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Reviews for July 18th, 2008

The Dark Knight
- Directed by Christopher Nolan.

In Gotham City, Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman (Christian Bale), helps Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to capture the notorious Joker (Heath Ledger), who spreads mayhem throughout Gotham City. When Bruce Wayne isn’t fighting crime as Batman, he’s trying to win over the assistant D.A. (Maggie Gyllenhaal) form the arms of Harvey Dent. Michael Caine reprises his role as Batman’s butler, Alfred. What follows is an intense, gripping and thrilling ride that’s full of dazzling special effects and pulse-pounding action sequences. All of the performances are merely decent except Heath Ledger’s standout performance as the Joker. His performance manages to be funny, bizarre, sad, angry, insane and twistedly delightful at the same time. You have to see it to believe it. Those who see The Dark Knight on an IMAX screen will be even more mesmerized and captivated by the visual splendor, as if they were experiencing everything from Batman’s own perspective. None of the plot twists will be spoiled here, but it’s worth noting that the Joker’s diabolical, perplexing behavior never ceases to surprise. Writer/director Christopher Nolan as simply created a smart, thoroughly entertaining and unforgettable blockbuster. At a running time of 2 hours and 32 minutes, The Dark Knight never overstays its welcome and keeps your eyes and ears glued to the screen from its dazzling start to its even more dazzling finish. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.

The Doorman
- Directed by Wayne Price.

This “documentary” follows Trevor W., a doorman who has many connections from NYC, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Soon enough, he loses his job at a club while a documentary crew records his every move as he desperately tries to find a job. Lucas Akoskin, the actor who plays Trevor, tries to channel Borat with a fake Latino accent and twisted sense of humor. The Doorman has sporadically funny scenes to spare, while the rest falls flat with poor comic timing and repetitive humor. The initially imaginative screenplay by director/co-writer Wayne Price looses steam early on during the 80-minute running time. If only it maintained the same momentum of comic energy throughout and had more imagination, it would have been much more funny and refreshing to watch. As such, it ultimately feels like an underwhelming, dull and lazy version of Borat. Number of times I checked my watch: 8. Released by Gigantic Pictures. Opens at the Village East Cinema.

- Directed by Ric Roman Waugh.

Wade (Stephen Dorff) goes to a tough prison for killing a home intruder, while his fiancée (Marisol Nichols) waits for him to come out of jail after three years. While in prison, Wade bonds with his cellmate, John Smith (Val Kilmer) and deals with a sadistic prison guard Lt. Jackson (Harold Perrineau). Anyone who has seen the HBO show “Oz” has pretty much seen all of this before. Is it surprising that prisoners stage fights between the different races within the jails? It’s infuriating, though, to watch how the guards just sit in their tower and observe the fight without breaking them up for a while. Writer/director Ric Roman Waugh depicts the brutality of prison life by including plenty of graphic violence, profanity and rage. Unfortunately, he doesn’t take any of those further and his messages seem oversimplified and, in some cases, mean-spirited rather than inspirational. Among all of the actors, only Val Kilmer, hidden behind a thick goatee, manages to stand out with a strong, believable performance. Felon, at a running time of 104 minutes, often drags and overstays its welcome. By the time it’s over, you’ll wish had watched (or re-watched) far more powerful and intelligent prison film, The Shawshank Redemption, instead. Number of times I checked my watch: 8. Released by Stage 6 Films. Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

Lou Reed’s Berlin
- Directed by Julian Schnabel.

Your enjoyment of this visually stunning concert film depends on much you enjoy the music of Lou Reed, particularly his 1973 album titled “Berlin.” Director Julian Schnabel not only filmed the December 2006 concert in Brooklyn where Lou Reed performed songs from the album “Berlin,” but also controlled the production design. Joining Lou Reed are other musicians such as Steve Hunter, Rob Wassermann, Rupert Christie, Sharon Jones and a seven-piece orchestra. Schnabel occasionally distracts you from the concert experience by including a visualization of the songs which depict the character from the album Caroline (Emmanuelle Seigner) in a variety of activities. It would have been better had he left all that to your own imagination, which makes you feel less absorbed in the music itself. Nonetheless, avid fans of Lou Reed will be able to appreciate all the close-ups on the musician’s face that highlights all the sweating and emotion that it takes to give such a great musical performance. Watching Lou Reed’s Berlin, they will feel entranced and overwhelmed by the experience while everyone else will feel bored and underwhelmed. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Released by The Weinstein Company. Opens at the Film Forum.

Mad Detective
- Directed by Johnny To and Wai Ka-fai.

