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Reviews for January 23rd, 2009

California Dreaminí

Directed by Cristian Nemescu.

In English and Romanian with subtitles. A group of American soldiers travel to Romania on a simple, peaceful mission to install a radio station. Their commander, Captain Doug Jones (Armand Assante), leads them via a NATO train through Romania. When they reach a small Romanian village, the stationmaster, Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), immediately halts the train because he wasnít informed that a train filled with American soldiers is coming through their town. He requires that the armyís Captain show the appropriate paperwork in order to be able to leave, but the Captainís unable to provide it. Doiaru clearly doesnít like Americans, especially given that he says, ďFuck Bill Clinton!Ē, and doesnít treat Captain Jones with respect. A series of miscommunications and complex bureaucracy forces the American soldiers to stay in the village until the paperwork gets sorted out. Thatís when the plot turns into something a bit more character-driven as the Captain and Doiaru gradually warm up to one another and the soldiers interact with the local women. One of those local women happen to Monica (Jamie Elman), Doiaruís 17-year-old daughter, who meets the handsome Sgt. David McLaren (Jamie Elman) and flirts even though she doesnít know how to speak English. Co-writer/director Cristian Nemescu jumps around between the genres of drama, romance and comedy in a way that makes for a slightly unfocused experience. Thereís more screen time showing Sgt. McLarenís percolating romance with Monica, whose father gets angry when she sees her with him. She uses her classmate, who happens to have a crush on her, as a translator, which leads to a somewhat funny scene when he incorrectly translates on purpose in front of Sgt. McLaren. Fortunately, there arenít any moments that feel too contrived, sappy or preachy. Nemescu didnít finish editing the film because he died in a car crash six weeks after finishing it. Had he worked harder to tighten up some lengthy scenes with soldiers interacting with the women in the second out, fleshed out the relationship between Captain Jones and Doiaru more and made the transitions between the black-and-white flashbacks more fluid rather than distracting, California Dreams would have been much more emotionally resonating. At a running time of 155 minutes, it occasionally drags and slightly overstays its welcome, but still manages to be mostly intriguing and intelligent.
Number of times I checked my watch: 2.
Released by IFC Films. Opens at the IFC Center.

Dog Eat Dog

Directed by Carlos Moreno.

In Spanish with subtitles. Eusebio (Oscar Borda), a tough Columbian gangster, arrives at the home of his crime boss, El Orejon (Blas Jaramillo), and steals a large bag full of money. Victor PeŮaranda (Marlon Moreno), another gangster who aides him along the way, kills the crime bossís grandson. El Orejon not only wants revenge against whomever killed his godson, but to get the money back to his hands, so he starts out by having a witch (Paulina Rivas) put a curse whomever the unknown killer. The audience, though, knows the identity of the killer from the get-go because they see Eusebio committing the murder in the first scene, so that diminishes much of the suspense. As Victor and Eusebio struggle to avoid El Orejonís men who hunt them down, they stay at a hotel in Cali, Columbia, where Eusebio suffers from hallucinations brought upon by the witchís voodoo. Meanwhile, Victor receives strange phone calls to his hotel room from a distraught man whoís looking for his wife. Thereís also a vicious chainsaw gang who make headlines in the cityís newspapers. Co-writer/director Carlos Moreno does a decent job of creating a gritty, intense atmosphere reminiscent of Quentin Tarantinoís violent films such as Pulp Fiction mixed with a little bit of the Coen brotherís No Country for Old Men. There arenít any real surprises to be found here and none of the characters are appealing enough to root for while admittedly, the plot does feel a bit tedious as it progresses. Itís worth mentioning, though, that Moreno keeps the violence at a level thatís both realistic in its gruesomeness and concurrently shocking. Moreover, thereís plenty of stylishly invigorating cinematography, a lively soundtrack, a fast pace and dark comic relief, especially from a gangster who spits a lot. Dog Eat Dog is ultimately a dark crime thriller low on suspense, but at least it manages to be moderately compelling, invigorating and somewhat of a guilty pleasure, as long as you donít have a weak stomach for violence.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3.
Released by IFC Films. Opens at the IFC Film Center.

Donkey Punch

Directed by Oliver Blackburn.

