Wednesday, July 28, 2010

From The Dispatch:
There is really nothing new to see here, but "Salt" is an agreeable and entertaining summer actioner that goes down easy but isn't particularly memorable. It may not vanish from the mind as soon as you walk out of the theater like many of this summer's offerings have, but it doesn't really stick the way others have either.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I haven't done one of these in a while, but the first one remains one of the most popular features I've ever had on From the Front Row, so I decided to bring it back.

My friend Roman Presnell has a unique way with words, and his tongue in cheek movie reviews he posts on Facebook always make me giggle, so I decided to share them with the world. Here are a few recent highlights:

KNIGHT & DAY - zero stars

If I wanted to watch a disjointed story with a dumbass premise with these two idiots in it I'd rent Vanilla Sky.

THE A-TEAM - ★★★★½

Are you kidding me? It's the fucking A Team! As if I'd even THINK of giving this a bad review! Even if I didn't like it I'd still claim I did just so the A-Team didn't beat my ass. Luckily, that is an impossible situation because there's no way anything about the A Team could ever suck.

KILLERS - ½ star

Why is it that the fucking entertainment industry is trying to ruin something as cool as fucking killers? It used to be that if you were a killer you were like a scary dangerous motherfucker! Nowadays it's all Ashton movies and shitty rock bands.


In this thrilling installment, you can rub your vagina while sitting on a vibrating washing machine while crying over a picture of Edward (or Jacob) and listening to your favorite my chemical romance CD. Make sure to wipe off that tear streaked mascara before heading to third period.

THE LAST SONG - ½ star

Spoiler Alert!

It's most certainly NOT her last shitty song.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Every year, countless films open in small, limited releases across the country aimed at very specific audiences. Many of these films are soundly ignored by most critics, and with good reason. But sometimes good films fall through the cracks this way, the most recent example being Andy Griffith's charming 2009 comedy, Play the Game, whose regional release in mostly southern states was sadly overlooked.

Following a similar pattern of release is Andrew P. Jones' Kings of the Evening, a Depression-era period drama being aimed at predominantly African American audiences.

Based on a true story, the film centers around Homer Hobbs (Tyson Beckford), a convict being released after spending two years on a chain gang. With a new suit of clothes on his back and five dollars in his pocket, Homer heads home hoping to pick up where he left off. But upon his return, he finds that his mother has been kicked out of her house after not being able to pay rent, and town around him reeling from the effects of the Depression.

Unable to find his mother and out of work, Homer takes up at a rundown boarding house run by the fiercely independent Gracie (Lynn Whitfield), who runs a tight ship with her tenants. There's the emotionally wounded Lucy (Linara Washington), who struggles to keep a llow-paying job as a seamstress as past begins to catch up with her; Clarence (Glynn Turman), an awkward loner who just wants to be somebody in life, and Benny (Reginald T. Dorsey), a hustler who, like Homer, is looking for a new start in life.

This disparate band of tenants becomes like a new family for Homer. And while they must all navigate the tough waters of the Great Depression, trying to scrape by wherever possible, their one escape remains a hole in the wall dance hall, where every Sunday the man with the snazziest moves is crowned King of the Evening. The cash prize is five dollars, but more than that, the man wins the respect and admiration of himself and others, feeling that, even in a world of dire economic circumstances and darkness, he too can be a king, even if for just one evening.

Kings of the Evening is the kind of saccharine, feel good crowd pleaser one would expect, but while it may be predictable, it holds a certain kind of cloying, southern fried charm. While it is strictly direct-to-DVD fare, there's something inherently likable about it despite its simplistic storyline and worldview. It's effortlessly likable despite its flaws, even if its cliched nature and bland direction hinders it in the long run.

Its plot choices are often shamelessly manipulative, but its cast is uniformly likable and easy to root for. It's heart is in the right place, but that can only go so far. It never quite overcomes its pandering nature, but it retains a certain innocence and naivete that is hard to resist. Still, naivete does not a great film make, and Kings of the Evening never quite overcomes its own flaws.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

KINGS OF THE EVENING; Directed by Andrew P. Jones; Stars Tyson Beckford, Linara Washington, Reginald T. Dorsey, Glynn Turman, Lynn Whitfield, James Russo, Bruce McGill; Rated PG for thematic elements, language throughout, some violence and smoking.
It may seem like a strange choice, but after Guillermo Del Toro's much ballyhooed exit from Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, yesterday it was announced that he would be taking over Disney's reboot of The Haunted Mansion, which was turned into a failed Eddie Murphy vehicle back in 2003.

