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Reviews for November 16th, 2007

How to Cook Your Life
-Directed by Doris Dörrie.
This documentary about Zen chef Edward Espe Brown is more than a cooking show—it’s a recipe for how to live your life happily, in tranquility and to, essentially, be “one with nature” rather than going against it. Brown comes across as a very wise, funny, charismatic person as well as honest. Just the fact that director Doris Dörrie captures him crying shows how personal and intimate the interviews are. Vegetarians, in particular, will enjoy this film, but anyone with an open mind and a zest for life can enjoy it as well. Just be sure to eat a good meal before watching this film or else you’ll be ravenous as Brown and his cooking students prepare food such as bread and some desserts that look absolute scrumptious. If there were an award for a documentary with the highest spiritual value of the year, it would easily go to How to Cook Your Life. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Very High. Released by Mello Pictures. Opens the Quad Cinema.

The Life of Reilly
-Directed by Barry Poltermann and Frank Anderson.
Charles Nelson Reilly, a Tony Award-winning actor, comedian and game show participant, virtually disappeared from the media since the 1970’s to the extent that newspaper articles questioned whether or not he’s still alive. This documentary is basically footage from his last one man show where he jokes about his childhood and how he struggled to become famous while getting turned down by some networks. He’s sporadically funny, but mostly in his presentation rather than the content itself. Unfortunately, the camera moves too rapidly at times and at awkward angles which take away from the feeling that you’re part of the audience—the camera feels most distracting when it shows him performing onstage from behind. Sociopsychologist Erving Goffman once wrote that everyone behaves differently “frontstage” than they do “backstage”. Co-directors Barry Poltermann and Frank Anderson would have made this much more compelling if they were to include interviews with Reilly backstage and less of him performing his one man show. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by Civilian Pictures and L’Orange Films. Opens at Cinema Village.

Margot at the Wedding
-Directed by Noah Baumbach.
Margot (Nicole Kidman) travels with her son (Zane Pais) to her childhood home for the upcoming wedding of her estranged sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Jack Black plays Pauline’s unemployed husband, Malcolm who Margot doesn’t approve of. In a subplot, Margot has an affair on her husband (John Turturro) with an old lover (Ciarán Hinds). Over the course of a few days, Margot, Pauline and Malcolm are forced to deal with one another despite lots of tensions going on between them. For such a character-driven film, it’s very disappointing that writer/director Noah Baumbach fails to enliven any of the characters. He could have at least made Malcolm remotely likable because, given his behavior and personality throughout the film, it’s not clear what Pauline sees in him to begin with or how they will settle down since he’s unemployed. Unlike in Baumbach’s last drama, The Squid and the Whale, the cinematography looks like that of a Dogme 95 film—too many scenes look frustratingly dark or shadowy. It would have been beneficial if the scrip would have allowed the audience to care about at somewhat at least, but, unfortunately, they’re all too bitter and dull, which leaves you with a bad aftertaste. Even a fine cast can’t elevate this underwhelming, unimaginative drama. Number of times I checked my watch: 8. Entertainment Value: Low. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Paramount Vantage. Opens at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

-Directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Ingmar Bergman’s controversial film from 1953 finally gets a new print and rerelease on the big screen. Remember when Woody Allen said in Manhattan that he loves Swedish films? His favorite happened to be Monika, which was controversial back in the 1950’s for its sadomasochistic undertone and the frankness of its nude scenes. The story involves the romantic and sexual adventures between 19-year-old Harry (Lars Ekborg) and 17-year-old Monika (Harriet Anderson). Any of the so-called “controversial” scenes seem harmless today, but what resonates is the beautiful, poetic cinematography which shows the sensitivity of director Ingmar Bergman. The very natural performances and picturesque scenery—yes, even in black-and-white—compensate for the wafer-thin plot. Number of times I checked my watch: 2. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by Janus Films. Opens at the IFC Center.

