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Reviews for April 18th, 2008

88 Minutes
- Directed by Jon Avnet.

Jack Gramm (Al Pacino), a college professor/forensic psychiatrist, must figure out who wants to kill him when he received a phone call claiming that he has 88 minutes to live. It all has something to do with copycat murders of serial killer Jon Forster (Neal McDonough), who Jack had put away behind bars and is about to be executed. Despite a derivative plot full of holes, 88 Minutes makes for a rather watchable and somewhat suspenseful mystery crime thriller, much less ludicrous than Untraceable. Al Pacino occasionally overacts, but for the most part delivers a decent performance along with the supporting cast. The screenplay by Gary Scott Thompson doesn’t succeed in making you care about anyone in particular, but it does have a few interesting surprises and twists up its sleeve and there’s very little unintentional humor. Fortunately, director Jon Avnet knows how to work the camera without any awkward angles or nauseating movements. A pulse-pounding musical score helps to increase the tension as Jack’s 88 minutes draw to a close. In order to mildly enjoy 88 Minutes, be sure to suspend your disbelief and don’t compare it to much smarter/memorable crime thrillers such as Copycat and The Usual Suspects. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: None is required or desired. Released by TriStar Pictures.

Constantine’s Sword
- Directed by Oren Jacoby.

This provocative and compelling documentary trace the roots of anti-Semitism. The camera follows James Carroll, a novelist/journalist/ex-priest, who travels to Europe, among other places, to uncover the truth. Way back in 312 A.D., Emperor Constantine I conquered Rome and made the cross the official symbol of Christianity while claiming the Jews killed Jesus Christ. It’s quite infuriating the way Jews were treated with disrespect back then—even today, there’s a prayer in Sunday Mass that still blames the Jews for Christ’s death. Director Oren Jacoby expertly incorporates archival footage along with interviews throughout James Carroll’s journey. In one particularly chilling moment, many Jews in the U.S. Air Force Academy experience propaganda when they posters of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ right at their base. Ted Haggard, former leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, tried desperately to convert people in the military to Christianity—and, on top of that, he was approved to do so by George W. Bush. Through well-focused arguments and well-presented evidence, Constantine’s Sword will open your eyes to how we’re world full of propaganda, hunger for religious power, and that anti-Semitism has clearly, and sadly, been around for a long time. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: High. Released by First Run Features. Opens at the Quad Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed
- Directed by Nathan Frankowski.

This poorly designed documentary has some entertaining moments, but not enough truly insightful ones to be compelling. Ben Stein travels around the world to meet up with a variety of experts to hear what they have to say about the battle between Science and Religion. Just by mentioning the battle itself, it points to a big can of worms that has already been open for many, many years. Director Nathan Frankoski doesn’t even come close to sealing the lid nor does he manage to open the can of worms further enough, so-to-speak. Any kind of debate should have a wealth of information on both sides of the story, but, in Expelled, there’s an abundance of physical evidence pointing to the Theory of Evolution without an intelligent designer, but virtually no proof of Intelligent Design. Ben Stein simply doesn’t ask compelling enough questions and, too often, the answers seem either redundant or oversimplified. For example, there’s the claim that Adolf Hitler became so pernicious because he fervently believed in the Theory of Evolution by following Darwinism—although, more accurately, he believed in Social Darwinism. That’s a pretty strong claim to make about Hitler and, with too little exploration, it’s ultimately unsubstantiated, much like the many other claims made throughout the documentary. An interview with Richard F, author of such anti-Intelligent Design books such as The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, and The God Delusion, fails to add any new insights. There’s no mention of 18th Century philosopher David Hume, who, in his writings, discussed the issue of miracles and how it pretty much boils down to whether you believe in them or not, regardless if you’ve actually seen them with your own eyes. The same could, and should, be said for religion and evolution, since nobody alive today was around to witness the creation of the universe. Also, what about exploring the beauty of nature such as the fall foliage? Is that merely nature’s creature or the work of an intelligent artist? Whether you believe that an intelligent designer created the universe or not, you’ll ultimately be unswayed and underwhelmed by Expelled. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Premise Media.

First Saturday in May- Directed by Brad and John Hennegan.