Del Toro will write and possibly direct the film, and while the stench of the 2003 original still lingers in the air, I actually think that if anyone can turn this property into a good film, Del Toro is the man for the job.

The Haunted Mansion has always been my favorite Disney attraction since I was a little kid, so the prospect of Del Toro taking the helm is kind of exciting. "We are not returning Eddie Murphy's calls," del Toro said, according to, "...and we are not making it a comedy... We are making it scary and fun, but the scary will be scary."

That, at least, sounds promising.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

There is something instantly beguiling about the tinker toy oddity of Todd Solondz' Life During Wartime, a follow up to his acclaimed 1998 film, Happiness. But beneath its strangely perfect, somewhat quirky veneer, lies a much deeper and more meaningful study of wounded characters who are haunted by the ghosts of the past.

The film picks up with the same characters from Happiness, albeit with a completely different cast, in order to explore new facets of each character. Three sisters, Joy (Shirley Henderson), Trish (Allison Janney), and Helen (Ally Sheedy) are all dealing with issues of forgiveness and putting their pasts behind them. Joy discovers that her husband Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) has not recovered from a very special problem that she thought he'd been cured of, so she runs away to spend time with her mother and sisters to try and put it all behind her and look to the future.

Allison Janney as Trish and Michael Lerner as Harvey in LIFE DURING WARTIME directed by Todd Solondz
Photo Credit: Francisco Román. An IFC Films release

Trish is embarking on a new relationship with Harvey (Michael Lerner), an older divorcee and single parent also trying to put his past behind him. Her youngest son, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) is trying to make sense of a grown-up's world through his childlike sensibilities, and come to terms with his own discoveries about himself and his past. His father, Bill (Ciáran Hinds), is a pedophile, a former psychiatrist who has just been released from prison for abusing young boys and is attempting to rebuild his relationship with his oldest son, Billy (Chris Marquette). Meanwhile the third sister, Helen (Ally Sheedy), is dealing with her own feelings of inadequacy and the pressures of her success.

There is a lot going on in Life During Wartime. Characters interact and relationships overlap, friendships are made and broken, and the bonds of family are strained. It is a lot to keep up with, but Solondz juggles it all masterfully, keeping his touch light and the atmosphere effervescently odd. The tone often stands in direct opposition to the themes being displayed as the characters attempt to keep stiff upper lips through trying times, but Solondz uses this to his advantage, giving the film a satirical, humorous edge.

Dylan Riley Snyder as Timmy in LIFE DURING WARTIME directed by Todd Solondz
Photo Credit: Francisco Román. An IFC Films release

It is ultimately a film about forgiveness and moving on, symbolized most poignantly in Trish and Bill's young son, Timmy, whose wide-eyed innocence juxtaposed with the film's dark themes creates a haunting dichotomy. Timmy is growing up amid great turmoil and heartache, and while everyone around continually makes things more complicated, trapping themselves in difficult situations of their own devising, Timmy yearns only for simple things, and most of all, family.

Solondz deftly navigates the tricky waters of these characters' lives, as well as the delicate balance between comedy and tragedy, through his astutely written script. No one talks to each other like this, but the terrific ensemble cast makes it work. The very specific, peculiar nature of the dialogue sets the film squarely in its own world and its own sense of reality, but it always carries the essence of truth. Life During Wartime achieves a kind of delicate verisimilitude that is both sharply witty and beautifully melancholy. It's an unabashed joy of a film, a pleasure to watch and sink into. Solondz populates his strange little world with a host of wounded characters that are all fascinating in their own right, leaving a bittersweet and indelible impression.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

LIFE DURING WARTIME; Directed by Todd Solondz; Stars Allison Janney, Shirley Henderson, Paul Reubens, Dylan Riley Snyder, Michael Lerner, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alley Sheedy, Charlotte Rampling, Ciáran Hinds, Chris Marquette; Not rated; Opens tomorrow, 7.23, in NYC.
Of all the labels that could be used to describe Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn, the one that seems to suit him the most is, to borrow the term from Braveheart, "warrior poet." Like a brutal, unhinged Terrence Malick, Refn fills his film with meditative silences, while creating bloody beautiful imagery that both repels and entrances, wrapping the audience up in his haunting spell.