While on vacation in Mallorca, Spain, three young women, Kim (Jaimie Winstone), Lisa (Sian Breckin) and Tammy (Nichola Burley) flirt with three young men, Marcus (Jay Taylor), Josh (Julian Morris) and Bluey (Tom Burke), who invite them onto a luxurious yacht that theyíve worked on as deckhands. The owner has no clue that theyíre using it to set out to sea and to party hard with the sexy trio of girls. They all drink, take drugs, make out and eventually go below deck to have sex while a fourth guy, Sean (Robert Butler), watches them and records the sex with a video camera. Sean joins the fun by partaking in a sex act with Lisa called a ďdonkey punchĒ, which has him punching her in the back of the neck that she dies from it. The frightened guys try to cover-up the fatal accident while the remaining two ditsy girls, Kim and Tammy, want to go back to shore and put it all behind them. The guys convince them that if they get rid of the tape, it would just be their words against theirs in court, so there wouldnít be any evidence to throw anyone in jail. Also, it would embarrassing for Lisaís friends and family back at home to know about the dirty activities that she doing before she died. Co-writer/director Oliver Blackburn has essential made two different films here. The first hour has the feel of a raunchy, wild drama where very little actually happens other than young, attractive girls and guys having fun together while youíre just waiting for something bad to happen imminently. It feels as if the film were stuck in the first act for an entire hour. Will there be a vicious sea monster attacking them as they go out to sea like in Deep Rising or has a malevolent killer come on board to slaughter them one-by-one perhaps? Once those young adults turn against one another at the one-hour point, the mayhem actually begins and the plot veers into thriller territory with blood-and-guts for the remaining thirty minutes. Some of the death sequences look quite grisly with great special effects to make it look real, but, eventually the implausibility of the situations escalates along with tedium. Itís quite lazy to write characters that behave so foolishly and react with such stupidity that you want them to die. Had Blackburn included at least one interesting character that wasnít bird-brained and had he moved the mayhem much earlier within the plot, the film would have been at least refreshing to watch rather than mostly dull and derivative.
Number of times I checked my watch: 4.
Released by Magnolia Pictures. Opens at the Cinema Village.


Directed by Iain Softley.

Based on the book by Cornelia Funkev. Mo Folchart (Brendan Fraser), a bookbinder, reads the book Inkheart to his 12-year-old daughter, Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett), and because heís a Silvertongue, the characters from the book come pop into real world from the book. One of those characters happens to be Capricorn (Andy Serkis), a thug who appears into the real world while Moís wife, Resa (Sienna Guillory), disappears into the fictional world of Inkheart. Mo hasnít told Meggie that he has the magic ability of a Silvertongue or that he knows where her mother has vanished to. 12 years later, when he meets Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), another character from the book, near a bookshop with his daughter, the past comes back to haunt him. He now searches for a copy of Inkheart so that he can find his wife and bring her back into the real world. The only obstacle he has is Capricorn who wants to use Moís magical power to transport more evil characters from the book. Soon enough, Mo and Meggie seek refuge at the mansion of Meggieís great aunt, Elinor (Helen Mirren), who eventually joins their adventures. While the adventures have a few thrilling sequences that involve characters from classic stories such as Toto the dog from The Wizard of Oz reappearing, thereís really not that much here thatís truly captivating. Brendan Fraser delivers a wooden performance and his character, Mo, isnít particularly memorable or interesting other than the fact that he has the special gift of bringing books to life by reading them aloud. Itís not quite clear, though, how he ended up with this special gift. The only character that stands out and keeps you mildly engaged is Meggie because sheís both brave and cunning. Helen Mirren adds a little panache to the film in her brief scenes and seems to have fun deliverying her witty dialogue. Unfortunately, the rest of the dialogue come from other characters feels rather dumbed-down and stilted, especially when Mo interacts with Meggie and whenever Capricorn shows up. On a positive note, director Iain Softley keeps the film moving at a brisk pace and includes terrific special effects and set design that provide some eye candy. Although itís much less cringe-worthy, juvenile and bland than Bedtime Stories, it lacks the awe-inspiring thrills, brilliance and imagination that makes superior films like Harry Potter so exhilarating and unforgettable.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3.
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.

The Lodger

Directed by David Ondaatje.

