers.

Monkeys, giant ants, Karen Allen and, yes, a large snake get in their way and many terrific CGI effects later, the gang find the “Kingdom”…the city of Gold, which houses the 13 Crystal Skulls leading to quite the climax.

Steven Spielberg has assembled a kick-ass ensemble peppered with a bevy of tremendously talented Brits (redundant?) including: John Hurt; Ray Winstone and Jim Broadbent. Each bring their own unique gifts to their roles.

Chameleon Cate Blanchett, speaking with a strong ‘where-are-moose-and-squirrel Russian accent, is deliciously evil as Irina Spalko, Soviet baddie. Irina is cunning and determined and Blanchett plays her to the hilt, having a villainous field day. And as with all Blanchett interpretations, there is more than just villainy afoot. Her final moments are particularly extraordinary.

It’s a delight to see spunky Karen Allen back as Indy’s great love, Marion Ravenwood. Allen looks fantastic and brings out the sparring-best in Ford. She was sadly missing from Doom and Last Crusade. Kudos to the person who had the good sense to bring her back.

And who knew that Shia LaBeouf was the stuff of matinee idols? I can totally see a Young Indy series taking off based on the charm and dash he displays as Mutt. Whether he’s all leathered-out a la’ Brando in The Wild One or sword fighting with Blanchett while on separate Jeeps (an astounding scene), LaBeouf proves he’s got what it takes to give the Leos in the business a run for their millions.

Now, about Mr. Ford. I must admit: I’m not a fan. Truth to be told, except for Han Solo and a brilliant performance in Peter Weir’s highly underrated, little seen gem, The Mosquito Coast, I’ve never been impressed with his talents. He has played it too safe with his choices as well as his portrayals. So it is with shock and bewilderment that I say his performance in Crystal Skull is not just one of his best, it’s refreshingly self-mocking and, at times, even poignant. The cockiness is still there but has melded into a more pensive and reflective arrogance. If action-adventure performances received Oscar nominations, Ford would be a shoo-in. Come to think of it, The Fugitive, an overrated, overblown Ford starrer, did receive a Best Picture nomination back in 1993, but Ford’s performance (rightly) did not. Perhaps it’s time to justly reward Ford with recognition for going above and beyond what anyone expected and proving he has what it takes.

Tech credits are sensational from the great Janusz Kaminski’s breathtaking camerawork to Mary Zophres’ period-perfect costumes. The rousing John Williams’ score is as defining as it is contagious. And the visuals are mind-blowing. I could have lived without some of the cute creatures created only for merchandising purposes…so unnecessary from Lucas and Spielberg who can collectively buy the world with their monies!

Spielberg is a fascinating study. I happen to think that Munich is his masterpiece. I find his later work more interesting than his earlier films. Genuine love for the medium, a commanding technique, along with a solid handle on characterization permeates most of the second half of his filmography. So even in an action-adventury, thrill-ride like Indiana Jones, we find more attention given to what the characters have to say to one another via dialogue or simple facial expressions. Spielberg is no longer afraid to slow things down a bit to tell a better, more nuanced story.

A small handful of Skull naysayers have been speculating that Spielberg might have been bored directing this follow-up; insinuating passion is not evident in the end result. I would argue the contrary for he is not only reverential to the history of his characters but highly aware of the need to take the saga to a more urgent and timely level. He succeeds masterfully.



Jon Favreau's
Iron Man
Opens May 2, 2008

Heavy Boots of Lead

Starring: Robert Downey Jr.; Gwyneth Paltrow; Terrence Howard; and Jeff Bridges.

Reviewed by Adam Ritter

It took forty-five years and a cruel succession of false starts, but Iron Man has made the inevitable crossover from comic books (and later cartoons) to the silver screen.

After heavyweights like Cage and Cruise were considered in the 90's to play the man-who-would-be-Iron, it was at long last Robert Downey Jr. who nabbed the role and for that we are grateful.

Mr. Downey is cast perfectly as billionaire genius inventor Tony Stark, the weapons inventor extraordinaire who has continued the legacy of his deceased father, manufacturing magnate Howard Stark.

Tony cleanly dismisses suggestion of the collateral death toll of his nefarious masterpieces (cluster bombs with repulsor technology as a 'for instance') by espousing the fallacious-but-familiar neocon philosophy that imagines a safer world thanks to the mutually-assured-destruction he provides.

Of course, not one to be easily categorized, Stark counterbalances his conservative side with a compulsive rock star lifestyle that would be the envy of any Hollywood jetsetter.

His only genuine relationships are with faithful assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), buzz-killing Colonel James "Rhody" Rhodes (Terrence Howard in a role that might grow substantially in potential sequels) and Papa Stark's business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) who has evolved into a mentor for Tony.