Mr.Magorium's Wonder Emporium
-Directed by Zach Helm.
Natalie Portman stars as Mahoney, a worker at Mr.Magorium’s Wonder Emporium who inherits the magical toy store from its 243-year-old owner, Mr.Magorium (Dustin Hoffman), who claims he’s about to depart forever soon. Meanwhile, an accountant (Jason Bateman), assess the store’s value to potential buyers. Mahoney and Eric (Zach Mills), young boy, love the store so much that they try to save it from being sold and bringing back its magic. Despite a lively performance by Dustin Hoffman as the eccentric Mr.Magorium, the surprisingly dull, unfocused plot never really takes off. Writer/director Zach Helms brings some of the toys to life, but fails to bring any of the characters to life which is the most important part. Little kids will be mildly engaged while all others will feel underwhelmed and yearn for more imaginative and entertaining films such as last year’s delightful Night at the Museum. Please note that there’s an additional scene after the end credits. Number of times I checked my watch: 6 Entertainment Value: Modere. Spiritual Value: None is required or desired as long as you suspend your disbelief. Released by Twentieth Century Fox and Walden Media.

-Directed by Kurt Voelker.
In a grassy area overlooking Baldwin Hills in Los Angeles, the lives of nearly a dozen people become intertwined. April (Dagney Kerr) wants to kill herself and asks help from Ian (David Fenner) who’s unsuccessfully woos his sexy co-worker, Krysta (Isabella Miko), who, soon enough, has sex with a married attorney, Dennis (Baldwin), in another parked vehicle. Little does Dennis know that his wife (Ricki Lake) and her friend (Cheri Oteri) are spying on his secret affair. Finally, there’s Babar (Maulik Panchoy) and Nathan (Trent Ford) who spend their lunchtime hour with two co-workers (Anne Dudek and Melanie Lynskey) and try to persuade them to become nudists like them. Talk about a convoluted plot! The segment with Nathan and Babar seems like it could have been in another film altogether. None of the ensemble cast really gets a chance to shine, although it’s somewhat fun to watch the attorney get what he deserves from everyone he had rubbed the wrong way—which includes a lot of people. Despite many offbeat characters in outrageous and unpredictable situations, much of the humor by writer/director Kurt Voelker falls flat from poor comic timing and awkwardness. If only there were outtakes to compensate for the lack of laughs. Number of times I checked my watch: 9. Entertainment Value: Low. Spiritual Value: None is required or desired as long as you check your brain at the door. Released by Mello Pictures. Opens the Quad Cinema.

-Directed by Brian De Palma.
A group of U.S. soldiers lose their minds while serving in Iraq and participate in a rape of a 15-year-old Iraqi girl. Writer/director Brian De Palma clearly opposes the war in Iraq and doesn’t allow for any subtleties in this “documentary”. Basically, it seems that when U.S. soldiers serve in Iraq, they gradually turn into animals and lose their minds. The “footage” of these soldiers’ activities fails to be new or surprising in any way that hasn’t been shown before. Unfortunately, De Palma doesn’t humanize any of them so that you understand what they’re going through mentally—why not include some fake post-war interviews since this is, after all, a “documentary”. It would have been much more compelling had he made this into a real documentary or an imaginative, character-driven war film. Ultimately, it misses many opportunities to pack any punches and quickly fades from memory. Number of times I checked my watch: 5. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Magnolia Pictures. Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

What Would Jesus Buy?
->- Directed by Rob VanAlkemade. This documentary about the cross-country journey of Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir sounds like something out of a Christopher Guest “documentary”. Relentlessly boisterous and appropriately banned from Starbucks worldwide, Reverend Billy travels the country with his choir while preaching to consumers to stop shopping for Christmas. Remember the so-called self-help guru from Donnie Darko who Donnie couldn’t take seriously? Well, that’s exactly the kind of vibe that Reverend Billy gives off—except that he actually has a point, but the way he makes the point is simply annoying. It’s no wonder he gets kicked out of a store for disturbing customers with his anti-shopping preaching. Unfortunately, director Rob VanAlkemade focuses too much on the offbeat Reverend Billy and not enough on the ideas behind his preaching. He opens up a can of worms when he notes that advertising to children under the age of 12 is illegal in other countries such as the U.K. That would have been a much more insightful topic for exploration rather than tediously following Reverend Billy through his adventures and predictable confrontations. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Warrior Poets Releasing. Opens at Cinema Village.

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