Reviews for May 29th, 2009
Directed by Yôjirô Takita.
In Japanese with subtitles. Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a young man, loses his job as a cellist in a Tokyo orchestra that had recently dissolved. His wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), agrees to move with him to a house in his northern Japan hometown. He desperately wants to find a new job so that he can continue to support her. Soon enough he, applies to a job ad that reads “Working with departures” and assumes that he’s applying for work at a travel agency. Upon his arrival at the workplace, he learns that it’s actually a job as an “encoffineer” or “Nokanshi” at a mortuary, where his tasks include preparing dead bodies for burials. His boss, Ikuei (Tsutomu Yamazaki), convinces him to take the job despite that it doesn’t sound too appealing or worth telling Mika about. The more he immerses himself in that line of work, the more he finds a way to appreciate his job while learning all the nitty-gritty details of how to prepare the corpses aesthetically. At some point, he rediscovers his innate passion for playing the cello and becomes inspired to try reconnecting with his estranged father. The intelligent screenplay by Kundo Koyama infuses the genres of drama and tragedy with plenty of grace and sensitivity toward gradual character development. There are many intricate details throughout the film that become more important later on, so it’s very important to pay close attention to everything. When you first meet Daigo, he’s already working as an encofineer and you’re watching him at a funeral. That initial scene represents a microcosm of the mix of poignancy and surprising dry humor that ensues thereafter. Some scenes make you cry while others lesson the burden of heaviness by making you laugh. The strong performances all across the board help you to feel fully engrossed from start to finish while the messages about coming to terms with death and embracing life will make you feel alive and gently uplifted. Moreover, director Yôjirô Takita includes superb cinematography, pacing and music score which help to enrich the film without hitting you over the head. It’s the kind of film that finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience, provoking them intellectually as well as emotionally. At a running time of 130 minutes, Departures, winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film of 2008, is a tremendously moving experience filled with warmth, wisdom, intelligence and tenderness sprinkled with just the right dash of humor to balance the heaviness and keeps you thoroughly enthralled. Number of times I checked my watch: 0 Released by Regent Releasing. Opens at Landmark Sunshine Cinema, City Cinemas 1,2,3 and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
Drag Me to Hell
Directed by Sam Raimi.
Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a bank loan officer, hopes that her boss, Mr. Jacks (David Paymer), will promote her to an assistant manager position at the bank. Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), a gypsy hag, approaches her at work and begs her to extend her a home loan. Christine decides to obey Mr. Jacks’ orders by denying her the loan instead of extending it to her out of kindness. Mrs. Ganush wants to get revenge for the way she had been treated, so she stalks Christine in a parking garage, attacks her, steals a button from her coat and puts a curse of the Lamia on her. The curse involves three days of torment before a Lamia, a demon, drags her down into the fires of hell. Christine eventually goes to see a psychic, Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), in an attempt to figure out what’s going on with her. Will Christine be able to find Mrs. Ganush, to ask for her forgiveness and to get rid of the curse before it’s too late? The answer to that question gets more complicated because director/co-writer Sam Raimi adds some interesting twists that make it more difficult for Christine to escape all of the torments. Justin Long plays Christine’s fiance, Clay Dalton, who’s very skeptical about all the supernatural occurrences that happen to Christine, many of which are quite disgusting. Raimi includes plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor and cringe-inducing visual gags that are often laugh-out-loud funny and absurd. It’s also worth noting that the cheap-looking special effects along with the musical score and cinematography add to the creepy, B-movie atmosphere. Alison Lohman gives a decent performance that helps to make you root for her character. Christine seems quite intelligent and brave which is quite refreshing because, in most horror films, the victims often behave so stupid that you end up rolling your eyes a lot. While the plot isn't particularly original, at least it never takes itself too seriously, so you’re often laughing with it and enjoying the intense ride no matter what happens to whom. At a running time of 99 minutes, Drag Me to Hell manages to be a diabolically funny, creepy and thrilling crowd-pleaser, as long as you’re willing to check your brain at the door and suspend your disbelief. It’s the ultimate midnight-movie experience that should to be watched with a large movie theater crowd. Number of times I checked my watch: 0 Released by Universal Pictures. Opens nationwide.
Directed by Lee Isaac Chung.
