The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Based on the novel by John Boyne. During World War II, 8-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield), whose father (David Thewlis) serves a Nazi officer, secretly befriends Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a young Jewish boy wearing a striped clothing on the other side of a fence. Bruno, his mother and 12-year-old sister, Gretel (Amber Beattie), are under the false impression that those wearing striped clothing, such as their own servant, Pavel (David Hayman), as merely farmers. In an underdeveloped subplot, Gretel has a crush on a Nazi lieutenant (Rupert Friend). Little do Bruno, Gretel and their mother know that beyond the fence’s barbed wire lies a concentration camp with Jewish prisoners. Both Asa Butterfield and David Hayman give terrific performances as Bruno and Shmuel, respectively. It’s equally riveting and moving to watch as they sit on the opposite side of the fence and bond with each other just like two normal kids. Beneath the emotional drama, though, there are the terrifying horrors of the Holocaust, which Bruno’s father shields him from. As Bruno continues to interact with Shmuel, he thinks that the number written on Shmuel’s shirt represents part of game that the other “players” across the fence participate in. Writer/director Mark Herman does a great job of keep you absorbed by the story and handles the dark subject matter with sensitivity and attention to character development. At times, though, he overuses the musical score as a means to tug at your heart, but, for the most part the drama remains genuinely poignant. The emotionally harrowing third act, which won’t be spoiled here, will haunt you for days. Ultimately, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas manages to be a powerful and engrossing drama that also serves as an important introduction for young children about the horrors of the Holocaust. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Released by Miramax Films. Opens at City Cinemas 1, 2, 3.
Melody (Saffron Burrows), a young woman diagnosed with terminal throat cancer, decided to spend her remaining months alive renting a plush Manhattan apartment while splurging on food, furniture and clothes that she orders in. She has a sexually charged romance with a pizza delivery girl (Paz de la Huerta) who has a boyfriend and a furniture delivery man (who are both drawn to this strange, introverted woman and her habit of walking around the) who’s married. Eventually, she has a threesome with both of them. Throughout her carefree experiences, she recalls her childhood memories of wanted a red guitar at a store. What will she do with that memory? Will she end up maxing out her credit cards? Will she find true happiness? Despite a raw performance by Saffron Burrows and exquisite cinematography, writer/director Amy Redford, daughter of Robert, doesn’t allow you to care about the answers to those questions because of a weak screenplay that fails to bring the character of Melody to life. How does she expect audiences to care about a character who has sex with both a married man and a woman who has a boyfriend? Having a doctor (Janeane Garofalo) diagnose her with throat cancer at the beginning of the film feels like a lazy plot device so that you’d automatically feel sorry for her right away. Moreover, Redford cops-out for a contrived, implausible third act that takes away from the modicum of authentic drama in the prior scenes. With a more organic and imaginative screenplay,The Guitar could have been much more engaging and refreshing rather than mostly bland and underwhelming. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Released by Lightning Media. Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.
In English and French with subtitles. JCVD (Jean-Claude Van Damme), a jet-lagged martial arts actor who suffers from money troubles while fighting a custody battle over his daughter, returns to Belgium where he arrives at a bank to wire money from an ATM machine. A bank heist happens to be taking place at the same time and, through a series of misunderstandings, a SWAT team mistakes him for the actually robber. Although Jean-Claude Van Damme can’t act in a somewhat dramatic role, which he tries to do here, he’s at best when fighting off those robbers during the action sequences. Director/co-writer Mabrouk El Mechri shows the bank heist from four different perspectives, which becomes slightly tedious and diminishes some of the film’s momentum and thrills. He does a weak job, though, of balancing all of the genres of action, drama and satire.. At one point, there’s a lengthy, awkward monologue where Van Damme talks directly to you, the viewer, and tries, unsuccessfully, to make you care about his unfortunate situation as an actor. Nonetheless, the script has plenty of witty lines and tongue-in-cheek humor to please fans of Jean-Claude Van Damme, who often seems to be winking at the audience as if he’s saying that you shouldn’t take what you’re watching too seriously. At a running time of 96 minutes, JCVD occasionally drags, but at least manages to be moderately engaging. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Released by Peace Arch Entertainment. Opens at the Angelika Film Center.
