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Reviews for December 3rd, 2010

Dead Awake

Directed by Omar Naim.

Dylan (Nick Stahl) works at a funeral parlor ten years after a mysterious tragedy that left him sad, lonely and often alone. His one and only remain friend his boss, Decko (Brian Lynner), an Irishman whoís wise and witty. After working at a wake where many friends of the deceased show up, including his former girlfriend, Natalie (Amy Smart), he gets the idea to feign his death by posting an ad in the obituaries in hopes of seeing who will actually show up to his own wake. The deceit works successfully, and Natalie as well as Charlie (Rose McGowan), a drug addict whom he never met before, each pays him a visit the wake. It turns out that Natalie has a fiancť, Steve (Ben Martin), a successful, cocky guy whoís moving up the ladders in a law firm. Who is Charlie and how is she connected to Dylanís path? Who died at in the tragic car accident ten years ago, and who was behind the wheel of the car? Are Charlie and Dylan even truly alive for that matter? Those are just a few of the questions that co-writers Johnny Harrington, Justin Urich and David Boivin pose to the audience. Fortunately, they donít provide those answers right away, so youíll find yourself at the edge of your seat trying to figure out whatís real, whatís not and while trying to figure out precisely what happened during the catalytic car crash. By withholding key information and gradually revealing them to you whenever Dylan learns something, the co-writers make you feel as though youíre joining Dylan along for the suspenseful ride. The plotís tensions weaken during the third act because the co-writers stop trusting your intelligence as a perceptive viewer. They waste time with too many redundant bits information and spoon-feed them you thereby leaving virtually no room for subtlety or for you to make inferences and interpretations on your own. On a positive note, though, director Omar Naim includes settings, lighting and special effects that enrich the film with a mood that gyrates between creepy and dreamlike and help to keep you engaged more often than not. At running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, Dead Awake is an intriguing blend of mystery, suspense, drama and supernatural thrills that slightly loses steam as its trust in the audienceís intelligence wanes.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Opens at the AMC Empire and AMC/Loews 34th St.
Released by New Films Cinema.


Directed by Geoff Marslett.

When NASAís artificially intelligent robot, ART, breaks down after detecting what might be signs of extraterrestrial life on Mars, they send three astronauts on a mission to search for signs of life. The astronauts, namely, Charlie Brownsville (Mark Duplass), Dr. Casey Cook (Zoe Simpson) and Hank (Paul Gordon), arenít exactly the top-of-the-line in their field, and NASA doesnít have much hope theyíll survive the mission. A lot happens in terms of twists and turns of events that put their lives in further jeopardy, but none of those events will be spoiled here. The plot itself though is pretty straightforward; this isnít Solaris, after all. What makes it all engaging, aside from the stylish use of a process called Rotoscope that transforms live action into animation, is writer/director Geoff Marslettís strong attention to details and the interesting, evolving dynamics between Charlie, Casey and Hank as they struggle to survive together. Theyíre each funny in their own idiosyncratic way and, most importantly, flawed as human beings which makes them all the more true-to-life. Admittedly, though, the love triangle the occurs between them as Charlie and Hank both try to win Casey over isnít heartfelt enough to be truly endearing, so it feels slightly tacked-on, but that doesnít take away from the filmís entertainment value. A brief scene involving a cigar-smoking, U.S. President (Kinky Friedman) feels like it could easily fit in a Christopher Guest ďdocumentaryĒ because of how satirical and offbeat it comes across as. Marsletts includes other bits of playfulness every now and then so youíll find yourself amused more often than not, but youíll need to pay close attention to the background and foreground details to get a full sense how Mars pokes harmless fun and, sort of, subverts the sci-fi genre. At a brief running time of 1 hour and 22 minutes, Mars is imaginative, visually stylish and refreshingly character-driven albeit somewhat contrived. It could have been much more brilliant and compelling had it taken more risks by increasing its satirical bite.
Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Opens at the reRun Gastropub Theater.
Released by Swerve Pictures.

Night Catches Us

Directed by Tanya Hamilton.