The origin of Iron Man has been updated from Vietnam to Afghanistan but the movie is mostly true to the core elements of the comic.

As is often the case with lecherous cinematic playboys, circumstances beyond his control cause Tony to reassess his ideas about the value of life and the legacy he intends to leave behind.

Unfortunately, although there are surprises in the movie, it will be difficult to experience them thanks to a monolithic advance media blitz that seems to relish in revealing key elements of the movie to anyone with a cable-connection or newspaper subscription.

Therefore, readers of most reviews and of course fans of the pulp Iron Man will recognize Tony's arch nemesis "Iron Monger" as he blooms to life throughout the course of the film. Their confrontation has a familiar Transformers feel, however the overall experience is not diminished in spite of this.

This movie does not "quite" reach the upper echelon of comic book crossovers, which is certain to include the original Superman, Batman Begins and possibly Spiderman 2. However, Iron Man unquestionably flies far higher than most comic incarnations of past years (Hulk, Fantastic Four, X-Men, etc...).

We have Robert Downey Jr. to thank for this, for it is his performance (ironically "without" the two hundred lbs. of armor), which carries the most weight in the film.

And as for Tony's alter ego, sleek and sound in his CGI crucible, it's difficult to imagine a man encased in iron (though it's actually a gold-titanium alloy, as Tony points out) looking cooler than director Jon Favreau's vision of him, breathed into a brilliant existence here.

There is one substantial diversion from the comic-origin storyline that could be an allusion to more recent developments in Iron Man's "Civil War" life. You can be the judge of this.

Be sure to stick around until the very end of the credits for a minute of bonus material that alludes to an exciting future for Iron Man.



Giuseppe Tornatore’s
La Sconosciuta (The Unknown Woman)
Opens Friday, May 30, 2008
Angelika Film Center
18 W. Houston Street, New York City


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 2007 Open Roads: New Italian Cinema at
Lincoln Center

Much celebrated Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) has not made a film since Malena in 2000. In his long awaited return to filmmaking, Tornatore has crafted an ultra-violent, gruesome yet extraordinary film about true evil and one woman’s struggle for redemption.

I admire Tornatore for making an honest and no-holes-barred thriller that will certainly turn a lot of people off...ah, but for those who stay with it...the rewards are many!

Nothing is quite what it initially seems ot be in La Sconosciuta (The Unknown Woman)--specifically Irena (Kseniya Rappoport), the anti-heroine in Tornatore’s riveting saga, is not who and what we first assume she is. The Ukranian immigrant is first seen conning her way into a housekeeping job, then befriending a fellow maid and then violently tripping her down a large flight of stairs!

As the film unfolds with small flashes of flashbacks, Irena’s tragic story becomes all too clear and we begin to see how she fell victim to a ruthless monster known as Muffa, played with villainous zest by the incomparable Michele Placido. I will not give any more of the plot away because part of the joy of watching this film unfold is not knowing what is going to happen next! Tornatore tells his story in just the right way so we are constantly feeling anger, disgust and empathy for Irena--sometimes simultaneously.

Rappoport dives into the role face first and she is remarkable. The entire cast does great work here including: Claudia Gerini; Pierfrancesco Favino; Margherita Buy; Alessandro Haber; and Piera Degli Esposti.

Production values are excellent across the boards with the great Ennio Morricone providing an exciting score.

La Sconosciuta is unrelenting in it’s depiction of violence but there is a beauty in the brutality onscreen (reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver) and, in the end, the film is mesmerizing and transcendent.



Tadanobu Asano and Khulan Chuluun in Mongol
Photo Credit Alexander Zabrin

Sergei Bodrov's
Mongol
Opens Friday, June 6, 2008
Landmark's Sunshine Cinema
143 East Houston Street, New York
Lincoln Plaza Cinemas
Broadway Between 62nd and 63rd
Mongolian With English Subtitles

When the Iron Curtain came down, a massive change in perception accompanied the change in decor. Everything that was old was new again: western culture, democracy, the Russian monarchy and Genghis Khan!!!

Genghis Khan! Yes Genghis Khan!

Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov does not like stereotypes and the story of Genghis Kahn appealed to him. Both Russian and European history books tell the story of Kahn with the same venom used to talk about the rise and fall of Adolph Hitler. In fact, it was against the law to even speak the name of Genghis Khan in the Soviet satellite state of Mongolia. But as Budrov explained, history is written by the victors and the Mongols were eventually conquered and sent back to Mongolia. And the Mongolians were not historians.

