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.
Funny Games - Directed by Michael Haneke.
Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet) hold a family hostage and torture them inside their suburban, summer vacation home. The family includes Anna (Naomi Watts), her husband George (Tim Roth), and son, Georgie (Devon Gearhart). Brady Corbet and Michael bit both give creepy performances while the rest of the cast, especially the young Devon Gearhart, knows how to convincingly play a victim in desperate situations. After the brilliant Caché, writer/director Michael Haneke remakes his own 1995 film of the same name. The script uses a typical formula which includes a dysfunctional cellphone (and also one that the father happens to forget in his car), stupid characters who initially act too nicely toward the tortures who behave suspiciously—i.e. Paul and Peter. On a positive note, the set design, lighting and sound effects enhance the overall eerie, foreboding atmosphere. Most of the violence occurs offscreen. However, the silly, pretentious decisions to have Paul briefly talk to the camera—as if it’s to the audience—and the rewinding of a crucial scene makes you either frustrated, annoyed or both. You’ll ultimately leave with a bad aftertaste, especially since there aren’t any smart or interesting characters who you could actually care about. Number of times I checked my watch: 5. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Warner Independent Pictures.
The Heartbeat Detector - Directed by Nicolas Klotz.
In French with subtitles. Simon (Mathieu Amalric), a psychiatrist, analyzes employees in a corporation when its assistant director, Karl (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), claims that he’s worried about the mental health of the employees. He decides to start an orchestra with some of them who know how to play instruments. Gradually, Simon learns that one of the employees, Jüst (Michael Lonsdale), might have been a Nazi supporter in the past. Mathieu Amalric gives a decent performance in the lead role, but, unfortunately, doesn’t have enough material here to truly shine like he did in the extraordinary film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Screenwriter Elisabeth Perceval starts off with a fascinating first act and then all the momentum disappears in the very dull, meandering confusing second act—director Nicolas Klotz’s decision to move the pace along slowly doesn’t help, either. The characters seem to be talking a lot, but saying very little. At an excessive running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes, The Heartbeat Detector often drags and overstays its welcome. Number of times I checked my watch: 9. Entertainment Value: Low. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by New Yorker Films and Red Envelope Entertainment. Opens at the Cinema Village and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
Horton Hears a Who! -
Directed by Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino. Based on the popular children’s book by Dr.Seuss. Horton the Elephant (voice of Jim Carrey) must prove to other animals in his jungle that a microscopic community called Whoville that lives on a speck of dust. He can hear the Mayor of Whoville (voice of Steve Carrell), who tell him that Whoville needs to find a stable environment to avoid being destroyed. No one believes the neither Horton nor the Mayor of Whoville. What follows is a G-rated, sporadically funny adventure filled with a few thrills, but mostly silly humor geared toward little kids. Don’t expect any memorable lines or characters because most of them are rather bland and forgettable—expect for the Mayor’s hilariously mute son who steals a few scenes (and laughs) along the way. At least co-directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Marino include brilliant CGI animation and keep a generally pleasant, lighthearted atmosphere to much of the movie. A brief 2D animated sequence seems bizarre and unnecessary. Overall, little kids will enjoy Horton Hears a Who! and their parents will be mildly engaged. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: None is required or desired as long as you suspend your disbelief. Released by 20th Century Fox.
Lovesickness (Maldeamores) - Directed by Carlos Ruíz Ruíz and Mariem Pérez Riera.
In Spanish with subtitles. Lourdes (Teresa Hernandez) learns that her husband, Ismael (Luis Guzmán) has been having an affair with her cousin, Tati (Edna Lee Figueroa). Ismael's son (Fernando Tarrazo) flirts with a girl around his own age. Meanwhile, Flora (Silvia Brito), an elderly woman living with her senile ex-husband (Chavito Marrero), allows her first husband, Pellin (Miguel Angel Alvarez), to stay over as their love rekindles. In another subplot, Miguel (Luis Gonzaga) finds love-at-first-sight with a bus driver, Marta (Dolores Pedro), and demands that they she marry him or else he’ll continue to hold the passengers hostage with a gun. Like a more intense version of Love, Actually, this romantic drama feels absorbing thanks to terrific performances, sensitive directing and a very human screenplay. Each of the three stories about desperate people in love has a strong dramatic pull that keeps your eyes glued to the screen. Most importantly, co-writers/directors Carlos Ruíz Ruíz and Mariem Pérez Riera, a husband-and-wife team, do an impressive job of bringing the characters to life with an organic, true-to-life script so that you truly care about many of them, even if some of them may not be particularly likeable—at least they’re fallible, like human beings are supposed to be. They both wisely include some well-needed comic relief to ease a bit of the romantic and dramatic tensions. It’s also worth mentioning the very lively, well-chosen soundtrack that breathes more life into this thoroughly engaging and profoundly moving film from Puerto Rico. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: High. Released by Maya Releasing.
Never Back Down - Directed by Jeff Wadlow.
Ryan (Cam Gigandet) convinces Jake (Sean Faris) to compete against him in an underground fight club. Jean (Djimon Honsou) trains him for the fight while he tries to win over Baja (Amber Heard, from the upcoming horror film All the Boys Love Mandy Lane), who happens to be Ryan’s current girlfriend. If you’ve seen Step Up, How She Move or You Got Served, you’ll be underwhelmed by the lack of surprises in this very contrived and derivative film. Sean Faris gives a wooden performance as do his attractive co-stars. The talented Djimon Honsou barely gets 5 minutes of screentime to elevate the material beyond its bland mediocrity. Screenwriter Chris Hauty awkwardly mixes drama, romance and action with poor transitions—the interactions between Jake and his mother (Leslie Hope) fail to generate any poignancy while Jake and Baja have virtually zero chemistry together. At least director Jeff Wadlow includes plenty of eye candy in terms of sexy stars, flashy cinematography during the fight scenes and picturesque locations to keep you very slightly engaged. However, at an excessive running time of 110 minutes, Never Back Down often drags and overstays its welcome. Number of times I checked my watch: 7. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: None is required or desired as long as you check your brain at the door. Released by Summit Entertainment.
