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Reviews for November 9th, 2007

-Directed by Alejandro Landes.
This documentary follows the campaign trail of Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia in 2005. Rather than exploring what makes Morales tick or at least including some background information about his upbringing, director Alejandro Landes merely follows him and his campaign aides as they travel throughout Bolivia raising support among the local coca leaf farmers. Cocalero works better as an argument that these farmers deserve to be respected and that their coca farms should not be destroyed or considered illegal because the leaves are proven to be healthy, even if they can be turned into cocaine. As one farmer puts it bluntly, what Bolivians were to come into America and ban the production of Coca-Cola, which uses coca leaves as well? Although Morales seems like a warm, friendly individual who inspiringly represents the voice of the poor farmers and seeks to ameliorate their conditions, it would have been interesting to watch more interviews with him to understand how he expects to put these changes to use in practical ways. Number of times I checked my watch: 2. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by Cinema Tropical. Opens at Cinema Village.

Fred Claus
-Directed by David Dobkin.
Fred Claus (Vince Vaughn) moves up to the North Pole to work for the factory of his younger brother, Santa (Paul Giamatti). Meanwhile, an inspector (Kevin Spacey) threatens to close down the factory. Irritating performances by Vince Vaughn and Kevin Spacey cause many head-ache inducing scenes. It’s not quite clear what Fred’s girlfriend (Rachel Weisz) had seen Fred in the first place before they broke up, or what anyone sees in him for that matter. Director David Dobkin, also known for directing Wedding Crashers, fails to add any charm or even believable special effects and settings to his mean-spirited, unimaginative, unfunny and silly so-called “holiday family movie” which lacks everything that made The Santa Clause and Elf so enjoyable and heartwarming. It’s more like a tame version of Bad Santa, but without the laughs. Number of times I checked my watch: 12. Entertainment Value: Low. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Warner Bros Pictures.

-Directed by Guy Moshe.
In Cambodian red light village, Patrick (Ron Livingston) tries to save 12-year-old Holly (Thuy Nguyen) from being further exploited in the sex trade industry. Although it has a provocative premise, the film as a whole doesn’t really feel as absorbing or powerful as it could have been because the plot seems too pedantic as you watch Patrick saving Holly from a brothel, losing her, and then trying to save her again. Throughout his endeavors, he occasionally confronts a pedophile (Udo Kier) who frequents the brothel. Co-writer/director Guy Moshe fails to develop any of the characters so that you care about them as human beings—the role of Patrick, in particular, is quite unimaginative and dull. A weak performance by Ron Livingston further adds to the dullness. At least the screenplay is focused than the screenplay in Trade, a film that opened this year with a similar theme. In that film, the problem lay mostly with the unfocused plot; here, it lays mostly with the poor character development and a third act that drags a bit. Number of times I checked my watch: 5. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by Slow Hand Releasing. Opens at Clearview 62nd and Broadway.

The Insurgents
->- Directed by Scott Dacko. Four Americans, James (Michael Mosley), Hana (Juliette Marquis), Marcus (Henry Simmons) and Robert (John Shea), plan to detonate a bomb on a U.S. target. Unlike Lions for Lambs, this dramatic thriller actually has imaginative characters who don’t ramble in a boring way about a bunch of topics, but rather discuss the true meaning of justice, violence and freedom in the post-9/11 era. Writer/director Scott Dacko somewhat minimizes the suspense, though, because you already know who the insurgents are from the beginnings. However, he does a great job of hooking you in with character development. Each character has his or her own motivations and shows it, too, instead of merely coping out and saying it to spoon feed the audience. The way it all unfolds is equally fascinating and frightening, especially during the intense third act. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by Revel Films. Opens at Cobble Hill Cinema.

Lions for Lambs-Directed by Robert Redford.
A political reporter (Meryl Streep) interviews Republican senator (Tom Cruise) about the ongoing war in Iraq while a professor (Robert Redford) tries to convince his underachieving student (Andrew Garfield) to become active in politics. Concurrently, two U.S. soldiers (Derek Luke and Michael Peña) risk their lives while under enemy fire in Afghanistan. With the timely topic of war and given such an all-star cast, it’s shocking how meandering and underwhelming this overly talkative film really is. The characters ramble on and on about a variety of issues with so little insight that it make it all seem anticlimactic—even more boring than listening to an incompetent professor during a lecture. If only director Robert Redford would have focused on one of the interactions and used some imagination to build a human story around that, this would be more powerful and moving. As it is, it just feels more like an idea-driven film rather than a character-driven film which is should have been. Fortunately, the running time is just 88 minutes, so at least the boredom doesn’t last too long. Number of times I checked my watch: 7. Entertainment Value: Low. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by MGM.

