Thursday, July 30, 2009

From The-Dispatch:
How much longer will audiences line up for films like this like Pavlov's dogs salivating over a bell? How much more will people stand for being force-fed the same tired junk over and over? You wouldn't do that to yourself, so why subject your children to it? Everything, from the writing to the score to the irritatingly plain cinematography is as generic as it gets. And if people don't stop buying tickets, nothing will change. Someone has to stand up and say "we're as mad as hell, and we're not going to take this anymore!"
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

I was really hoping that my first impressions of the trailer for Stephen Frears' Cheri were wrong. I was admittedly intrigued by the premise and pedigree of the film, but when I saw the preview several red flags went up immediately.

Trailers, of course, can be deceiving. But having now see the film, sadly, most of my fears for Cheri turned out to be founded.

It falls victim to a trap that ensnares many period pieces like this - it's so enamored with its own sumptuous beauty that storytelling falls by the wayside.

Director Stephen Frears has proven his mettle with light period comedies like Mrs. Henderson Presents and high-end dramas such as Dangerous Liasons and The Queen, so the talent is there. But for all its potential, Cheri is a stiff, overwrought oddity whose uneven plotting and tone make for an awkwardly paced viewing experience.

But for all of its structural and tonal problems, the film certainly looks great, and Michelle Pfeiffer is in fine form as Lea de Lonval, an aging, high class courtesan in pre-WWI France whose glory days are behind her, but who still commands a sexy, regal vivaciousness. Lea has been living the high life, content to be a single agent, until 19 year old Cherie (Rupert Friend), the son of a former rival (Kathy Bates), takes a romantic interest in her. More amused at first than anything else, Lea allows herself to be drawn in, but what began as a random fling turns into a six year affair. But when Cheri is forced into an arranged marriage with a girl closer to his own age, both of them realize just how deep their feelings run for each other.

It all starts off well enough as a fun, frothy, just-naughty-enough comedy of manners, but soon devolves into an overwrought melodrama, and never recovers, spiralling down into a glamorous downer. The costume and production design, as well as Alexandre Desplat's score, are all fantastic and the period details are stunning, but the direction, pacing, and wild tonal variances are just so uneven that it doesn't make for an enjoyable experience.

The screenplay by Christopher Hampton gets caught up in its proper period dialogue (and some distracting narration), which carries over into some of the performances, especially by Bates, who seems extremely uncomfortable. For all the film's beautiful detail, nothing feels natural - not the performances, not the dialogue, nothing. The whole affair is very starchy and stagey.It's not erotic enough to be a decent bodice-ripper, funny enough to be a decent comedy, or moving enough to be a decent drama. Instead, it is caught somewhere in the middle, a very awkward limbo state that can't seem to make up its mind what it wants to be, and as a result doesn't really succeed as anything. For all its potential, Cheri gets lost on the road to cohesion.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

CHERI; Directed by Stephen Frears; Stars Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathy Bates, Rupert Friend, Felicity Jones, Frances Tomelty; Rated R for some sexual content and brief drug use.
Collider has the exclusive premiere of the poster for Guillermo Arriaga's directorial debut, The Burning Plain (Magnolia, 9.18), starring Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger, while Yahoo has premiered the film's trailer.

It has been several months since I first saw the film, and while my initial reaction was a positive one, I must say it has faded quite a bit with time. It's a solid work, but the red herring set-up of the trailer isn't that much of a revelation.

I don't know why Magnolia has waited so long to release it after its premiere at last year's Venice Film Festival, as the initial buzz seems to have faded quite a bit. The lackluster trailer really doesn't help either.

The Burning Plain will debut On Demand on August 21, followed by a limited theatrical release on September 18.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

NOTE: This review was originally published on July 23, 2008. I repost it now in conjunction with the film's US theatrical premiere at the Film Forum in NYC tomorrow, July 29.

Every once in a while you come across a movie that you absolutely love, but can't quite articulate why - something so beautiful and unique that the only real response that seems to fit is a satisfied cinematic sigh.

The last time I remember feeling this way was after watching Miranda July's delightfully off-kilter Me and You and Everyone We Know. And now after seeing Roy Andersson's sublime, dreamlike You, The Living, I got to feel it all over again.

You, The Living is a film that is hard to describe, not to mention sum up in a brief review. It doesn't have a plot, or a story for that matter. It is a mosaic in the Magnolia vein, by way of Jacques Tati.

In the film we are introduced to a series of disparate characters, some who show up again, and some who don't. It is a celebration of life in all of its singular sorrow and beauty, humor and heartbreak, told though a series of absurdly comic and strangely poignant vignettes.

