Monday, June 28, 2010

Trailer: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows"

No comment here, just pure, unadulterated excitement. I can't wait for this.

2010 Halftime Report

The first half of 2010 has had its ups and downs. While the summer has been pretty bleak so far, there has been a few gems released this year if you know where to look. Unfortunately, a lot of the very best films have yet to be released, and still more have yet to find a distributor. The good news is that, while the wide releases have almost uniformly failed to impress, the limited releases are still going strong. There may be six more months to go in the year but here are the ten best films that have been released in the first half of 2010.

1
Lourdes

(Jessica Hausner, Austria)
2
No One Knows About Persian Cats

(Bahman Ghobadi, Iran)3
Dogtooth
(Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece)4
Bluebeard
(Catherine Breillat, France)5
The Ghost Writer
(Roman Polanski, France)6
Toy Story 3
(Lee Unkrich, USA)
7
Mother
(Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)8
Terribly Happy
(Henrik Ruben Genz, Denmark)9
Red Riding: 1974
(Julian Jerrold, UK)10
Wild Grass
(Alain Resnais, France)

Best unreleased films - Letters to Father Jacob (Klaus Haro, Finland), Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland, Romania), The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner (Stephan Komandarev, Bulgaria), Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (Tamra Davis, USA), Last Train Home (Lixin Fan, China)

Review: "South of the Border"

There are few international figures quite as polarizing and controversial as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Often portrayed in the American media as an anti-American dictator and compared to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Chavez was long a thorn in the side of former President Bush, and as such was long a favorite of liberal celebrities such as Sean Penn and Harry Belafonte, who made high profile visits to Venezuela during Bush's tenure.

It's enough to make one wonder just what the real story is, and that's what Oliver Stone set out to learn in his new documentary, South of the Border. You would be hard pressed to call it anything but one sided, it's obviously a very admiring portrait of Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution that has spread throughout South America, but it's also a refreshing antidote to the equally one-sided picture the American public is treated to on a daily basis. And while the truth probably lies somewhere in between, South of the Border is still a compelling portrait of a fascinating and enigmatic world leader.

Director Oliver Stone and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez greeted by the press. Photo by: Jose Ibanez

The film is a document of Stone's travels to South America in search of the real Chavez. What began as a simple trip to spend time with the Venezuelan President, became a journey across the entire continent of South America, examining the political climate that has led to the sharp turn to the left in many countries in the region. Stone interviews the leaders of Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Ecuador, and Cuba, who have all seen leftist presidents rise to power amid great political upheaval in the region, a phenomenon that Stone traces to a reaction against US interference and the economic tyranny of International Monetary Fund (IMF). According to these leaders, what is portrayed in the American media as anti-Americanism, is in fact the South American governments returning power to the people, and looking out for their own interests instead of the interests of the United States.

It will be hard for many Americans to understand the difference given the often inflated sense of nationalism that arises from our deeply polarized political climate, and the enduring prevalence of the idea of American exceptionalism, but it is a legitimate point. There is a bracing moment of clarity when Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador, explains why he refused to allow the U.S. to build a military base in his country:
"We love the people of the United States very much. But obviously, the U.S. foreign policy is questionable. That's why when they want to pressure us to maintain their military base in our country, a foreign base that they don't pay anything for either, and they accuse us of being extremists because we don't want the base. If there's no problem having foreign military bases in a country, we set a very simple condition. We would keep the North American base in Manta, provided they let us put a military base in Miami. If there's no problem with foreign bases, then we should be able to have one over there."
Moments like these provide a refreshingly unfiltered perspective on how the United States is viewed by the outside world, and while Stone's perspective is anything but unfiltered, it's a breath of fresh air to hear perspectives from those who understand the difference between putting your own country's interests ahead of the most powerful country in the world, and hating America.

Oliver Stone and Bolivian President Evo Morales kick the soccer ball around. Photo by: Jose Ibanez

That's the real beauty of South of the Border - this isn't the kind of thing you see on the nightly news. Stone shows us quite a bit of the way Chavez is covered by the American media (mostly through clips from Fox News), and the dichotomy between the Chavez portrayed there and the Chavez portrayed in this film is staggering. Stone's Chavez is a charismatic man of the people, not the raging anti-American dictator that he is often described to be here. And while Stone's view of Chavez is admittedly one sided to the point of fawning, it's hard to not to see it as a welcome balance to the common American preconceptions about Chavez.

