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Roger Donaldson’s
The Bank Job
Opens Friday, March 7, 2008

Starring: Jason Statham (War, Crank, The Italian Job) and Saffron Burrows (Reign Over Me, Enigma)

Reviewed by John Janusz

The Bank Job, an action thriller about a bank heist set in early 1970s London, is inspired by a true story. This film has all the makings of a real man’s movie with sex, scandals, mystery, espionage, graphic violence, corruption, profanity and the gratuitous nudity of beautiful women.

In a welcome change from some recent super-action roles, in this film, the hero (played by Jason Statham) is an anti-hero. Terry is a luxury automobile dealer with an unstable past. He is married with two children and he owes a large debt to some wrong people. Terry is approached by an old flame with a golden opportunity, a chance to rob a bank vault of its safety deposit boxes. Terry sees this as his last chance for the one big score that will finally put the life of small time thievery behind him, letting him live happily ever after with his wife and family. He and his most trusted mates form a gang and go for the gold. What they do not realize is that the contents of these boxes belong to some very prominent and dangerous individuals, individuals who will stop at nothing to regain their possessions. But escaping the police becomes the least of Terry’s and his gang’s worries. In this story the bank thieves turn out to be the most innocent among all of the parties involved.

If you enjoyed Ronin, Payback or The Italian Job you will love The Bank Job.

The Bank Job is directed by veteran filmmaker Roger Donaldson (No Way Out, Thirteen Days, The Recruit). It is written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (Across the Universe, Flushed Away, Still Crazy and Tracey Ullman: A Class Act)


 

 

Oren Jacoby's
Constantine’s Sword
Opens in select theaters Friday, April 18th, 2008

Reviewed by Alejandra Serret

Constantine’s Sword, a thought provoking documentary, delves into the controversial debate on religion, and how the institution has been used as a weapon throughout history. The documentary follows James Carroll, a writer and former Catholic priest, on his exploration of the darker side of Christianity. Carroll, with the help of Oscar nominated documentarian Oren Jacoby, travel to different parts of the world in hopes of unearthing and bringing to light a side of Christianity that is often over looked and ignored.

The documentary begins in Colorado Springs at the U.S. Air Force Academy. A Jewish cadet tells of the constant discrimination he deals with because of his faith. The Evangelist Mega Church proselytizes at the Air Force Academy in an aggressive, forceful manner. This particular story becomes the basis of Constantine’s Sword. It serves as the foundation for Carroll’s argument—that the institution of religion is used and has been used to breed hatred, separating rather than unifying.

Carroll talks of his own past, as the eldest of son of a large Irish Catholic Family—his father a decorated Army General. From a young age Carroll had felt it his duty to serve the church. He became a priest in 1969 and served for five years. He argues it was during this time period that he was able to ask the most challenging questions of the church—beginning with its violent and turbulent history. It is what led him to leave the priesthood.

He travels to Europe and speaks with historians on the beginnings of Christianity. This unearths the story of Constantine, a Roman Emperor, who was violent. Carroll’s journey through Europe takes us through the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust. These religious wars all targeted a specific group of people based on their religious differences. Carroll beautifully links this turbulent history with the way in which Evangelism is proselytized at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The documentary ends on a truly scary note: President Bush’s declaration of the current war in Iraq as a “crusade on terror…a war of good vs. evil.” He compares Bush to Hitler, begging the question: what does that make us as citizens? Accomplices? Constantine’s Sword beautifully tackles a truly complex topic.

For more information about Constantine's Sword, log onto: constantinessword.com




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.



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.


 


Bharat Nalluri’s
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Opens Friday, March 7, 2008

Starring: Amy Adams as Delysia Lafosse; Shirley Henderson as Edythe Dubarry; Ciarán Hinds as Joe; Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew; Lee Pace as Michael; Tom Payne as Phil Goldman; Mark Strong as Nick.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a frothy confection of a film; farcical and fun, it is the perfect chick flick. The film is advertised as a fairy tale for grown ups and it certaunly fulfills its advertised promise.

Here is a quote from the press release: “In 1939 London, Miss Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is a middle-aged governess who finds herself once again unfairly dismissed from her job. Without so much as severance pay, Miss Pettigrew realizes that she must – for the first time in two decades – seize the day. This she does, by intercepting an employment assignment outside of her comfort level – as “social secretary.” Arriving at a penthouse apartment for the interview, Miss Pettigrew is catapulted into the glamorous world and dizzying social whirl of an American actress and singer, Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams).”

