Flight of the Red Balloon - Directed by Hou Hsiao Hsien.
In French with subtitles. Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), a busy mother, hires Song (Fang Song), a Taiwanese woman, to take care of her son, Simon (Simon Iteanu). As Simon and Song wander through the streets of Paris, a red balloon follows them along. Just because film has a slow pace doesn’t make it inherently boring, but, in this case, there’s very few redeeming elements to keep you immersed in the story. None of the scenes feel poignant or compelling in any way. Co-writer/director Hou Hsiao Hsien aims for poetic, nuanced moments and ends up with a very empty, monotonous tone. Even Juliette Binoche doesn’t have enough material to add her charm and to breathe life into the film. It’s quite disappointing that the only interesting character onscreen happens to be the red balloon of the title, which occasionally appears to wake you up from all the dullness and boredom. At a running time of 114 minutes, Flight of the Red Balloon overstays its welcome and often drags. For a much more emotionally rewarding and engaging film, check out The Red Balloon, a short film from the 1950’s that also featured a red balloon following its characters. Number of times I checked my watch: 9. Entertainment Value: Low. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by IFC First Take. Opens at the IFC Center and The Paris Theatre.
Jellyfish - Directed by Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret.
In Hebrew with subtitles. Batya (Sarah Adler) tries to figure out the origins of a mysterious little girl (Nikol Leidman) while an old woman, Malka (Zaharira Harifai), reconnects with her daughter (Ilanit Ben-Yaakov), a thespian, and interacts with her Filipino caretaker, Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre). In another subplot, Keren (Noa Knoller) and Michael (Gera Sandler), newlyweds, spend their honeymoon in a small hotel overlooking the ocean where Michael flirts with a writer (Bruria Albeck) staying at the hotel. All these parallel subplots have a few tender, poignant and lyrical moments, but, for the most part they simply meander without enough focus. Screenwriter Shira Geffen includes plenty of characters that could have been more interesting with insight into the lives of the characters instead of pretentiously trying to add some symbolism and to connect everything together indirectly. The cinematography looks great with picturesque scenery—although, how difficult is it really to make the Mediterranean look beautiful? With its very brief running time of 78 minutes, Jellyfish is harmless, underwhelming and ultimately forgettable. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Entertainment Value: Low. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Zeitgeist Films. Opens at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
Leatherheads - Directed by George Clooney.
During the 1920’s, Dodge (George Clooney), a pro football player, recruits Carter (John Krasinski) to play for the Duluth Bulldogs. Meanwhile, they both fall head-over-heels for Lexie (Renée Zellweger), a newspaper reporter who tries to dig up some dirt about Carter’s wartime past. Despite an appealing, charismatic ensemble cast (including the amazing Jonathan Pryce in a supporting role), there’s not enough to hold your attention for 114 minutes. The unfocused screenplay by co-writers Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly awkwardly jumps from slapstick comedy to drama to romance and to, briefly, some sports action. You’ll feel like you’re watching three or four movies all at once with virtually no believable scenes. Also, there are a few careless anachronisms, such as when Lexie smokes a filtered cigarette, which didn’t even exist during the 1920’s. Director George Clooney includes a light and breezy atmosphere, but too many scenes that drag on and on with such a sluggish pace that they can easy serve as a cure for insomnia. If this film were a human, it would be a schizophrenic, lazy and careless one. Clooney should have increased the comedy at full throttle instead of chaotically mixing it up with a bunch of other genres and edited the film down so that it moves along smoothly so Leatherheads would be much more entertaining rather than schizophrenic, lazy and careless. Number of times I checked my watch: 8. Entertainment Value: Low. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Universal Pictures.
My Blueberry Nights - Directed by Wong Kar Wai.
Elizabeth (Nora Jones), who recently was dumped by her boyfriend, chats up with a bartender, Jeremy (Jude Law), at the bar and orders blueberry pie. She also befriends Arnie (David Strathairn), an alcoholic, suicidal cop dealing with his cheating wife (Rachel Weisz). Many days later, Elizabeth goes on a road trip to Nevada with Leslie (Natalie Portman), a gambler. The performance by Nora Jones in her big screen debut is mediocre at best—not as wooden as Britney Spears, but not particularly convincing either. Everyone else’s character seems poorly developed and one-dimensional, including Jeremy who’s supposed to have some chemistry to with Elizabeth, but it falls flat on its face. More scenes with talented actors Rachel Weisz and David Strathairn would have been helpful to make the drama much more absorbing rather than bland. Co-writer/director Wong Kar Wai creates a melancholic atmosphere through the use of lighting, colors, pacing and music. He films many scenes behind glass which adds some dreaminess to it. Unfortunately, the running time of 90 minutes feels much longer because of all the tedious scenes and dull characters. If only Wong Kar Wai would have used some more imagination with the plot and characters, My Blueberry Nights would have been a much more entertaining and powerful film rather than one that quickly loses momentum and remains watchable mostly because of the exquisite cinematography. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by The Weinstein Company. Opens at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
Nim’s Island - Directed by Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin.