Bodrov's film Mongol tells the story of the early years of Kahn's life based on a poem that survived from the 12th Century (Bodrov is seriously considering filming a trilogy similar to Lord of the Rings). Mongol follows Kahn from the age of ten when the young Temudgin (the future Genghis Khan played by Tadanobu Asano) first meets the love his life, Borte (played by Khulan Chuluun).

Soon afterwards, Termudgin loses his father and becomes a fugitive, running and hiding from Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov), the warrior who takes over his father's tribe. Mongolia was a cruel and beautiful land and young Termudgin is forced to live a life where truly, "Only the strong survive." And survive he does, fighting Targutai and then fighting the tribe of his "blood brother," Jamukha (Honglei Sun). And with each fight, he becomes stronger and attracts more and more followers until he finally unites the Mongolian nation. And the rest of history, even if it is history only told by the historians of the eventually victorious Russians and the Europeans. And eventually took centuries because the Genghis Khan's descendents rose up to conquer all of Russia and Eastern Europe.

Mongol is an epic film. The scenes set in the Mongolian plains are simply stunning. The costumes are luxurious (Karin Lohr, SFK)and the interiors of the tents are richly appointed (Dashi Namdakov). The fight scenes are simply spectacular (credit to stun choregraphers Zhaidarbek Kunguzhinov and Jung Doo Hong). The film is also blessed with a great soundtrack with contributions by Finnish composer Tuomas Kantelinen and by Altan Urag, an eight-person Mongolian folk-rock band.

But the real beauty of the film is the love story between two strong characters, Termudgin and the love of his life, Borte. For Termudgin may have been a brutal warlord, but when he fell in love with Borte at the age of ten, he fell in love for life.

Mongol also benefits from a talented and charismatic cast. Tadanobu Asano is quietly noble as the young Genghis Kahn. Khulan Chuluun plays Borte as a worthy partner and advisor to Khan. And Japanese actor Honglei Sun gives a powerful performance as Termudgin's friend/enemy, Jamukha.

Mongol was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2008. It (not Borat) was the entry from Kazakhstan.

 


 

Henry Bean's
Noise
Opens Friday, May 9, 2008


Starring: Tim Robbins; Bridget Moynahan; William Hurt;
Margarita Levieva; Gabrielle Brennan; María Ballesteros; and William Baldwin.

Reviewed by Allison Ford

Noise bills itself as "a comedy of ideas." The central conceit of the film, a man so aggravated with noise in Manhattan that he feels compelled to seek justice by vandalizing car alarms, is indeed a comedic idea, but without a sturdy plot to stand on, it darts out in confusing tangents, ultimately resulting in a peculiar, quirky film that is funny at times, but muddled.

Tim Robbins stars as David Owen, a mild-mannered fellow living with his beautiful wife and child on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He is driven to distraction by the constant assault from car alarms, security alarms, garbage trucks, and all manner of city nuisances. The only relief he can find from the barrage is to vandalize cars. He styles himself as "The Rectifier," intent on retribution on behalf of peace-loving citizens of New York. This, of course, draws more than a little the ire from his wife, played by Bridget Moynahan in a thankless and shrill role.

In the film's first act, we see Robbins lose everything and build himself back up again as The Rectifier, in a sly nod to a superhero movie. Robbins has become the defender of the public good, the person who "does something about it," and fights the good, albeit mundane fight on behalf of everyone. The frustrating thing about Noise is that Robbins' character has no identity outside of his hatred. He is infuriated by noise, but consumed at the same time. It's all he has. Ultimately, Robbins' win comes easily, and results in domestic bliss and self-actualization for all. Hurrah!

It's not that the film is bad, but it isn't so good, either. Lots of Hegelian philosophy mixed with the heavy metaphor of impotence make for a slightly confusing film, and one that never generates enough of a plot to develop anything other than mild curiosity, and never generates anything resembling sympathy for the characters. Robbins doesn't go on a journey as much as he has a serious of tenuously-related misadventures, and he is so preoccupied with car alarms that the threat of losing his wife and child only register as small speedbumps along the way. If the film had stayed with the original theme of the superhero, the loss of family could have fueled his emotional fire, much as the loss of family begat Batman or Spiderman, but the filmmakers drop this theme, so the family unit becomes only a minor inconvenience. The metaphor of sexual impotence tramples through the film. Emotional frustration accompanies sexual impairment, just as emotional fulfillment accompanies intense sexual prowess. The metaphor is more than apt, but it is never fully explored in the film, save in a few graphic sequences that only seem to serve as an excuse to show a little skin.

