Beyond Belief - Directed by Beth Murphy.
This poignant documentary focuses on the efforts of two widows, Susan Retik and Patti Quigley, who both lost their husband on 9/11. Instead of becoming angry and seeking revenge, they channel their grief and frustrations by starting an organization called “Beyond the 11th”, which send out aid to Afghan women, many of them also widows just like them. Director Beth Murphy spends a little too much time documenting the events before Susan and Patti head out to Afghanistan to meet the women who they’re helping to survive. It’s interesting and inevitably moving to watch how they both come together and cope during difficult times after they just lost the love of their life on 9/11. The Afghan women receive the generous aide, i.e. incubators for their baby chicks instead of money which some of them expect to receive. There aren’t enough insightful interviews, though, that illuminate what’s going on inside their heads beyond generally known statements like that they don’t like wearing burkas. Nevertheless, the overall message about having compassion toward others and choosing life rather than seeking revenge and violence is a timely and important wake-up call to all those who naively support the current war in Iraq or any war ever fought, for that matter. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Entertainment Value: Highly Moderate. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by The Film Sales Company. Opens at Cinema Village.
Burning the Future: Coal in America - Directed by David Novack.
This documentary focuses on how mountaintop coal mining affects the environment and residents, such as Maria Gunnoe, in West Virginia. The coal mining itself alters the shape of the mountain which, in turn, changes the flow of the rivers and streams that flow from it—and cause severe flooding during rainstorms. Worst of all, the coal mining and burning allows for harmful chemicals to seep into the residents’ water supply which leads to many healthy problems, and potentially to death. Director David Novack makes all these points very clearly through interviews with experts and local residents of West Virginia who show you evidence of the coal mining’s harm. What’s even more startling is how politicians refuse to take any action to solve this significant problem even though Maria and other activists go all the way to congress to try to get somebody to listen to them. A seemingly retarded journalist asks them why don’t they move their homes somewhere safer even though they’ve lived there much longer than the coal miners had arrived to destroy their lives. There’s not enough focus on and insight, though, as to how the coal mining companies should change their methods in practical ways to ameliorate the status quo. It’s ultimately sad that our incompetent government cares more about big business and themselves rather than the health of our very own citizens, such as those who live in small mining towns in West Virginia. At least Burning the Future allows them to be heard, for a change. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Moderately High. Released by American Coal Productions, Inc. Opens at Landmark Sunshine Cinemas.
City of Men - Directed by Paulo Morelli.
In Portugese with subtitles. Within the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Ace (Douglas Silva), 18, helps his best friend Wallace (Darlan Cunha), 17, to find his long-lost father, Heraldo (Rodrigo de Santos), who’s been in jail for 15 years. Because of a dark secret regarding Heraldo’s past, Ace turns against Wallace by joining a street gang. Although not quite as intense or riveting as City of God, the plot at least manages to be somewhat compelling thanks to decent performances by the entire cast. Screenwriter Elena Soarez breathes life into the characters by making them complex and interesting, especially Wallace, whom you truly care about throughout his experiences in the favelas. When Wallace interacts with his father, that’s when the film feels the most poignant—more scenes like that would have been beneficial to the ho-hum plot. Some scenes feel a bit tedious and contrived, but, fortunately, director Paulo Morelli knows how to keep the pace moving swiftly to hold your attention and includes some gritty, shaky cinematography which adds rawness and energy to an otherwise by-the-numbers film. Number of times I checked my watch: 2. Entertainment Value: Moderately High. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by Miramax Films. Opens at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
It’s a Free World… - Directed by Ken Loach.
Angie (Kierston Wareing), recently fired from an employment agency, starts a new agency with her best friend, Rose (Juliet Ellis), and targets illegal immigrants who come from Eastern Europe to find work in the UK. A factory manager whom she meets helps her to find fake passports for the workers. Angie also struggles to deal with her neglected, 11-year-old son (Joe Stifflet), and her father (Colin Coughlin), who doesn’t approve of her new job. In another subplot, she develops a romance with a Polish immigrant, Karol (Leslaw Zurek). What could have ended up a convoluted mess actually becomes a rather focused and absorbing drama thanks to the sensitive, well-written screenplay by Paul Laverty who breathes life into each character and doesn’t resort to any preachiness. Fortunately, Kierston Wareing gives a sizzling, captivating performance as Angie, which makes it easy to sympathize with her at times and empathize with her whenever she’s behaving irresponsibly, unethically or unlawfully. Director Ken Loach does a superb job of letting the drama flow organically with a cinema verité style that seldom lags in its dramatic intensity from start to finish. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by IFC First Take. Opens at BAM Rose Cinemas.
Jar City - Directed by Jon Poll.