Delysia has a complicated love life, three love lifes to be precise. When Miss Pettigrew arrives at Delysia’s stunning penthouse apartment, one of the love lifes is still asleep upstairs, Phil Goldman (Tom Payne). Phil is the son of a theatrical producer and has the power (maybe) to cast Delysia in his father’s new musical. But career benefits aside, he must get out of bed because Delysia is late for a lingerie show. And as a further complication, Delysia's boss at the nightclub where she sings, Nick (Mark Strong), is about to arrive and Nick would also like to spend some time in the presently occupied upstairs bed.

So Delysia is desperately in need of the services of a sensible English governess. And Miss Pettigrew, in all her frumpy glory, jumps right in. She removes lingerie from the chandelier, stuffs clothing under the bear skin rug and dispenses sensible advice. And advice is needed for it seems that Delysia has yet another love interest, Nick (Lee Pace), the piano player at the nightclubs where Delysia works. Delysia truly loves Nick, but of all three men, Nick can do the least for her career.
Miss Pettigrew quickly dispenses with all three men and Delysia and Miss Pettirgrew leave for the lingerie show.

The lingerie show is a frothy delight, a pink bonbon for the eyes. At the lingerie show, Miss Pettigrew is introduced to Delysia’s friend, Edythe (Shirley Henderson), a brittle and sophisticated shop owner. Miss Pettigrew also meets Edythe cuckolded fiancée, Joe (Ciarán Hinds), an honest wholesome sort of man who was drawn into the smart set when he left the sock business to become a lingerie designer. Miss Pettigrew is attracted to Joe because she can see beneath his worldly exterior to view the decent man Joe really is.

So the die is cast, the players are on the stage. Just who will Delysia choose? Will Edythe be able to draw Joe back into her web? Will Miss Pettigrew ever get something to eat and will someone please do something about her hair?

Miss Pettigrew is set in a world that is about to drastically change. Indeed, we see the outlines of the first German bombers flying over the English sky. And in the world, all is not exactly as it seems for Miss Pettigrew and Delysia have one secret in common – what they do in any one day can truly throw them into the poor house the next day.

The cast in Miss Pettigrew all give wonderful performances: Amy Adams is utterly "Enchanting" as Delysia; Frances McDormand embodies goodness under extreme stress; Shirley Henderson delights as Edythe Dubarry, the evil witch of this fairy tale; Ciarán Hinds as Joe delivers the same rock-solid performance that has made him Ciarán Hinds. And the male love interests are all delightful in their own ways: Tom Payne plays an adorably vain Phil; Mark Strong is sexually exciting as the venal and menacing Nick; and Lee Pace, with his soulful eyes, makes the audience totally forget what our mothers told us about not dating musicians.


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.





Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi's
Persepolis
Opens Tuesday, December 25, 2007
The English Language Version Opened in April of 2008

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.




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/



Martin Scorsese’s
Shine a Light
Opens Friday, April 4, 2008


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Are the Rolling Stones the greatest Rock ‘n Roll band in the world? It depends on your definition of great and the criteria you use for deciding such ridiculous, but fun, things. If sheer force, courage, stamina, potency, longevity and true musical talent top your list of evaluation standards, then perhaps they are. If you agree that they happen to be the only group to have had such a massive influence on music and culture decade after decade after decade after decade…after decade, then they certainly are.

Martin Scorsese’s mesmerizing concert film, Shine a Light, does exactly that: capturing the Stones up close, intimately and pretty personal. Scorsese does the job by simply filming them doing what they do best, what they’ve always done best: perform. He also, intermittently, sprinkles old newsreel footage into the movie to great effect.

Scorsese is no stranger to concert films, having shot the extraordinary final performance by The Band, The Last Waltz in 1978, and, just recently, helming the documentary, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan.

Shine a Light began as an idea that Mick Jagger had knowing they were about to play their biggest concert yet in Rio de Janiero, as part of their Bigger Bang tour. He and Richards decided they wanted Scorsese to direct (Mick: “It’s good to start at the top.” Richards: “I have studied every one of his films.”) Scorsese loved the idea, but decided a more intimate venue would best serve his vision. After a little coaxing, he convinced Mick that the Beacon Theatre in New York City was the perfect place.

Scorsese gathered some of the best cinematographers working today. Under the supervision of Academy Award winning genius Robert Richardson (JFK), the group included a slew of other Oscar winners: John Toll (Braveheart); Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood); Andrew Lesnie (Lord of the Rings Trilogy) as well as Albert Maysles, who shot the now infamous Gimme Shelter in 1969.

