Based on the novel by Nic Balthazar. In Dutch with subtitles. Ben (Greg Timmermans), an alienated teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism, has trouble making friends at school and dealing with bullies. His only friend and potential girlfriend is Scarlite, whom he plays an online video game called “Overlord.” Scarlite yearns to finally meet him in person. Apparently, his divorced mother (Marijke Pinoy) doesn’t really understand what he’s going through and fails to connection with him on an emotional level. The compelling and wise screenplay by writer/director Nic Balthazar allows you to really get into Ben’s mind in a way that his family and friends cannot. He also includes imaginative, visually stylish cinematography that represents Ben’s emotional journey. Ben, at heart, seems like a genuinely kind, yet emotionally fragile teen who wants to escape from his loneliness, but other people’s lack of tolerance for people outside of social norms makes him sink further into loneliness. What does “normal” truly mean anyway? Will Scarlite help Ben to find the innate strength and hope to confront his bullies and set them straight? The answers to those questions don’t come easily and that’s what makes the film so thought-provoking and even poignant at times, especially as Ben finds ways to rebel and find acceptance during the second half. It’s also worth mentioning that Greg Timmermans delivers such a solid, convincing performance that you won’t believe that this marks his feature film debut as an actor. Despite a few slightly contrived and pretentious scenes, Ben X ultimately manages to be a captivating, tender and visually splendid drama. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Released by Film Movement. Opens at the Cinema Village.
Based on a true story. In 1928 Los Angeles, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) searches for her abducted 9-year-old son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), after a the LAPD return to her a boy (Devon Conti) claiming to be her son. She has every right to suspect that there’s corruption within the LAPD because the boy looks different compared to Walter. Wouldn’t a mother be able to recognize her own son? The LAPD, of course, uses they all their power to silence her so as not to destroy their reputation. They even go to the extent of throwing her into a mental institution under the assumption that she’s insane simply because she refuses to recognize the boy as her son like they want her to do. John Malkovich plays an activist/preacher who’s determined to help her to fight the corrupt police department. The screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski has some moments of intrigue and tension, especially when Collins confronts the police to try to set them straight, but, for the most part, it plods along in a dull manner. There’s simply not enough suspense to enjoy the film as a mystery while the dramatic elements feel contrived. On a positive note, Angelina Jolie delivers a very strong performance and sinks into the role of Collins with such conviction that you’ll be able to root for her during her plight to find out what happened to her son. Clint Eastwood shows his skills once again as a director with terrific cinematography, editing and impressive costume and setting designs that look authentic for that era. If only the screenplay were more dramatically intense and provocative, Changeling would have been much more powerful and emotionally stirring to watch. At an excessive running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes, it slightly overstays its welcome and occasionally drags. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Released by Universal Pictures.
Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun
Based on the novel by Dalton Trumbo. 20-year-old Joe Bonham (Ben McKenzie) awakens from surgery after getting injured by a German artillery shell during WWI and has lost his all of his eyes, ears, nose, mouth and all of his limbs. Realizing that he still has brain function, he tries to use to communicate his thoughts and feelings about the war. This filmed version of a one-character stage production would be much more engaging if watched live from the actual theater. On film, it loses it impact and often becomes tedious, awkward and drags. Ben McKenzie delivers an excellent performance as Joe and nails a broad range of emotions with utter conviction. Surely, some of the points that Joe makes are quite provocative. Occasionally, the visual effects onstage look impressive and stylish, but there aren’t enough interesting production values beyond those few moments to entertain your eyes. Director Rowan Joseph drags the film on and on with unremarkable camerawork that fails to enliven the bland film. At a running time of only 77 minutes, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun often drags and overstays its welcome. Number of times I checked my watch: 9. Released by Truly Indie. Opens at the Quad Cinema.