In Icelandic with subtitles. Based on the novel by Arnaldur Indridason. Erlendur (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson), a police detective, investigates the connection between the recent murder of a truck driver to a rape that had occurred thirty years earlier. Meanwhile, Örn (Atli Rafn Sigurdarson), who works at a genetic research lab, grieves over the death of his five-year-old daughter from a brain tumor. The smart screenplay by writer/director Baltasar Kormákur weaves all of these plotlines, along with others, in unpredictable ways. At times, you’ll feel like you’re watching Seven and The Crimson Rivers given the progressively intriguing and intense plot. Fortunately, Kormákur adds brief comic relief, such as when Erlendur and his partner knock on many elderly ladies’ doors to ask them if they were ever raped—one of them answers “No, thank you” before shutting the door. Many scenes feel captivating merely because of the creepy settings, eerie musical score and cinematography which all add the foreboding atmosphere. None of the surprising twists will be spoiled here, but be sure to pay close attention to everything that happens because of how intricate and complex it all becomes. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: None is required or desired. Released by IFC First Take. Opens at the IFC Center.
Little Chenier - Directed by Bethany Ashton Wolf.
In the bayous of Louisiana, Beaux (Jonathan Schaech) comes to the aid of his younger mentally-handicapped brother, Pemon (Frederick Koehler), who’s wrongfully charged of killing a baby calf. Carl (Jeremy Davidson), the local sheriff investigating the crime, happens to be the husband of Marie-Louise (Tamara Braun), whom Beaux is in love with. Writer/director Bethany Ashton Wolf knows how to move the drama along compellingly with just the right pacing and well-written dialogue that flows organically. The bayou setting becomes an enchanting character in itself and allows for many breathtaking and appropriately serene moments. At times, the plot feels a melodramatic, but, fortunately, the strong, heartbreaking performance by Frederick Koehler as Pemon helps to keep you thoroughly engaged and also provides a few poignant scenes whenever he interacts with Beaux. Such unconditional loyalty and love toward one’s own family is a very inspiring, uplifting and important message that everyone should always take with them throughout their experiences in life. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: High. Released by Radio London Films. Opens at the Quad Cinema.
Penelope - Directed by Mark Palansky.
Penelope (Christina Ricci) must find true love in order to break the spell that cursed her with a pig’s snout ever since birth. She and her mother (Catherine O’Hara) place an ad to find her a potential suitor. The men arrive and quickly leave whenever they take a look at Penelope’s face— one such man, Edward (Simon Woods), claims to have seen a snout and fangs as well, but the public doesn’t believe him. To prove his sanity, he tries to find hard evidence of the so-called monsters and gets help from a newspaper reporter, Lemon (Peter Dinklage), who hires Max (James McAvoy) to pretend to fall in love with Penelope just to snap photos of her. The plot starts to feel like a reversed gender version of Beauty and the Beast when Max starts actually falling in love with her instead. Predictably, Penelope runs away from home with her face half-sheltered by a scarf. Director Mark Palansky allows the film to move at a fast pace enough to keep you mildly engaged, but the screenplay by Leslie Caveny awkwardly blends silly comedy with light drama, neither of which truly jells. A poorly developed subplot involving Penelope and Annie (Reece Witherspoon), a new friend she meets at a bar, feels unnecessary and contrived. Penelope loses its momentum particular in the messy and somewhat corny, rushed third act that tries to tie everything too neatly. On a positive note, both Christina Ricci and James McAvoy give charming performances and their characters, Penelope and Max, share some warm, sweet moments together. 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 Summit Entertainment.
The Unforseen - Directed by Laura Dunn.
Just like a good lawyer, director Laura Dunn proves the vitality of preserving Barton Springs in Austin, TX and nature in general while showing the battle between greedy real estate developers and environmentalists who care about preservation and think about developments’ deleterious effects on nature in the long run. The contrasting footage of the beauty and serenity of Barton Springs before all the development and its ugly, murky water post-development speaks volumes about the threat to the environment, and the ecosystem, concurrently. Dunn wisely includes balanced interviews with politicians, land developers as well as Robert Redford, who produced this film along with Terrence Malick. The Unforeseen joins An Inconvenient Truth, Manufactured Lanscapes and even The Gods Must Be Crazy as powerful, visually stunning films with important messages about the environment and the ongoing struggle between man and nature. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: High. Released by Cinema Guild. Opens at Cinema Village.
Vivere - Directed by Angelina Maccarone.
In German with subtitles. Francesca (Esther Zimmering), a taxi driver, searches for her younger sister, Antoinetta (Kim Schnitzer) on Christmas Eve while dealing with her affections for Gerlinde (Hannelore Elsner), lonely older woman who she saves from a car accident. Despite decent performances, especially by Hannelore Elser, Vivere has a somewhat dull and confusing plot, especially with its shifts in perspective which rewinds the narrative, just like in Go. Writer/director Angeline Maccarone includes very little character development and melodramatic scenes that belong in a soap opera. The romance between Gerlinde and Antoinette feels contrived and awkward rather than poignant. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Regent Releasing. Opens at Cinema Village.