The endeavor has resulted in a hypnotic and captivating film that stands as a terrific concert as well as a stunning motion picture. Scorsese captures the group’s vitality and energy (Jagger is still more dynamic than most 18 year olds!), yet we see glimpses of the aging process taking it’s toll (Keith Richards ravaged face is forever sexy, but also scary). What we also experience is a band devoted to their passion. The songs and the performances rule the day.

The set includes most of their best work. (I did miss “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Out of Time” but you can’t have everything). Mick’s attitudinal strut is on display with a vengeance as is his powerful bluesy vocals on the best of the best, specifically: “Shattered;” “Far Away Eyes;” “Tumbling Dice,” “Brown Sugar,” “Satisfaction” and, the classic rocker, “Sympathy for the Devil.”

One of the first songs Jagger and Richards wrote together is the haunting “As Tears Go By” and they perform it with a poignancy and intensity that sent chills down my spine. A dynamic and underrated cut, ‘She Was Hot’ provided a major high in an evening filled with highs.

I was a bit disappointed that political correctness took over on the “Some Girls” vocal and a certain highly-controversial lyric went unsung, but such are the censorial times we’re all living in.

Special guests include: Jack White; Christina Aguilera and Presidential rock star Bill Clinton, who introduces the band.

One of the wonders of Shine a Light is how Scorsese (as well as the Stones) never tries to tell us that we are seeing genius at work (and play). The film does not reek of self-importance. In fact, Scorsese takes a very self-reflexive tone pre-concert which results in some moments of genuine hilarity. And once the concert begins, the director is all but out of the picture.

Near the beginning of the film, Scorsese is told by a technician that Jagger cannot stand in front of a specific light for more than 18 seconds or he will burn. Scorsese incredulously asks: “You mean go up in flames?” The reply is yes, to which Scorsese seriously states: “We cannot burn Mick Jagger.” He then has a chuckle about it. As do we. And, we are soon hyper-grateful that Jagger does not go up in flames, otherwise we would not have been transcendently transported for two hours by a master director and, well, the greatest Rock ‘n Roll band in the world!

 




Alex Rivera’s
Sleep Dealer
New Directors New Films
March 26–April 6

filmlinc.com

Starring: Leonor Varela; Jacob Vargas; Luis Fernando Peña; and Giovanna Zacarías.

Reviewed by Corey Ann Haydu

Alex Rivera’s first film, Sleep Dealer, is a science fiction adventure film that is both entertaining and smart, a rare combination, and a particularly unique intellectual experience for the sci-fi genre. The film follows its protagonist, Memo, a young Mexican man living in a remote village, and his journey to the big city. In this archetypal storyline, Memo is a quintessentially flawed hero. He is obsessed with technology, and dreams of bigger things than his current life. This becomes his downfall, however. Memo ends up in a futuristic factory that outsources Mexican employees and to the US- through technological advances. These employees work from a virtual reality type station in Mexico, to accomplish menial, low wage jobs in the US, without ever having to cross the border.

It is with this futuristic construction that Rivera transcends the genre and delves into an exploration of immigration and technology and their relationships with society as a whole. The film asks real questions, and stuns the audience with a future that seems entirely plausible and completely terrifying. Not only are low wage jobs outsourced, remote soldiers also control detonating machines from afar, blowing up villages from a world away, disconnected entirely from life and death. In fact, these soldiers resemble teenaged boys playing video games, instead of men making real decisions between life and death.

Sleep Dealer is also a solid love story, between troubled Memo, and “writer” Luz. Luz takes advantage of Memo’s compelling life story, and shares his memories online, profiting from their relationship. Their relationship is beautifully written, and wonderfully acted. It is an honest look at the complexities of love, and a reminder that the world is not black and white.

In fact, Sleep Dealer as a whole resides in a deep truth, even if its context is an imagined, unreal future. Regardless, Rivera’s film manages impressive honesty, complexity, and fullness. His actors are subtle and true, their lives are rich and regular, and the world they inhabit is strange… but also somehow strangely familiar. It is a movie worth seeing whether or not you are a science fiction fan. Freshman filmmaker Rivera demands immense respect for accomplishing what so few can… a film that is watchable and enjoyable, but also leads you to see the world in a new way… or at the very least question where it is we might be going.