High School Musical 3
Troy (Zac Efron) and his girlfriend, Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens), rehearse for a school musical production called “Senior Year” as their high school graduation and prom approach. Meanwhile, Ryan (Lucas Grabeel) does his best and does his best to impress at the show and his twin, self-centered sister, Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale), yearns to have all the attention she can get. Director Kenny Ortega knows how to entertain through flashy editing, bright colors and impressive choreography. The dramatic and romantic scenes in between the musical/dance numbers, though, come across contrived and corny. The young actors either give a wooden performance or an over-the-top, annoying one. Fans of the last two High School Musical movies, released direct-to-cable, will surely have the most fun watching the musical/dance numbers and will find the rest of the film watchable. However, those who can’t tolerate over-dosing on cheesiness will often cringe and roll their eyes at all the pointless scenes and silliness on screen. Be sure to stay through the end credits for bloopers. Number of times I checked my watch: 5. Released by Walt Disney Pictures.
I’ve Loved You So Long
After spending 15 years in prison, Juliette (Kristen Scott Thomas) moves into the home of her sister, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), and struggles to deal with the emotional baggage that she had carried with her for all those years. When Lea’s young daughter (Lise Segur) asks why Juliette had been gone for so long, Lea helps to cover up the truth, which won’t be spoiled here, by saying that she’d been away in England for a while. No matter who tries to talk to Juliette about her past, she simply won’t open up to them. It’s as if she were in such a state of shock after what she had been through that she simply shuts down emotionally and bottles up her feelings. Kristen Scott Thomas gives a raw, quietly moving performance that allows you to feel absorbed whenever she’s onscreen and to be curious about what’s really going through her mind. The wise, sensitive screenplay by writer/director Philippe Claudel gradually immerses you into the story with very few contrivances and moments that drag and, fortunately, no pretentious qualities. He moves the plot along at a leisurely pace which allows for the characters to breathe life into the film. In turn, you gradually learn more and more information about Juliette’s past and what she’s feeling so that by the time the film ends, she becomes a complex human being who you care about despite her wrongdoings and flaws. I’ve Loved You So Long doesn’t have any real surprises or revelatory insights, but at least it manages to be a tender, heartfelt and very human drama. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Opens at Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
Let the Right One In
Based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist. In Swedish with subtitles. Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a 12-year-old boy who’s bullied at school, befriends Eli (Lina Leandersson), the daughter of his new neighbor, Hakan (Per Pagnar), at an apartment complex. During the opening scenes, Hakan slowly squeezes blood out of a corpse hanging like meat from a tree branch. Just when you think the film will turn into familiar Saw or Seven territory with reliance on gore or gimmicky plot twists, it suddenly switches to psychological horror mixed with some surprisingly poignant drama. It takes a while for Oskar to notice that his new friend, Eli, isn’t human. She’s actually a vampire and he must keep that as a secret even during an investigation of mysterious serial killings. Writer/director Tomas Alfredson wisely creates a chilly atmosphere through the use of cinematography, pacing, lighting and a well-chosen musical score. Also, the snowy settings provide an added sense of eerie calmness and foreboding terror. Nothing will prepare you, though, for the third act’s visual and dramatic surprises, none of which will be spoiled here. Let the Right One In never overstays its welcome at a running time of 114 minutes and manages to be one of the most refreshingly poignant, atmospheric, haunting and intelligent vampire films in recent memory. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Magnet Releasing. Opens at the Angelika Film Center.
Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom
Noah (Darryl Stephens) and his friends spend a few days on Martha’s Vineyard, where he’s going to get married to Wade (Jensen Atwood). During that time, they find ways to bond while dealing with all sorts of problems that come to the surface, such one of the friends, Ricky (Christian Vincent), having a secret crush on Noah and Wade’s fearing to come out to his parents. Director/co-writer Patrik-Ian Polk has assembled a fine ensemble cast, but, unfortunately, the screenplay fails to generate any laughter or real drama. Much of what occurs seems contrived and awkward with stilted dialogue. Fans of the TV show that it’s based on will be mildly amused to see their favorite characters on the big screen. While comparisons to the far more entertaining Sex and the City movie are inevitable, Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom ultimately feels bland and unimaginative with a stale plot and dull, forgettable characters that never truly comes to life. Number of times I checked my watch: 7. Released by Logo Features. Opens at the Clearview Chelsea Cinema.