The film's use of sound, however, is subtle and intriguing. Sound effects including street washers, trucks, backhoes, and alarms are blended together and played over dialogue at perfectly uncomfortable volumes, until the viewer accustoms themselves and tunes the noise out, just like having a conversation on a real Manhattan street. There is a parallel between the cognitive and audio dissonance that pervades the film, and the droning, whining, and unrelenting background noise begins to slowly drive the viewer mad.

Noise is more of a morality tale; a fable intended to teach a lesson. At times, the lesson is the importance of action over complacency. Other times, the lesson is to not allow oneself to be defined by that which bugs you. The lesson at the heart of the movie is that noise can harm just as much as physical assault. Noise has many good ideas, but never fully explores them enough to make the film cohesive or engaging, and the characters are not fully-formed enough to draw the viewer into the drama. By the end, the film itself feels much like the noise that everyone's trying to tune out.




Anders Danielsen Lie, Viktoria Winge in Joachim Trier’s Reprise

Joachim Trier’s
Reprise
Opens Friday, May 16, 2008
Landmark's Sunshine Cinema - 143 East Houston Street
Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on Broadway Between 62nd and 63rd.


Starring: Anders Danielsen Lie; Espen Klouman-Høiner; and Viktoria Winge


Joachim Trier is a filmmaker to watch. His debut film, Reprise, is quirky, sad, funny and imbued with a jaded and sophisticated tone. Reprise tells the story of two friends: Philip (played by Anders Danielson Lie) and Erik (Espen Klouman-Hoiner) who aspire to be cult authors. But Trier does not restrict himself to simply telling their story, he also tells the story of their imaginary lives, cutting back in forth from reality to dream with a deft hand.

The film begins as Phillip and Erik both post their scripts in a mail box. We see their dreams of success and then we see reality. Suddenly it is six months later and Philip’s book has become an overnight success and Erik’s has not. But Phillip has also suffered a mental breakdown and been hospitalized and his friends are trying to help him reestablish his life.

We then follow Philip as he attempts to reconcile with his girlfriend, Kari (played by the beauteous Viktoria Winge) and restart his career. We also follow Erik’s as he reaches some measure of success.

But the story is not what drives Reprise, it is the world. Reprise is set in world of the affluent Norwegian bourgeois, a world where educated young men live lives filled with the pursuit of the avant-garde in both literature and music. Like other young men the world over, they run in posses, but these are very different posses. The Norwegian urban posses are not motivated by sports, but by books, art and the latest and best punk band.

Reprise was a hit at the Lincoln Center and MoMA sponsored 2008 New Directors New Films. Reprise reminded me of another New Director’s New Films break-out, Nimrod Antal’s Kontroll (2005 selection). The story of Kontroll is very different from Reprise; the posse of young men in Kontroll is comprised of disadvantaged Hungarian subway tickets inspectors. But both films show worlds inhabited by young men that are very foreign to the average USA film audiencer. Foreign, yes, but universally human. And both films were helmed by filmmakers who very obviously never went to film school in the United states and most certainly never read Syd Field’s Screenplay – The Foundations of Screenwriting.

Reprise is distributed by Miramax Films.

 




Michael Patrick King's
Sex and the City: The Movie

Opens Friday, May 30, 2008



Starring: Sarah Jessica Parker; Kim Cattrall; Kristen Davis; Cynthia Nixon; Chris Noth; and Jennifer Hudson.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella


Prediction: most heterosexual male critics are not going to like this film; most women, homosexuals and heteroflexible males are going to love this film. Why? Because, like the groundbreaking HBO series, the pic is about women--all about women. All types of women. And it turns the tables on men.

Key moment: Samantha (the delicious Kim Cattrall) is ogling her hot surfer neighbor while eating guacamole. She gets to treat men the way they’ve been treating women for centuries.

Jealous, guys? Of course you are.
Threatened, guys, Just a little bit. Admit it.

But how refreshing to have a series (and now a film) where women take center stage and men show up in supporting roles. Pity some of the women still need to be defined by men (notably the new character played by Jennifer Hudson, but I am getting ahead of myself…)

Is Sex and the City a chick flick? Hell, yes! But after a legion of crappy teen-boy oriented action flicks, thank Christ we get something different! Even if it’s not really different at all. Not from the sitcom anyway.

Lovers of the series will be in girly-heaven, but folks not as familiar with the show, will still find things to love about it, if they allow themselves.

For those living on Uranus: Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) is a very successful writer of columns, books, articles, etc. She is BFF with three very different, very unique NYC gals: sex-crazed Samantha Jones; too-sweet Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) and brittle Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon). The four women have spent over a decade looking for love, sex, success, trendy shopping, romance and magic in the most enchanting place in the world—New York City! (Anyone dare to disagree with me on that one?)