In Kinyarwanda with subtitles. Two young men, Munyurangabo (Jeff Rutagengwa) and his friend Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye), travel by foot from the city of Kagali to Sangwa’s childhood home where his parents reside in a rural village. They both come from very different tribes—Munyurangabo from the Tutsi tribe and Sangwa from Hutu—-which had fought in a war years ago, the Rwanda genocide. Munyurangabo, who’s named after a Rwandan warrior, wants to avenge the death of his father, who was killed by a member of the Hutu tribe. At first, when you see him stealing a machete, you’re not quite sure what kind of purpose it serves until later on. You’re also wondering about how Munyurangabo became an orphan as well as other background information about him, but you discover that information about him very subtly and gently as the plot progresses slowly. His journey with Sangwa is also a spiritual journey where he begins to question his desire to kill the man who murdered his father. He also realizes that there’s a big difference between chopping town trees with the machete versus chopping a human being with it. Director/co-writer Lee Isaac Chung, in his feature film directorial debut, doesn’t hit the audience over the head with palpable tension or action scenes. Instead, he gradually builds the tension in a way that you can feel it bubbling beneath the surface of the thin plot. The same can be said for the tension between Munyurangabo and Sangwa because they’re different tribes. Given the handheld camerawork, a leisurely pace and the lack of a musical score, Chung achieves cinéma vérité, which helps to keep you immersed into the story as long as you’re a patient viewer who doesn’t mind silences and pauses. There’s one particularly moving and captivating scene that lasts a few minutes where a man recites a long poem with very thought-provoking lyrics that speaks volumes about the tensions and violence that have taken place in Rwanda. At a running time of 97 minutes, Munyurangabo manages to be a compelling, provocative and well-nuanced drama that’s also refreshingly unpretentious and quietly engrossing. Number of times I checked my watch: 1 Released by Film Movement. Opens at the Anthology Film Archives.
Directed by Diane Cheklich.
When Derek Abernathy (Marty Bufalini), the CEO of Fairfax Furniture in Detroit, outsources the company’s call center to Mumbai, India, where Devendra Tiwari (Satish Shah) and his son, Ajay (Siddharth Makkar), are hired to build the new call center called Voxx of India. They must also send three candidates, Nikhil (Neil Bhoopalam), Anjali (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee) and Reva (Malaika Shenoy) to Fairfax Furniture in the USA where there they’re supposed to be instructed on how to become trainers. Upon their arrival in Detroit, they meet their instructor, Carol Silvers (Deb Tunis), whose job at the company has been displaced along with Bridget’s (Emily Rose). Carol treats them like dirt, lies to them and makes them feel as uncomfortable as possible in hopes that the outsourcing plan will fail. Back in Mumbai, Devendra and Ajay run into many different shipment problems and other obstacles which hinder their task to open the new call center while Abernathy gets more and more impatient. Meanwhile, a persistent and annoy TV reporter, Amanda Case (Alison Crockett) sides with the displaced workers, Carol and Bridget, and desperately tries to get statements from the owner of Fairfax Furniture, Mrs. Fairfax (Leanor Reizen). Unfortunately, first-time director/co-writer Diane Cheklich fails to generate any believable, palpable tension because of too much stilted dialogue that simply lacks authenticity. Many scenes feel sitcomish and contrived while the performances, such as those of Marty Bufalini and Leanor Reizen, seem too over-the-top to the extent that they’re more lampooning in a juvenile way rather than performing seriously. Even the innocent victims, Nikhil, Anjali and Reva, don’t get a chance to come to life, so it’s difficult to truly care about them or root for them. Cheklich also includes too many repetitive and inane jokes, such as such as when Amanda Case always ends her reporting by saying, “I’m Amanda Case and I’m on the case” or when Reva, an ex-phone sex operator, cracks a double entendre joke about what the definition of a “socket screw.” On a positive note, the plot does tackle the timely issue of downsizing and outsourcing during our troubled economic times. If only the screenplay were more sensitive and had tackled that issue more seriously and organically, it would have been much more provocative and compelling. At a running time of 92 minutes, Offshore has an initially intriguing plot that’s quite timely, but ultimately falls flat as a drama, socioeconomic critique and comedy with an unfocused screenplay that’s often jejune and contrived. Number of times I checked my watch: 6 Released by TMS Universal. Opens at the ImaginAsian.
Owl and the Sparrow
Directed by Stephane Gauger.