This thoroughly engaging, suspenseful documentary follows 6 horse trainers as they prepare for the 2006 Kentucky Derby. If you’ve ever thought horse racing can be dull, think again. Horse trainers Frank Amonte, Michael Matz, Dan Hendricks, Kiaran McLaughlin, Chuck Chambers and Dale Romans come from many different locations throughout the United States and work hard day-by-day to prepare their horses for winning. Co-director Brad and Hennegan do a superb job of getting to know each of the trainers so that you understand their lifestyle, meet their family and appreciate the hard work that they put into everything. Just like in the documentary Spellbound, there are some competitions before the big competition. Only 20 horses will be chosen to race in the Kentucky Derby, so it’s very suspenseful to watch the many horse-racing scenes. Will you root for Lawyer Ron, Sharp Humor, Achilles of Troy or perhaps Barbaro? Either way, you’ll often feel as excited and even somewhat moved as you felt watching the film Seabiscuit. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Highly Moderate. Released by Truly Indie. Opens at the Cinema Village.

The Forbidden Kingdom
- Directed by Rob Minkoff.

Jason (Michael Angarano), a Boston teenager attacked by school bullies, finds an ancient staff that transports him to a Chinese village in the far past. There, he joins up with kung fu fighter Lu Yan (Jackie Chan) and discovers that he must return the staff to the Monkey King (Jet Li), held captive by the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou). Jason must complete his mission in order to return home from Oz…oops…ancient China. An orphaned girl, Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei), joins them on their quest. The kung fu fighting sequences are quite lively and slightly exhilarating, but not as much as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Whenever the characters aren’t fighting, which is often, the plot looses its momentum because of John Fusco’s dull screenplay. The derivative quality of the plot can be forgiven, even for those who’ve watched The Wizard of Oz, The Karate Kid and Lord of the Rings, but too many scenes make you feel like you’re watching a cheesy 80’s movie. Michael Angarano, who uncannily resembles Shia LeBeouf, doesn’t have the acting chops to carry the film during its dramatic, romantic and silly comedic moments like LeBeouf did in Transformers. It’s interesting how both films had characters peeing on another character to generate some cheep laughs. Moreover, other than beautiful scenery and decently choreographed action, director Rob Minkoff fails to hold your attention with sluggishly paced scenes that could have used some trimming in the editing booth. Little kids might be amused The Forbidden Kingdom, but everyone else looking for sheer entertainment will be slightly disappointed by all of the blandness and cheesiness. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: None is required or desired as long as you suspend your disbelief. Released by Lionsgate.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall
- Directed by Nicholas Stoller.

After his TV star girlfriend, Sarah (Kristen Bell), dumps him, Peter (Jason Segel) takes a vacation at an Hawaiian resort hotel where Sarah happens to be at as well with her new boyfriend, Aldous (Russell Brand). Instead of merely sulking around, Peter flirts with Rachael (Mila Kunis), the hotel guest clerk who, soon enough, falls in love with him even though he still pines for Sarah. Jason Segel not only pays the lead character with too little charisma, but has written the screenplay as well, which includes lots of juvenile humor that could have actually been funny with better comic timing. The only light at the end of this dark tunnel of a comedy is Mila Kunis, who shines onscreen and generates real warmth, and the soothing, picturesque setting in Hawaii. Anyone familiar with Judd Apatow-produced movies should know what to expect: lots of sexual content, crude, gross humor and a contrived drama/romance. Add a few penis shots just for cheap attempts to make you laugh, a running time of nearly 2 hours and some scenes with the obnoxious Jonah Hill as a waiter, and you’ve got yourself the typical Apatow comedy that aims high in the comedy department, but ends up very low and tedious. Number of times I checked my watch: 5. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: None, as long as you check your brain at the door. Released by Universal Pictures.

Four Minutes
- Directed by Chris Kraus.

