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Reviews for February 12th, 2010

Barefoot to Timbuktu

Directed by Martina Egi.

In French, German, English, Sorai and Arabic with subtitles. This fascinating, inspirational documentary focuses on the life and work of Ernst Aebi, a Swiss-American artist and social activist who travelled all the way from New York City to the tiny village of Araoane outside of Timbuktu, Mali back in 1987. He took the opportunity to help the small community to survive and improve their way of life by showing them how to grow and maintain a vegetable garden, opening a school and a hotel there as well as putting together an irrigation system. One of the most valuable lessons that he taught the Araoane people was to make productive use of their time by working and educating themselves. It wasn’t an easy task for him to accomplish all of that because he had to spend a lot of money to pay for all of the supplies, such as batteries and solar panels, that his brother kindly shipped to him. Director Martina Egi wisely incorporates Ernst’s background information and life before his adventures in Mali. He moved to New York City in the 60’s and made a little money from selling his abstract paintings, but his main source of income was from buying dilapidated SoHo apartments, renovating them and then making a large profit after selling them. You also get a chance to hear his children candidly speak about what it was like growing up with their father and how his second wife became a part of his journey in Araoane. It’s equally compelling and heartwarming to listen to Ernst as he vividly recalls his barefoot trek to Araoane and all of the obstacles that came along his way, such as getting robbed in the middle of the Sahara desert. He recently travelled back to the villagefor the first time in 20 years to observe how it has changed and, as it turns out, the results weren’t quite as he had hoped they would be, yet his enthusiasm and persistence always carries on to this very day nor matter what. Egi does a terrific job of bringing out Ersnt’s warmth, wisdom, sense of humor, unadulterated charisma and kindness of heart throughout his many interviews. He puts words into action and keeps his promises. He’s not without his faults, though, because he’s fallible just like any human, but if only everyone on this planet were as selfless, considerate, compassionate, productive and intelligent as him, perhaps we would be living in a much more sustainable world where everyone makes the most out of what they have and, essentially, turning lemons into lemonade---after all, what doesn’t kill you always makes you stronger. At a running time of only 84 minutes, Barefoot to Timbuktu manages to be captivating, inspirational and profoundly illuninating. It’s a life-affirming celebration of compassion, hope, persistence and generosity of heart.
Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by MPI Media Productions.
Opens at the Quad Cinema.

My Name is Khan

Directed by Karan Johar.

In English and Hindi with subtitles. Rizwan Khan (Shahrukh Khan), a young man suffering from autism, lives with his loving and supportive mother in India. When she dies, he travels all the way to San Francisco so that his younger brother, Zakir (Jimmy Shergill) could take care of him. Zakir’s wife, Hasina (Sonya Jehan), happens to be a psychologist and diagnosis Rizwan with Asperger’s syndrome, a neurological disorder that affects his behavior, i.e. making him sensitive to certain sounds and the color of yellow. His brother kindly helps to get him a job as a beauty products salesman and, one day, he enters a salon where he meets Mandira (Kajol), a hairstylist who has gone through a bad divorce with her ex-husband and lives with her 6-year-old son, Sameer (Yuvaan Makar). They get along with one another and fall in love despite that Rizwan is a Muslim and Mandira is a Hindu. Rizwan’s mother once told him that in life there are only good people who do good things and bad people who do bad things regardless of their religion. Rizwan and Mandira get married and move together into the suburbs and get along with one another until the events of 9/11 transpire thereby increasing the tensions between Hindus and Muslims. After a tragedy occurs, which won’t be spoiled here, Mandira kicks Rizwan out of the house and tells him not to come back until he has told the U.S. President face-to-face that he’s not a terrorist. He now goes on a desperate mission to fulfill his promise. Screenwriter Shibani Bathija combines drama, romance and tragedy with mostly endearing and captivating results thanks to well-chosen cast and lack of preachiness. The entire burden rests on Shahrukh Khan to carry the film and, fortunately, he gives a very charismatic performance that covers a wide range of emotions very convincingly. Morever, he’s delightfully amusing during the scenes of comic relief which help to lighten the plot’s heaviness. At time the dialogue does feel a bit corny and contrived, but that’s easily forgivable because you’ll find it easy to care about Rizwan throughout his journeys in the U.S. while cherishing the virtues of compassion and tolerance that he had learned from his mother back in India. His journeys are not only physical ones but also very spiritual because his experiences help to learn the harsh realities of life and how to overcome them. At a running time of 2 hours and 40 minutes, My Name is Khan is captivating, well-acted and heartfelt with inspirational, important messages about tolerance, compassion, endurance, hope, honesty and, above all, the power of love.

(Please click here to read an article about the cover-up of hidden MSG and its potential links to autism as well as other neurodegenerative disorders.)
Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Opens at the AMC Empire 25, AMC Loews Village 7 and Big Manhattan I.

October Country

Directed by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher.

