(Opening Night Film)
The Duchess of Langeais - Directed by Jacques Rivette.
Based on La Duchesse de Langeais by Balzac. In 19th Century France, General Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu—son of Gerard Depardieu), and Duchess Antoinette de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar) fall in love and play a tricky game of romance and power struggle with one another. Guillaume Depardieu and Jeanne Balibar both give captivating performances and it’s mildly interesting to watch their characters mess around with each other’s minds. However, writer/director Jacques Rivette fails to bring them to life so that their chemistry feels palpable or that you actually care about them to begin with. Too many scenes have bland dialogue, flashbacks, excessive flashforwards that distract from the plot’s overall momentum and leave gaps. On a positive note, the production values are all superb from the authentic costume/set design to the exquisite cinematography. At a running time of 2 hours and 17 minutes, The Duchess of Langeais often drags and overstays its welcome. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by IFC First Take. Opens at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on February 22nd, 2008.
Boarding Gate - Directed by Olivier Assayas.
In English, French and Cantonese with subtitles. Sandra (Asia Argento) has an S&M relationship with her ex-pimp, Miles (Michael Madsen), and wants to own his nightclub. Meanwhile, behind his back, she works as a drug trafficker for Lester (Carl Ng) and his wife Sue (Kelly Lin) and has a secret affair with Lester. As the plot progresses, Sandra sinks deeper and deeper into trouble and must defend herself from those who want her dead. Asia Argento gives a seductive performance, but her character comes across as rather bland and unremarkable—although she’s quite easy on the eyes. She and Miles have too little chemistry for you to care about their relationship or what ends up happening to either of them. Unfortunately, writer/director Olivier Assayas fails to generate any real thrills by the tedious, unimaginative and confusing plot. Many scenes plot a long with very little purpose other than to appeal to those who just want to see sex and violence. The overall sleaziness mixed with vapid dialogue leaves you with a bad aftertaste. If only Assayas could have upped the ante a bit more with the plot and incuded some wit and coherence, this would have been at least a guilty pleasure. Number of times I checked my watch: 8. Entertainment Value: Low. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Magnet Films. Opens at the Cinema Village on March 21st, 2008.
Chop Shop - Directed by Ramin Bahrani.
12-year-old Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco) and his 16-year-old sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales) struggle to make a living together in Willet’s Point, a.k.a. the slums of Queens, New York near Shea Stadium. They both dream of refurbishing a dilapidated food truck to sell tacos in while Alejandro works at a “chop shop”, an auto repair shop that uses stolen car parts. The drama between Alejandro and his sister somewhat escalates when he discovers what she really does when she goes out at night. Each actor hasn’t had experience acting in a film before, yet they’re all surprisingly convincing in their roles—in fact, the chop shop owner, Rob, is played by a realchop shop owner, Rob Sowulski. The setting of Willet’s Point becomes a character in itself, full of small details that make it seem like an uncivilized part of the world with lots of mud, filth, hard labor and poverty all around. Writer/director Ramin Bahrani has a knack for creating absorbing slices-of-life that flow like cinema verité. Like with his last film, Man Push Cart, he wisely keeps many scenes understated without preachiness so that you become entranced by the film once you gradually get used to its characters, surroundings and small interactions which underscore a longing to escape poverty and to just survive the many hardships of daily life. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: High. Released by Koch Lorber Films. Opens at the Film Forum on February 27th, 2008.
Dark Matter - Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng.
Based on a true story. Liu Xing (Liu Ye) travels from his homeland, China, to a university in America where he joins the cosmology research team headed by Professor Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn). He struggles to adapt to Western culture while proposing a theory about “dark matter” that goes against the theory of his professor. Meanwhile, Joanna Silver (Meryl Streep), the professor’s wife, occasionally mentors and encourages him to pursue his research further. Despite an imaginative plot and a provocative look at the tensions within academia, none of it really goes far enough to be powerful or surprising. Aidan Quinn gives a strong performance as Liu’s smarmy professor who always likes to be in control. Unfortunately, Liu Xing doesn’t have enough material here to truly stand out here as a student who eventually loses his mind. Writer/director Chen Shi-Zheng fails to get you into Liu’s head so that you know what he’s feeling throughout his experiences and interactions until he finally snaps. Shi-Zheng also underuses the talents of Meryl Streep, who rarely shows up onscreen even though she’s considered part of the cast. With poor character development and contrived subplots that fail to be moving or engaging, the plot completely falls apart in the over-the-top third act. The details of what happens won’t be spoiled here, but keep in mind that it’s depressing, too sudden and unsatisfying given where the rest of the film was headed. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by First Independent Pictures. Opens at the Village East Cinemas on April 11th, 2008.