As the film opens, Carrie is now forty and about to marry the infamous love of her life, Mr. Big (Chris Noth). BTW, the character is finally given a name in the film. Four years have gone by and: Carrie is still lovestruck; Samantha’s gotten seemingly softer; Miranda’s a bit harder and Charlotte is, well, more Charlotte!

En route to the altar, Carrie is jilted by Big—although the circumstances surrounding the way it exactly happens is muddled at best. The point is that series creator and writer/director of the film, the gifted Michael Patrick King, needed to break the two up—regardless of how questionable the plot point might be (my date had never seen an episode of the original series and enjoyed the movie but, tellingly, did not buy Big’s cold feet).

So Carrie is now depressed. Samantha is going through what most MEN go through after a long time with one person; she’s getting itchy and antsy and basically misses indiscriminate sex. Miranda has tossed Steve out for cheating on her once in their almost-completely sex-less relationship. (I found that plot contrivance annoying since it makes Miranda such an unforgiving bitch—yet it leads to such a fantastic late scene involving the Brooklyn Bridge—enough said!) Finally, Charlotte, after adopting a Chinese baby, has miraculously become pregnant herself.

The film, like the show, is more a series of vignettes than a cohesive narrative, try as the writer’s may, but it works magnificently because the terrific one-liners are there as well as the amazing NYC locales and the oddball but fascinating costumes (and shoes, let’s not forget the shoes). But it works, most especially, because of the quartet of ladies onscreen.

Whether there was any onset cat-fighting or jealousies, you would never know it from watching these truly talented gals “exist” in the best roles they will probably ever play. Career-defining portrayals.

Davis is hilarious as ever. Her moment of confrontation with Big is a keeper but it’s a certain scene in Mexico that will have you holding your sides in pain. Nixon’s nuances are all there. I just wish King hadn’t hardened her so. Cattrall can make a cat food commercial sexy and she does her best in the first half where poor Samantha is stuck in a rut. Thank God the film does her character justice in the end—even though we never really see her do what she does best. (A quick ogling to Gilles Marini who plays Samantha’s hot object of lust…gangway boys and girls and look out for a close up of the perfect ass!)

The one male allowed to do more than have a nice scene (or nice butt shot) is the terrific Chris Noth, bringing more to Big than the role as written.

Finally and foremost, Sarah Jessica Parker has never displayed more versatility and vulnerability. This gal gets better with age and does fabulous work here. I commend her for allowing herself to look her age when necessary.

At almost two and a half hours, Sex and the City, never feels long, although subplot involving Carrie’s new assistant (Hudson) felt superfluous and detrimental to positive role models for women. Yet on further reflection, the character does fit nicely into the Sex and the City scenario— a world where women have choices. They may have what they want: on their terms; at any age. And what better message to send--even if it still may be a fairy tale. (Can anyone argue that Hillary has been treated fairly?)

Yes, the film could have been more psychologically penetrating, less predictable, more naughty and less cliché’. But we’ll save those expectations and sexpectations for the sequel.

For more information, log onto: http://www.sexandthecitymovie.com/

 

 




Helen Hunt and Colin Firth in
Then She Found Me

Helen Hunt's
Then She Found Me
Opens Friday May 9th



Starring: Helen Hunt; Colin Firth; Bette Midler; and Matthew Broderick

Reviewed by Alejandra Serret

Helen Hunt makes her directorial debut this month with Then She Found Me, a beautifully made film on the intricacies of relationships, adapted from the book of the same title. Hunt also stars in the film, alongside Colin Firth, Bette Midler, and Matthew Broderick. She plays April Epner, a forty-something elementary school teacher who longs for a child but is on the brink of divorce from her husband and colleague, Ben (played by Matthew Broderick). The film opens with their wedding day—a quaint celebration peppered with wonderful sarcasm (mostly from April’s adoptive mother Trudy, deftly played by Lynn Cohen).

As quickly as the film opens to an optimistic setting, it goes sour for April Epner: Ben leaves her, her adoptive mother passes away, and her birth mother seeks her out. In the midst of this chaos, she meets Frank Harte (Colin Firth), the single parent, of one of her students. The easygoing, romantic and lovely bond that they form becomes challenged by April’s desire to be a mother, her convoluted relationship with her husband/ex husband, her reunion with her birth mother Bernice Graves (Bette Midler), and Frank’s distrust of women.