Under his democratically elected presidency, the Venezuelan government has taken over their oil industry, and doubled the size of the economy within six years, reducing poverty by half and extreme poverty by more than 70 percent. It is facts like this that are often missing from American coverage of Chavez, and Stone diligently sets out to dispel myths and present an alternative viewpoint. As both a personal portrait of a president, and as an examination of the geopolitical intricacies of a South America, South of the Border is a fascinating work. It may be a pretty basic overview of decades worth of political turmoil, but Stone takes us on an eye opening and thoroughly engaging tour through a world we only thought we knew. This is fearless, essential filmmaking.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

SOUTH OF THE BORDER; Directed by Oliver Stone; Not Rated; Now playing in NYC, opens in LA July 2.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Review: "Wild Grass"

There is something magnificent about the obsession of octogenarian legend Alain Resnais' latest romantic trifle, Wild Grass. It all starts as a chance encounter, after fiery redhead Marguerite (Sabine Azéma) loses her wallet, only to have it turned into the police by older married man, Georges (André Dussollier), who becomes intrigued by the photo on her ID.Unsure of whether or not it is proper to contact her, Georges waffles around before finally working up the courage to introduce himself to her as the man who found her wallet. What follows is an awkward dance of gratitude and breached social conventions, as Georges' interest begins to turn to unhealthy obsession, and Marguerite's initial discomfort begins to turn to fascination. What on the surface appears to be a highly unusual, or even creepy, scenario becomes something much more for these two, an equally antagonistic and tender relationship that is something of a late in life jolt for both of them. For better or for worse, these two provide for each other an excitement they have long been missing.

Left to Right: Mathieu Amalric as Bernard de Bordeaux, André Dussollier as Georges Palet, and Michel Vuillermoz as Lucien d’Orange
© 2008, F Comme Film, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

It's a surprisingly light and nimble comedy, given its subject matter. Resnais takes what in any real life situation would be frightening and turns it into something endlessly beguiling. Everything about Wild Grass is refreshing, and not just because it is a romantic comedy centered around an older couple. Resnais has the spark and the verve of a director half his age, and he directs with a light touch. It would be easy to call Wild Grass "frothy," but that does a disservice to the skill with which it is made. There is a darkness to it that adds to its unique personality. Resnais never dispenses with the obvious implications of the obsessive storyline, but he does so without allowing it to hamper the film's charms.

Of course the entire thing is one long awkward situation, but that is partly what makes it so charming. Love is an awkward thing anyway, and Resnais uses the inherent awkwardness of the plot to highlight love's tentative early stages. The timid advances, second guessing, and at times outrageous impulsiveness are all perfectly captured by Resnais' keen eye for character interactions.

Left to Right: André Dussollier as Georges Palet and Sabine Azéma as Marguerite Muir Photo taken by Christophe Jeauffroy, © 2008, F Comme Film, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

One could make the argument that it's all completely unbelievable, and to some degree that's true. But the important thing is that it feels emotionally true. Resnais hits the romantic bullseye in all its messy, irrational glory. It's all beautifully captured by Eric Gautier's gorgeous cinematography, highlighted by cheerful green hues, adding to the general warmhearted atmosphere. In fact the entire film is kind of like a warm blanket, a romantic comedy as only the French can do it, and more specifically, a New Wave legend like Resnais.

Wild Grass is a wonderfully unique film, a unique and compelling film that demands to be surrendered to. It's a feast for the senses, at once intoxicating and just uncomfortable enough to offer a bracing twist.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

WILD GRASS; Directed by Alain Resnais; Stars Sabine Azéma, André Dussollier, Anne Consigny, Emmanuelle Devos, Mathieu Amalric; Not Rated; In French w/English subtitles.

Review: "Dogtooth"

There are times when words are simply inadequate to describe a film; not necessarily in terms of quality but in terms of complexity and depth. One could probably write an entire book on the many layers of Yorgos Lanthimos' dense and challenging social satire, Dogtooth. No one review could possibly cover everything that needs to be said about it. It is a film that demands to be analyzed, pored over, and examined with great diligence and care. Dogtooth is no easy film to digest. Nor should it be. It is every bit as complex and difficult as the themes it tackles, refusing to let its characters or its audience off the hook.

Often recalling the works of Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, Dogtooth follows the lives of a very unusual Greek family whose three teenage children have never left the confines of their walled-off country estate. While the father goes out to work every day, the children are imprisoned in the compound, completely sheltered from the outside world, living under the strict rule of their parents, who carefully control every thought and idea going into their children's heads, even going so far as to invent an entirely new vocabulary to explain foreign ideas (zombies, they tell them, are a type of flower).