His latest film, Valhalla Rising, recalls the work of Werner Herzog, and most specifically Herzog's masterpiece, Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Like a modern day Heart of Darkness Refn leads us on a strange and mythical journey where violence and religion clash and its characters descend almost literally into hell.

It's a symbolic journey of course, but the descent into madness is a jarring visceral experience, and Refn, with the assistance of cinematographer Morten Søborg, create such breathtaking and chilling imagery that it's easy to become lost in its strikingly eerie style.

Mads Mikkelsen as One Eye in VALHALLA RISING directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
© 2009: Valhalla Rights ApS, One Eye Production, Blind Eye Productions, Scanbox
An IFC Films release

Our Virgil in this descent into the inferno is a mute Viking warrior known only as One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen), who lives in captivity under the rule of the brutal chieftan, Barde (Alexander Morton). His life resembles that of a gladiator, being used in bloody games for the entertainment of the other villagers and spending the rest of his time locked in a cage. But with the help of the boy who brings him food and water, One Eye escapes, and along with the boy (Maarten Stevenson) begins his journey back home.

But something is changing in One Eye's world. A new force is sweeping the land and assimilating or destroying everything in its path - Christianity. One Eye and the boy find themselves swept up in a group of crusaders on their way to the Holy Land, but providence has other plans. The crusaders find themselves blown far of course to an unknown land, a land of trees and mists, and strange inhabitants who carry weapons of wood and stone. Are they in Hell, as some of the crusaders believe, or have they discovered a new world entirely?

Mads Mikkelsen as One Eye and Maarten Stevensen as The Boy in VALHALLA RISING directed by Nicolas Winding Refn © 2009: Valhalla Rights ApS, One Eye Production, Blind Eye Productions, Scanbox An IFC Films release

One Eye remains an enigmatic figure throughout the film, speaking only through the boy who is his constant companion. The crusaders fear him, but their leader is determined to create a new Jerusalem in the land they discover at all costs. It's not hard to speculate as to the true identity of the crusaders' discovery, and Refn clearly has some very particular criticisms of the mixing of violence and religion, and especially the source of dogmatic Christianity in America. It's a chilling theme, and Refn's consistently disquieting style is always there to remind us that something isn't quite right. A spirit of dread and melancholy hangs over the film like a heavy fog, but I'm not convinced the film has quite as much to say as it thinks it does. It is often an exercise in pure style, and while that carries the film a long way, one can't help but feel that it could have gone deeper into the themes it explores.

Still, it's hard to deny that this is powerful storytelling. Refn has a stunning visual eye and creates a consistent mood. Refn's vision is wholly enthralling and hard to shake once it gets under the skin. Valhalla Rising is a thundering visceral experience, a rich and layered work of art that acts as a stylistic punch to the gut.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

VALHALLA RISING; Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn; Stars Mads Mikkelsen, Maarten Stevenson, Gordon Brown, Andrew Flanagan, Gary Lewis, Gary McCormack, Alexander Morton; Not rated; Opens tomorrow, 7.23, in NYC.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Jacques Rivette's Around a Small Mountain, like so many love stories, is a film about chance encounters. But it also isn't a typical love story. This is a film about a different kind of love, the kind of tentative romance that isn't necessarily destined to end in happily ever after, but the kind that comes along at just the right moment in time. It may not be permanent, but it helps at just the time it's needed.

The couple in question is Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto) and Kate (Jane Birkin). The two meet when Vittorio stops and helps Kate when her car breaks down on a winding mountain road. It's a small encounter, nothing unusual, except that Vittorio never says a word. He simply fixes her car then leaves.

