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Reviews for April 24th, 2009


Directed by Dito Montiel.

Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum) arrives from Alabama to New York City, where he struggles to make a living by selling bootlegged books on the streets. When Harvey Boarden (Terrance Howard), a hustler, discovers his talent for fighting, he lures him into the world of illegal, underground bare-knuckle fighting with the promise of raking in a lot of dough for each match he wins. He immediately becomes Shawnís manager who gets him into many competitive fights with a variety of tough opponents. Soon enough, Shawn increases his fame in the bare-knuckle fighting circuit and, in turn, he gets richer. He doesnít realize, though, that all those temptations, including lots of physical attention from hot babes, are just a cover for all the greed, evil and serious danger thatís found in that circuit. Eventually, he meets Zulay Valez (Zulay Henao), a single mother who lives with her grandmother, played amusingly by Altagracia Guzman who also portrayed a grandmother in Raising Victor Vargas. Zulay has money problems of her own, so itís no surprise that Shawn comes to the rescue once he makes some money winning those fights. Will he and Zulay fall in love? Should he continue to trust Harvey? How can he get out safely from the bare-knuckle fighting circuit? Unfortunately, director/co-writer Dito Montiel, who also wrote and directed the less contrived indie drama A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, doesnít include enough character development or organically believable scenes to make you care about the answers to any of those questions. On a positive note, thereís a modicum of entertainment and much-needed energy during the lengthy, well-shot fight sequences. The underrated, talented actor Luis GuzmŠn is underused here as Martinez, a member of a rival gang. Everyone except the grandmother seems rather bland, one-dimensional and forgettable as characters. Channing Tatum gives a wooden performance as Shawn and simply lacks charisma onscreen. Moreover, the flirtations between Shawn and Zulay often feel cheesy, awkward and with barely any romantic chemistry to be found. At a running time of 105 minutes, Fighting has stylish editing and moderately exciting action sequences, but that doesnít come close to compensating for a contrived, bland screenplay that ultimately lacks palpable thrills and fails to pack any real punches when it comes to drama and romance.
Number of times I checked my watch: 4.
Released Rogue Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

Il Divo

Directed by Paolo Sorrentino.

In Italian with subtitles. Giulio Andreotti (Toni Servillo), nicknamed Beelzebub, serves as the notorious Prime Minister of Italy for a total of seven terms since 1972. The film opens with a number of assassinations of powerful figures in Italian history, namely Prime Minister Aldo Moro, Giovanni Falcone, an anti-Mafia judge, and Roberto Calvi, a banker. During his seventh term as Prime Minister of Italy, Andreoitti gets caught up in a scandal that opens up the possibility that he has ties to the Mafia. His wife, Livia (Anna Bonaiuto), claims that she has no ideas who he truly is or whether itís true that heís secretly involved with the mafia. Writer/director Paolo Sorrentino focuses on the many events that lead up to Andreottiís eventual downfall where he goes through an intense investigation and articulates his corruptions verbally. Toni Servillo, donning some make-up to closely resemble Andreitti, gives a very convincing performance that never skips a beat and holds your attention. Even though Andreotti is a very dislikable, smarmy and cold person, whether in public or private, thereís a slight touch of dry humor about his overall posture, facial features and mannerisms which make him somewhat interesting and mysterious as a character. Unfortunately, Sorrentino fails to tap into his mind so that you can get a sense of what heís actually thinking and feeling. He always remains a mystery, which eventually becomes frustrating. Whatís wrong with using some imagination to flesh out his character more for the audience? On a positive note, Sorrentino moves the film at a fast pace and includes stylish editing thatís quite invigorating and a well-chosen musical score. Audience members unfamiliar with Italian history, especially when it comes to Andreotti and the Tangentopoli, a.k.a. the corruption of politics in Italy during his time as Prime Minister, will find themselves a bit confused at times and the plot to be convoluted given all the different political figures and other characters that come and go, such as Salvo Lima (Giorgio Colangeli), a friend of Andreotti whoís murdered by the Mafia. At a running time of 117 minutes, Il Divo boasts a bravura performance by Toni Servillo, stylish cinematography and a provocative premise, but it often feels convoluted and leaves you emotionally detached from the events onscreen. It's often compelling as a political thriller, but lacks insight as a biopic.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released Music Box Pictures.
Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

The Informers

Directed by Gregor Jordan.

Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis. During the 1980ís, William (Billy Bob Thornton), a studio executive living in Los Angeles, cheats on his wife, Laura (Kim Basinger), by having an affair with Cheryl (Winona Ryder), a local TV anchorwoman. Laura turns out also to be having an affair with a younger guy, Martin (Austin Nichols). Lauraís son, Graham (Jon Foster) also lives in Los Angeles and often does drugs and has sex with his sexy girlfriend, Christie (Amber Heard). Graham wants a more committed and serious relationship with Christie, but she sleeps freely with other men, such as Martin. Then thereís Bryan Metro (Mel Raido), a drug-addicted rock star who sleeps with underage girls in his hotel room. Meanwhile, Peter (Mickey Rourke), gets his younger brother, Jack (Brad Renfro), to help him out with kidnapping a young boy. In yet another subplot, Tim (Lou Taylor Pucci), hesitantly spends time with his estranged father, Les (Chris Isaak), by going on vacation with him to Hawaii, where they pick up hot babes together. That subplot could have easily been cut out because it just seems too bizarre and awkward to watch. As you can probably notice already, the plot gets more and more intricate and convoluted as it progresses. Each storyline could have been the main plot thread in a totally separate film. The chaotic, nausea-inducing screenplay by co-writers Bret Easton Ellis and Nicholas Jarecki fails to generate any palpable dramatic tension or poignancy despite that many of the characters lead sad, lonely and deeply troubled lives. They all could use a heavy dose of rehab therapy and psychotherapy. Director Gregor Jordan includes slick cinematography along with some nudity, but the pacing of many scenes feels awkward as do the abrupt transitions that jump back and forth between many different subplots. Despite a terrific ensemble cast, The Informers suffers from an uneven, chaotic screenplay with forgettable, poorly developed characters while none of the actors or actresses get a chance to shine. It never really gels into a sharp, compelling or engrossing drama.
Number of times I checked my watch: 5
Released Senator Entertainment.
Opens nationwide.

The Soloist

Directed by Joe Wright.

Based on a true story and the book by Steve Lopez. Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.), a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, desperately wants a meaty story for his next column for the newspaper. Catherine Keener shines in her brief scenes as his editor. One day, as heís driving through a tunnel, he nearly crashes into Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless man who suffers from schizophrenia. Nathanial carries with him a worn out violin while attempting to play Beethovenís music. He rambles on and on often incoherently, but you can sense, just like Steve does, that thereís some kind of amazing talent lurking behind his madness. When Steve asks him questions about his past, especially about his passion for classical music, Nathaniel tells him that he was once a student at Julliard. Is he telling the truth or is it a lie thatís part of his insanity? Eventually, Steve focuses his attention on exposing the truth about the harsh conditions of homeless people living in Skid Row. What makes Nathanielís character so compelling is how mysterious he always appears to be. Even though heís often behaving crazily, you want to know more and more about how he ended up in that situation and whether or not heís telling the truth about his past. Jamie Foxx absolutely nails his performance in such a convincing way that you forget youíre actually watching Jamie Foxx. Heís truly the heart and soul of the film and helps to command your attention and keep you engrossed whenever heís onscreen. Robert Downey, Jr. does a decent job of portraying Steve Lopez, although the screenplay by Susannah Grant doesnít flesh out his role enough to make him quite as interesting or well-developed compared to Nathaniel. Fortunately, director Joe Wright often finds the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them intellectually and emotionally. At times, though, the dramatic tension diminishes ever so slightly, but it quickly recovers its momentum. Wright includes exquisite, stylish cinematography and beautiful classical music thatís quite touching to listen to. Thereís one particularly mesmerizing, unforgettable scene involving a flash of colors on the screen as classical music soars on the soundtrack. Ultimately, The Soloist manages to be a captivating, inspirational and extraordinary story about the power of friendship and music. Jamie Foxx commands the screen in a brilliant, raw and profoundly moving performance. Itís the first great film of 2009.
Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Paramount Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

Throw Down Your Heart

Directed by Sascha Paladino.

This sporadically compelling documentary follows musician Bťla Fleck as he travels throughout Africa to find the origins of the banjo. He goes to Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Mali where he bonds with musicians in each of those countries while having them briefly discuss the historical significance of the banjo and other instruments, such as the kalimba, nígoni and one called akonting, which is actually a descendant of the banjo. He also records music with the musicians during his travels. Director Sascha Paladino includes plenty of footage of Fleck either playing music with other musicians or observing others playing it or singing. Paladino wisely includes the beautiful, meaningful lyrics of each song. The musical numbers themselves sounds very lively, often moving and uplifting to listen to and to observe. However, whenever the film shifts its focus back to Fleck alone or interacting with the musicians, thatís when it feels a bit dull and becomes tedious. Avid fans of banjo music will appreciate the many close-ups of fingers plucking the banjo and other instruments which highlight each musicianís palpable passion for music. One of the most interesting moments occur when a musician explains how African slaves in the United States used banjo music as a means to feel stronger and more spirited throughout their difficult ordeals as slaves. There are other bits of interesting insights about African history scattered throughout the film, but theyíre not explored deeply enough. Fleck should have either taken himself out of the documentary to focus more on banjo music and its history or he could have articulated more about what he himself has learned about banjo music. How have his interactions with musicians throughout Africa affected him as a person and as a musician? He doesnít quite do a great job of revealing or assessing his thoughts and feelings about banjo music to the audience or to those around him. Throw Down Your Heart simply fails to find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them intellectually. Itís filled with lively, soulful musical performances that keep you mostly compelled, but it eventually becomes somewhat dull and lacks enough profound insights, which ultimately leaves you feeling underwhelmed.
Number of times I checked my watch: 4.
Released Argot Pictures.
Opens at the IFC Center.