Aggeliki Papoulia as Older Daughter (left) and Mary Tsoni as Younger Daughter. Image courtesy of Kino International.

The children spend their days inventing their own games and dances, living in a completely controlled environment with no knowledge of any societal norms. They are driven by fear of the unknown, as their father explains to them that cats are in fact savage beasts that eat children who leave their home. They are told that they will not be able to leave their home until their "dog teeth" fall out. In other words, they will be captives in their own home forever.

But when the father brings in a trusted outsider to satisfy his son's growing libido, he introduces an unknown variable into the otherwise stable equation. The woman brings in forbidden movies, such as Jaws and Rocky, showing them for the first time glimpses of the outside world as well as new words and ideas that had never before dreamed of. The father's efforts to completely control his children's reality begin to fall apart, and the twisted social experiment begins to fall into chaos.

Image courtesy of Kino International.

Dogtooth is a bleak and disturbing examination of the folly of sheltering children, taking the idea to ridiculous extremes, laying bare the dangers of not only overly strict parenting, but of an oppressive society as well. Lanthimos mercilessly satirizes attempts to control thought and manipulate lives, using this family as a microcosm for society at large. Despite the father's best efforts to control his children, foreign ideas are inevitably introduced, and they have a devastating effect on those who are not properly prepared for them. Systematic oppression leads to disastrous consequences, and while that idea is far from revolutionary, Lanthimos stages it in a blunt and shocking way.

It often plays out like M. Night Shyamalan's The Village as directed by Michael Haneke, and is a much more successful distillation of the themes that Shyamalan so hamfistedly raised. Lanthimos demonstrates a sharp eye for satire, using pitch black comedy to underline this darkly ferocious tale. Dogtooth has bite, and while it isn't always easy to watch, it's one of the most uniquely haunting, and unnerving, films of 2010.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

DOGTOOTH; Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos; Stars Christos Stergioglou, Michelle Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Hristos Passalis, Anna Kalaitzidou; Not Rated; In Greek w/English subtitles; Now showing in NYC.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

On "Toy Story 3"

From The Dispatch:
On the surface, "Toy Story 3" is a thrilling prison break drama, but at its core, it is a heartfelt ode to childhood. It's nostalgic without ever being cloying, bidding farewell to an era in grand and moving style. It is a tale that remains timeless. For the children of the '90s, the children of today and the children of tomorrow, Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang will remain symbols of a different, more innocent time. And even now that the time has come to say goodbye, it is with a full heart and the utmost fondness that we bid them farewell.
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Review: "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Undead"

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Undead may have one of the most insanely impressive plot synopses ever. The entire thing manages to combine a centuries old battle between good and evil, Shakespeare, vampires, and the Holy Grail into one film. And while on paper that seems like a surefire absurdist winner, in reality, it's a complete mess.

Hamlet, it seems, is a true story. Well...mostly. In the film, Julian (Jake Hoffman), a struggling, perpetually bored theatre director, who still lives at home with his dad, lands a job directing an off-Broadway production of Hamlet that reimagines the story to be about vampires. As it turns out, it is an autobiographical tale of Theo (John Ventimiglia), the mysterious vampire playing Horatio, who is actually the original Horatio, out on a quest to find and destroy Hamlet (Kris Lemche), who has been going around for hundreds of years curing vampires of their unholy affliction with the Holy Grail.

Finding himself caught in the middle of this Shakespearean war, as well as in the middle of a love triangle with his jilted ex-girlfriend, Anna (Devon Aoki) that he still loves, and her mobster boyfriend Bobby (Ralph Machio), Julian is forced to try and stop Horatio from stealing the Holy Grail and killing Hamlet, before he turns the entire audience into an army of the undead.

All the elements are here for some gleefully silly fun. Unfortunately, the film is strictly amateur hour. It feels like a half-baked student film, from the painfully unfunny script to the lackluster performances. Everything about Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Undead feels like the undercooked seed of a much better idea. This isn't a film, it's an 80 minute concept that tries way too hard to be quirky and funny. With such an original idea, chock full of potential, it's shocking that it all went so horribly, horribly wrong.

