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Reviews for November 20th, 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Directed by Werner Herzog.

Lieutenant Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) investigates the murder of five Senegalese illegal immigrants in New Orleans. When he’s not painkillers for his back pains, he’s drinking booze and snorting cocaine at every opportunity that he can find. His girlfriend, Frankie Donnenfeld (Eva Mendes), works as a high class prostitute and, not surprisingly, also takes drugs that Terence supplies her with. Steve Pruit (Val Kilmer), Mundt (Michael Shannon) and Armand Benoit (Shawn Hatosy) are cops work on the murder case alongside with Terence, but they’re nowhere near as seemingly insane and deranged as him. For example, you’ll find two scenes where Terence stop two club-goers on their way out of a club and, instead of arresting them, merely threatens them with his badge and takes away their drugs for his personal use before letting the two of them go. Is Terence inherently a good cop or a bad one? Screenwriter William Finkelstein seems less concerned with answer that moral question than merely poking a lot of darkly comedic fun at Terence’s naughty behavior. Every now and then, director Werner Herzog throws in some truly bizarre sequences involving an iguana and alligator which generate some chuckles given their total randomness. He gives the film very noirish atmosphere with the gritty settings and stylish cinematography. It’s rarely been so much fun to watch a morally and mentally unbalanced character such as Terence who’s not particularly likeable, especially given the lines he crosses to get information that will hopefully lead him to drug supplier responsible for murdering the immigrants. Eva Mendes sizzles every time she’s onscreen. Nicolas Cage easily sinks his teeth into his role as Terence, the kind of role that he fundamentally born to play. His audacious performance here is an absolute marvel to behold. At a running time of roughly 2 hours, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans manages to be a sensationally entertaining, darkly comedic, witty and refreshingly bizarre crime drama. A guilty pleasure. Nicolas Cage is in top form.
Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by First Look Pictures.
Opens at the Angelika Film Center, Clearview Chelsea, AMC Empire 25, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, City Cinemas 1, 2 & 3 and BAM Rose Cinemas.

The Blind Side

Directed by John Lee Hancock.

Based on a true story and on the book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis. Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) lives in a large house in Memphis, Tennessee with her husband, Sean (Tim McGraw), and two children, Collins (Lilly Collins) and S.J. (Jae Head). When a new student, Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), an orphaned African American young man, shows up at her kids’ school, Leigh Anne learns that he’s homeless and allows him to sleep in her home. It turns out that Michael does poorly at school, but excels at football. In his opening game for the school, he gets flagged for excessive blocking. Soon enough, Leigh Anne persuades her husband to become Michael’s legal guardian. Ray McKinnon plays Michael’s football coach and Kathy Bates briefly shows up as Miss Sue, his tutor who makes it a point to let Leigh Anne know that she’s a democrat. Will Michael overcome his obstacles and build up his self confidence while improving his education? Will he find success in the field of football? Will the Luohy family learn valuable lessons about love and kindness throughout Michael’s stay with them? Although the answers to those questions are quite obvious and predictable, the emotional journey that Leigh Anne and Michael go through is what truly matters and keep you engaged. Sandra Bullock sinks her teeth into the dramatic role of Leigh Anne rather well, but true heart and soul here is Tim McGraw who delivers a very heartfelt performance as Michael from the first moment you meet him. Writer/director John Lee Hancock, who also directed The Rookie, knows how to find just the right balance between drama, comedy and football action, which he keeps to a minimum; the real story here happens outside of the football field. Sure, the plot follows a standard formula, but at least it follows it compellingly for the most part. Admittedly, some of the ways that Michael overcomes his obstacles feels contrived and oversimplified, which slightly lessons the emotional impact of its third act. Hancock could have easily edited the film down from its lengthy running time of 2 hours and 7 minutes because a few scenes during the second act do tend to drag a bit. Nonetheless, The Blind Side manages to be a mostly heartfelt, compelling and inspirational albeit occasionally contrived sports drama.
Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

Broken Embraces

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar.