This haunting and engrossing documentary follows the members of the dysfunctional Mosher family over the course of one year. They live in a small town located in New York’s Mohawk Valley and each of them has his or her own deep-rooted struggles that they candidly discuss on camera. Dottie, the matriarch, explains early on that all that everyone has to hold onto in life is one’s own family. Dottie’s husband, Don, served in the Vietnam War. When he returned from the war in 1968, his personality changed: he became cold and, as he himself readily admits, and asshole. He’s a bad husband and a bad father, but when it comes down to it, he’s traumatized and haunted by his past while bottling his thoughts and feelings. He and Dottie adopted a teenage foster son, Chris, who drug problems, can’t stop stealing from stores such as Wal-Mart, and ends up in jail. Don’s estranged sister, Denise, practices the religion of Wicca and suffers from arthritis as well other health problems which she takes medication for. Dottie, the voice of reason who gives brief kernels of wisdom throughout the film, observes that her granddaughter, Daneal, has been repeating the same mistakes that her mother, Donna, had made by letting the men in her life abuse her physically and, even worse, mentally. Daneal goes through custody battles with her abusive boyfriend over their 2-year old daughter, Ruby, and you can’t help but wonder if Ruby will continue the pattern of choosing abusive boyfriends when she grows up. As you may have already realized by now, the Mosher family loves to pick names for their children that start with the letter “D”, so, not surprisingly, Donna’s 11-year-old daughter, is named Denise. She admits that she comes from a messed-up family, spends a lot of her time playing video games, and hopes that she won’t have to drop out of high school like her older sister, Daneal, did. How realistic is that hope? Co-directors Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, Donna’s brother, wisely decide not to preach to the audience or to include voice-over narration that spells everything out for the audience. In other words, they trust your intelligence and perceptiveness as an audience member while allowing you to take away whatever you want from the assembled footage. The footage itself looks like much more than merely home videos thanks to exquisite cinematography and editing that enriches the film on an aesthetic level and adds some interesting symbolism. Is the Mosher family a microcosm of much larger issues facing modern American families? Given that they go through a variety of mental and physical struggles, does that make them beyond the norm? How would you define “normal” for that matter? Would family therapy help them or would that be a futile endeavor? Those are some more questions that you’ll find yourself pondering while observing the dynamics of the Mosher family as reveal their many complex troubles. Their intimate revelations seem like a diary that provides you with a glimpse of their family life “backstage” behind the curtain of privacy that often masks every family’s problems from being exposed for all to see. Children should watch October Country with their entire family present in to openly discuss and interpret the Mosher family’s mistakes with them and to learn valuable lessons and harsh truths from those discussions that might help to strengthen their own family’s bond and stability. Realistically, though, that task is easier said than done, but the initial, crucial steps toward escaping and avoiding those and other mistakes include becoming aware of them and truly understanding where they’re rooted. At a running time of only 1 hour and 20 minutes, October Country manages to be an enlightening, well-edited, haunting, thoroughly compelling and unflinchingly honest documentary that’s essential viewing for every family, whether dysfunctional or not. It finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them intellectually as well as emotionally.
Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by International Film Circuit.
Opens at the IFC Center.

Valentine’s Day

Directed by Garry Marshall.

Reed (Ashton Kutcher), a florist, proposes to his girlfriend, Morley (Jessica Alba), but she’s not ready to make that big commitment yet. Meanwhile, Reed’s platonic friend, Julia (Jennifer Garner), travels to meet her lover, Harrison (Patrick Dempsey), and little does she believe that he’s actually married even when Reed goes all the way to the airport boarding area to warn her. A publicist, Kara (Jessica Biel), must deal with a private confession that her client, Sean (Eric Dane), makes at a press conference where a TV reporter, Kelvin (Jamie Foxx) is at. Kathy Bates briefly shows up as Kelvin’s producer. Holden (Bradley Cooper) interacts with a soldier, Kate (Julie Roberts), who sits beside him on airplane. Little does Jason (Topher Grace) know that his new girlfriend, Liz (Anne Hathaway), actually moonlights as an adult phone entertainer while working as a receptionist for Paula (Queen Latifah), Sean’s agent. Willy (Taylor Lautner) and Felicia (Taylor Swift), two dimwitted high school teens, are madly attracted to one another and aren’t afraid to show public displays of affection. Another high school couple, Grace (Emma Roberts) and Alex (Carter Jenkins), attempt to lose their virginity at Grace’s house when her mother isn’t expected to be at home. Estelle (Shirley Maclaine) confesses to her longtime husband, Edgar (Hector Elizondo), about the time that she cheated on him many years ago. If you think all of these subplots blended together sound so overstuffed and unfocused, just wait until you watch how they unfold with such headache-inducing dullness and silliness. The lazy screenplay by Katherine Fugate fails to bring any of these characters to life and leaves every couple with no romantic chemistry as the plot gyrates chaotically back and forth from one story to another. You’ll feel like you’re watching 10 films all at once, none of which is the least bit compelling, funny or heartfelt. On top of that, the city of Los Angeles itself comes across as the most interesting character in itself. Imagine everything you enjoyed about other romcoms like Love Actually or, the quintessential one, When Harry Met Sally, take away all the charm, intelligent humor, memorable characters, genuine poignancy and witty dialogue, and you’ll end up with something along the lines of Valentine’s Day. On a positive note, director Garry Marshall includes a lively soundtrack and one of the most star-studded, attractive ensemble casts in recent memory. Valentine’s Day ultimately manages to be stale, unfunny, painfully dull, asinine and charmless. It’s the antithesis of everything that a truly great romantic comedy ought to be.
Number of times I checked my watch: 7
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Opens nationwide.