Each line, each shot, each element seems horribly miscalculated, as if someone involved took a list of everything about it that could have been done right, and then did the exact opposite. Rarely have I seen so much potential amount to so little. Even the actors seem bored, sleepwalking through stereotypically quirky performances that seem like everyone watched too many Michael Cera movies for character research, while suffering under incessant, esoteric theatre in-jokes that all fall flat on their faces.

There's just nothing here worth recommending. It's an awesome concept, but it's horribly executed. It's a good idea in search of a good film that comes up completely empty handed.

GRADE - ½ star (out of four)

ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE UNDEAD; Directed by Jordan Galland; Stars Jake Hoffman, Devon Aoki, John Ventimiglia, Ralph Macchio, Kris Lemche, Jeremy Sisto and Joey Kern; Not Rated.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Review: "I Am Love"

Many comparisons have been made of Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love to the work of Luchino Visconti, and most specifically his crowning achievement, The Leopard. Aesthetically speaking, it's a fair comparison. Guadagnino's vision is sprawling and Francesca Balestra Di Mottola's production design is appropriately sumptuous, not to mention Yorick Le Saux's lush cinematography. But the major difference between Visconti and I Am Love is that I Am Love is more focused on surface beauty and less on emotional resonance.

Visconti's works were sprawling in scope as well as emotional depth. The impressive beauty of his films only helped to enhance the feelings and troubles of the characters who almost seemed dwarfed by their surroundings, lost in a sea of inner turmoil hidden beneath the opulent surface.

In the case of I Am Love, the surface is undeniably gorgeous, but something seems missing. It lacks the richness of Visconti, and while that is a hugely unfair stick to measure it by, it never seems to live up to its full potential.

Tilda Swinton and Mattia Zaccaro in I AM LOVE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Tilda Swinton is luminous as always in her role as Emma Recchi, the matriarch of a wealthy Italian family whose husband, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) has just inherited the family's lucrative textile business along with his son, Edoardo Jr (Flavio Parenti). Everything about their life seems to be idyllic - they live in a beautiful mansion, they run a successful business, and they seem to have the perfect marriage. But then Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a friendly rival of Edoardo's shows up at their door to deliver a gift, and their lives change forever.

As Emma's children go their separate ways in life, she begins to feel more and more on the sidelines, watching life go by without her while she remains the faithful wife and mother. Antonio begins to show up in her life more and more, and soon she cannot resist his mysterious allure. The two begin a passionate affair, but it becomes readily apparent that she must choose between love and her family, as the affair threatens to tear the family, and their empire, apart.

Tilda Swinton in I AM LOVE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

It's a surprisingly typical "unsatisfied housewife" scenario, but set against such a magnificent backdrop, it has every opportunity to transcend its well worn Sirk-by-way-of-Visconti path. Sadly, it never quite does, and culminates in a deeply unsatisfying conclusion that is completely dramatically unearned. While much is left unspoken, it often seems to leave avenues unexplored as well, never rising up to become anything more than a superbly acted, beautifully shot soap opera. And while it is an undeniably entertaining and elegant soap opera, it is a soap opera nonetheless.

There are plenty of elements to love here, and even more to respect and admire, but sadly they never add up to a satisfying whole. Tilda Swinton is a magnificent center, but the film never explores her character and her situation in the detail it seems to require. It is in many ways a mood piece, but her character remains frustratingly distant, and her motivations spotty at best. Her decisions never seem dramatically justified, or for that matter particularly believable. Guadagnino cuts dramatic and emotional corners at every turn, leaving the film without a clear sense of identity. All the pieces for greatness are in place here, if only Guadagnino had connected the dots. Instead, I Am Love is a sweeping museum piece, incredible to behold and yet doggedly distant, much like the regal matriarch at its center.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

I AM LOVE; Directed by Luca Guadagnino; Stars Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabbriellini, Alba Rohrwacher, Pippo Delbono; Rated R for sexuality and nudity; In Italian w/English subtitles; Opens tomorrow, June 18, in New York and Los Angeles, expands June 25.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Documentary Spotlight: "Breath Made Visible" & "Whiz Kids"

Sometimes in the mad world of movies, some things fall through the cracks. I always try to make it my job as a critic to spotlight these films, the films people otherwise would never have heard of. But I'm just as guilty as anyone else of overlooking worthy films, and sometimes there's just not enough time in the day to get around to them all.

So I want to partially rectify that by shining the spotlight on two documentaries I've seen recently but haven't had the time to give a proper review.