Channing Tatum and Ryan Phillippe in Stop-Loss

Kimberly Peirce’s
Stop-Loss
Opens Friday, March 28, 2008

Starring: Ryan Phillippe; Abbie Cornish; Channing Tatum; Joseph Gordon-Levitt; Victor Rasuk; Linda Emond; and Mamie Gummer.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

“With all due respect, sir, fuck the president!”

These audacious yet cathartic words are spoken by battle-scarred Staff Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) after he is told by his superior that he’s being ‘stop-lossed’—ordered to return to Iraq for another tour even though his term of service is over. This ‘back door draft’ was first used by George Bush, Sr. during the Gulf War and has been widely used during the Iraq conflict.

Through extensive research and interviews with returning soldiers, director Kimberly Peirce (along with co-writer Mark Richard) have fashioned a powerful and deeply affecting film that examines the effect of war on a trio of soldiers, during combat, and later, at home.

Peirce has not made a film since her 1999 stunner debut, Boys Don’t Cry, which justly won Hilary Swank her first Best Actress Oscar. Stop-Loss more than proves she’s a picturemaking force to be reckoned with. Passionate and ballsy, Peirce has the filmic talents to back up her polemics. And while Stop-Loss brings to mind some of the best Vietnam-themed war films including: Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July; Hal Ashby’s Coming Home; Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, it is in the vein of homage, not hybridization.

The opening sequence is filled with blood, guts, mayhem…enough carnage to make anyone squeamish (my guest almost had to leave, he was grateful he stayed) and sets the bar pretty high for the events to come. Eventually, the soldiers return home and attempt to re-assimilate into their old lives, which is difficult for some and near-impossible for others.

Phillippe’s Brandon is the hub that holds his buddy-spokes together. They include: his best friend Steve (Channing Tatum), the tortured Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Steve’s fiancée, Michelle (Abbie Cornish).

The film is uncompromising in it’s portrait of these Texans, how their patriotism led to their enlisting, but how the atrocities they witnessed and took part in overseas have forever scarred them.

More often than not, Peirce opts to investigate the grey areas—not just with insights about a soldier’s duty but when it comes to moral and ethical questions as well. There’s a terrific scene involving Brandon chasing a group of thieves that have just broken into his car. We sense his outrage comes from how he has just returned from defending his country FOR these boys and here they are stealing from him. As audience members we are quick to want a certain type of justice from this scene, but immediately find ourselves questioning that vengeful nature in ourselves. Why it’s there. And how far we are willing to take it.

Too many critics have charge Stop-Loss with melodramatic excessiveness. I don’t see it that way. The subject matter demands that the stakes be higher than the norm. And while the film sometimes goes slightly over the edge—especially when depicting Tommy’s anguish (his shooting his wedding gift and his predictable fate)-- much like with the work of Oliver Stone, we can forgive the excesses. They’re almost required.

And Peirce and Richard are savvy enough to avoid most of the Hollywood-by-numbers script trappings. I applaud the filmmakers for never taking the Phillippe/Cornish relationship to that oh-so-predictable level. They also manage to end the film on a strong and true note. I have read a few negative reviews from respected right-wing critics that completely missed the point of the ending. This is not surprising since supporters of Bush and the war usually see ONLY what they want to see anyway--or what they're told they should be seeing.

Ryan Phillippe, so effective in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers last year, does his best work to date as the beleaguered Brandon, at first content to do his duty, but slowly waking to certain realities. It’s a bracing and complex performance.

Newcomer Channing Tatum makes good on the promise he showed in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Tatum takes some great acting risks and they pay off resoundingly while Joseph Gordon-Levitt adds another terrific performance to an ever-growing resume’ of impressive turns. Victor Rasuk is heartbreaking as Rico, a wounded soldier who’s spirits have not yet diminished.

Atypical for any type of war-oriented film, women are allowed some great moments as well. Abbie Cornish (who resembles a young Nicole Kidman) is perfectly understated as the confused Michele. Linda Emond embodies everymom with a quiet power that is breathtaking. And Mamie Gummer leaves her mark in a smallish role and proves spookily reminiscent of her mother’s (Meryl Streep) Deer Hunter performance thirty years ago.

Production values are excellent throughout with the great Chris Mendes doing stunning camerawork. John Powell’s score is potent and appropriately haunting.