Then She Found Me tells the convoluted and often beautiful story of relationships. It explores the intricacies of varying types—how two people connect, how they fall in and out of love, whether between siblings, parents and their children, or spouses. Hunt keeps the film simple as the director—she keeps it honest. It is the perfect juxtaposition to the complicated story line. There is a very organic feeling to the film—as though watching friends or family muscle their way through life and the obstacles that complicate and enrich it. Hunt took part in every aspect of this film. She wrote the beautiful script along with Alice Arlen and Victor Levin. Then She Found Me is a smart, funny film—a true gem.



Peter Askin's
Trumbo
Opens Friday, June 27, 2008

Starring: Joan Allen; Brian Dennehy; Michael Douglas; Paul Giamatti; Nathan Lane; Josh Lucas; Liam Neeson; David Strathairn; and Donald Sutherland. With interviews with Kirk Douglas and Dustin Hoffman.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Periodically our nation goes out on a collective bender. Something happens and we get scared and some "strong" man exploits our fear and we go mad and do abominable things like: President Franklin Roosevelt fanning the fear of the "yellow peril" by incarcerating United States citizens of Japanese origin during World War II; or (in the fifties) Senator Joseph McCarthy exploiting our fears by telling us that there was a Communist under every bed and then holding Congressional hearings to find them; or more recently, President George W. Bush exploiting our fear of Al Queda with a regime of torture and secret prisons. And after everything is over, we wonder - how could that have happened? What made a nation that was founded with such extraordinary ideas about the rights of man (and woman too, we hope) stoop to such a despicable level. And our children read about the "bender" in their neatly synopsized history books and think, "Oh, that was the past; it will never happen again." Hmm.

Playwright Christopher Trumbo had such a "national bender" story to tell - it was about his father, the writer Dalton Trumbo, and what happened to him in the fifties when he was ostracized by Hollywood for refusing to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee whether he had ever been a Communist and most importantly for refusing to "name names" by telling the Committee who was also a Communist. The supposed motivation of the HUAC was to weed out Communist sympathizers from Hollywood so they could not subtly twist our national psyche by their "left leaning" words. The motivation of the Hollywood establishment was appeasement.

Christopher wrote a play about his father's life, Trumbo, which played off Broadway from 2003-2004. The play told the story of Trumbo's life through Trumbo's letters, long wonderful letters in which Trumbo told his friends and business acquaintances the "diary" of his life. And the play (with its letters) has now been turned in a documentary-style film.

Here is a quote from the press release for the film. "Dalton Trumbo was one of Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriters in the 1940s, penning films such as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Kitty Foyle (for which he received an Academy Award nomination). In 1947 he was called before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and, after defiantly refusing to discuss his political affiliations, was thrown into prison as one of the infamous “Hollywood Ten.” Upon his release in 1950, he moved with his family to Mexico, where he continued to write screenplays – including Roman Holiday and The Brave One – under various pseudonyms. When his script for the latter won an Academy Award for Best Story, the Oscar went suggestively unclaimed. Finally, in 1960, he was given full screen credit for his work on Exodus and Spartacus, thereby ending his professional exile."

The film tells the story of what Dalton and the other members of the Hollywood Ten did, how they refused to state whether they had ever been member of the Communist Party and how they also refused to give the names of other members of the Communist Party (many had flirted with Communism in the 30's when Russia was our ally against the Nazis, but gave up their memberships after World War II). And for refusing to testify, they were ostracized and their children were ostracized. And this ostracizing went on for almost ten years. For after Dalton Trumbo was released from prison, his real punishment was imposed by the Hollywood establishment, who refused to let him work under his own name until finally in the early sixties, Otto Preminger insisted on hiring him and giving him screen writing credit for Exodus. Kirk Douglas also insisted on hiring him for the film, Spartacus, which has the famous scene where the slaves are told that their lives will be spared if they produce the slave called Spartacus and rather than "name names," they all stand up and proudly declare, "I am Spartacus."

The film tells a serious story, but it is also fun because Trumbo's letters were fun, outrageous and passionate. And the actors do them justice; Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Paul Giamatti, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, and Donald Sutherland bring Dalton to life through his own words - his letters. And newly minted dirty-man-around-town Nathan Lane (see Lane's foul-mouthed turn in David Mamet's November) brings down the "movie house" when he reads a letter Trumbo wrote to his son about the joys of masturbation.

Our 1950's Hollywood 10 bender was a bender about the fear of words, and this fear of words was exploited by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee. And these were and are our words, words that are protected by our own Constitution in our own First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

 


 

 


Tom McCarthy’s
The Visitor
Opens in Select Theaters Friday April 11th 2008

Reviewed by Alejandra Serret

The Visitor, directed by Tom McCarthy, tells the story of a lonely, discontent, middle-aged widower whose life is transformed by a weekend trip to New York City. Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under and There’s Something About Mary) plays Walter Vale, a respected professor, who takes little pleasure in the class he teaches. He is a familiar character, weighted by boredom, but disinterested in change. He fumbles through an awkward piano lesson showing an interest in music, yet gives up when his performance is less than stellar. And so, his life, rambles on at the same, even pace, until he is asked to present a paper at an economic conference in New York City. The weekend trip to his apartment (which has for many months, maybe even years, gone without a visit) changes his life, along with the lives of others.