In Spanish with subtitles. Harry Caine (Lluis Homar), a blind screenwriter, had directed the film Girls and Suitcases 14 years earlier when he was known by his real name, Mateo Blanco. Since then, he hasn’t directed and, instead, lives off of the income generated from selling screenplays that he writes with the help of his assistant, Diego (Tamar Novas), and Judit (Blanca Portillo), Diego’s mother. After Harry learns of the death of Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), the producer of Girls and Suitcases, Ernesto’s son, who introduces himself as Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano), shows up at his door in hopes of collaborating with him on writing a screenplay. One day, Diego has an accident and Harry takes care of him without notifying Judit. Diego inquires about Harry’s past when he was known as Mateo Blanco and had a love triangle with Lena (Penelope Cruz), the star of Girls and Suitcases, and Ernesto. Writer/director Pedro Almodóvar combines melodrama, romance, suspense and comedy with mixed results. As the intricate plot jumps back and forth between past and present, more and more twists pile up that change your perspective about certain characters and gradually reveal their true motivations, which won’t be revealed here. Harry’s past along with the circumstances that led up to his car crash are both intriguing and add a little bit of suspense. However, when the plot veers toward comedy and romance, that’s where it falls flat for the most part. Harry and Lena don’t really have any palpable chemistry during their scenes together and the same can be said for Lena and Ernesto, so the love triangle between the three simply fails to hold your attention. Penelope Cruz sizzles as the sexy Lena and performance is quite lively and engaging. It’s also worth mentioning that Almodóvar includes exquisite cinematography and does a decent job of maintaining the plot’s coherence amidst all of the flashbacks and twists which could have easily been confusing and head-ache inducing with a less skillful writer/director. At a running time of 2 hours and 8 minutes, Broken Embraces manages to be intriguing, well-structured and mildly engaging with strong performances, but its balance of comedy, melodrama and romance feels slightly uneven and contrived.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Planet 51

Directed by Jorge Blanco, Javier Abad and Marcos Martinez.

Captain Charles "Chuck" Baker (voice of Dwayne Johnson), an American astronaut, lands on Planet 51 expecting to find it uninhabited. Little does he know that green-colored aliens reside there and assume that doesn’t come in peace. His spaceship happens to land on the backyard of the home of Lem (voice of Justin Log), a 16-year-old planetarium employee who’s interested in astronomy and trying to win over the girl of his dreams, Neera (voice of Jessica Biel). When General Crawl’s (voice of Gary Oldman) army captures Chuck along with his robotic sidekick, Rover, it’s up to Lem, his friend, Skiff (voice of Seann William Scott) and Neera to save the friendly astronaut before Professor Kripple (voice of John Cleese) removes his brain for scientific research and before it’s too late for Chuck to return back to Earth. The screenplay by Joe Stillman offers nothing particularly new or refreshing, but at least it has an enjoyable blend of humor geared toward children and some clever references of sci-fi movies for adults to catch every now and then. Although, it’s rather tiresome to watch for the umpteenth time an homage to an iconic scene from E.T. involving flying with an enlarged shot of the moon in the background. None of the jokes are laugh-out-loud funny, per se, but they’re amusing more often than not. The weakest link is the rather ho-hum plot that has a few exhilarating moments of adventure toward the end, but they’re rather fleeting. When Chuck finds himself captured in the underground military bunker, that’s when the film loses a bit of steam and leaving you wishing that there were sharper humor and more imagination, although, admittedly you’ll never find yourself bored. Co-directors Jorge Blanco, Javier Abad and Marcos Martinez keep the pace moving briskly and include bright, colorful and state-of-the-art CGI animation which at least provides some eye candy. It’s also worth mentioning the terrific choice of voice actors which fit great with each respective part, especially John Cleese as the mad scientist. The non-speaking character, Rover, the adorable, Wall-E-like robot, steals the show, though. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 31 minutes, Planet 51 manages to be an often amusing, harmless adventure with enough inoffensive humor and impressive CGI animation to make up for its lack of exhilarating moments and refreshing surprises.
Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by TriStar Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

Staten Island

Directed by James DeMonaco.