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
During their escape to Madagascar, Alex the lion (voice of Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (voice of Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (voice of Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (voice of David Schwimmer), end up in Africa where Alex meets his father (voice of Bernie Mac), who happens to be the leader of the pride, and his mother (voice of Sherri Shepherd). Meanwhile, his smarmy Uncle Makunga (voice of Alec Baldwin) tries to dethrone Alex’s father. Sacha Baron Cohen provides the voice of King Julien, the whacky leader of the lemurs. Of course, the penguins from the first Madagascar film briefly show up to add some much-needed laugh-out loud moments. Some of the comedic attempts fall flat, though, but there’s never a dull moment. Both children and adults will be amused by all lively characters that they enjoyed the first time around. There are even some surprisingly sweet and tender moments to balance some of the light comedy that’s geared more toward adults. However, the real pleasure here comes from the CGI animation which looks dazzling with so many effects that heighten the realism along with bright, pretty colors. At an ideal running time of only 87 minutes,Madagascar: Escape 2 Africamanages to be a fun and diverting blockbuster. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Released by Paramount Pictures.
Otto; or, Up with Dead People
In English and German with subtitles. Otto (Jey Crisfar), a gay zombie, walks around the streets of Berlin, where a film director, Medea (Katharina Klewinghaus), casts him in a zombie film called Up with Dead People. Medea has a girlfriend, Hella Bent (Susanne Sachße) who looks like she was spliced right out of a silent black-and-white. Meanwhile, Otto gradually recalls a gay romance he had during the period when he was alive. With such a bold and absurd plot, you’d expect to either laugh with or at least laugh at the film. Instead, what you end up with is a sporadically tongue-in-cheek, tedious and pretentious mess that seems to be weird just for the sake of being weird. There’s barely any witty dialogue or remarkable scenes other than those meant purely for shock value, such as a disgusting zombie orgy. Writer/director Bruce LaBruce has a firm grasp of how to use stylish visuals, set design and lighting as a means to entertain your eyes, but he neglects to make the screenplay lively, funny and meaty. Even if you suspend your disbelief and check your brain at the door, most of the attempts to generate uncomfortable laughter fall flat with poor comic timing and subpar acting. Had LaBruce fleshed out some of the ideas further with more imagination and much-needed wit, Otto; or Up with Dead People could have been as refreshingly offbeat, funny and memorable as the far superior zombie comedy, Shaun of the Dead. Number of times I checked my watch: 5. Released by Strand Releasing. Opens at the IFC Center.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell
This moving and inspirational documentary focuses on the plight of Liberian women to bring peace to Liberia during a time when Charles Taylor, the tyrannical dictator of Liberia, brought violence to the country. A few Christian women gathered to spoke out to promote peace, which soon led to dozens and then hundreds more joining them in unison. Director Gini Reticker wisely allows the subjects to speak for themselves without excessive voice-over narration. Each of the brave Liberian women, such as Leymah Gbowee, speaks articulately and you can tell that what they say comes from the heart. Many of them even went to the extent of denying sex to their husbands until they reached their goal. The lively footage of these women relentlessly protesting and speaking their minds not only shows their courage, but their compassion as well, which feels quite moving to watch. In many ways, they’re much like heroes who do all that they can to save their country with their ardent voices and perseverance. At a running time of only 72 minutes, Pray the Devil Back to Hell manages to be inspirational, moving and uplifting. It deservedly won the Best Documentary Award at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Balcony Releasing. Opens at the Cinema Village.
Repo! The Genetic Opera
Based on the musical show by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich. In the year 2056, Rotti (Paul Sorvino), who’s dying, searches for an heir to replace him as the founder of GeneCo., a biotech company that controls the world’s supply of healthy human organs. He must choose between his two sons ((Bill Moseley and Ogre) or his daughter (Paris Hilton). Meanwhile, Repo Man (Anthony Stewart Head) works as a doctor for the company who repossesses the organs of clients who fail to pay their expensive operation fees. Little does his ill daughter, Shiloh (Alexa Vega), know that he’s actually sadistic doctor. With plenty of musical numbers and awkward scenes, comparisons to Rocky Horror Picture Show are inevitable. However, much of what occurs onscreen feels so consistently perverse, sickening and disturbing that the initial guilty pleasure quickly diminishes into tedium and mundanity. It’s quite horrifying to watch Paris Hilton try to sing let alone act. Director Darren Lynn Bousman, who also directed Saw II, III and IV, includes some gore and creepy settings to keep horror fans mildly engaged. Also, the cinematography looks stylish with stylized, cheap-looking visuals much like that of a Guy Maddin film. The best way to experience Repo: The Genetic Opera, though, would be at midnight with a large crowd, but, unless you’re an avid fan of the horror musical show and watch the film with an energetic midnight crowd, you’ll find it to be just slightly engaging and ultimately forgettable. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Released by Lionsgate. Opens at the Angelika Film Center.