In Vietnamese with subtitles. Thuy (Pham Thi Han), a 10-year-old girl, lives with her uncle, Tran Le Minh (Nguyen Hau), in the rural village of Bien Hoa where she works at his bamboo factory. She’s overworked and unhappy working there with all of his yelling at her, so, one day, she runs away all the way to the big city of Saigon. There, she learns how to make a living by selling postcards and flowers to pedestrians. Her uncle, meanwhile, searches for her whereabouts throughout the city. The last thing she wants is to go back to living and working with him or to end up in an orphanage. While wandering around Saigon, she meets Hai (Le The Lu), a zookeeper who talks to a baby elephant that’s about to be sold off to another zoo. His heart still hasn’t healed from breaking up with his beloved girlfriend and hopes that he still has a chance to be with her. Thuy also befriends Lan (Cat Ly), a stewardess who used to smile a lot, but now, during a five-day layover in Saigon, she’s sad, lonely and sleeps with a married man who refuses to leave his wife. With her youthful spirit intact, Thuy finds a clever way to introduce Lan and Hai. Writer/director Stephane Gauger takes a simple plot and infuses it with genuine warmth and tenderness. There are many small moments that radiate more authenticity than most dramas, such as when Lan tells Hai that he has an honest face and, soon after, she holds his hand. At the heart of the film, though, there’s the charming performance of Pham Thi Han, who’s so convincing here that you eventually forget that you’re watching a child actor in her big screen debut. Admittedly, Gauger uses too much shaky cinematography that slightly diminishes to sense of realism and palpable dramatic tension that’s quite character-driven. It’s also worth mentioning, though, that all of the characters seem complex enough to seem real and believable without going over-the-top, especially Thuy’s uncle, Than, who’s somewhat of a bad guy, but not in the traditional sense—he’s not physically abusive or cruel; just very strict, uptight and often angry in a way that makes Thuy feel uncomfortable. Ultimately, Owl and the Sparrowmanages to be a captivating and engrossing drama brimming with genuine warmth and tenderness as well as a charismatic, radiant and heartfelt performance by newcomer Pham Thi Han. Number of times I checked my watch: 1 Released by Wave Releasing. Opens at the Cinema Village.
Directed by Bruce McDonald.
Based on the novel Pontypool Changes Everything, by Tony Burgess. On a bitter cold, snowy night, Grant Mazzie (Stephen McHattie) drives to his new deejay job at a radio station in Pontypool, a small town in Ontario. He sees something strange along the road, but doesn’t really make anything of it. When he arrives at work, he starts rambling on with his booming voice about a global warning joke to listeners, which annoys his producer, producer Sydney (Lisa Houle). Little does he know that when Ken Loney (Rick Roberts) calls the station to describe the traffic scene, it’ll be one long night that he will never forget. Ken notifies him and the rest of the crew at the station, including young technician Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly), that he has witnessed chaos outside the office of Dr. John Mendez (Hrant Alianak), which Grant initially assumes that it must be some sort of a riot. It turns out that it’s much worse than that: people have turned into flesh-eating zombies and are running rampant throughout Pontypool. The safest bet for Grant and the crew would be to stay quarantined inside the station while trying to figure out what’s going around them. The screenplay by Tony Burgess begins just like any other zombie horror film would with some foreshadowing and, just when you think it’ll turn into a run-of-the-mill zombie gorefest, it veers toward unpredictable, bizarre territory and even toward satire. People don’t just turn into zombies randomly; there’s something specific that causes them to do so. That cause, which won’t be spoiled here, leads to some dark, tongue-in-cheek humor, especially as Grant discovers how to defend himself from the zombies that enter the station. Occasionally, though, there’s a sense of tedium as the setting barely changes beyond the station, but, concurrently, that increases the atmosphere of claustrophobia and keeps you engaged, as long as you’re able to suspend your disbelief for 96 minutes. Pontypool, ultimately, manages to be wildly entertaining and inventive. It’s a clever and thrilling combination of horror and satire. Number of times I checked my watch: 2 Released by IFC Films. Opens at the Cinema Village.
Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson.