Parmie Tarzo (Vincent D’Onofrio), a mob boss, wants to take complete control over the entire mob in Staten Island. After the Russian mafia betrays him and he luckily survives an assassination attempt against him, he goes into the woods that’s about to go through deforestation, climbs onto a tree and sits on top of a treehouse. The police and media soon arrive to try to persuade him to come down, but he refuses and claims that he’s protesting against deforestation. Jasper Sabiano (Seymour Cassel), a deaf-mute deli worker, secretly works for Parmie cutting off body parts of deceased mob victims in a backroom of the deli. In the final subplot, Sully (Ethan Hawke), works a shitty job, literally, as a septic tank cleaner, and lives with his wife, Mary (Julianne Nicholson), who insists that he repeatedly take showers to remove any disgusting odors. He ends up fearing for his life after he breaks into Parmie’s house and steals $50,000 from a safe in order to pay for an experimental in-vitro procedure that would make their unborn baby more intelligent. Each of the three subplots unfolds nonlinearly with Parmie, Jasper and Sully eventually ending up together at the same time in the deli. Writer/director James DeMonaco takes a standard concept about people getting into trouble with the mob in one way or another, and, essentially, invigorates the concept with dark, offbeat humor and very interesting characters. How often do you get to watch a film where a mafia boss turns into a crazy, environmental activist? The opening scene, which won’t be spoiled here, is quite an amusing and refreshingly original way to begin the film. DeMonaco deftly blends drama, action, tragedy, suspense and dark comedy in a way that’s never dull, awkward or over-the-top. The intricate plot could have easily turned into a convoluted mess, but, thanks to a tight, intelligent screenplay, it remains focused, easy-to-follow and engaging throughout. Moreover, DeMonaco should be commended for not using shaky camerawork as a means to generate tension, especially during the gritty action sequences. At a running time of 1 hour and 35 minutes, Staten Island manages to be an invigorating, lively and captivating crime drama boasting a terrific cast, sharp dialogue and just the right amount of dark comic relief.
Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by National Entertainment Media.
Opens at the Village East Cinema.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon

Directed by Chris Weitz.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) remains in love with Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), a 108-year-old vampire stuck in his 17-year-old body. She accidentally cuts her finger during her 18th birthday party and causes the vampires to attending the party to thirst for her blood. In order to avoid the temptation of killing her, Edward and the rest of the Cullen vampire cove, flee the small town of Forks, Washington, leaving Bella alone with her father (Billy Burke) and depressed over the break-up between her and Edward. Months later, she’s flirting with Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), her best friend since childhood who has a supernatural secret that he’s keeping from her. Members of the Cullen vampire family return to threaten Bella’s life and, luckily, the large werewolves arrive to save Bella in the nick of time. Soon enough, the peaceful pact between werewolves and vampires might end up becoming destroyed while Bella concurrently finds herself torn between her blossoming romance with Jacob and her love of Edward, who wrongfully believes that the other vampires have killed her. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg feels very dumbed-down and filled with corny dialogue, awkwardness and contrivance that make it difficult to become immersed into the Romeo-and-Juliet-like story. One of the most corny moments occurs when Jacob arrives shirtless to pick Bella up off the ground and tend to her wound when her motorcycle crashes. With the exception of Michael Sheen in the brief role of Aro, the head of the royal Italian vampire council, a.k.a. Volturi, none of the performances rise above the level of mediocrity, especially when it comes to Kristen Stewart’s wooden performance during the break-up scenes between Bella and Edward. Her new romance with Jacob and her love of Edward simply don’t feel even remotely believable enough onscreen. Director Chris Weitz could have easily trimmed a few scenes or saved some for the deleted scenes section on the DVD because much of the film drags until Jacob finally reveals his secret, which, by then, isn’t really that much of a revelation because it’s so easy to igure out from the get-go. On a positive note, the special effects during the action sequences do look and sound impressive as well as the make-up effects of the vampires. Any real thrills to be found here, however, are far and between and don’t actually help to enliven an otherwise dull, overlong film. Despite superb cinematography and special effects, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, at a lengthy running time of 2 hours and 10 minutes, overstays its welcome and lacks palpable excitement, thrills and suspense. Its mediocre performances and dumbed-down screenplay add insult to injury.
Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Summit Entertainment.
Opens nationwide.

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