But as fate would have it the two meet again when they reach their destination. Kate, it turns out, is a former circus performer reuniting with her traveling troupe, while Vittorio is just passing through.

As a way of saying thank you, Kate invites Vittorio to come to the circus, and he gladly accepts. However the circus, as it turns out, is only a shadow of its former self. The crowds are small, and the performances have become unenthusiastic, despite the performers' undying devotion to their craft. Vittorio is the only one who seems to enjoy the performance, and the performers are all grateful. So fascinated is Vittorio by the world of the traveling circus, and so enamored with Kate, that he decides to stay for a while, making friends and exploring the grounds.

It is obvious that Kate is a wounded woman, and Vittorio is determined to find out why. The circus is largely made up of members of Kate's family, and bit by bit Vittorio pieces together the reasons for Kate's sudden and dramatic departure 15 years earlier. It is a pain that still haunts Kate, and while she finds his advances to be intrusive, Vittorio is determined to free her from her pain and give her a new lease on life.

There is a kind of effortless charm to Rivette's scenarios, but the film is awkwardly staged. It often has the feeling of a filmed play, the characters stiffly blocked as if arranged for an unseen live audience. Rivette fills the film with dramatic monologues and other melodramatic trapping that seem to undermine the film's otherwise light touch. Rivette seems fascinated by the relationship between performer and spectator, but the film's rambling nature prohibits it from being clearly focused.

The characterizations are also oddly inconsistent, and the problems all solved a bit too easily. It's almost as if the film is too calculated, too precise. It lacks the messiness of real life, and the effect is ultimately alienating to the audience. The stiffness serves no real dramatic purpose, as it does in say, Todd Solondz' Life During Wartime, which thrives on precision and stiffness but does so to a very specific thematic goal. Here it just comes across as tedious, even if the characters' stories remain oddly compelling. Around a Small Mountain deserves points for its mature treatment of the relationship between its leads, never forcing romance beyond what is needed to help Kate. Only then are they allowed that glimmer of hope for a future together (as suggested in the film's breathtaking final shot), but the whole never seems to add up to more than the sum of its parts.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

AROUND A SMALL MOUNTAIN; Directed by Jacques Rivette; Stars Jane Birkin, Sergio Castellitto, André Marcon, Jacques Bonnaffé, Julie‐MarieParmentier; Not rated.
From The Dispatch:
It's an economical thriller, well-edited and making the most of its running time. There's not a wasted shot in the whole film. Antal instead chooses to spend as much time as possible ratcheting up the tension, and he does so with a steady hand, washing away the bitter taste left by the abysmal "Alien vs. Predator" films and returning the Predators to their former glory. If the '80s really are back, then "Predators" has resurrected the decade in grand fashion.
Click here to read my full review.
From The Dispatch:
It's a staggering technical achievement, but it holds its audience at arms' length - its labyrinthine plot keeps the mind working and the sense reeling in a way that is consistently entertaining, but never quite fully compelling. Nolan's craft is very easy to respect and in many ways be in awe of, but he is far more adept at blowing the mind than rending the heart. "Inception" is a highly effective thriller, but it's almost coldly calculated, relying on its admittedly ingenious conceit to carry it, even if that only goes so far.
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The title of Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio's quiet, lovely Mexican drama, Alamar, is Spanish for "To the Sea," but "sea" in context here could just as easily mean "home." Alamar is a film about the inexorable bond between a father and a son, transcending time and distance, even when separated by an entire ocean. Home, in this instance, not necessarily referring to a specific place, but defining relationship - family.

The father and son in question are Jorge and Natan. Natan is the product of Jorge's whirlwind romance with Roberta, a pairing Jorge admits early on thats seemed to exist for the sole purpose of bringing Natan into the world. Soon the romance dissolves, Jorge and Robert are from two different worlds - Jorge is a Mexican fisherman used to a simple islander's lifestyle, and Roberta is Italian, much more suited to big city life. Roberta decides to take Natan with her to Italy, but before they go, Jorge decides to take him on one last trip together, fishing and exploring their roots together as Jorge leaves one last lasting impression on Natan before he moves half a world away.