Mrs.Krueger (Monica Bleibtreu), an 80-year-old piano teacher, helps an prisoner, Jenny (Hannah Herzsprung), to prepare for an upcoming piano concert. Jenny clearly has a genuine musical talent, but her troubled past causes her to become combative and stubborn. Despite a plot that has very few surprises, what keep the drama to be emotionally absorbing and intense are the amazing performances by Monica Bleibtreu and Hanna Herzsprung. Both of those actresses sink into their roles with utter conviction and it’s difficult to take your eyes off the screen whenever they’re together. Writer/director Chris Kraus includes a few contrived subplots involving Mrs.Krueger’s past that could have been fleshed out a little more. There aren’t enough calm scenes between Jenny and Mr.Krueger where they discuss their feeling openly and honestly—Jenny often yells whenever she says something to her, which gets pretty tiresome after a while. Nonetheless, you’ll feel inspired and moved by Four Minutes, although not swept off your feet like after watching Good Will Hunting or the underrated gem Vitus, also about a musical prodigy who plays the piano. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Entertainment Value: Highly Moderate. Spiritual Value: Highly Moderate. Released by Autobahn. Opens at the Cinema Village.

Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts
- Directed by Scott Hicks.

This intimate documentary focuses on the life of Philip Glass, a 70-year-old music composer who has written the score for operas and films while performing his compositions during concerts. Director Scott Hicks shows Philip Glass with all of his warmth, wisdom, humor and eccentricities. Sociologist Erving Goffman once wrote that life is like theatrics: there’s a “backstage” and a “frontstage.” In Glass, you’ll get a very fascinating glimpse into the backstage life of Philip Glass including his crumbling marriage to his wife, his loving relationship with his kids as well as a 10-minute sequence cooking show sequence showing how he makes pizza from scratch. Every so often, Glass does some physical exercises with an instructor in order to meditate. Anyone expecting to figure out why Glass’ compositions are so similar in structure and why Glass chooses those notes, shouldn’t expect to find an answer here—in fact, Glass explicitly states that the music he composes is something that has already exists, but needs to be discovered like a hidden river beneath the ground. Has any true artist managed to articulate the way their genius works? Are they required to even understand their genius, for that matter? Either way, the result is the same: Philip Glass is an artistic genius, a loving father, a talented cook and, clearly, a hard worker. His passion for music and life itself is quite evident in this thoroughly engaging, well-structured documentary. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Moderately High. Released by Koch Lorber Films. Opens at the IFC Center.

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?
- Directed by Morgan Spurlock.

Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock travels to the Middle East in search of the most wanted man in the world, Osama Bin Laden. Instead of focusing on the mystery of his location, he chats with Arabs, Muslims and even Hassidic Jews to try to get to know how they feel about the U.S. war on terror, but he doesn’t interview them enough to truly humanize them. The civilians make obvious statements already discussed in other documentaries, such how they think U.S. soldiers are trying to conquer their land. Instead of filling up this documentary with insights or interesting facts like he did in his last documentaries, What Would Jesus Buy? and Super Size Me, he includes lots of silly attempts to make you laugh through some distracting computer animated sequences. Moreover, there’s an unnecessary tangent involving his wife’s pregnancy—what does that really have to do with Osama Bin Laden or the war on terror? With too few enlightening moments, poor attempts at comedy, and an unsatisfying, tacked-on conclusion with too many broad, corny generalizations, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? fails to pack any real punches. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by The Weinstein Company.

Zombie Strippers
- Directed by Jay Lee.

In a futuristic world where George W. Bush serves his fourth term in office and the incompetent government accidentally unleashes a virus turning dead people into zombies. Kat (Jenna Jameson), a stripper, becomes infected with the virus which turns her into a zombie, along with other strippers at the club. The customers come in droves to watch the zombies stripping, so club owner Ian (Robert Englund) takes advantage of the new kind of stripping even though some customers end up devoured. With plenty of cheap gore, excessive nudity and tongue-in-cheek humor, rarely has a horror comedy been such a guilty pleasure since Shaun of the Dead. Everyone, especially Robert Englund, seem to be having a great time in their roles and it clearly shows. Writer/director Jay Lee pokes fun at everything he can from politics to sex to, you guessed it, Nietzsche. If you can throw away good acting out door along with logic, reason and anything remotely conventional, you’re in for a wild, outrageously funny experience that makes for the ultimate midnight movie to either laugh at or laugh with. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: None is required or desired. Released by Triumph Films. Opens at the AMC Empire 25.

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