In Cantonese with subtitles. Bun (Lau Ching-wan), a mentally unstable detective gets fired from the police force for cutting his ear in front of his boss. Five years later, another detective, Ho (Andy On) asks him to help him solve a case of a missing police gun that has been used for many robberies. The case leads Bun into an investigation of internal affairs and, in turn, he gets into more and more hot water. It’s quite interesting and somewhat funny to observe the different tactics that Bun uses to try to solve the case. His ex-wife, May (Kelly Lin) shows up in his many hallucinogenic visions. Co-directors Johnny To and Wai Ka-fai have taken a standard crime action/thriller and, essentially, presented it an extraordinary way and with refreshingly different and unique characters—especially Bun. The intricate plot itself only has few surprises and feels rehashed, but with such stylish and imaginative writing and directing, Mad Detective manages to be highly entertaining and even somewhat invigorating. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by IFC Films. Opens at the IFC Center.

Mamma Mia!
- Directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

Based on the Broadway musical. After reading the diary of her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep), Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) discovers that she has three possible fathers: Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) and Harry (Colin Firth). She invites all three of them to her wedding on a Greek island without informing her mother. Every few minutes, the cast sings and dances to lively ABBA songs ranging from “Dancing Queen” , “Honey, Honey” and “Super Trouper”. Then again, what ABBA songs aren’t lively and energetic? Each actor has a lot of fun in their respective role, but Julie Walters manages to radiate the most charisma as Rosie, a good friend of Donna’s and part of her musical group. The other member of her musical group is the sexy Tanya, played with plenty of joie de vivre and comic energy by Christine Baranski. Director Phyllida Lloyd, who also directed the Broadway musical, knows how to make the most out of a terrific ensemble cast, picturesque scenery and, of course, exciting musical numbers. Some of the choreography seems a bit campy, which adds to the film’s fun and lightheartedness. Also, listening to Pierce Brosnan try to sing feels quite cringe-worthy and slightly distracting, but he’s not awful. If you’re a true fan of ABBA and willing to suspend your disbelief for 108 minutes, you’ll easily be able to be swept up in all of Mamma Mia’s unabashed, sheer exuberance. Most importantly, you’ll leave the theater with your spirits lifted very high and wishing that your life were an ABBA musical like in the film. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Universal Pictures.

A Man Named Pearl
- Directed by Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson.

This inspirational yet mildly fascinating documentary focuses on Pearl Fryar, a 69-year-old man who amazes his neighbors and tourists by shaping trees, bushes and shrubs in his yard into works of art. Back in 1976, when he and his wife, Metra, moved into the small town of Bishopville in Lee County, South Carolina, they experienced racism when told by members of a white neighborhood that blacks don’t know how to keep up their yard. Pearl set out to prove them wrong and rise above the racism by moving to a black neighborhood in the town and working hard night and day to make his yard stand out. Just by observing his garden, you can tell that he’s not only in touch with nature but with his inner self as well. Everyone who leaves his garden feels better than they did when they arrived there. Moreover, he’s an inspiration to those who believe that hard work, passion and hope can give you prosperity. Pearl has found his purpose in life and so can you if you put your heart to it. Co-directors Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson cover a lot of facts about Pearl Fryar and include many interviews with him. However, they merely scratch the surface without going deep enough into what makes him truly tick. There’s clearly more to Pearl than meets the eye—he’s a very wise man who’s been through a lot. Doesn’t he ever get angry or fed-up with anything? How does he feel about politics or the world around him? All the footage showing his visitors praising him and his garden eventually becomes tedious and repetitive. When the mayor says that Pearl has made his mark in the town of Bishopville, he’s just stating the obvious. Ultimately, A Man Named Pearl feels more like an advertisement to popularize Pearl Fryar as a topiary artist rather than an in-depth, well-rounded study of him. It’ll not only leave you wanting to visit his garden, but also wanting to know more about him as a human being. Number of times I checked my watch: 2. Released by Shadow Distribution. Opens at the Angelika Film Center.

Space Chimps
- Directed by Kirk De Micco.

