Reviews for April 3rd, 2009
Directed by Greg Mottola.
During the summer of 1987 in Pittsburgh, James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a teenager desperate for cash, accepts a job at an amusement park called Adventureland. He befriends his coworkers, Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a technician, Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), a sexy, flirtation girl, as well as Frigo (Matt Bush), his friend who had already been working there for a while. When he’s not getting stoned or drinking booze with those coworkers, he’s flirting with Em (Kristen Stewart), another coworker. There’s much more to Em than meets the eye, though, and she’s too insecure about her troubles to allow herself to embrace her true feelings for him. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig provide some brief comic relief as the goofy, laidback married couple, Bobby and Paulette, who own the theme park. Little does he know that Connell is actually cheating on his wife by having a sexual affair with Em, though. The closer that James gets to her emotionally, the more she backs away in fear and the more James doesn’t know how to read the mixed signals. Of all of the actors and actresses in the film, Kristen Stewart radiates the most charisma and gives a moving performance that shows that she can handle a complex role quite well. Jesse Eiseberg adds some charm and sweetness just like he did in The Squid and the Whale. All of the characters, especially Em and James, have a lot of growing up and maturing to do, especially when it comes to understanding the harsh truths about love and relationships. Writer/director Greg Mottola, who also directed Superbad, keeps the juvenile, sex-related humor at a low level and, instead, combines drama and romance with moments of genuine tenderness. There’s surprisingly very little mean-spiritedness to be found here and none of the characters become annoying or over-the-top. Most importantly, Em and James have some authentic chemistry together and you actually want them to be boyfriend and girlfriend, despite all of their flaws and insecurities. Ultimately, Adventureland manages to be a sweet, funny and mature drama. It has more tenderness and much less crassness than what its lousy, deceptive trailer leads you to believe. Kristen Steward shines in a raw and tender performance bursting with charisma. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Miramax Films.
Directed by R.W. Goodwin.
In 1957, a flyinf saucer crashes into the mountainside within the small town of Mojave, California, as the townspeople observe a beautiful meteor shower. Ted Lewis (Eric McCormack), a scientist/teacher, notices the crash, arrives at the site first and, when he enters the saucer, it snatches him up. When he’s dropped back into town, his body has now been taken over by an alien named Urp. His wife, Lana (Jody Thompson), doesn’t quite understand why he’s acting so strange, especially given that he refers to himself in the third person, so, naturally, she assumes that he’s mentally ill. Meanwhile, a creature, Ghota (Jovan Nenadic), terrorizes the town by eating people and leaving behind only a puddle for each victim. Vernon Watson (Robert Patrick), the town sheriff investigates the strange, supernatural events while the police chief, Dawson (Dan Lauria), reacts skeptically when he hears about them. In an amusing subplot, Urp hitches a ride in a car belonging to Tammy (Jenni Baird), a diner waitress, and their interactions are quite funny in an offbeat sort of way, such as when Urp gets his first sensation of physical attraction to her. The screenplay by Steven P. Fisher pokes a lot of fun at the Sci-fi genre with lots of tongue-in-cheek humor and campiness. It takes a while to become accustomed to the awkwardly campy performances, though, and the silly dialogue, similar to what you’d find in 2001’s The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra or the brilliant, underrated musical/sci-fi/western The American Astronaut . Director R.W. Goodwin includes very cheap special effects, a well-chosen musical score and stylish cinematography as well as a brisk enough pace all which gives you the intended feeling of watching a cheesy B-movie. If you’re willing to check your brain at the door and to suspend a lot of your disbelief, Alien Trespass manages to be a delightfully zany and campy satire best experienced at midnight with a group of friends. Number of times I checked my watch: 2. Released by Roadside Attractions.
Directed by Rupert Wyatt.