No Country for Old Men
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
Javier Bardem gives an Oscar-worthy performance Anton, a serial killer on the loose in Texas who searches for a briefcase containing $2 million, which Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) has. Meanwhile, the county sheriff, Ed (Tommy Lee Jones) investigates Anton’s crime spree. It’s absolutely riveting to watch the way the intricate plot unfolds as the lives of these three men gradually come together in unpredictable, even startling ways. Co-writers/directors Joel and Ethan Coen include many breathtaking, mesmerizing scenes that channel their classic films such as Blood Simple and Fargo. Sure, there’s some bloody mayhem that could disgust those with a weak stomach for violence, but what did you expect from this genre to begin with? Fluffy kitten and the Easter bunny? Fortunately, none of the violence goes over-the-top. The Coen brothers do a masterful job of combining setting, lighting, pacing and music score to create a very chilling atmosphere. It all wouldn’t have worked so well, though, if it weren’t that Javier Bardem’s scene-stealing, haunting performance as Anton turns him into one of the most memorable and believable villains in the history of cinema. Be sure to notice the original way he kills his victims. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: High. Released by Miramax Films. Opens at the Angelika Film Center, Regal Union Square, AMC Empire 25 and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

-Directed by Franck Khalfoun.
Angela (Rachel Nichols), a young executive, spends her Christmas Eve trapped in a parking garage where a sadistic security guard (Wes Bentley) torments her. The pedantic plot uses all the clichés in the horror book, such as a sexy victim who can somehow muster the courage to escape from her seemingly friendly tormentor, who suffers from loneliness (how original!) and has a vicious guard dog. Of course, Angela has no cellphone service and when she finally finds a phone to dial 911, all circuits happen to be busy. Also, do we really need to watch the security guard dancing to an Elvis song? What follows is a tedious cat-and-mouse chase through the parking garage with only three brief scenes of squirm-inducing gore. Director Franck Khalfoun does create a chilling mood using setting design and a creepy musical score, but how difficult could it be given the maze-like quality of the garage that already adds a lot to the claustrophobic atmosphere? The best way to enjoy P2 as a guilty pleasure is to suspend your disbelief, check your brain at the door, and look at the bright side: at least it’s less unintentionally comedic than the remake of Black Christmas and slightly more imaginative than Captivity and Saw IV.

Steal a Pencil for Me
-Directed by Michèle Ohayon.
Jack and Ina, two Holocaust survivors, have been married for 60 years. In this very moving and fascinating documentary, they vividly recall how they met back then and then corresponded to one another while at the concentration camps. He had a wife, Manja, who stayed with him throughout the Holocaust while Ina was separated into a different camp. Director Michèle Ohayon wisely incorporates well-researched archival footage and images which help to enrich and enliven the film so that it’s not just a bunch of talking heads—although the words in the love letters are powerful enough to make you feel absorbed. Just like in her last superb documentary , Cowboy del Amor, Ohayon knows how to keep you engaged by infusing the film with the charisma, thanks to Ira and Jack, and even a sense of humor and, most importantly, a sense of hope amidst a very tragic event in history. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: High. Released by Red Envelope Entertainment. Opens at the Quad Cinema.

War Dance
-Directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine.
This documentary about children living an a Ugandan refugee camp who participate in the annual Kampala Music Festival. It’s uplifting to watch the young kids show off their talents of singing, dancing and playing musical instruments such as the xylophone. Concurrently, it feels sad to hear about their violent past which left them without family and shelter. Co-directors Sean and Andrea Fine include plenty of vibrant images and cinematography that’s rich with positive energy and, above all, life. They fail, though, to add some insight by adequately exploring the cause and effects of the violent conflicts in Uganda which the children have escaped from and are still suffering from to this very day. Nonetheless, War Dance at least keeps you uplifted and inspired at how the use of artistic talents can bring people together with so much joy despite their tragic past. Number of times I checked my watch: 0 Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by THINKfilm. Opens at Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

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