A Touch of Spice

Directed by Tassos Boulmetis.

In Greek, Turkish and English with subtitles. Fanis Lakovides (George Corraface), a middle-aged Greek chef also working as an astronomer and living in Athens, prepares a meal for his grandfather, Vassilis (Tassos Bandis), who lives in Istanbul and hasnít him since he was a little boy. He recalls the events during his childhood when he and his Greek Orthodox parents, Savas (Leroklis Michaelidis) and Soultana (Renia Louizidou), were living in Constantinople, later known as Istanbul, in Turkey. Back then, during the 1960ís, Vassilis owned a spice store and often bonded with his eight-year-old grandson, Fanis (now played by Markos Osse). He taught him how to use and to appreciate different spices. In a rather imaginative and captivating scene, he connects spices to the planets of the solar system, such as Venus, represented by cinnamon, while salt represents the sun. Itís easy to understand how and why Fanis became so passionate about cooking. In a somewhat contrived subplot, he becomes the boyfriend of Saime (GŲzde Akyildiz). During increasing tensions between the Turks and the Greeks, he and his family are forced to deport to Greece where he must separate from Vassilis and Saime, who he often writes letters to. Basak KŲklŁkaya plays the older version of Saime who Fanis visits as an adult. The way that she willingly agrees to spend time with him in Istanbul after all those years of separation willingness lacks authenticity, although it does show he means a lot to her. That doesnít mean that sheíll just drop everything and start a romance with him, though. Writer/director Tassos Boulmetis infuses the genres of drama, romance and history with a touch of whimsical comedy, but all of that add up to a rather uneven experience that lacks an organically moving emotional core. As the plot jumps back and forth in chronology, it loses its dramatic momentum and feels overstuffed. There arenít enough scenes between Fanis and Vassilis that show their strong bond as grandson and grandfather. The same can be said for Fanis and Saime as boyfriend and girlfriend because their chemistry falls flat onscreen. Ultimately, A Touch of Spice has a few imaginative and amusing scenes as well as all the right ingredients of a romantic dramedy, but those ingredients merely simmer without coming to a boil. It often feels contrived and convoluted while its variety of ingredients, so-to-speak, merely simmer together without actually coming to a palpable boil.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Menemsha Films.
Opens at the Cinema Village.


Directed by James Toback.

This mildly fascinating documentary focus on the life of Mike Tyson, a.k.a. Iron Mike, who rose to fame as a boxer in 1985 until his fall in 2005. Tyson openly discusses his troubled childhood during which he was often picked on while growing up in Brooklyn. He eventually found the strength to fight back when he beat up a young gangster who killed one of his pet pigeons, which sent him straight to juvenile hall. Cus D'Amato, a boxing trainer, took him under his wings and trained him both physically and mentally to become a heavyweight boxer. In many ways DíAmato represented a father figure to him, which he never really had before. To this very day, heís thankful for having such an inspiration in his life. Later on in his boxing career, Tyson got into more and more trouble for his aggressive, controlling behavior and ended up serving time in prison for raping Desiree Washington. Director James Toback includes some footage of Tyson candidly admitting that heís remorseful about the way that he had treated women as objects and how he couldnít control his anger. Can the audience really believe that heís transformed into more of a softy? Are those real tears streaming down his cheeks as he confesses his regrets? Much of the film feels like a lengthy therapy session for Tyson to show you a glimpse of what heís like behind the curtain. That mere glimpse isnít enough to keep you truly moved or enlightened, though. Itís great that Tyson allows Toback to fixate the camera on him and hear him explain his life, thoughts and feelings in his own words. However, Toback fails to synthesis all of that information mixed with some revelations into truly profound insight. He shows you some archival footage of boxing events from Tysonís past and uses plenty of slick editing that includes split screens during the interviews. A truly great documentary finds the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them intellectually and emotionally. Tyson simply doesnít provoke you enough intellectually. It feels mildly compelling, occasionally moving and revealing, but it ultimately suffers from too much style over substance.
Number of times I checked my watch: 2.
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens at Regal Union Square 14, AMC Empire 25 and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

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