The film opens with a quote by Goethe: "Be pleased then, you the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe's ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot," and then takes us on a strange and haunting journey though life and its trials as it might be imagined by Luis Buñuel.

We are introduced to an overweight woman who is breaking up with her boyfriend on a park bench, wailing that no one understands her. We meet her again later in a similar situation in a restaurant, where much of the movie takes place, and where a young girl meets a rock star she idolizes and falls in love in a romance that only works out in her own fantasies.

We also meet a tuba player whose constant practicing drives those around him crazy enough to bang holes in their own ceilings to get him to stop, a disgruntled barber who takes his frustrations out with his hair trimmer, and a couple whose marital woes spill over into their workplaces. And the characters just keep coming, each one just as odd and troubled as the one before.

But throughout each segment, no matter how short or how long, whether it is a recurring character or a brief clip, there is an undercurrent of childlike wonder at the very act of being that is nothing short of breathtaking. It's not a perfect film, and some of the vignettes don't work as well as others, but what a thrill, what a joy, to be so alive in such a unique and beautiful world.

The film was shot mostly on soundstages, and their artificiality is part of the film's charm. It adds to the film's singularly peculiar atmosphere, creating a place somewhere between dreams and reality. You, The Living is a film that exists in that place of being between being asleep and being awake, seeming to make sense at first even though it really doesn't.

What is going on here though isn't just strangeness for strangeness' sake. As the opening scene foreshadows impending doom, life goes on, and just as Goethe's quote extols the blissful ignorance before a violent end, Andersson seems to alternate between satirizing his characters and gazing at them with a loving eye. For better or for worse, they are alive. And You, The Living embraces that with every fiber of its being. Glorious, beautiful, bizarre, unbridled life.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

YOU, THE LIVING; Directed by Roy Andersson; Stars Jessica Lundberg, Elisabeth Helander, Bjorn England, Leif Larsson, Olle Olson; Not Rated; In Swedish w/English subtitles; Opens tomorrow, 7/29, at the Film Forum in NYC.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

There hasn't been a Woody Allen comedy that has made me laugh in years. Much of his recent output has been either rehashes of his old work or built around contrived central gimmicks. His dark infidelity thriller, Match Point, back in 2005, was excellent, and last year's Vicky Cristina Barcelona was passable, but his latest film, Whatever Works is his finest achievement in many a moon.

Of course, you could easily level the rehash criticism at this film; neurotic May-December romances aren't exactly new to Allen. But this time, Allen's trademark cynical wit is in full force, taking an almost political bent through the eyes of Boris Yellkinoff (Larry David, stepping into Allen's traditional role), a genius level curmudgeon who was "almost" nominated for a Nobel Prize, and now lives out his eccentric days in a small apartment after unsuccessfully trying to kill himself.

Boris hates everything, and his pessimistic view of humanity infuses everything he does, from the chess lessons he gives to children (all of whom he thinks are idiots), to the heated discussions on religion and politics that he gets into with his friends on a daily basis.

One day, fate lands on his doorstep in the form of Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a plucky young Southern belle who ran away from her overbearing Mississippi home to see the world. Boris begrudgingly takes her in until she finds a place of her own, but as the weeks turn to months and it seems as if Melodie may never leave, Boris soon discovers that he doesn't find her ignorance annoying so much as fascinating, and Melodie tolerates his sour attitude and grim outlook on life with her irrepressible charm.

So they get married. But it isn't long before Melodie's mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), a devout Christian socialite, shows up on their doorstep, and begins a quest to find a younger, more suitable husband for Melodie. But, just like Melodie, Marietta finds the call of the city too much to ignore, and soon discoverers her inner artist and enters a three-way relationship with two photography connoisseurs. By the time Melodie's equally devout father, John (Ed Begley, Jr.) shows up, his family is virtually unrecognizable, and even he finds that Boris' live and let live philosophy of "whatever works" may be too much to ignore.

It's Allen's finest work in years, and while the plot may rely a bit too much on coincidence and simple conflict resolution, the quick-witted dialogue (from a screenplay Allen wrote back in his 1970s glory days) and talented ensemble makes it all work. Living in the South, I've met a lot of religious fundamentalists, and while Allen's portrayal of them is more caricature than realistic (they would not have given up their religion so quickly), it fits with the film's satiric comic tone.