BREATH MADE VISIBLE

Spotlighting controversial, avant-garde dance pioneer, Anna Halprin, Ruedi Gerber's inspiring Breath Made Visible is the kind of thing documentaries were made for. After scandalizing the dance community with her free form, improvisational style (and often nude performances), Halrpin revolutionized modern dance, and Gerber explores both her life and her sources of inspiration as a dancer, ranging from aspects of nature to celebrating the human body.

Halprin is a remarkable figure, who even in her 80s is still going strong and using her art to enchant and inspire. Breath Made Visible is a beautiful film, and a haunting portrait of a singular and brilliant artist.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


WHIZ KIDS

There's a definite feeling of deja vu afoot in Whiz Kids, a documentary chronicling the journey of three young science prodigies to the Intel Science Talent Search in Washington, D.C., the most prestigious science competition for young people in the United States. Coming in the wake of other unusual competition films such as Spellbound, Wordplay, and Mad Hot Ballroom (and the upcoming Only When I Dance [Film Movement, 7.2]), Whiz Kids feels like it's a little late to the game. Still though, the subject at hand here is a much more important one, as these young science whizzes put their skills to the test to try and make the world a better place.

While it doesn't have the suspense of a film like Spellbound, it spends more time examining their work rather than the competition itself. The result is a mildly engaging competition doc that attempts to shine a spotlight on the many shortcomings of the American education system, where prodigies like these three teens are unusual and underperforming schools are the norm, placing the United States far behind other countries. I wish the film had spent a little more time on this angle rather than just the three subjects, but it's hard to deny the impressive inspiration that these kids really are.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

LAFF Review: "Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone"

Comparisons of Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone to last year's hit documentary, Anvil! The Story of Anvil are inevitable. Both films deal intimately with a hugely influential band that never made it as big as they should have, despite fans and devotees who went on to become huge stars in their fields. While Everyday Sunshine lacks the emotional resonance of Anvil, it's still a fascinating portrait of the disillusion of a unique band whose original style not only rocked the music world, but inspired many who went on to successful and lucrative careers.

Fishbone ready to take on the world. Photo credit: Ann Summa

The members of Fishbone, however, were not so lucky. Arriving in the midst of racial and economic tension in Reagan era Los Angeles, Fishbone was inspired by the flourishing punk rock scene, which many identified as a specifically "white" sound. The members of Fishbone, all African American, took punk rock and put their own special spend on it, blending punk with funk while incorporating the ideas and individual styles of each member to create a sound that defied categorization. The result was widespread critical acclaim and respect from fellow artists, but a completely baffled record label that had no idea how to market such an unclassifiable style, which didn't fit the sound of what was generally considered to be "black" or "white" music. Fishbone defied stereotypes and obliterated racial divides, but their success was shortlived, and the band soon succumbed to infighting and creative disagreements.

Everyday Sunshine mixes interviews with the members of Fishbone with members of the recording industry from Gwen Stefani, to Ice-T, to Flea, to George Clinton, each one detailing how they were influenced or personally touched by Fishbone's flair and creativity. The film's real drama, however, comes from the behind the scenes portrait of the troubles that brought the band down, whether it be band member Kendall's religious brainwashing and subsequent meltdown to creative differences that created rifts between the remaining members.

Fishbone's Angelo Moore testifies to the crowd. Photo credit: Christian Pitot.

Ultimately, it's not just the portrait of a great band that should have achieved greater commercial success, but of the dissolution of a democracy. Fishbone started as the purest form of democratic artistry, incorporating each individual member's style and ideas into one unique sound that was impossible to pin down. But disagreements were all but inevitable, and in the end it was the very thing that made them unique that ended up bringing them down. And while original members Angelo Moore and Norwood Fisher have kept the band alive in various forms throughout the years, it has become less and less a democratic vision and more the brainchild of Angelo.

Everyday Sunshine chronicles this evolution with remarkably clear eyes and lack of sentimentality, with narration by Laurence Fishburne. And while this kind of straightforward approach can be emotionally distancing, it's a fascinating historical account of a band most people should have heard of but probably haven't. It also lacks a strong conclusion to bring it all together after the band is reunited for the first time in 15 years. The film up until then, however, is an undeniably engaging look at a very specific moment in time, out of which came something truly unique. And while most of the world passed them by, Fishbone now lives on in celluloid form thanks to this spirited and admiring documentary.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

EVERYDAY SUNSHINE: THE STORY OF FISHBONE; Directed by Lev Anderson & Chris Metzler; Featuring Fishbone, Flea, Ice-T, Gwen Stefani, Perry Farrell, Bob Forrest, George Clinton; Not Rated; World premiere at the Los Angeles International Film Festival, Saturday, June 19 @ 10 PM. Q&A with the filmmakers and the band will follow. For more information, visit www.fishbonedocumentary.com.