In Philadelphia 1976, Marcus Washington (Anthony Mackie) returns to his neighborhood after being away for many years. He learns that his brother, Bostic (Tariq Trotter), has sold his home, so with nowhere left to stay, Marcus crashes at the home of Patricia Wilson (Kerry Washington), his longtime friend. She also happens to be the widow of a member of the Black Panthers who the police gunned down many years ago after someone snitched on him that he had shot a police officer. According to the remaining Black Panthers, that snitch is Marcus, so now Marcus has to deal with many people who have turned their back on him and become his enemy thereby putting his life in great danger with the gang members. Meanwhile, Iris (Jamara Griffin), Patriciaís daughter, bonds with him, and he and Patricia find themselves gradually falling in love. Writer/director Tanya Hamilton deftly creates an authentic mood of the era and culture through the set designs, costume designs, hair & make-up, and, most noticeable, the inclusion of music by The Roots. Both Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington give convincingly moving, well-nuanced performances that demonstrate how well they can handle a role that involves deeply-buried emotions that gradually rise to the surface. Itís unfortunate, though, that Hamiltonís screenplay feels so dull and, at times, even anti-climactic, given so many awkward moments of silence, needless slow pacing and not nearly enough flashbacks to fill in the gaps of Marcusí past which remain a mystery. Why not provide the audience with more leeway into the mind of Marcus and Patricia? Night Catches Us could have been much more powerful and riveting with a tighter and more compelling screenplay. At a running time of 1 hour and 28 minutes, itís a poorly-paced, bland and underwhelming drama that canít be saved by its authentic production values nor by Washington and Mackieís strong performances.
Number of times I checked my watch: 5
Opens at the Cinema Village.
Released by Magnolia Pictures.

Queen of the Lot

Directed by Henry Jaglom.

Maggie Chase (Tanna Frederick), an aspiring actress, wears an electronic ankle bracelet because her of her recent arrests for drunk driving. She remains in house arrest at the L.A. home of her managers, Kaz (Zack Norman) and Caesar (David Proval). Meanwhile, she dates a married man, Dov Lambert (Christopher Rydell), who has already become an A-list actor himself which probably has a something to do with the fact that heís the son of legendary film producer Louis Lambert (Jack Heller). When Dov brings Maggie over to his fatherís home, Maggie learns that she stands a chance of becoming a huge star if Louis were to cast her as the lead in an upcoming film. It just so happens to be that Louis desperately needs an imminent big hit to get him and his family out of debt---even his own house will be soon acquired by the bank if he canít find the money to pay back his loans. As Maggie struggles to overcome her insecurities and her addiction to alcohol as well as fame, she develops a romance with Dovís younger brother, Aaron (Noah Wyle), a failed screenwriter. The two of them share an emotional bond that she and Dov never had. In one of the most provocative scenes in Queen of the Lot, Maggie admits that she has a compulsion to checks how many Google hits she has each day and complains that the hits are much lower than Angelina Jolieís. Aaronís reaction to that, which wonít be spoiled here, shows his respect of Maggie as a human being. Heís good for her, but, just like any complex human being, heís got issues of his own to deal with. Writer/director Henry Jaglom has a knack for creating characters who may not be entirely likable, but at least theyíre true-to-life and exhibit a wide range of emotions. Tanna Frederick sinks her teeth in teeth into the role of Maggie with finesse because she convincingly tackles Maggieís vulnerability, charisma and neediness as she struggles to find her own happiness in the cutthroat world of fame in Hollywood, a task thatís much easier said than done. At times, the plot does tend to meander and have a few awkward, contrived and uneven scenes, but, Jaglom primarily shows that he has an insider knowledge of the way the film industry in L.A. truly works and how it takes its emotion tolls on its rising stars. If youíre not truly familiar with the film culture/industry in L.A., youíll find yourself occasionally bored and probably miss some or even most of the keen observations and inside jokes peppered throughout. Another one of Jaglomís strengths as writer/director, which he also portrayed in Hollywood Dreams is his ability to balance drama and romance with just the right sprinkle of dry humor. To complain that Queen of the Lot is too talky wouldnít be a reasonable or fair criticism because what matters is not how often the characters talk, but whether they actually say anything of value or meaning, which, in this case, is mostly true. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, Queen of the Lot is a provocative and funny satire thatís somewhat uneven, awkward and contrived. Tanna Frederick once again proves to be a sexy, charismatic and immensely talented actress.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Opens at the Quad Cinema. Center.
Released by Rainbow Releasing.

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