Even the May-December romance makes sense in context. Allen's typical neurotic, fatalistic worldview is very much on display here, but it's surprisingly delightful. He displays a nimble, light touch that makes Whatever Works a complete pleasure to watch. Even the potentially gimmicky "breaking the fourth wall" framing device feels fresh and funny. Maybe his work with the light and sexy Vicky Cristina Barcelona rejuvenated him, but whatever it is, Allen is back on top of his game, and Whatever Works is a definite comedic highlight in an otherwise bland summer. Welcome back, Woody. We missed you.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

WHATEVER WORKS; Directed by Woody Allen; Stars Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley, Jr., Henry Cavill, Michael McKean; Rated PG-13 for sexual situations including dialogue, brief nude images and thematic material.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

From The Dispatch:
Rowling did a phenomenal job of growing her books up along with her characters and her audience, her prose and her stories maturing as her audience grew older, and "Half-Blood Prince" reflects this. It is a darker tale, with a bleaker ending than any other we have seen yet. This is the Harry Potter series' "Empire Strikes Back," a tale of prevailing darkness and evil ascendant, where Harry's world is turned upside down by the growing influence of the evil lord Voldemort, and the death of a major and beloved character.
Click here to read my full review.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

We've lost a lot of famous people here in the last few weeks - Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Karl Malden, each one somehow a credit to their field. And while I've always been a fan of Malden's consistently solid film work, none hit me quite like today's passing of Frank McCourt, whose Pulitzer Prize memoir Angela's Ashes was turned into an underappreciated 1999 film by Alan Parker that also happens to be one of my favorites.

When I was in 9th grade, we were asked to read a biography, and then dress up and present it to the class as our subject. I chose to read Angela's Ashes and did my presentation as McCourt, Irish accent and all. In researching and then eventually playing him, I discovered a great appreciation for McCourt and his life. Angela's Ashes immediately became one of my favorite films, and it is one that I have cherished ever since.

His elegant prose, his sharp wit and glimmering Irish charm made his books come alive, always vibrant and alive even when the life he chronicled was miserable and tragic. He was a literary treasure and a great man. Of all the celebrity deaths in recent weeks, his was the only one I cried for. And to be quite honest, only the second that has ever brought me to tears, the first being Robert Altman.

Here, in his memory, is a piece from John Williams' heartbreaking score to Angela's Ashes:

Theme from Angelas Ashes - John Williams

Rest in peace, Frank. You will be missed.

Friday, July 17, 2009

As much as I wish it were not so, independent films have their cliches just as much as mainstream films do. Of all the indie cliches that are in vogue right now, the one that seems to be the most popular, and the most overdone, is the intersecting storyline structure that has defined films such as Traffic, Crash, and Babel. While the technique is nothing new (it dates back to D.W. Griffith's epic masterpiece, Intolerance, in 1916), the sheer number of films that use it as some sort of artistic crutch are becoming overwhelming and tiresome.

The latest in this seemingly never ending parade of films is Off Jackson Avenue, a micro-budgeted indie feature by director John-Luke Montias. Shot in Super 16 over a period of 20 days, the film follows three very different stories on a fateful collision course in and around New York's Jackson avenue.

One is a Mexican immigrant named Olivia (Jessica Pimentel), who is brought to America with the promise of working as a waitress. When she arrives, however, she is instead forced into being a prostitute under the employ of a dangerous pimp Albanian pimp (Stivi Paskoski). Jealous of the Albanian's success, a rival Chinese mobster hires a sensitive Japanese hitman (Jun Suenaga), who is haunted by his recently deceased mother, to kill him off. Apart from all this, a low-rent car thief (John-Luke Montias) decides to go on one last spree so he can make enough money to buy his own shop and go legitimate.

Eventually, in one climactic moment, these stories will converge. But instead of feeling natural and inevitible, it feels a bit forced. In fact the entire production feels a bit, well, cheap. It often has the look and feel of a student film, and the performances often reflect that quality. That being said, despite its obvious shortcomings, Off Jackson Avenue is not only mildly compelling, but it shows great promise for director Montias.

This is no great film, most of its elements are almost instantly fogettable (although I found Judith Hawking's performance as the villainous brothel matron to be terrifying in its cheerful menace), but it is readibly apparent that with better resources, Montias has the ability to direct a solid and entertaining film.

Ultimately, Off Jackson Avenue feels like a template, a first draft of a much better film. The sex slavery story works, and even crackles in places, whereas the tale of the Japanese hitman falls flat, and the car theif segments feel disconnected and mundane. With more streamlining and more time, one wonders how much better it could have actually been. The converging plotlines just don't work. The technique is tired and here it just doesn't ring true. But had it focused squarely on Olivia's harrowing plight, I have no doubt it would have been a more engaging experience.

