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Reviews for October 10th, 2008

Ashes of Time Redux
- Directed by Wong Kar Wai.

Based on the novel by Louis Cha. Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) suffers from a broken heart when his brother steals away his soul mate. A blind swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and another martial arts fighter, Hung Chi (Jacky Cheung), assist him at battle. Meanwhile, a young woman (Charlie Young) seeks revenge for her brother’s murder. Anyone looking for an easy-to-follow, compelling plot should look elsewhere. Writer/director Wong Kar Wait includes plenty stylish action sequences along with brilliant cinematography filled with vibrant colors that make the film come alive. The same can be said about the exquisite costume design. Some scenes look so beautiful to the eyes that you’ll feel like you’re looking at a painting. By contrast, the many dramatic scenes feel dull and contrived while none of the characters are particularly memorable or interesting. Originally made in 1992 and never released to theaters in the Unites States, Ashes of Time Redux finally comes to the big screen re-edited and, while it won’t impress you with its story, at least you’ll be amazed at Wong Kar Wai’s truly artistic knack for visual splendor which will at least keep you mildly engaged. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Opens at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Body of Lies
- Directed by Ridley Scott.

Based on the novel by David Ignatius. CIA operative Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) hunts down terrorist cells in the Middle East while listening to the advice of his boss, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), stationed all the way in the U.S. A Jordanian intelligence official, Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), helps Roger to find an infamous terrorist, Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul). Despite many loud action sequences and stylish, slick cinematography, there aren’t any real thrills to be found here. Director Ridley Scott moves the film at an excessively fast pace without breathing life into any scenes or characters. The screenplay by William Monahan goes through all the formulaic motions of an action film, but you’re unable to root for anyone because they all seem one-dimensional. On a positive note, the premise itself feels initially timely and intrigued while DiCaprio and Crowe both propel the film with their star power and deliver solid performances. At least it’s not as convoluted or confusing as Syriana, but, at a lengthy running time of 129 minutes, Body of Lies ultimately lacks the thrills, excitement, suspense and intrigue that you would expect to keep you thoroughly entertained and provoked. Number of times I checked my watch: 5. Released by Warner Bros.

Choose Conner
- Directed by Luke Eberl.

15-year-old Owen (Alex D. Linz) learns about politics when he becomes a youth spokesman for Congressman Lawrence Conner (Steven Webber). As he befriends the Congressman’s teenage nephew, Caleb (Escher Holloway), he gradually discovers a dark secret that drastically changes the way he looks at politics. The first act starts out intriguingly as Owen graduates middle school, needs to escape boredom and, most importantly, to follow his passion for politics. He clearly shows aptitude in his ideas that he to Congressman Lawrence Conner’s campaign for the U.S. Senate primaries. As Owen gets more involved in the political campaign, he learns some important information about how politics works behind-the-scenes. The precise details of the secret that he learns about the Congressman’s private life will not be revealed here, but it’s worth mentioning that it’s not fleshed out enough to be truly convincing. In other words, writer/director Luke Eberl goes for gimmicky shock value when he should have gone for much more insight instead. Any intelligent person wouldn’t be surprised that politicians, especially in America, sometimes behave deceptively and evasively—or quite stupidly when it comes to George W. Bush and Governor Sarah Palin. Also, the film ends on a rather abruptive note. On a positive note, actor Steven Webber does a decent job of playing a seemingly charming Congressman, one who the public would easily trust based on his campaign ads. If only Eberl would have focused much more on Owen’s endeavors with his intriguing political ideas and how they work in the realities of politics, Choosing Conner could have been much more powerful and revealing. Number of times I checked my watch: 2. Released by Strand Releasing. Opens at the Cinema Village.

The Express
- Directed by Gary Fleder.

Based on a true story and on the novel by Robert Gallagher. During the late 1950’s, Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), an African American young man, joins the Orangemen, a predominantly white Syracuse University football team. His coach, Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), fuels his confidence amidst racism from everyone around him. What could have been a heartwarming, inspirational film instead becomes a tedious and by-the-numbers journey that simply lacks genuine emotions. It’s alright that everything that happens onscreen is telegraphed from the very beginning, but at least there could have been some warmth or tenderness to keep you emotionally captivated. Rob Brown, whom you might recognize from Finding Forrester, gives a mediocre performance as Ernie Davis that lacks charisma while screenwriter Charles Leavitt doesn’t breath enough life into his character so that it’s difficult to be truly immersed in the story. Dennis Quaid, though, delivers the most convincing performance here as his coach and adds some much-needed gravitas. Football fans will surely be entertained by all the football games shown on screen, but everyone else will be mostly bored. On a positive note, director Gary Fleder includes impressive costume/set designs of that time period along with stylish cinematography. If only it had a much more sensitive and compelling screenplay, The Express would have been as powerful as Remember the Titans. At an excessively long running time of 129 minutes, it often drags and overstays its welcome. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Released by Universal Pictures. center>

- Directed by Mike Leigh.