Directed by Erik Gandini.

In English and Italian with subtitles. This marginally fascinating, unfocused documentary tackles the issue ofPrime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s control over the mass media and celebrity culture in Italy. Over 30 years ago, Berlusconi bought a local television station that aired a late-night quiz show which featured a sexy woman disrobing after every correct answer. The show’s success initiated growing business and control of TV channels and programs which mimic the show’s sex appeal. He used his control over Italian TV and media to advance his ego and greed, two vices that, when combined with politics, is a serious threat to democracy. Italians, just like the vast majority of simple-minded Americans, don’t even realize that they’re living in fascist times, but importantly, they don’t truly grasp the concept of democracy and how easy it is for a would-be dictator to close down democracy legally. The footage of Berlusconi on TV and in newspapers shows him smiling a lot—he almost smiles almost as much as the singers in the musical group Up with People. Any perceptive viewer, though, would notice that his smile looks very unnatural and that his charismatic and warm personality is merely a performance---after all, Adolf Hitler was also charismatic as he rose to power in Germany. Perhaps one day after Americans finally wake up, history books will add George W. Bush to the list of rulers who tried to systematically close down democracy and to use fascist tactics straight out of the playbook of would-be dictators. Director Erik Gandini also follows Lele Mora, a powerful TV agent who’s not ashamed of being a follower of Mussolini and who candidly admits that he likes fascism. That eyebrow-raising statement during the interview in Mora’s luxurious home could have been explored much deeper, but Gandini squanders that opportunity and instead goes on to document the adventures of Fabrizio Corona, an infamous paparazzo who takes very revealing photos of celebrities and sells it to them because they don’t want those photos to damage their career. Corona serves time in prison for extortion, but becomes a huge celebrity himself--- it’s still all about ego and greed. In another interview, Ricky Canevali, a mechanic still living with his mother, is obsessed with becoming a celebrity and aspires to be a Jean-Claud van Damme who dances like Ricky Martin. You’ll feel like you’re watching a Christopher film whenever he’s onscreen. Gandini, again, fails to examine this absurdity and doesn’t ask any provocative, meaty questions; instead he opts for style over substance. At a running time of 1 hour and 24 minutes, Videocracy is marginally engaging and amusing, but often lazy, meandering, unenlightening, excessively facile and underwhelming.
Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Lorber Films.
Opens at the IFC Center.

The Wolfman

Directed by Joe Johnston.

Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) returns to his hometown village, Blackmoor, to find his missing older brother, Ben (Simon Merrells), whose fiancée, Gwen Coliffe (Emily Blunt), desperately searches for as well. It turns out that Ben had died an unnatural death when attacked by something mysterious that’s currently plaguing the village and viciously killing many of its inhabitants. Lawrence has yet to come to terms with his mother’s death during his childhood. The image of his father, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), holding his dead mother, whose throat is slit, still haunts him to this very today. One night, Laurence goes out during a full moon and gets attacked by a mysterious creature that leaves him with a few deep gashes on his chest. His wounds somehow heal fast and he gains strength all-of-a-sudden, sparking the suspicions of Abberline (Hugo Weaving), an inspector. Soon enough, he transforms into a werewolf and must avoid being held hostage for medical examiners who strap him to a chair in front of a large crowd. Co-screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self have taken the screenplay by Curt Siodmak based on the 1941 film and turned it into a gory, uneven mess that lacks palpable scares and thrills as well. An intelligent and alert audience member should be able to figure out everything that happens throughout the film within the first 15 minutes, so there’s no sense of mystery or suspense to be found. Whenever Lawrence turns into a werewolf, you’ll find a few mindlessly entertaining scenes, but they soon become tedious and just as bland as the scenes during which he’s a human. Any moments meant to be tender or heartbreaking feel cold and dull instead. Anthony Hopkins does add some gravitas to the role of Sir John Talbot and, at times, his performance somewhat recalls the creepiness of much better-developed character Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs. Director Joe Johnston, who previously directed Hidalgo, Jurassic Park III and October Sky, moves between fast-paced action sequences and slow-paced dramatic scenes very unevenly, although it’s worth mentioning that on a purely aesthetic level, the cinematography, musical score, make-up effects and settings do add some visual richness to an otherwise dull film. At a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes, The Wolfman manages to be visually stylish and initially suspenseful, but too unevenly paced while deficient in surprises, imagination and palpable thrills.
Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Universal Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

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