I'll admit, Off Jackson Avenue held my interest as I watched it, but I found that it faded from my memory very quickly, and as such it is a film that can only be recommended with great reservation. There are quite a few individual elements to like here, but instead of seeming low budget, it often feels cheap. It is easy to appreciate the promise that it demonstrates, but I look more forward to what Montias does next than to revisiting Jackson Avenue.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

OFF JACKSON AVENUE; Directed by John-Luke Montias; Stars Jessica Pimente, Stivi Paskoski, Jun Suenaga, John-Luke Montias, Gene Ruffini, Judith Hawking; Not Rated; Opens today, 7/17, for an exclusive one week engagement at The Quad in NYC.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

As great as many World War II films are, going back to the days of Mrs. Miniver, From Here to Eternity, The Best Years of Our Lives, Patton, The Longest Day, to more modern examples such as Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, The Pianist, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Flags of Our Fathers, and Letters from Iwo Jima, it's very easy to get burnt out on the sheer amount of cinematic dramas that deal in some way with either WWII or the Holocaust.

The problem is that many of them seem so similar. While most are earnest and well meaning, the subject has been so well covered in film that unless the film has something unique or original to convey (such as in I Served the King of England), then yet another one seems like beating a dead horse.

Max Faerberboeck's A Woman in Berlin is an interesting case. While structurally and tonally it very much fits into the mode of a typical WWII drama, but it at least takes the time to tell us a story that has not yet been told.

Based on the controversial German novel Anonyma: A Woman in Berlin, a memoir by an unknown woman whose identity has never been revealed, chronicling her life in Berlin during the Soveit occupation during the final days of the war. It was a dark time for many civilians, as the Russian soldiers pillaged homes and raped German women, treating everyone and everything as spoils of war to the victorious conquerors. With everyone around her distressed and demoralized, Anonyma (the luminous Nina Hoss), out of a strong sense of self preservation, decides to take matters into her own hands and find a "wolf," a Russian officer who will become protect her in exchange for sexual favors.

She finds one in the form of Andrej (Evgeny Sidikhin), a polite but stern officer who takes her under his wing. But as time goes on, their relationship becomes much deeper, as Anonyma begins to discover her new found love for Andrej, whose status as a Russian officer keeps him from having a real relationship with her. While she and her family enjoy the privileges of his protection, it doesn't take long for other officers, and their neighbors, to become suspicious.

At it's heart, A Woman in Berlin is a story of forbidden love, set against a backdrop of war. But it's focus is much more intimate. To his credit, Faerberboeck doesn't turn this into a sweeping, epic love story. It is always intensely personal and completely real, despite a kind of typical WWII movie feel to it. The sets and the costumes, out of necessity of course, all feel very familiar, and there is a certain sense of deja vu to the entire affair. The central story is reminiscent of Black Book, while the look of the film recalls the Oscar nominated Katyn. A Woman in Berlin is much better than Katyn, however, and while not on the level of Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, it maintains interest with its beautiful production and powerful performances, especially Hoss' haunting and heartbreaking turn as Anonyma.

A Woman in Berlin chronicles a time in Germany's history that many consider shameful, with a great deal of women from the time refusing to admit what was done to them and what they did to protect themselves. Anonyma was the one who spoke out, to great outrage. It is a story that is not often heard, and Faerberboeck treats it honorably with this restrained and respectful film. While there is little to distinguish it from other films of this type, its unique story and strong central character make it well worth watching.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

A WOMAN IN BERLIN; Directed by Max Faerberboeck; Stars Nina Hoss, Evgeny Sidikhin, Irm Hermann, Ruediger Vogler, Ulrike Krumbiegel; Not Rated; In German and Russian with English subtitles. Opens tomorrow, 7/17, in limited release.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

From The Dispatch:
Cohen has a knack for satirical shock comedy, using humor as a blunt-force weapon of social commentary. And while his often crude sense of humor isn't always for everyone, what is always very clear is his immense comedic talent, pushing his subjects and his audiences out of their comfort zones to make a very real point. You're either in on the joke, or you're not, or you just don't want anything to do with it. How one reacts to his films says just as much about that person as it does about him. And for a comedy to have that many levels, both thematically and beyond the theater, is a fine feat indeed.
Click here to read my full review.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Friday, July 10, 2009

It may be an ultra low budget production, a fact betrayed by its lack of polish and at times awkward performances, but John-Luke Montias' Off Jackson Avenue, which opens for an exclusive one week engagement at The Quad in NYC on July 17, is an interesting little diamond in the rough.