Based on the novel by Wendy Orr. Nim (Abigail Breslin) lives alone with her father, Jack (Gerard Butler), a scientist. When he disappears out to sea, Nim summons the help of Alex Rover (Gerard Butler), an Indiana Jones-like character from her favorite novel. Jodie Foster plays Alexandra Rover, the agoraphobic author of the novel who communicates with Nim through email and decides to travel to Nim’s island to help to find her father. The convoluted plot jumps around from Nim’s story, to Alexandra’s story in New York and to Jack’s story on the high seas, with awkward transitions. Abigail Breslin tries to add some cuteness and charm, but doesn’t have enough material here to shine. Even Jodie Foster, who always acts with conviction, doesn’t have the chance to sink her teeth into her role. Co-screenwriters Joseph Kwong, Paula Mazur, Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett simply cram too much into the 96-minute running time with too many plot holes and too few scenes of adventure. Little kids will enjoy all the pretty, colorful sights of the tropics and all the animals, but adults will often find themselves rolling their eyes from all the corniness and the very silly, rushed plot. Nim’s Island would have ultimately worked much better as a cartoon. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Entertainment Value: Moderately low. Spiritual Value: None is required or desired as long as you suspend your disbelief. Released by Fox-Walden.
Sex and Death 101 - Directed by Daniel Waters.
Roderick Blank (Simon Baker), who’s about to get married, receives an email that lists 101 people who he has had sex with and will have sex with until the day he dies. He leaves his fiancée and goes on a quest to sleep with everyone on the list. Meanwhile, there’s a serial killer (Winona Ryder) on the loose who targets men. Simon Baker lacks the charisma and comic timing to carry the film as Roderick. Too many of situations that he goes through with women are either forced, awkward or both. Mindy Cohn (from The Facts of Life) adds some brief laughs as Roderick’s assistant as does Patton Oswald (best known as the voice of Remy the rat in Ratatouille) who charismatically plays an employee at the out-of-this-world place that controls Roderick’s crazy situation. It would have been much more refreshing and entertaining to watch Patton Oswald as the lead instead of Simon Baker. Writer/director Daniel Waters, who previously wrote Demolition Man and Heathers, fails to find the right tone for this unfocused film. He even includes some necrophilia to try to milk as much gross-out comedy as possible. Despite an imaginative plot that has the potential to generate laughs and at least some insight, Sex and Death, unfortunately, falls flat upon execution. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: None is required or desired as long as you check your brain at the door and suspend your disbelief. Released by Anchor Bay Entertainment. Opens at the Village East Cinemas.
Tuya’s Marriage - Directed by Wang Quanan.
In Mandarin with subtitles. On an Inner Mongolian farm, Tuya (Yu Nan), must find a new husband who can also provide for her current husband (Bater) who’s injured with a lumbar dislocation and can’t go back to work. The plot begins in the future when Tuya is about to get married and cries before her wedding, then flashes back to the events that led up to that moment. Writer/director Wang Quanan aims for realism and does a decent job of achieving it except when some scenes feel contrived while other drag and meander. None of the characters come to life enough so that you care about what happens to them. On a positive note, Yu Nan’s raw performance along with the picturesque Mongolian landscapes and impressive costume design keeps you from feeling thoroughly bored. However, Tuya’s Marriage often lacks a strong enough dramatic and emotional pull to allow you to be truly immersed and engaged by the story. Number of times I checked my watch: 5. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Music Box Films. Opens at the Cinema Village.
Water Lilies - Directed by Céline Sciamma.
In French with subtitles. Marie (Pauline Acquart), a shy 15-year-old, befriends Floriane (Adele Haenel), a promiscuous and popular girl on the school swim team. Their new friendship threatens the relationship between Marie and her best friend, Anne (Louise Blachère), an overweight, unpopular girl. Both Anne and Floriane pine for François (Warren Jacquin), a hunky male swimmer. What initially sounds like a typically contrived teen drama actually turns out to be surprisingly tender and absorbing coming-of-age story. Even though Floriane might seem like a bad influence on Marie, there’s much more to her than meets the eye. Each young actress gets a chance to shine and give a very convincing performance. First-time writer/director Céline Sciamma wisely allows the plot to progress organically and doesn’t rely on sex or violence as a means to entertain—like in the movie Kids. The sensitive screenplay allows for the character of Marie to change believable without any contrivances or eye-rolling scenes. Water Lilies ultimately succeeds as a poignant coming-of-age drama because it’s driven by strongly-developed characters that you care about as complex individuals rather than caricatures. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: High. Released by Koch Lorber Films. Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.