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Reviews for November 14th, 2008

A Christmas Tale

Directed by Arnaud Desplechin.

In French with subtitles. Junon (Catherine Deneuve), diagnosed with cancer, needs a bone marrow transplant from one of her children, who gather together for Christmas. The children include Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) and Henri (Mathieu Amalric), each of whom have their own problems to deal with. Elizabeth has a dysfunctional relationship with both her husband (Hippolyte Girardot) and her brother, Henri, an alcoholic drug addict who she banished from the family. Throughout the family get-together, Ivan arrives with his wife, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) and two kids while Henri brings Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), his Jewish girlfriend. Also, Elizabethís teenage son, Paul (Emile Berling), suffers from loneliness and lack of self esteem. Jean-Paul Roussillon plays the Junonís patriarch. Just by the sound of the lengthy premise, everyone in the family could use a lot of therapy. Director/co-writer Arnaud Desplechin crams in so much melodrama, characters and subplots that the filmís running time could easily be 6 hours. With its running time of 2 hours and 23 minutes, it feels contrived, convoluted and chaotic. Moreover, Desplechin uses the oldest plot device in the book by mixing in cancer as a means to generate some poignancy. The same plot device was used in another Christmas get-together movie called The Family Stone. Unfortunately, none of the characters truly come to life while the dramatic scenes tend to drag. The terrific ensemble cast, especially Catherine Deneuve, of course, does their best enliven the film a bit and add some much-need charm and a modicum of warmth. With a more focused and sharper screenplay with more fleshed-out characters, A Christmas Tale could have been much more captivating and emotionally involving. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Released by IFC Films. Opens at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

The Dukes

Directed by Robert Davi.

After nearly 50 years since their fame, the band members of The Dukes, cousins Danny (Robert Davi) and George (Chazz Palminteri), along with their manager, Lou (Peter Bogdanovich), stage a heist during their comeback into the world of music. They both work as cooks at an Italian restaurant run by Aunt Vee (Miriam Margolyes), but theyíre more focused on finding the money to turn a local nightclub into a place where they can sing in front of a crowd. Although the plot occasionally veers toward contrivance and doesnít have any real surprises up its sleeve, itís still an engaging ride thanks to the onscreen chemistry of Robert Davi, Chazz Palminteri and Peter Bogdonovich. They all add much-needed charisma and invigorate the film with their performances. Director/co-writer Robert Davi includes just the right dash of light comedy to balance all the dramatic and somewhat thrilling heist scenes. He also moves the film along at a brisk enough pace so that thereís never a dull moment to be found. Moreover, itís worth mentioning the terrific soundtrack filled with lively oldies music. As long as youíre willing to suspend your disbelief for 96 minutes, The Dukes manages to be a breezy and pleasantly diverting ride. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Released by Cavu Pictures. Opens at the Village East Cinema and AMC Empire 25.

House of the Sleeping Beauties

Directed by Vadim Glowna.

In German with subtitles. Edmond (Vadim Glowna), a man in his sixties, copes with the death of his wife and daughter who died in a mysterious car accident 15 years earlier. His friend, Kogi (Maximilian Schell), suggests him to visit a brother where young female virgins lay naked in bed and sound asleep. Angela Winkler plays the Madame who runs the brothel and reacts with hostility whenever Edmond questions her about what might really be going. Is she hiding something sinister? Does it have something to do with the death of Edmondís wife and daughter? Despite a gripping first act, the suspense and tension fizzles out throughout the rest of the film because too much of what occurs can be easily predicted. Morever, the character of Edmond doesnít seem bright enough whenever heís interacting with the Madame. It would have been more useful to the plot if writer/director Vadim Glowna had made Edmond an undercover police officer who asks the right questions in the right way rather. On a positive note, Glowna includes lush cinematography and occasionally uses some interesting symbolism. A more intelligent and imaginative screenplay, though, would have made The House of the Sleeping Beauties much more intriguing to watch. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Released by Strand Releasing. Opens at the Quad Cinema.

How About You

Directed by Anthony Byrne.

Based on a short story by Maeve Binchy. Kate (Orla Brady) goes away from Christmas vacation, leaving her younger sister, Ellie (Hayley Atwell) in charge of a residential home. Only four grumpy residents remain, namely, Heather (Brenda Fricker), Hazel (Imelda Staunton), Georgia (Vanessa Redgrave) and Donald (Joss Ackland). Will Ellie find a way to get along with them by the time Kate comes back? Will she grow up, learn how to listen and how to be patient? Although the answers to those questions are telegraphed from the very first act, what matters is what happens to Kate along the way to reach her transformation. Likewise, the residents go through their own inner transformations which make them feel liberated. They each initially driver her insane, such as when Donald demands for a very early breakfast at 6 AM and gives her picky food requests. The more she befriends them and shares her feelings with them, the more respect they have for her. Co-screenwriters Meave Binchy and Jean Pasley do a decent job of trying to create character-driven dramatic tension, but only Donald and Georgia truly come to life as well-developed characters. They both have a few brief moments where they shine. Unfortunately, the attempts to generate poignancy fall flat because much of what happens seems too forced with stilted dialogue. Also, the characters of Hazel and Heather arenít fleshed out enough. More scenes with the underrated Imelda Staunton would have been useful. Nonetheless, How About You manages to be mildly diverting thanks to the charming performances of its ensemble cast who help to elevate the material beyond its contrived moments and blandness. Number of times I checked my watch: 2. Released by Strand Releasing. Opens at the Paris Theatre.

We Are Wizards

Directed by Josh Koury.

This lively, mildly fascinating yet and unfocused documentary focuses on the subculture of Harry Potter-crazed fans who channel their passion for the Harry Potter books in various ways ranging from musical groups to fan websites. Two brothers perform in band called Harry and the Potters and, of course, during their concerts, many fans scream and cheer them with plenty of joy and excitement. These musicians ignited a new genre of Harry Potter-inspired music called Wizard Rock. Thereís also a band called The Hungarian Horntails, with only a 7-year-old who rocks out. A cartoon artist got a lot of attention for creating voice-over narration for Harry Potter and the Sorcererís Stone that crosses into PG-13 territory. In a rather unexplored tangent, a teenager who created a fan website explains how she led a boycott of Harry Potter-related products after Warner Bros. threatened to sue her and others for copyright infringement. She argues that itís unfair that Warner Bros. let Daniel Radcliff perform in the UK theater production ďEquusĒ where he was nude which, therefore, tarnished his image as Harry Potter. Director Josh Koury also includes an older woman who comments that obsession over the Harry Potter series is harmful for youngsters because it dangerously celebrates the occult. She also states that it could ruin our society. Such sweeping statements need so much more elaboration. Unfortunately, anyone looking for insights here will be disappointed. Harry Potter fans, though, will be delighted to watch the utter glee and passion that the creative, lively Harry Potter fans clearly exert, especially as they perform their music. With more profound interviews and synthesis, We Are Wizards would have been much more provocative, revealing and intriguing. At a running time of only 79 minutes, it doesnít really overstay its welcome, but it does feel incomplete. Number of times I checked my watch: 2. Released by Argot Pictures. Opens at the Cinema Village.

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