Walter Vale begrudgingly travels to New York City, from his home in Connecticut to participate in a three day conference at NYU. When he arrives at the apartment he has owned for twenty years, he finds Zainab (Danai Gurira) submerged in his tub. Her screams alert Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), her boyfriend, who angrily pushes Walter against the wall. But Tarek and Zainab learn quickly that they are in fact intruders and the victims of a real estate scam. As illegal immigrants, Tarek, a Syrian man and Zainab, from Senegal, have few options. Softened by their plight Walter asks them to stay, while they look for another place to live. Over the next few days, their awkward attempt at conversation burgeons into a friendship that is found and forged through music.

Tarek, a talented drummer, eases Walter into playing the African drum. Walter’s uptight disposition begins to unravel, revealing a man willing to learn new things, a man eager to play in drum circles and visit jazz clubs. What starts off as a film focused on the possibility of unlikely friendships, morphs into another, when Tarek is arrested for a trivial, imagined, offense. Tarek is held in a detention center in Queens with several hundred other illegal immigrants.

And this is where McCarthy stumbles. Walter devotes himself to helping Tarek regain his freedom and from it, forms yet another “unexpected” relationship with Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass). While they grieve Tarek’s tumultuous situation, they find comfort in one another. The scenario is believeable (anything is believable if done in the right way) but it doesn’t translate through Mouna, Walter, and Tarek. McCarthy is overeager in his attempt to transform these characters and to make a statement from their disastrous predicament. He falters in character development. Yes, I understand that bonds can be made quickly, but I didn’t believe theirs. So Tarek and Walter play in a drum circle and share a meal. But I don’t believe Walter’s reasons for doing it. And then McCarthy falters further with Mouna. Okay, mother comes to rescue her child and forms a friendship with the man who is helping him to regain his freedom. But a romantic connection—really?

After Tarek’s incarceration The Visitor’s core begins to crumble. If you’re going to build a film on the unlikely relationships of its characters, you have to make the viewers believe in the possibility of them. And I didn’t. The characters themselves need to be rich, whether it’s in their indifference, passion, monotony. McCarthy made a bold attempt with The Visitor, a film with an important message at its core, but it did little to inspire.


Timor Bekmambetov’s
Wanted
Opens Friday, June 27, 2008


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

An action film starring Scottish thesp James McAvoy (so amazing in Atonement) and a sinewy, heavily tatto’d Angelia Jolie, based on comic books and directed by a Russian. Hmmm. For me, that’s not exactly a draw. I will admit I have a built in problem with the action/adventure genre, or I should say, what it’s become: a cartoonish, ultra-violent, sense-bombardment computer game! I do admire the two leads, though, so I had a few miniscule hopes…

Well, I am shocked and delighted to report, Wanted (crappy title notwithstanding)--along with Iron Man--is the most exciting, insanely-entertaining film of the summer so far. The flick grabs a hold of you from the get go and never lets go, not for a millisecond.

This is the U.S. debut of celebrated Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Day Watch) who is comfortable enough with the genre that he appropriates from some of the best American films (I’ll let you decide what you’ve seen before), while imploding and exploding it at his whim—but always to great filmic effect. Bullets slow down; back up through the body they’ve already penetrated, and zoom back to where they were first fired. Our protagonist is beaten to near death, only to find himself in a rejuvenation tub, fully healed in a few hours. But the dazzling effects are just the icing on a wild cakeride.

The basic plot surrounds Wesley Gibson (McAvoy) who is stuck in a dead-end job, has a cheating girlfriend, a betrayer best friend and a general sucky life. That is until Fox (Jolie) and her gang of assassins explodes their way into his life and takes it over. The group, led by Sloane (Morgan Freeman, having a blast), are members of a thousand year old gang known as the Fraternity and Gibson’s absent father was a member. He has just been killed and his son is being initiated…initially against his will.

Smartly scripted by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan, Wanted has the requisite non-stop action, pulse-pounding thrill sequences and stunning chases (in particular, a dazzler scene involving Jolie shooting up a storm while upside down over the front end of a car), but the film also puts forth some fascinating and thought-provoking ideas involving trust, faith, loyalty and the nature of courage. Imagine: actual ideas in an action film?!