Carl Fredericksen (voice of Ed Asner) and Ellie have been friends since childhood and both idolized Charles Muntz (voice of Christopher Plummer), a famous explorer. Ellie always dreamed of becoming an adventurer like Charles and flying all the way to Paradise Falls in South America just like he had done. In a clever montage sans dialogue, Carl and Ellie get married, settle down and grow older together without fulfilling their dreams of having adventures. After Ellie passes away, Carl, now 78-year-olds and a balloon salesman, still lives in the house that he had shared with her and prefers to be alone. The closest he has to adventure is slowly riding up and down on his motorized staircase. Facing eviction, he decides to attach 20,622 helium balloons to his house and lifts up into the sky with it, hoping to fulfill Ellie’s dream by flying all the way to South America. Once airborne, he hears a knock on his door and finds Russell (voice of Jordan Nagai), a Junior Wilderness Explorer who’s hoping to get his badge of merit by assisting the elderly. Carl can barely stand to be around him at first, but, soon enough, they gradually become friends. What happens to them throughout their adventures in South America won’t be spoiled here, but it’s worth mentioning that they encounter many lively characters there, including a talking dog named Dug (voice of Bob Peterson) and a rare bird that follows them around and craves chocolate. While the first act of the film has more dramatic elements and character-development, the second act, when they arrive at South America, kicks the action, comedy and thrills into full gear. The real question, though, is whether or not writer/co-director Bob Peterson and co-director Pete Doctor find the right balance between entertaining kids and adults simultaneously. In this case, though, some of the jokes seem a bit too silly and cheap, which will make kids laugh, but fall flat for adults. Previous Pixar films such as Wall-E and Ratatouille wove drama, action and comedy smoothly and with abundance of intelligence and warmth. Up has all of those elements, but they don’t blend together so smoothly because you’re not always emotionally invested in the characters of Carl and Russell. There are some tender moments to be found here, though, especially when it comes to how Carl learns how to overcome his grief and change his grumpy attitude while learning to simply enjoy and appreciate life. It’s uplifting to watch how he, in a way, feels more and more alive and content throughout the film. At a running time of only 89 minutes, Up manages to be fun, thrilling, imaginative and tender with breathtaking CGI effects, but it’s much funnier and exhilarating for kids. Adults will be often amused, but they'll find that it lacks the “wow!” factor, brilliance and genuine warmth of a truly classic Pixar film. Number of times I checked my watch: 1 Released by Walt Disney Pictures. Opens nationwide in 2D and 3D formats.
What Goes Up
Directed by Jonathan Glatzer.
The year is 1986. Campbell Babbitt (Steve Coogan), a reporter, had an affair with a woman he was interviewing for an newspaper article. After she commits suicide, he writes a puff piece about her in an attempt to cover-up both the suicide and their forbidden affair. His new assignment, now, is to travel to New Hampshire where he’s supposed to write an article about Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space who had died in a tragic accident during the Challenger mission. Instead, he decides to go off-track from the story by searching for an old acquaintance from college who became a teacher. It turns out that he had committed suicide, though. For the rest of the film, Campbell bonds with the students who had revered that teacher so much that they looked up to him like a priest. The students include the promiscuous Lucy (Hilary Duff), the often deject Tess (Olivia Thirlby) and Jim (Josh Peck), a horny teenager who spies on his sexy neighbor from his bathroom window. Molly Shannon plays, Penelope, a teacher who directs the school musical and who doesn’t quite get along Campbell. Will he find a way to inspire the troubled teenagers? Will he win a Pulitzer Prize for his article? Unfortunately, the screenplay by director/co-writer Jonathan Glatzer fails to develop the character of Campbell in a realistic enough way so that you care about the answers to those questions. He could have taken the drama further by upping the ante whiling including more organic, genuinely tender moments rather than veering toward contrived and awkward scenes that don’t resonate any palpable tension or warmth. Or he could have allowed for more humorous moments to come about, especially if were to flesh out the character of Penelope more so that Molly Shannon would have more of a chance to show off her comedic talents onscreen and to balance them off of the equally talented comedian, Steve Coogan. There are two very dumb, weird, yet somewhat girls who show up together every now and then, but their shtick gets old pretty quickly and they become annoying rather than funny. Coogan was funny Hamlet 2, but, despite a charismatic performance here, he simply doesn’t have enough material to chew on here, so, he’s unable to invigorate the film. At a running time of 107 minutes, What Goes Up has a charismatic performance by Steve Coogan, but that’s not nearly enough to save it from drowning from its bland, awkward and lazy screenplay that fails to generate any real laughs or palpable dramatic tension. Number of times I checked my watch: 5 Released by Three Kings Productions. Opens at the Quad Cinema.