Facing a month in jail, Danny (Paul Rudd) and Wheeler (Seann William Scott) do 150 hours of community service at a Big Brother program instead thanks to Danny’s ex-girlfriend, Beth (Elizabeth Banks), who happens to be a lawyer who’s friendly with the judge. Wheeler must mentor an obnoxious little kid, Ronnie (Bobb'e J. Thompson), while Danny mentors Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a dork obsessed with medieval role-playing. Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott do their best with their comedic energy to rise above the silly, uninspired premise. Unfortunately, writer/director David Wain includes too much inane, tasteless humor that involves unfunny jokes about molestation and other issues that aren’t really that funny from the get-go. Whether a comedy manages to be funny doesn’t depend on whether it has intelligent characters, but rather on whether or not its screenplay is written intelligently. In other words, a stupid comedy such as Role Models could be funny with smart, biting dialogue. Watching the characters of Danny and Wheeler together occasionally reminds you of watching Beavis and Butthead interact minus the witty dialogue that adds some bite and imagination. Moreover, it’s difficult to grasp what Beth had seen in Danny as her boyfriend to begin with. He comes across as an immature schmuck who’s got a lot of growing up to do and issues to deal with. Given that Role Models falls flat as a comedy, drama and romance, there’s not really that much left to savor except for the brief scenes with the underrated comedic actress Jane Lynch, who plays the Big Brother program’s director. She delivers the funniest one-liners in the film with terrific comic timing, as usual. No matter how willing you are to suspend your disbelief and check your brain at the door, Role Models still overstays its welcome and leaves you wishing it were much funnier and intelligently written rather than so uninspired, tedious and inane. Number of times I checked my watch: 5. Released by Universal Pictures.
Ex-pop star legends Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) and Floyd (Bernie Mac) go on a road trip together from Los Angeles to New York to perform at a reunion concert at the Apollo Theater. Their former manager (Sean Hayes) sends his intern (Adam Herschman) to help them out in their new music endeavors. Meanwhile, Louis and Floyd stop by the home of Cleo (Sharon Leal) who may or may not be Floyd’s daughter. Between all of the contrived dramatic scenes that fall flat is plenty of sick, juvenile humor that falls flat even more. Bernie Mac and Samuel L. Jackson work well off of each other onscreen, though, and slightly invigorate the film with their chemistry. However, director Malcolm D. Lee, who also directed the inane comedy Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, fails to infuse comedy and drama successfully and, instead, ends up with a bland, contrived and silly mess. Its funniest and truly soulful moments, though, occur in the special homage to Bernie Mac during the end credits scroll. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Released by Dimension Films.
The World Unseen
Based on the novel by Shamim Sarif. In 1952 Cape Town, Amina (Sheetal Sheth) co-owns a café, where she meets and falls in love Miriam (Lisa Ray), a young married woman. As their romantic bond strengthens, Miriam struggles to free herself from the controls of her husband, Omar (Parvin Dabas), who doesn’t even really take care of her emotional needs. Despite a compelling premise that has the potential for a lot of drama on the surface, the contrived screenplay by Shamim Sarif along with stilted dialogue and mediocre performances at best, take away from the film’s authenticity as a drama as well as a romance. Both Lisa Ray and Sheetal Sheth have a little charisma onscreen. However, the romantic chemistry between their characters doesn’t feel palpable, so it’s difficult for you to care about what ends up happening to them or their love life. The cinematography looks terrific as do the set/costume designs, but that’s not nearly enough to compensate for The World Unseen’s blandness that simply fails to pack an emotional punch. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Released by Regent Releasing/Here! Films. Opens at the Quad Cinema.