In some of the more harrowing sequences, Wesley is brutalized as part of his indoctrination. The moments seem never-ending. I don’t recall a film protagonist suffering so onscreen in such a sadistic manner. Not since Fight Club, anyway.

McAvoy is a revelation, so appealing yet so believable once he’s become an assassin himself. Is there anything this young actor cannot do? Jolie speaks less than Clint Eastwood in one of his spaghetti westerns, but is a potent presence. And there’s nothing cooler than watching her handle firepower! Her Fox is Mrs. Smith after a few too many lifefucks.

Wanted boasts terrifically eye-popping visuals as well as extraordinary camerawork by Mitchell Amundsen. Danny Elfman’s score is appropriately bombastic. And the film soars, in large part, thanks to the editing wizardry of David Brenner (an Oliver Stone man!)

Wesley’s narration crackles and moves the film along nicely. Near the beginning he ponders why his father vanished when he was an infant, spewing the following in the third person: “I wonder if his father looked into his baby blues and thought, Did I just father the most insignificant asshole of the Twentieth Century?” It’s self-deprecating, hilarious lines like that that separate Wesley from most of the cocky and annoying protags out there and make us really want to follow him around for two hours.



 


Pere Portabela's
Warsaw Bridge

Sunday, June 15, 2008, 2:00 p.m., Theater 2, T2
Monday, June 16, 2008, 6:30 p.m., Theater 2, T2
Wednesday, June 18, 2008, 5:00 p.m., Theater 2, T2
Thursday, June 19, 2008, 8:15 p.m., Theater 2, T2

MoMA


Reviewed by Lauren Possee

Boobs? Tons. Plot? None. Weird? Oh man, yes.

It’s part of the human condition to label unfamiliar people, things, and experiences “weird”. Maybe we judge too quickly. Maybe we should look beyond the surface and try to understand unfamiliar territory. Maybe. I know I certainly tried. But after eight-five minutes I still walked out saying, “That was weird.”

Spanish filmmaker Pere Portabela wrote and directed Warsaw Bridge, now playing at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Portabela’s inspiration came from a newspaper headline: “The body of a scuba diver was found in a burnt forest.” Don’t be fooled. Although it’s categorized as fiction/documentary, only a few minutes are devoted to the plight of our ill-fated scuba friend. The rest? A whirlwind of disconnected segments complete with an autopsies, dead fish, and lots and lots of naked opera-singing women.

Don’t get too excited guys. Very few of these women are under age 50, or under 300 pounds for that matter.

As the opening credits roll, we find ourselves at a party in a museum somewhere in Spain. The author of Warsaw Bridge, a novel detailing the story of a scuba diver’s body found in a forest, accepts a prestigious Literature prize for his work. We meet his beautiful wife and a few of his friends. These first ten minutes seem to offer the perfect elements of exposition. I was confident it would all piece together, maybe going back and forth between the museum party and the life of the scuba diver? Maybe we will learn more about this gentleman’s writing process and how it affected his relationship with his wife? Wishful thinking. These characters are never heard from again.

Here’s what we did see: a fish-gutting factory scene that dragged on for an unnecessary eternity, an endless series of large bathtubs with the aforementioned naked women, a busy subway train at rush hour turned horror flick, a symphony conducted in an outdoor shopping mall, and a man and woman screaming in a library about the anatomy of a squid. Yes, I’m serious.

It is an art film, so perhaps plot is secondary to beautiful cinematography and other impressive artistic elements. Pere Portabela captured breath-taking views of the burning forest and mountains surrounding the scuba diver. The music, both operatic and instrumental, was unbelievably powerful throughout the film. Also, the camera and sound techniques used in the subway horror scene were clever and effective. Portabela cut the sound out of the scene, which made it far more powerful. As one man begins to lose control, tearing through the subway cars, ripping out seats, screaming, and causing mayhem, the truth of those horrific moments are apparent on the faces of the innocent passengers. It was the lack of sound and unique camera angles that made the scene memorable.

On another positive note, the ending two minutes provide details on the scuba diver’s death, which is a satisfying follow-up to the drab autopsy scene that falls oh-so-randomly in the middle of the film, somewhere between boob opera part one and bathtub boob opera: the sequel. So, in the end, the opening museum party sequence and the final two minutes tie Warsaw Bridge together. Unfortunately, the entire middle, or shall I say, the majority of the film just didn’t do it for me. Although there were some beautiful artistic elements, the disconnected plot line was over the top and left something to be desired.

Warsaw Bridge will play at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) June 13th-19th. Please refer to http://www.moma.org for prices and show times.

MoMA 11 West 53 Street
(212) 708-9400


 

 

 

 

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