Frank Perry (Brian Cox) has been serving twelve years in prison and must spend the rest of his life there for the crime he had committed. When he receives a letter from his daughter that states that she’s suffering from drug addiction, he yearns to visit her, so he decides to concoct an elaborate plan to escape from the prison. He convincers fellow inmates, Lenny (Joseph Fiennes), Lacey (Dominic Cooper), Viv Batista (Seu Jorge) and Brodie (Liam Cunningham), to help with the plan in hopes of hiding it from the guards. The plot jumps back and forth between the events that lead up to the escape and the escape itself which has the inmates going underground through dark tunnels and chipping away at dangerous rock formations that can come crashing down on them at any second. Inside the prison, there are rival gangs, “The Cons”, led by Rizza (Damian Lewis), and "The Screws,” which Frank and Lacey join to fight against the other gang. Had the screenplay by co-writers Rupert Wyatt and Damian Lewis followed a linear plot, it would have been rather standard, bland and uninspired, especially given that there are so many classic, prison escape movies that tread the same water, such as Escape from Alcatraz, The Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke, The Grand Illusion and Papillon, among others. Instead, the nonlinear plot structure feels refreshing, compelling and thrilling, although, admittedly, it occasionally takes away from the overall dramatic momentum and leads to a few confusing moments. The underrated Brian Cox delivers a strong and moving performance as well as the other actors who are convincingly tough and brave. Director Rupert Wyatt, who also serves as the co-writer, includes stylish cinematography and flashy editing that gives the film a burst of energy all the way through the twisted ending, which won’t be spoiled here, but it’s worth mentioning that the final twists, unlike in the recent pseudo-intellectual Duplicity, actually makes a lot of sense in retrospect and clarifies some initial confusions. At a running time of 102 minutes, The Escapist manages to be a rousing film packed with solid performances and relentless suspense that brilliantly reinvigorates the genre of prison escape thrillers.Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by IFC Films. Opens at City Cinemas Village East.
Fast & Furious
Directed by Justin Lin.
Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), a.k.a. “Dom”, on the run from the law, seeks revenge against whoever gunned down his girlfriend, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). He goes back to Los Angeles where he meets his sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), and runs into Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), who’s helping the FBI to infiltrate a gang belonging to a crime boss named Braga. Soon enough, Dom and Brian join forces to infiltrate the gang, which involves participating in illegal street racing. Braga happens have something to do with the murder of Letty, so now the uninspired plot becomes tedious cat-and-mouse chase between the good guys and the bad guys. Just like the last three films, this fourth installment has cool cars, hot babes and hunky leading men to please audiences on a superficial level. Of course, director Justin Lin, who also directed The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and the comedy Better Luck Tomorrow, includes plenty of action sequences involving high speed car races and some loud explosions here and there that’ll satisfy easily-pleased action fans. Whenever the characters open their mouth to talk, though, the dialogue simply grinds the momentum to a halt with its blandness and poor acting skills. Anyone looking for something new or refreshing should look elsewhere because much of the film lacks the exciting “wow” factor that was found in the first installment back in 2001. As you watch Dom and Brian zoom during the races and chases, you’ll feel like you’re watching a long video game, which makes for a dizzying experience rather than an exhilarating one. Fast & Furious has plenty of visual eye candy with its slick cars and action-packed sequences, but it’s ultimately low on surprises, imagination and palpable thrills, even if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and to check your brain at the door for 107 minutes. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Released by Universal Pictures.
Directed by Anna Broinowski.