Poppy (Sally Hawkins) lives a carefree life as a primary school teacher with an cheerful personality, unlike her cynical best friend, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman). When someone steels her bicycle, she remains upbeat and decides to take driving lessons with an instructor, Scott (Edie Marsan), who turns out to be a lonely, passive-aggressive man. Poppy’s excessive cheerfulness gradually become annoying to Scott and others around her, but she doesn’t let anyone stop her. Interestingly, there’s no use of any cheerful ABBA songs to accompany any of the scenes, which would have fit perfectly whenever Poppy’s onscreen. In a hilariously over-the-top and offbeat scene, a flamenco teacher (Karina Fernandez) expresses her emotions melodramatically during a flamenco class that Poppy attends. Sally Hawkins delivers a truly lively and radiant performance here that should garner her with at least an Academy Award Nomination. Unfortunately, there’s really not much else to hold your attention besides observing the way that Poppy behaves and interacts with others. Writer/director Mike Leigh fails to make her an interesting character beyond her upbeat personality as if the audience were supposed to extrapolate what her childhood was like and what, if anything, she might be masking behind her smiles. It’s not quite clear how she has truly changed or transformed internally from the first act up through the third act. Moreover, Leigh includes an awkwardly lengthy scene with her interacting with a homeless man, which takes away from the little momentum that the film had. Although mildly amusing at first, Happy-Go-Luckyultimately falls flat as a comedy and lacks the much-needed character depth and dramatic tension to be compelling as a drama. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Released by Miramax Films. Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

La León
- Directed by Santiago Otheguy.

In Spanish with subtitles. Álvaro (Jorge Román), who works as a fisherman and farmer on an island, struggles to control his repressed physical attraction to Turu (Daniel Valenzuela), the captain of a boat called “El ón”. That boat functions as the only means of water transportation for the villagers who live on the small island. Those villagers, particularly Álvaro and Turu, seem like islands in the figurative sense given how isolated and lonely they feel. Writer/director Santiago Otheguy’s screenplay captures their isolation through all the laconic dialogue. No one has a real conversation with another character; they’re all just drifting through life while bottling up their true emotions. There’s a lot of interesting things going on subtly beneath the surface of the plot, especially during the quite moments, which help to enrich the film. Moreover, Otheguy includes black-and-white cinematography that makes for very lyrical, atmospheric, soothing visuals and breathes life into the film. Some scenes feel a bit lengthy and drag from sluggish pacing. Ultimately, La León manages to be an absorbing and tender drama that will be most rewarding for patient viewers. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Released by Music Box Films. Opens at the Cinema Village.

Nights and Weekends
- Directed by Greta Gerwig and Joe Swanberg.

Mattie (Greta Gerwig) visits her long-distance boyfriend, James (Joe Swanberg), in Chicago, where their romance gradually wanes. A year after their break-up, James visits Mattie in New York where they test out their romance once again. A photographer shoots the two together and assumes that they’re a couple. Will Mattie and James finally become an exclusive couple or will they break up again? As with other films in the “mumblecore” genre, namely, Mutual Appreciation, Funny Ha Ha and Hanna Takes the Stairs, subtle character development dominates heavily over plot development as a means of holding your attention. From the very first scene, you’re thrown right into the midst of James and Mattie’s relationship without an introduction as to how they met and, even before the plot fast-forwards to one year later, there’s no scene actually showing the couple explicitly deciding to break-up. Co-writers/directors Greta Gerwig and Joe Swanberg have a lot of artistic courage for filming such an unconventional narrative that merely captures a “slice-of-life”, so-to-speak. Its unstilted dialogue along with its stark reality makes it feel somewhat like a European film, although not nearly as engrossing or insightful as the brilliant French romance/drama, An Affair of Love. If you’ve managed to develop an acquired taste for the mumblecore genre, Nights and Weekends will at least keep you mildly engaged, but ultimately it won’t leave much of an impression in your mind. Please check out Funny Ha Ha for a much more memorable and livelier mumblecore experience. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Released by IFC Films. Opens at the IFC Center.

- Directed by John Erick Dowdle.

Angela (Jennifer Carpenter), a TV reporter, and her cameraman, Scott (Steve Harris), document the activities of the Los Angeles Fire Station night shift crew and, after following a 911 call, they all end up mysteriously quarantined together in an apartment building. They witness an elderly lady biting someone else to death, which marks the beginning of a serious of bizarre deaths. Of course, it takes a while for anyone to realize that they’re in grave danger as if they’ve never seen a horror film in their life before. Haven’t any of them seen a zombie film before? They should know better than to approach someone who’s unresponsive and foaming at the mouth. Writer/director John Erick Dowdle shoots each scene Blair Witch-style with a shaky camera from the perspective of the Scott, the cameraman. While that visual style enhances the reality, it often creates nausea and there’s really not that much in terms of surprises and scares until the convoluted final ten minutes. The set and lighting designs establish a somewhat creepy atmosphere and there’s occasional gore for shock value, but that’s not nearly enough to please horror fans, especially those who watched [REC], the original Spanish film that Quarantine is actually based on. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Released by Screen Gems.

Talento de Barrio
- Directed by José Iván Santiago.

In Spanish with subtitles. Edgar (Daddy Yankee), a drug dealer in an inner city (a.k.a. a “barrio”) of Puerto Rico, aspires to become a famous Reggaetón singer. He struggles to give up his life of gang violence so that he can pursue his music career, but that’s easier said than done. In a poorly developed subplot, he romances a sweet girl who would rather that he quit his life of crime so that they could get married and settle down peacefully. Will Edgar continue to put not only his career at risk but his life as well? The by-the-numbers, stilted screenplay by co-writers George Rivera and Ángel M. Sanjurjo makes it difficult to care about any of the characters as anything beyond one-dimensional stereotypes. Edgar’s transformation into a popular singer happens too suddenly even though he clearly has a talented voice. More organic dialogue with a stronger attention to character development would have helped to add some much-needed gravitas and insight to a somewhat dull, tedious and contrived film. Talento de Barrio does have a lively soundtrack, though, that will keep you at least moderately entertained if you like Reggaetón, but that’s not enough make it a truly captivating or engrossing drama. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Released by Maya Entertainment.

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