At one point Peirce uses a song by country superstar and resident war-monger, Toby Keith to highlight just how misguided so many of our young men were post-September 11th. The ditty, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” was written to inspire our boys to want to seek revenge for that tragedy. The problem was it also asked us to blindly trust a President with his own agenda. And while Keith never had to take responsibility for the blood on his hands, true Americans like the Dixie Chicks were vilified and demonized for speaking out against an unjust war and a horrific President.

If you haven’t guessed, I do not support the evil that is George W. Bush. And I do not understand how so many Americans were blinded into believing he was invading Iraq because of 9/11 when one thing had NOTHING to do with the other. Finally, I will never understand the mindset that says we are not allowed to be critical of our President—especially when he blunders big time. I state all this so all my biases are up front.

Stop-Loss has the guts to say certain things that desperately need to be said. It is not only the best film of 2008 to date, it happens to be the first relevant film to deal with the Iraq War.

It was recently reported that, in the five years since we invaded Iraq, over 4,000 Americans are now dead. And, as far as Bush is concerned, we are staying put. Even the promise of a new President may not make a withdrawal possible for a while to come since there are many political factors to take into account. Leaving, at this stage, might be more detrimental for us. It’s all terribly frightening and no one seems to care as much any more. Call it Iraq War-fatigue, but Americans seem disinterested.

Stop-Loss is an important reminder that our boys are still dying AND is an accurate account of just one of the legion of ways the Bush Administration has turned our country into a borderline fascist regime where the Commander-in-Chief can ride roughshot over laws that have existed for over two hundred years—laws that are supposed to protect us as a democracy.

I urge everyone to see this remarkable film; it has something important to say and does so in a damned entertaining and inspiring way.




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.


 

Tia Lessin and Carl Dean’s
Trouble the Water
New Directors New Films
March 26–April 6

filmlinc.com

Starring: Kim Roberts and Scott Roberts

Reviewed by Marguerite Daniels

Documentary film can be a tricky genre to navigate. Often documentary directors insert so much of their own images and ideas into the film that it become’s about the director and the subject can be lost. This is far from the case in Tia Lessin and Carl Dean’s Trouble the Water where the documentary-makers give free-range to the subjects, and what results is a film of sheer brilliance.

The film follows aspiring rap artist Kim Roberts and her husband Scott Roberts who endure Hurricane Katrina and the horrific after effects of the storm. A week before the storm, Kim fortuitously purchased a camcorder on the street for $20, and begins using the camera the day before Katrina hits landfall. Kim quickly proves an expert camerawoman with deft instincts: she is a natural storyteller, and she provides narration while she captures the lives of people who attempt to escape the storms wrath. Though Kim and her husband cannot leave their home because they don’t have transportation, they make provisions and invite friends and neighbors to their house to wait out the storm. Lessin and Dean use Kim’s footage and intertwine it with news reports their own to give the film vastly different perspectives. As the storm worsens, more neighbors arrive, and it becomes clear that the storm will be far worse than anyone anticipated. Kim continues to film as the levees near her home in the 9th Ward break, and flood her house so completely that the inhabitants are forced to crouch in an attic to await an emergency rescue that will never come.

When all hope fades Kim bravely asks the 911 dispatcher, “So we’re going to die?” and the dispatcher timidly answers back, “Yes.”

But Kim and Scott and the others don’t die. They form their own rescue party, and search for a drier residence. Though Kim and Scott have lost everything including family members and loved ones, they continue to work and find lodging for neighbors. Ultimately this film is not about what Kim and Scott loose to Katrina, but what they gained in spite of the storm. It’s humbling to see what Kim and Scott are able to accomplish through Kim’s remarkable optimism. She is awe-inspiring. She is not only a tremendously talented rapper (under the name of the Black Kold Madina), she provides strong and steady shoulder for all to lean on. Here, Lessin and Dean capture a woman who is not only street-wise but fiercely independent, honest and truthful. Her will to live is infectious. She gives hope to others when no one believes they will survive. Kim believes, and she makes everyone around her believe in not only the possibility of surviving the storm but thriving afterward.

Throughout the film Kim and Scott’s relationship is solid and remains remarkably unshaken despite the stress of their lives. And while they have opened their lives to being explored by the filmmakers, they are never exploited. Kim and Scott aren’t displayed as anthropological case studies. No aspects of their lives are judged; not their drug dealing pasts, and not the things they have to do to endure in the present. That’s what is remarkable about this film. While there is a story to be told, it doesn’t need to be scripted, or manipulated by the directors. This film is a shining example of all a documentary can and should be.



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.


 

 

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