This captivating and provocative documentary focuses on controversy surrounding Norma Khouri, a Jordanian woman who wrote the best-selling book Forbidden Love, published in Australia, which was re-titled Honor Lost when it arrived to the United States back in 2003. The book told the supposedly true story of Dalia, a Jordanian woman from the city of Amman whose father killed her because she fell in love with a Christian man. Khouri makes it clear that she wants bring the issue of “honor killings” in Jordan which, she claims, has been covered-up by the government and media there. After her book became very popular, Malcolm Knox, an Australia-based journalist labeled it as fraudulent based on numerous inaccuracies, even glaring ones such as the false statement that the Jordan River runs through Amman. There’s much more to the book and to Khouri than meets the eye, especially given that she ran away to Australia after an FBI investigation involving bonds and property fraud. Director Anna Broinowski allows Khouri to explain herself and try to prove her claims that, despite those inaccuracies, the book isn’t a work of fiction. After all, isn’t it acceptable for an author to change the name of characters in a book, their locations or the precise time of the events in order to protect their family and shield them from attention? That sounds like a reasonable defense. She takes Broinowski all the way to Amman to show her that the places, such as a unisex salon, that she described in the book, but none of those places are precisely the way she described them. By this point, the audience wants to simply whether or not she’s telling the truth or if she’s merely stringing us and the director along. Just when you think she’s definitely a shrewd con artist, you hear her explanations and briefly wonder if you can label her as such beyond a reasonable doubt. Can you really trust her? Even if she were a complete liar as well as greedy, self-centered and greedy, would that mean that she’s crossing any moral boundaries or just ethical ones? Aren’t we all guilty of being self-centered and greedy at times? Everyone has lied to some degree in the past, but some are amateurs at it who get caught quickly while others are more cunning, elaborate and professional, just like Khouri often appears to be. She makes a very interesting comparison about her book to The Da Vinci Code, a book that also blends fiction with nonfiction. Broinowski includes stylish editing as well as dramatic reenactments of integral scenes from the book itself. Her omission, though, of synthesizing all of the evidence, claims and opinions coming from a variety of perspectives, including those of Kouri herself, leaves more insights and revealing truths and conclusions to be desired. In turn, that omission also provokes the audience to come up with their own conclusions. Or are those conclusions merely just more perspectives or opinions? How can anyone ascertain the truth about Kouri for that matter? Ultimately, Forbidden Lie$ manages to be captivating, provocative and more sensationally thrilling than your average documentary. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Released by Roxie Releasing. Opens at the Cinema Village.
Directed by Matt Aselton.
Brian Wethersby (Paul Dano), 28-years-old, leads a mundane life working as a salesman at a mattress warehouse located in Manhattan. One day, Al Lolly (John Goodman), a wealthy man, arrives at the warehouse and behaves rudely while picking out an expensive mattress. His daughter, Harriet (Zooey Deschanel), enters the warehouse later to purchase it and falls asleep on a mattress. When she wakes up, she exchanges some words with Brian, flirts with him and, soon enough, he takes the initiative to start a romance with her by showing up at her door. The two begin an offbeat relationship and fall in love with one another the more they spend time together. In a bizarre subplot, Brian fulfills his lifelong dream to adopt a baby from China. What might happen if Harriet finds out that he will be a father? Can she handle that new responsibility if she chooses to be in a long-term relationship with Brian? Unfortunately, director/co-writer Matt Aselton doesn’t give you enough of a reason to grasp what Harriet sees in Brian to begin with. Sure, they have a little chemistry together, but they don’t seem like they’re truly meant for one another. Moreover, Brian comes across as a rather bland character that lacks charisma, which Harriet does have. Paul Dano’s deadpan performance works well at first, but, eventually becomes tiresome. John Goodman has a few funny lines of dialogue, but that’s not enough to make his role interesting or memorable. Jane Alexander and Ed Asner briefly show up to add some gravitas as Brian’s parents. The messy, contrived screenplay essentially tries to cram three poorly developed plots all at once beginning with the Brian’s romance, then with his adoption of a baby and also a homeless man who occasionally assaults him for a reason that becomes somewhat clearer later, although it leaves more unanswered questions about Brian’s character. Each of those storylines could have easily been explored more fully in totally separate, more imaginative films. Ultimately, Gigantic has a few moments of offbeat humor and boasts a charming, tender performance, as usual, by Zooey Deschanel, but it often falls flat as a convoluted comedy, drama, mystery and romance. It has too many poorly developed storylines that simmer together for 98 minutes without actually coming to a boil. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Released by First Independent Pictures. Opens at the City Cinemas Village East.