There isn't much in the way of a plot to be discussed here. Alamar is a film of emotions and small moments rather than that follows a traditional storytelling formula. It is deeply rooted in the tradition and style of neo-realism, presenting its subjects' lives in an almost documentary-like fashion. The film is made up of a series of moments, snippets of everyday life that add up to a surprisingly emotional whole. Not much happens here, Jorge and Natan go fishing, Natan befriends an egret, Natan learns how to scale a fish, but it is the little moments such as these that make up a life, and by the end of Alamar, Gonzalez-Rubio has pulled something of an emotional hat trick. He has absorbed the audience so thoroughly into the rhythms and textures of his characters' lives, and the ebbs and flows of their relationships, and he does so with very few words.

It's a truly disarming effect, and its one of the things that makes the film so haunting. Alamar is a film that is easy to respect in the moment, but it's even easier to love in hindsight, because it isn't until its over that its true emotional impact becomes apparent. By just letting the characters be, to inhabit and grow in a wholly lived in and believable world, Gonzalez-Rubio creates an organic flow that makes the inevitable separation of father and son that much more poignant.

It is astonishing that this is only Gonzalez-Rubio's first film. His direction is so assured that it feels like the work of a much more seasoned filmmaker. His attention to detail, to the flexing of a muscle to the scrape of a blade across fish scales, adds such depth to the world he creates. It is a fully realized film from start to finish, filled with some truly breathtaking imagery. Gonzalez-Rubio finds such beauty in such unexpected places, consistently surprising and moving us.

Life is in the details, and such is the beauty of Alamar. There are no deep revelations here, no profound proclamations of familial love, and that is its great statement of love. The bond between Jorge and Natal needs few words, their love is seen simply through the simple moments of life few other directors would even think to show. Sometimes less really is more, and in this case the silence speaks volumes. Alamar is a small wonder of a film, a beautiful and bittersweet ode to the love shared by a father and son that resonates in powerful and unexpected ways.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

ALAMAR; Directed by Pedro González-Rubio; Stars Jorge Machado, Roberta Palombini, Natan Machado Palombini, Néstor Marín “Matraca”; Not rated; In Spanish w/English subtitles; Now playing at the Film Forum in NYC.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

It's surprising how few people actually know about the Stonewall riots that took place on June 28, 1969, especially among young homosexuals. I'll admit that while I had heard of the Stonewall riots, I was woefully ignorant of what they were until I saw Kate Davis and David Heilbroner's excellent documentary, Stonewall Uprising.

The Stonewall riots marked the beginning of the gay rights movement as we know it today. The film is a veritable history lesson on homosexuality in the mid part of the 20th century, examining cultural attitudes and laws that made it illegal just to be homosexual. Police entrapment was commonplace, and raids on gay bars were business as usual, while propaganda films taught children of the time that homosexuals were sexual predators and should be avoided at all costs. Despite the sexual revolution and civil rights movement, it still was not a good time to be gay.

However, on June 28, 1969, all that began to change. Police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village. It was not an unusual occurrence, but on this night something changed. The patrons had had enough, and instead of scattering and trying to appear as if they were not engaging in homosexual activities, they fought back. Refusing to be arrested for merely being gay, the patrons took to the streets and started a riot that for the very first time announced "we're here, we're queer, and we're not going anywhere." The police were taken off guard, still viewing homosexuals and weak and effeminate, but the rioters held the police at bay, causing a disturbance that would last for three days.

As one man put it, "it was a Rosa Parks moment." This was the flashpoint for the modern gay rights movement, when gay people finally had their moment in the sun and the closet doors came bursting open. There is something poignantly heroic about the image of embattled drag queens standing up to a phalanx of shielded cops, refusing to go quietly into the night simply for being themselves. As the film states, this was not a riot so much as an uprising, a rebellion against injustice, a spark that ignited a flame that would eventually become the gay rights movement as we know it today.

Very few actual pictures or video footage of the riots exist, but through interviews with actual rioters and patrons of the Stonewall, as well as the police officer who led the raid, Davis and Heilbroner paint a vivid picture of what it would have been like to be there that night. The sights, the sounds, even the smells seem to come alive through eye witness testimony, putting the audience square in the middle of the rebellion. It is fairly straightforward as documentaries go, but the story ultimately speaks for itself.