Based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes. Detective Chandler Manning has been searching for the murderer responsible for killing prostitutes in the Sunset Strip of Los Angeles. The opening sequence shows the killer hunting down his or her first victim in the late hours of the night, which brings Manning along with his rookie partner, Street Wilkinson (Shane West), to investigate the scene of the crime after the killer had already fled. After watching the news report about the murder on television, Joe Hunting (Donal Logue), who works as a security guard, and his wife, Ellen (Hope Davis), agree that they desperately need another source of income, so they decide to lower the asking rate of a lodge that they have in their backyard which they want to rent out to someone. That someone turns out to be a handsome writer, Malcolm Slaight (Simon Baker), who shows up at Ellenís door in the pouring rain without an appointment and without even asking how much the monthly rent will cost him. He also requests that nobody visits him at the lodge so that he can concentrate on his writing. Why does Malcolm behave so suspiciously? Does his behavior have anything to do with the killing sprees taking place on the Sunset Strip? Detective Chandler Manning believes that the killer is mimicking the murder style of Jack the Ripper, although his colleagues donít quite believe him and nor do they support his requests to dig up the case files of Jack the Ripper and to investigate Ellenís lodge, which he believes has something to do with the killings. He risks his job and that of his partner by aggressively looking into the Jack the Ripper case and finding more and more similarities as the killings continue. In a rather contrived subplot, he tries to bond with his estranged daughter, Amanda (Rachel Leigh Cook), whom he hasnít seen for a while. Writer/director David Ondaatje includes so many suspicious characters that it makes for a suspenseful and bumpy ride, especially given the increasingly heightened atmosphere of paranoia as the plot progresses. Occasionally, though, that makes the plot feels convoluted and nauseating, much like in the suspense thriller 88 Minutes, because there are so many different characters and one second youíre thinking theyíre good while the next youíre thinking they might actually be bad. Thereís also an unnecessary, distracting subplot involving Ellenís affair with Malcolm, which only makes the plot even more chaotic. Stylish cinematography along with a pulsating musical score make for a somewhat chilling experience, but had Ondaatje kept the story focused on the serial killings investigation without going off on poorly developed tangents, the film would have been a much more intelligent in hindsight after the very twisted and somewhat implausible third act. Before that gimmicky ending, The Lodger manages to be an often riveting and provocative thriller.
Number of times I checked my watch: 1.
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films. Opens at the Quad Cinema.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

Directed by Patrick Tatopoulos.

The Vampires have been enslaving the Lycans for many years in their underworld fortress. Viktor (Bill Nighy), the leader of the Vampires, discovers that Lucian (Michael Sheen), one of the Lycans, has been gathering an army of Lycans to try to defeat the Vampires and to rule the land once and for all. Meanwhile, Sonja (Rhona Mitra), Victorís daughter, develops a forbidden romance with Lucian which they try to, unsuccessfully, keep hidden from Victor. Once Lucian escapes the fortress, Viktor learns about the forbidden romance and that Sonja has betrayed him. What ensues are action-packed, visually stunning sequences that look and sound great, but thereís nothing really amazing or refreshing going on in terms of its by-the-numbers, ho-hum plot. Itís hard to imagine that Michael Sheen has also starred in the political drama Frost Nixon while here he looks unrecognizable behind a beard. Both he and Bill Nighy are the only two actors who deliver performances that donít feel cringe-worthy. Rhona Mitra, on the other hand, lacks the charisma that Kate Beckinsale has and gives a wooden performance. It also doesnít help that the weak screenplay by Danny McBride , Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain has stilted and bland dialogue. Sonja and Lucian have virtually no chemistry together at all, so that makes it difficult to want them to be together. Director Patrick Tatopoulos includes impressive special effects, terrific set designs and plenty of action to please its target audience, but it all becomes tedious with diminishing returns of entertainment value midway. The awkward angles, editing and pacing of some fight sequences gives a direct-to-video quality to them at times. If youíre a fan of the last two Underworld movies and are willing to suspend your disbelief and to check your brain at the door for 93 minutes, youíll at least find this prequel to be moderately engaging, but ultimately forgettable.
Number of times I checked my watch: 4.
Released by Screen Gems.

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