Scientists send three chimps, Andy (voice of Andy Samberg), Luna (Cheryl Hines), and Titan (Patrick Warburton), out into space to retrieve a space probe that got sucked into a wormhole. They land on a mysterious planet ruled by an evil dictator, Zartog (voice of Jeff Daniels) . Stanley Tucci provides the voice of a U.S. senator and Kristin Chenowith does the voice of Kilowatt, a tiny little creature with a huge, round forehead the glows whenever she’s frightened. Much of the film plays like a forgettable, lazy Saturday morning cartoon. The CGI animation fails to enliven the film or impress you in any way even though it’s all very bright and colorful. Moreover, the bland screenplay by director/co-writer Kirk De Micco adds very little in terms of real thrills, surprises or comedy. An unintentionally funny and absurd moment happens when Andy says, “I couldn’t be a hero, so I became a clown.” Could that be a little reference to George W. Bush, perhaps? With so little imagination when it comes to plot and character development, Space Chimps doesn’t feel as fun or exciting as it could have been and overstays its welcome even at a running time of 81 minutes. Number of times I checked my watch: 8. Released by 20th Century Fox.

- Directed by Charles Oliver.

Ana (Minnie Driver) drives to a prison to watch the execution of Saul (Jeremy Renner), the man who kidnapped and killed her young son (Bobby Coleman). The plot then flashes back an entire day to show how Anna and Saul ended up meeting at the supermarket that he robbed. It turns out that Saul had lost his job at a self-storage that day and he owes a lot of money to a bunch of thugs. Essentially, he suffers a nervous breakdown which leads do his violent rampage. Ana’s story is less interesting as you watch her interact with her beloved son and how her husband (David Denman) neglects her physically and emotionally. Minnie Driver and Jeremy Renner both give convincing, moving performances, but that only keeps you mildly engaged and absorbed in an otherwise bland film. Writer/director Charles Oliver fails to enliven the characters with a screenplay that lacks the essential character development which would allow you to care about anyone. The gyration from past to present scenes becomes rather pretentious and gimmicky rather than organic and necessary. Throughout the meandering, nauseating film, you wonder to yourself what the point of everything is. However, none of the issues, especially regarding the importance of victims meeting/communicating with perpetrators, are tackled sufficiently and effectively enough. If the writer/director had included more scenes with Ana and Saul interacting with one another or at least added stronger character development, Take would have been much more powerful and engaging. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Released by Liberation Entertainment. Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

- Directed by Brad Anderson.

Roy (Woody Harrelson) and his wife Jesse (Emily Mortimer) travel the Transsiberian Express from Beijing to Moscow where they meet another couple, Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara). Jesse desperately searches for Roy when he doesn’t come back on the train after a stopover. At this point, the plot becomes more and more twisted as Carlos behaves suspiciously. Meanwhile, Grinko (Ben Kingsley), a Russian detective, interrogates Jesse when Carlos disappears. Why is he so desperate to find Carlos? What does Carlos’ disappearance have to do with Jesse? What secret(s) might Carlos and Abby be hiding? Unfortunately, writer/director Brad Anderson answers these questions too early, especially regarding how Carlos “disappeared”, which leaves very little in terms of mystery and suspense. The third act has a few exciting thrills here and there, but that’s not enough to keep you at the edge of your seat when all the surprises are telegraphed early in the second act. Also, Ben Kingsley’s Russian accent seems a bit awkward and distracting. On a positive note, Anderson uses the snowy settings and the interior design of the train to create an eerie, taut atmosphere, as if something sinister is looming out there and might arrive at any moment—although, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t turn into a shocking, disgusting gore-fest like the American tourists went through in Hostel. If only the screenplay were to build up the surprises gradually and weren’t so revealing, Transsiberian would have been much more suspenseful, smart and riveting. Number of times I checked my watch: 9. Released by First Look Pictures. Opens at the Paris Theatre and Angelika Film Center.

A Very British Gangster
- Directed by Donal McIntyre.

This initially intriguing yet underwhelming documentary focuses on Dominic Noonan, an infamous British gangster who’s the head of the crime family in Manchester, England. When he and his gang aren’t robbing banks and committing other crimes, he helps his local townspeople by solving their domestic disputes. Noonan certainly seems like an interesting person who essentially leads a double life, but the interviews with him aren’t particularly insightful nor does he have much interesting things to say, either. Director Donal McIntyre does a decent job of getting Noonan to reveal how his “business” operates along with those who help him out. Noonan won’t confess to ordering any of the murders that the police accused him of, though, but he doesn’t explicitly deny them either. It would have been more interesting had McIntyre taken all the footage he captured of Noonan and analyzed them thoroughly to separate the truth from the potential lies. He could have at least asked Noonan more provocative questions rather than playing it safe and allowing him to be occasionally coy in his responses. With more revelatory interviews, A Very British Gangster would have been much more compelling and insightful rather than mostly dull and tedious. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Released by Anywhere Road. Opens at the Cinema Village.

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