The filmmakers have no reason to overstate or embellish. This is powerful, moving stuff. Even the testimony from the now elderly policeman who led the raid carries a haunting poignancy. He acknowledges that the Stonewall patrons were indeed breaking the law, but wonders what kind of law that was anyway. Stonewall Uprising is an essential part of gay history, a missing piece of a puzzle of a cultural identity. It's not only a must-see for any young homosexual, it's a must-see for anyone. It shines a light on a struggle that continues to this day, and does so in a gripping , inspiring fashion.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

STONEWALL UPRISING; Directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner; Not rated.

Monday, July 12, 2010

For many Americans, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are viewed through very specific filters, often in stark black and whites rather than the shades of gray that befit such a complex situation. It is divided into good versus evil, us versus them, with no room for dissent, question, or doubt. We are the good guys, we are the bad guys, end of story.

The problem with that mentality is, no one stops to ask why they hate us. Nothing is changed, and the vicious cycle continues. If the other side is blanketly viewed as pure evil, then there is no hope of resolution.

Enter Laura Poitras, whose new documentary, The Oath, takes a memorable and unprecedented look at the other side of the coin. It is the story of two men; Salim Hamdan, the former driver of Osama bin Laden who became the center of a landmark Supreme Court case after he was sent to Guantanamo Bay, and his brother in law, Abu Jandal, Bin Laden's former bodyguard. Their lives and stories are inexorably intertwined, making up a complex and layered portrait of the Jihadist movement in the Middle East.

Abu Jandal in THE OATH, a film by Laura Poitras. A Zeitgeist Films release.

After being arrested by the Yemeni government in connection with the bombing of the USS Cole (a charge for which he was later acquitted), Jandal now spends his days as a cab driver, while guiding a new generation in the ways of jihad. Jandal is a complex and charismatic figure, personally shunning acts of violence and the killing of innocents himself while acknowledging their necessity for others. He is a guarded figure, and one wonders how much of that is due to the constantly rolling cameras. During one meeting with some potential young jihadists, he reminds them to be careful what they say while the cameras are on. While he denies that he is leading young men to jihad as part of the conditions of his release from prison, he is still very instrumental in their lives, not so much putting ideas in their head as he is bringing out and fostering ideas that are already there.

The film focuses mainly on Jandal. Hamdan is never seen or interviewed, but his presence is keenly felt as his lawyers prepare for the first Guantanamo military tribunal, and his family eagerly await his return after many years. It is a legal battle that will go all the way to the Supreme Court, ending in a short lived victory that only results in new laws designed specifically to prosecute him.

Abu Jandal in THE OATH, a film by Laura Poitras. A Zeitgeist Films release.

Jandal, on the other hand, serves as the audience's guide into an alien world. He obviously still has great respect for Bin Laden, even if he never returned to his service after his release from jail. By that time the war in Afghanistan had already begun, and the validity of Jandal's oath of loyalty is now in question. While one must take Jandal's statements with a grain of salt as they are often veiled and self-contradictory, he helps contextualize the war on terror in a way we have never seen before. His intimate insight into the inner workings of Al Qaeda is both chilling and facsinating, offering a rare glimpse into the mind of a jihadist.

It would be a mistake to look at The Oath as an endorsement of Jandal and his ideas. Instead, it is a window into another world, a chance to examine the other side of this war from a different perspective free from the usual filters and punditry. Poitras has crafted an extremely savvy and compelling documentary, an essential piece of the increasingly intricate puzzle that is the war on terror.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE OATH; Directed by Laura Poitras; Featuring Abu Jandal; Not Rated.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Thursday, July 01, 2010

From The Dispatch:
Mangold may seem slightly out of his element in this genre, but he handles the film with a light touch and an entertaining flair. His stars are obviously having fun, and that translates to the audience. Summer 2010 may be pretty sparse so far when it comes to big hits and good films ("Toy Story 3" remains far and away the summer's best film), so it's not saying much to call "Knight and Day" one of the summer's best.
Click here to read my full review.