Sputnik Mania - Directed by David Hoffman.
Based on the book The Shock of the Century Paul by Paul Dickson. This informative and thrilling documentary focuses on the consequences of the USSR’s launch of the Sputnik I satellite back in 1957. Many people, including the media, were amazed that the Soviet Union had initiated the Space Race ahead of the United States. Soon enough, the U.S. military looked at the satellite in a completely different perspective: as an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. That’s when Sputnik Mania becomes a thriller, albeit an absurd one, because the media took what the military said for granted and, thus, turned a wondrous event into a threat for national security. In a fascinating interview, it turns out that President Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev engaged in a conversation that diminished any potential military action. Then there’s the Soviet’s unsuccessful experiment with sending a dog into space and back, which made the U.S. look at the Soviets in a different light. Director David Hoffman incorporates a variety of breathtaking footage and revelatory archival interviews to show the events leading up to the U.S.’s first entry into the Space Race once the Sputnik mania subsided. Those who didn’t grow up during the 1950’s and weren’t informed about the Sputnik satellite will be especially thrilled and gain insight about an important event in American history without having to a boring history book. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Moderately High. Released by Balcony Releasing. Opens at the IFC Center.
Towards Darkness - Directed by Antonio Negret.
In English and Spanish with subtitles. Inspired by a true story. José Guiterrez (Roberto Urbina), a photography student, visits his homeland, Columbia, where warlords kidnap him and hold him captive for ransom. José’s father, Carlos (Tony Plana), summons the help of U.S. special ops agents who have 90 minutes to deliver the $500,000 ransom to the kidnappers in hopes that they’d let José go. America Ferrara plays José’s girlfriend, Luiza, who has palpable chemistry with José during the flashback scenes. Writer/director Antonio Negret does a masterful job of creating a heightened sense of intensity through flashbacks and cuts to different perspectives. What could have been a messy film, given the many plot twists, is actually a provocative and gripping thriller thanks to a sharp, well-structured script that keeps you thoroughly immersed into its story. The gritty settings, stylish cinematography along with a pulsating musical score and very convincing performances by each actor, help to make Towards Darkness an unforgettable, powerful experience that’ll keep you at the end of your seat from start to finish. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: High. Released by Peace Arch Entertainment and Negret Films. Opens at the Quad Cinema
War Made Easy - Directed by Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp.
Based on the book War Made Easy by Norman Solomon. Narrated by Sean Penn, this sharp, chilling and very timely documentary examines how the U.S. government manages to lie, deceit and withhold information to the public as propaganda in order to continue the present war in Iraq. The government used many of the same propaganda tactics during the Vietnam War, such as erroneously claiming that the enemy is a serious threat and by controlling the media so that journalists don’t have 100% access nor do media clips show the impact the war has on innocent civilians—the number of civilian deaths has jumped from 10% during the Vietnam War to a whopping 90% during the present war in Iraq. U.S. soldiers don’t know their true purpose in Iraq or whether or not they’re winning just like they didn’t know those same things over in Vietnam years ago. Co-directors Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp incorporate archival footage showing how history frighteningly repeats itself along with interviews with author/media critic Norman Solomon. The real problem stressed is the lack of focus on independent media and critical thinkers who challenge the government without being told to “shut up” or be treated like they’re crazy. Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp hit the nail on the head when they observe that the government treats war as if it were a product which tries to sell it aggressively while duping the public. But what makes the government’s behavior so disturbing is that human lives are actually at stake overseas. If the U.S. were a true democracy, why should we let the President exert the decisions during war when public opinion should really factor in the decision-making process? Why don’t we question our government more often and use our intellect rather than let the government treat us like puppets or sheep? Sadly, it won’t be easy to cut those puppet strings until the word “gullible” disappears from our foreheads. Until then, George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm, will be rolling in his grave. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: High. Released by Media Education Foundation. Opens at the Quad Cinema.
Wetlands Preserved - Directed by Dean Budnick.
This mildly fascinating documentary charts the rise and fall of Wetlands Preserves, an underground nightclub in New York City founded in 1989 by Larry Bloch. What makes the nightclub so special is that it was an oasis where many bands, such as Pearl Jam, Phish, Dave Matthews Band, Spin Doctors, and Blues Traveler, began getting some attention. Musicians and employees who worked at the club reminisce about the free-spirited times they had, how overcrowded the place was back in the 90’s and what makes it so memorable still today. When Rudy Giuliani became mayor of the city, he implemented laws that made it difficult for Wetlands Preserved to continue to stay open—such as taking away their liquor license because they don’t serve food. Director Dean Budnick includes some imaginative animated sequences along with the interviews which add some liveliness and energy to the film. It would have been more fascinating, though, to focus more on at least a few of the musicians or employees of the club and their experiences at the club and how it has changed their lives—not just their careers. Nonetheless, those who aren’t familiar with Wetlands Preserved will be mostly engaged and at least somewhat enlightened about the underground music scene during the 90’s. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Entertainment Value: Highly Moderate. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by First Run Features. Opens at the Cinema Village.