Directed by Rob Margolies.
Ira Bernstein (Josh Pais), his wife, Nancy (Jane Adams), and their three children, 16-year-old Meg (Dreama Walker), Spencer (Jacob Kogan) and Michael (Robbie Sublett), the eldest child, wake up on a Saturday morning to have breakfast together in their suburban home. Afterward, they go on their way to the office of Dr. Livingston (Joe Morton), a psychiatrist. Each member of the Bernstein family has his or her own deep-rooted issues which they have bottled up inside them for many years. Throughout the course of the therapy sessions, Dr. Livingston uses his intellect and warmth to gradually open them up to articulate their true emotions as well as some dark secrets that threaten to shatter the family’s stability as a unit. None of the characters’ intimate disclosures will be spoiled here, but it’s worth mentioning that each revelation helps the audience to get to know the characters and to understand the family’s dynamics better. They actually feel like a real suburban family albeit a dysfunctional one. Writer/director Rob Margolies has a terrific ear for organic dialogue that’s evident in the realistic ways that the Bernstein family interact with one another as well as with the doctor. Moreover, he doesn’t have them spend too long within the therapist’s office, so there’s no atmosphere of claustrophobia to be felt. He also allows for each of the cast members to shine in his or her role and fully develops them so that, by the time they all leave the therapist’s office, you truly care about them because they’re interesting and complex human beings rather than the typical cardboard, forgettable characters that you would find in most dramas nowadays. The sensitive screenplay combines elements of drama and tragedy with a dash of razor-sharp humor which helps to ease the escalating tension and occasional moments of palpable somberness. The wise words of advice from Dr. Livingston never become preachy or awkward. Most importantly, Margolies deftly finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them intelligently, which is quite an amazing feat for a first-time writer/director. At an ideal running time of 91 minutes, Lifelines manages to be a refreshingly honest, intelligent and captivating drama brimming with warmth, tenderness and razor-sharp humor. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Kanbar Entertainment. Opens at the Quad Cinema.
Directed by Christophe Barratier.
In French with subtitles. In 1939, Germain Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot) works as the stage manager of the Chansonia music hall located in a work-class suburb of Paris. The Chansonia, though, has been suffering financially and eventually goes out of business. When the leftist Popular Front gained strength as part of the government of Léon Blum, France’s new Prime Minister, Pigoil pursuades Milou (Clovis Cornillac), Jacky (Kad Merad) and Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) to help him to re-open the music hall. Meanwhile, Pigoil’s wife, Viviane (Elisabeth Vitali), runs off with his son, Jojo (Maxence Perrin), who plays an accordian. In another subplot, a sexy dancer, Douce (Nora Arnezeder), auditions and wows everyone, especially with her beautiful looks and singing, which leads to many stares from the men and astonishes audiences. Soon enough, she boosts Chansonia’s business. Writer/director Christophe Barratier, who also directed the delightful, charming and engrossing film The Chorus, doesn’t quite blend the genres of drama, musical numbers, tragedy and comedy with much success and fluidity here. The plot often feels chaotic and scattershot with brief moments of liveliness only during some of the song and, later, the dance numbers. None of the characters truly stand out with the exception of Douce and the underused Pierre Richard who plays Monsieur TSF, an elderly, recluse man, so that makes it difficult to truly care about their dreams, desires, problems or anything else that they struggle through for that matter. On a positive note, the cinematography, costume and set designs all look exquisite and full of life, much unlike anyone onscreen. A much more engrossing and enchanting period piece about a re-opening of a performance hall is Mrs. Henderson Presents which never had a dull moment thanks to its genuinely tender, witty and sharp screenplay. Paris 36, on the other hand, despite its impressive production design and lively cinematography, feels mostly bland, uneven and contrived with only a few fleeting moments of palpable charm, poignancy and vivacity. Number of times I checked my watch: 5. Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Opens at the Paris Theatre and Regal Union Square 14.