The Edge of Heaven - Directed by Fatih Akin.
In German and Turkish with subtitles. After Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz) accidentally kills a prostitute, Yeter (Nursel Kose), and gets thrown into jail, his son, Nejat (Baki Davrak) moves to Istanbul to find Yeter’s 27-year-old daughter, Ayten (Nurgul Yesilcay), a political activist, to pay for her education. Meanwhile, Ayten hides out in Germany to escape the Turkish police. She befriends and falls in love with Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska), who desperately tries to rescue her when she gets deported back to Turkey. Lotte’s mother eventually tries to help as well. Although the plot seems convoluted in hindsight, writer/director Fatih Akin does a superb job of building up suspense by the way he connects the characters and subplots unpredictably and with surprisingly tender moments. The shifts in point-of-view tend to be initially jolting because there’s no single protagonist to root for, but that’s what makes the story much more intriguing and refreshing to watch. If it were all told in a linear fashion with only one protagonist, it would’ve been dull and tedious. Terrific performances, especially by Nurgul Yesilcay and Patrycia Ziolkowska, along with strong dramatic tension help to keep you thoroughly engaged. The Edge of Heaven doesn’t overstay its welcome at a running time of 122 minutes and ultimately manages to be powerful, riveting and absorbing like after reading an intricately layered, sweeping novel. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Strand Releasing. Opens at the Film Forum on May 21st, 2008.
Flash Point - Directed by Wilson Yip.
In Mandarin and Cantonese with subtitles. Sergeant Ma (Donnie Yen) and undercover cop Wilson (Louis Koo) hunt down Ja Ge (Ray Lui), Tony (Collin Chou) and Tiger (Xing Yu), a gang of Vietnamese brothers. Fans of martial arts will be pleased to know that the action sequences feel rousing, thrilling and occasionally over-the-top. However, it takes a while for Flash Point to truly get to gain that momentum after a first act that drags on a bit with too much exposition. Watching Donnie Yen show off his martial arts skills is the true highlight of the movie which, along with director Wilson Yip’s fast-paced editing, adds to the adrenaline-pumped excitement. Co-writers Szeto Kam-Yuen and Nicholl weave in a contrived drama and romance along with some offbeat comic relief—like a highly explosive microwaved turkey. If only the script didn’t take itself so seriously at times, this could have been consistently fun rather than just sporadically fun. Overall, Flash Point works best as a midnight B-movie that would’ve been a terrific double feature with last year’s wildly over-the-top Dynamite Warrior. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: None is required or desired as long as you suspend your disbelief. Released by Third Rail Releasing and Genius Products. Opens at the Quad Cinema and the ImaginAsian on March 14th, 2008.
In French with subtitles. During the late 60’s, Gerard (Benoît Régent) and Marianne (Johanna ter Steege) become romantically involved with each other while taking drugs. After splitting up with him, Marianne returns to tempt him away from his new, serious girlfriend, Aline (Brigitte Sly). Although writer/director Phillip Garrel includes very poetic and sensitive cinematography and a slow pace that allows relaxing, gentle and somewhat pensive mood, there are too many awkward pauses and silences that feel rather pretentious. The dialogue itself feels just as bland as the unimaginative plot. Moreover, none of the performances are particularly memorable and occasionally seem wooden—especially Benoît Régent’s performance as Gerard—so it’s difficult to truly care about any of the characters. Originally filmed in 1991, I Don’t Hear the Guitar Anymore looks bright and crisp with a fresh new print, but the film itself fails to be engaging or moving. Even at a running time of 98 minutes, it still overstays its welcome. Number of times I checked my watch: 9. Entertainment Value: Highly Moderate. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by The Film Desk. Opens March 7th, 2008 at the Cinema Village.