While it takes its interconnecting storyline structure from films such as Crash and Babel, a trend that is getting a bit old hat, it never really feels forced. The low budget and breakneck speed of the production are often very apparent, but the film is ultimately quite enjoyable, despite a few bizarre touches) and shows promise of greater things for Montias.

I will post a review closer to the film's release. In the meantime, check out the trailer here:

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

*NOTE* This review was originally published on January 15, 2009. I'm re-posting it now to coincide with the film's US release:

"Every man has a point that defines him."

As spoken in Captain Abu Raed, those words are meant to be threatening, said by an angry, abusive father to a frightened son about to be punished for stealing.

But by the film's end, those words have taken on a completely different meaning, as the film examines the nature of heroism and the effects a man can have on the lives of others.

Abu Raed is an elderly janitor (wonderfully played by Nadim Sawalha) working at the Amman airport in Jordan. His wife has been dead for several years, and he is spending his twilight years alone in a lonely hovel in a run down neighborhood in an impoverished side of town.

His life takes an unexpected turn one day, however, when he finds a pilot's hat in an airport trashcan and wears it home, and is mistaken for an airplane captain by a neighborhood boy.

Abu Raed at first dismisses the boy's fanciful questions, but as more and more children begin showing up at his front door, he decides to indulge their fantasies and become Captain Abu Raed, regaling them with tales of his wild adventures all over the world. He becomes a hero to all the neighborhood children, even after reality makes a hard and dangerous appearance.

It would be easy to accuse the film of having a sentimental streak a mile wide, and indeed it is a nostalgic, fable-like ode to childhood, often shot in warm, sunny hues. But unlike many films in which this is the case, Captain Abu Raed allows for something deeper. There is very much a sense of childlike wonder inherent in the film, with moments of sublime beauty and innocence, but it does not ignore the darker elements of reality in its quest to present a child's view of the world.

Director Amin Matalqa captures a rare sense of awe at life's simple pleasures, be they riding in a car with your hand out the window, allowing the wind currents to give you the sensation of flying, or just lying down and staring at the sky, and imagining what it must be like to soar through the heavens. These are simple people with simple goals, and Abu Raed brings these children a magic they may not otherwise have had.

It is most interesting looking at Captain Abu Raed, and its surprising similarities to another current film, Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino. While wholly different in execution, the overall themes are not altogether dissimilar; a lonely old man with a bit of a grumpy streak who is transformed by neighborhood children, and in turn affects their lives in ways none of them could have ever imagined. Abu Raed is ultimately the more sentimental of the two films, and while I would probably give Gran Torino higher marks overall, Captain Abu Raed probably had a more profound emotional impact on me.

True, there are moments that lack directorial polish, but Matalqa delivers some truly masterful moments here. There is a long shot later in the film of a Abu Raed climbing a long flight of stairs alone, that may be quite possibly one of the most stirring and heartbreaking shots in recent memory.

Crying in movies is something I do quite often. It really doesn't take much. But it is rare for a movie to bring on the tears the way Captain Abu Raed did. When the film ended, I just sat on my bed and cried through the entire end credits sequence. That's how profoundly touching it is. And its emotional impact is achieved not through manipulation or ridiculous plot twists, but through the simple idea of heroism, and how one person can affect the lives of others. It almost takes on a power reminiscent of Cinema Paradiso, and coming from me that is high praise indeed.

Every man has a moment that defines him. And for the children in this poor neighborhood in Amman, there was Captain Abu Raed. A man who was never who he said he was, but ended up being so much more. It is a beautiful, tender tale that not only sneaks into the hearts of the audience, but may well be a definining moment in Jordanian cinema.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

CAPTAIN ABU RAED; Directed by Amin Matalqa; Stars Nadim Sawalha, Rana Sultan, Hussein Al-Sous, Udey Al-Qiddissi; Not Rated; In Arabic w/English subtitles; Opens in February in New York and Chicago

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

From The Dispatch:
Through the use of digital cameras, cinematographer Dante Spinotti gives the film a grainy, gritty look that, while quite possibly the film's most controversial element, is probably its most successful. The stark, monochromatic palette is similar to the look of Mann's last two films, "Collateral" and "Miami Vice," and it makes what could have been another slick, overproduced period piece feel startlingly contemporary. It makes for an interesting and daring hybrid. The lush sets and gorgeous costumes coupled with the grainy cinematography make for a totally immersive experience, pulling a modern audience into a bygone era of fast cars, tommy guns and femme fatales.
Click here to read my full review.