The Song of Sparrows
Directed by Majid Majidi.
In Farsi with subtitles. Karim (Reza Naji) works on an ostrich farm located in a desert outside of Tehran. When one of the ostriches runs away, he desperately wants to catch it, but, no matter how many he doesn’t get close enough to it and eventually loses it completely. Those events just occur in the first act which lasts nearly half an hour. Some of the sequences of how he searches for the ostrich are quite funny in an offbeat sort of way. Soon enough, he loses his job and has to find different means of supporting his wife, Narges (Maryam Akbari), and two daughters. One of his daughters needs a new hearing aid, so he ventures out on his motorcycle into the city in hopes of buying one that’s affordable. In a humorous turn of events, he turns his motorcycle into a taxi service for businessmen, all of whom behave somewhat rudely and impatiently toward him, but at least he found some source of income. He also gets a job as a transporter of consumer products. There’s also subplot involving some of the young boys in the village who want to fill a water storage tank with clear water and many fish. Writer/director Majid Majidi keeps the plot and character development at a minimum just like he did in the prior films that he directed, The Willow Tree, Children of Heaven, and The Color of Paradise. Instead, he lets the overall atmosphere, facial expressions as well as cinematography itself to create drama and humor in a humanistic, subtle way. There aren’t any scenes that will make you actually cry or laugh-out-loud, but there are some mildly humorous and quietly tender ones that don’t hit you over the head. Majidi has a knack for emphasizing details, such as the young boy’s quest to find fish, which may not seem important at first, but they all serve some sort of a purpose eventually. At a running time of 96 minutes, The Song of Sparrows occasionally drags, but feels refreshingly down-to-earth and has enough gentle humor, striking visuals and thought-provoking use of symbolism to be mostly compelling and amusing. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Released by Regent Releasing. Opens at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.
In Spanish and English with subtitles. Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), nicknamed “Sugar”, a talented baseball pitcher living in the Dominican Republic, has a chance to enter the minor leagues by joining a baseball team in Kansas City. He has never been to the United States before and knows virtually no English. When he takes the opportunity to join the league, he hopes to get paid big money which will provide a lot much-needed income for him and his family back home in the Dominican Republic. He leaves his small town, San Pedro De Macoris, as well as his girlfriend to follow his dreams of becoming a successful baseball pitcher. Little does he know that his utopian vision of the “American dream” is all in his head and, in reality, life is quite tough in America. It’s not easy for him to assimilate to the American culture, especially when a kind, elderly couple let him stay at their rural home. In a rather contrived subplot, Sugar flirts with Anne (Ellary Porterfield), the couple’s teenage granddaughter. Will Sugar’s passion for success in the baseball world continue or will he feel unable to conquer the physical and psychological obstacles in his way? Co-writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the filmmaking team behind Half Nelson, do an adequate job of keeping you mostly captivated by the story itself, but the dull, ho-hum screenplay fails to bring the character of Sugar to life, so that you’re unable to feel truly engrossed and moved as you watch his different experiences as he interacts with others in America. Essentially, Sugar feels torn between the illusion of financial success in America and the warmth and comfort of his family back in the Dominican Republic. Algenis Perez Soto gives a decent performance as Sugar which does help you to care about his character somewhat, but without shedding any tears. Immigrants’ struggles of alienation and assimilation along with their shattered dreams sound like very provocative issues that should have been explored with much more sensitivity and detail here, but Boden and Fleck merely scratch the surface. At a running time of 118 minutes, Sugar manages to be often an often engaging drama that tackles provocative issues, but, without a sensitive and intelligent screenplay, it ultimately fails to be truly moving, profound or memorable. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Released by Sony Pictures Classics.