On "The A-Team"

From The Dispatch:
This is just pure summer escapism at its best, a loose, assured, streamlined actioner with little else on its mind than showing the audience a great time. And in that regard it fully and completely succeeds.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

On "Get Him to the Greek"

From The Dispatch:
On the surface, "Get Him to the Greek" appears to be another one of those dumb, raunchy comedies about overgrown men-children that is so en vogue these days. And in many ways it is. But the difference in "Greek" and other films of its ilk is that it's often a bit of inspired comic lunacy - a satisfying anarchic romp filled with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
Click here to read my full review.

Trailer: "Dogtooth"

More on Yorgos Lanthimos' pitch black satire, Dogtooth.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Review: "Agora"

Of all the criticisms one could level at Alejandro Amenabar's Agora, having its heart in the wrong place isn't one of them. It will happen, of course, with a subject as potentially controversial and inflammatory as this, but Agora is nothing if not well intentioned. The problem is that for such a potentially incendiary topic, the film is surprisingly dry and devoid of passion.

There is no denying that it is a powerful story, made even more so by the fact that it is a true one. Agora tells the story of Hypatia (Rachel Weiss), the noted female philosopher and astronomer of ancient Alexandria, whose theories of a heliocentric solar system and elliptical orbits ran her afoul of the Christian authorities, that took over the city and destroyed its massive library in the 4th century, AD. Once a popular and widely respected teacher, Hypatia finds herself on the outside of Alexandria's society, as she refuses to give into the new Christian leadership's demands that everyone profess their religion. Hypatia, a woman of science, holds true to beliefs, which eventually leads to her execution for heresy.

Strangely, and perhaps most sadly, it is still a story that is relevant today, as the battle between science and religion rages on. Yet instead of channeling the fervor often surrounding the debate, Agora admirably keeps a calm head. It is, by its very nature, emotionally distant and rational, but it is often to dry and cerebral for its own good. It is a left-brained idea in a right-brained medium, and while there is something to be said for that, one can't help but wish that the film contained some kind of emotional fire or passion for its subject, rather than just a dry history lesson. This is the kind of film that will one day become a staple in high school history and science classes, and as well it should. From a historical standpoint the film is a fascinating study. But as a piece of cinema, Agora is flat and often unforgivably dull, never passing escaping the period piece trap of feeling like a bunch of modern actors playing dress up.

To circumvent its inherent lack of emotionalism, Amenabar inserts a love story between Hypatia and Davus (Max Minghella), a slave in her father's house who falls in love with her, only to run off and join the Christian hordes that eventually overrun the city. It is an unnecessary and ultimately pointless subplot that leads nowhere, and comes across like the awkward attempt to infuse the story with romance that it is.

That isn't to say that there aren't flashes of the much better movie that Agora could have ultimately been. There are flashes of passion, beauty, and even wonder at the miracle of science scattered throughout the film that is just enough to make one long for more. But alas, it is not to be. It's just enough to show what the movie could have been had it not been so academic. It does feature a truly gorgeous, sweeping score by Oscar winning composer Dario Marianelli (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement), filled with soaring choirs and massive crescendos. Had the film shown the same kind of epic emotional fervor as its music it would have been a great film indeed.

However, as it it stand, Agora is little more than a history lesson dressed up to look pretty. But it never feels wholly real or immersive. It keeps its audience at arms length, stubbornly refusing to let us get close to the characters. They remain little more than what they were before, mythical figures of history with all the depth of a page from a history book. There's a great film in here somewhere, but for now it remains buried beneath the sands of time.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

AGORA; Directed by Alejandro Amenabar; Stars Rachel Weiss, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Ashraf Barhom, Michael Lonsdale, Rupert Evans; Not Rated; Now playing in select theaters.

On "Sex and the City 2"

From The Dispatch:
Cinematically speaking, it's overlong, severely unfocused and surprisingly sexless. For a movie called "Sex and the City," it is strangely devoid of sex or even romance. It's a talky, indulgent film, but anyone coming to "Sex and the City" looking for anything but indulgence is in the wrong place entirely.
Click here to read my full review.