Claire (Anne Hathaway), a grief counselor, tries to figure out the truth behind a plane crash that left small group of survivors. Some survivors recall an explosion on the airplane that differs from the airline’s claim that the crash came from human error, not mechanical error. Meanwhile, she risks her job by developing a romance with Eric (Patrick Wilson), one of the survivors. When other survivors start disappearing, Claire tries to get to solve the mystery on her own. Screenwriter Ronnie Christensen starts off with a suspenseful first act, but the suspense rapidly wanes like a popped helium balloon throughout the rest of the film. None of the characters seem remotely believable, especially Claire who behaves as if she has very limited experience in her field. She also makes stupid decisions, not just when it comes to romancing the creepy Eric, but when she approaches the airline’s shady representative (David Morse) and yells to his face that she knows of a “cover-up”. No real investigator would make that kind of accusation right off the bat and directly to the face of who she accuses of being part of the cover-up. Does she expect him to confess the truth so readily? As more and more bizarre events occur, the truth, which won’t be spoiled here, becomes harder for Claire to figure out, but easier for intelligent audience members to figure out. Why couldn’t Ronnie Christensen have made Claire smarter? Why doesn’t Claire go to the media with her discoveries? That would have at least added some much-needed intrigue rather than letting the audience get bored by being steps ahead of her. On a positive note, director Rodrigo García does include some stylish editing and visuals that slightly add some atmospheric chills, while Anne Hathaway tries her best to make the most out of the poorly developed character of Claire. However, that’s not enough to compensate for a weak, unimaginative screenplay that doesn’t take the dramatic events or mysteries far enough to make Passengers compelling as a psychological thriller. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Released by TriStar Pictures.
Pride & Glory
After four police officers get killed in an ambush, NYPD officer Ray Tierney (Edward Norton) investigates their murder and suspects police corruption involving his brother, Francis (Noah Emmerich), and brother-in-law, Jimmy (Colin Farrell). Jon Voight plays Ray’s father, the Chief Detective of the NYPD. As Ray gets closer and closer to solving the murder case, he puts not only his job but his own life at risk as well. Edward Norton and Colin Farrell both help to invigorate the film with their superb, convincing performances. It’s very entertaining to watch them play off of each other onscreen. The intricate screenplay by director/co-writer Gavin O’Connor has enough suspense, action and drama to keep you riveted, although some of the suspense and drama does fizzle out a bit toward the end. O’Connor’s wise use of locations and cinematography that includes bleak colors enhances the film’s overall gritty atmosphere. Admittedly, much of what unfolds throughout the plot seems like treaded water if you’ve seen other films such as L.A. Confidential and The Departed, so there aren’t too many refreshing surprises to be found here. Nonetheless, at a running time of 125 minutes, Pride and Glory only occasionally drags and, ultimately, it manages to be an often engaging and explosive crime drama. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
This provocative, absorbing and well-balanced documentary follows the events that followed after the 2003 Massachusetts Supreme Court declared the ban on same-sex marriages as unconstitutional. In turn, legislators proposed an amendment that would allow only for marriages to be between a man and a woman. Gay rights activists want gays and lesbians to be treated equally and fairly without discrimination. Those in favor of the amendment to ban gay marriage seem to have a problem with homosexuality itself, as one perceptive interviewee admits, but it’s much more complicated than that. Kris Mineau, head of the Massachusetts Family Institute, readily admits that he can’t imagine a child being able to deal emotionally with having two same-sex parents and, therefore, it would cause confusion. Co-directors Mike Roth and John Henning do a great job of showing both sides of the issue as the amendment goes through a series voting procedures. You’ll be moved and inspired by how gay and lesbian couples come together to voice their opinions and to, basically, show to those on the other side of the issue that they’re human beings with feelings, thoughts and concerns just like everyone else. Arline Isaacson, a gay-rights activist, along with Carl Sciortino , who’s running for Congress, and many others work diligently to try to convince legislators to vote against the amendment. It’s quite gripping to watch what happens as they courageously continue on their important mission to promote basic human rights, which isn’t easy in a society that has homophobic, prejudice and intolerant people that they must deal with. Regardless of which side of the issue of gay marriage you’re on, Saving Marriage manages to be a thoroughly compelling, insightful and important documentary. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Released by Regent Releasing/Here! Films. Opens at the Quad Cinema.
FBI Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson) hunts down Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), the new replacement of notorious serial killer Jigsaw (Tobin Bell). After four Saw movies, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “What could possibly be new about this one?”. When it comes the games of torture that Jigsaw has prepared for Hoffman to play with victims aren’t particularly inventive or shocking, although they’re certainly quite gruesome to watch. Co-Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan quickly diminish any mystery or suspense when they give strong foreshadows and evidence that Hoffman is actually the new killer early on. It’s not that interesting or difficult to figure out how Jiggsaw met Hoffman to transform him into a sadistic killer. Fortunately, director David Hackl uses stylish cinematography, a pulsating musical score and, as usual, claustrophobic settings to heighten the film’s generally intense atmosphere. It's also worth mentioning that Tobin Bell does have a good number of scenes and he delivers a creepy performance as usual. He's like the new Robert Englund. Some of the blood does look fake, though, and those looking for any real plot twists or surprises like in the last Saw movies will be mostly disappointed. Nonetheless, Saw V still delivers enough scares to sufficiently please its target audience and leave them hungry for Saw VI. Number of times I checked my watch: 2. Released by Lionsgate.
Synecdoche, New York
Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theater director, suffers from a degenerative illness along with having a dysfunctional relationship with his wife (Catherine Keener), who lives with him in Schenectady, New York and end ups leaving him early on. Meanwhile, he befriends Hazel (Samantha Morton), a flirtatious woman who works at the theater’s box office. He eventually directs a play that has characters and moments taken directly from his own life, even though he’s gradually becoming more and more disabled by his mysterious illness. He casts an actor (Tom Noonan) to play himself and an actress (Emily Watson) to play Hazel. The plot continues to go down the rabbit hole of convoluted, bizarre and confusing events. Writer/director Charlie Kaufman surely has a lot of courage and vision as an artist to create such a messy head-scratcher filled with surrealism. It’s the kind of film that would be better of studied and analyzed in film school shot-by-shot rather than watched in its entirety inside a movie theater. Those who expect the film to be an unconventional form of entertainment along the lines of the brilliant Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will be disappointed and irritated by all the pretentiousness and how inaccessible it feels in terms of plot coherence, character coherence and, most importantly, how it lacks an emotional core to immerse you into its anarchic story. Despite a talented ensemble cast, Synecdoche, New York, at a running time of 124 minutes, often drags and overstays its welcome. Number of times I checked my watch: 8. Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
The Universe of Keith Haring
This somewhat compelling and lively documentary follows the life and career of Keith Haring, an avant-garde artist who died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31. The style of his artistic drawings on both public domains such as subway walls and on canvases may seem simple at first glance, but, for an intelligent spectator, there’s much more to it than meets the eye. Through the combination of archival footage and interviews with Keith Haring along with his family and friends, namely Yoko Ono, Madonna and Andy Warhol, director Christina Clausen does a decent job of showing Keith Haring’s passion for art itself and his relentless, youthful spirit for expressing art in variety of mediums, such as murals or canvas drawings. Subway passengers in New York City would stop to gaze at and to discuss his bizarre drawings on subway walls; not all of them understand the artwork, but at least it catches their attention. Those unfamiliar with Haring or his artwork of the 70’s and 80’s will be somewhat fascinated by all of these facts and observations. However, those looking for a deeper or more insightful analysis of his work will be quite underwhelmed. What truly distinguishes Keith Haring from other brave avant-garde artists, such as those of the “Do-It-Yourself” movement documented in the recent film Beautiful Losers? What makes Keith Haring’s work so significant in the art world? Those questions should have been explored and answered to make the film more complete and satisfying on an intellectual level. On a positive note, director Christina Clausen does help to add some momentum and liveliness through stylish editing and cinematography. The Universe of Keith Haring will keep you mildly engaged, but it merely scratches the surface of an artist who deserves a much more sensitive, profound and thorough exploration of his art. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Released by Arthouse Films. Opens at the Cinema Village.