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Reviews for October 26th, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
- Directed by Sidney Lumet. Two brothers, Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke), rob a jewelry store belonging to their own mother (Rosemary Harris) and father (Albert Finney). Marissa Tomei plays Andy’s wife, Gina, who, in the one of the most awkward opening scenes in recent memory, has sex with Andy. The robbery doesn’t go exactly as planned and chaos ensues. Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives a strong performance as usual, but, unfortunately, the screenplay by Kelly Masterson fails to make his character particularly interesting or likable. The same can be said for other characters, such as the patriarch of the family who doesn’t know that his sons are the bank robbers. Too much of the plot jumps back and forth with so many flashbacks that it feels confusing and disturbs what little momentum the film has. A few plot holes also add to the confusion. Director Sidney Lumet knows how to bring out decent performances from his actors, but that’s not enough to compensate for the weak writing. Moreover, the ending leaves you with a bad aftertaste. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by THINKfilm.

-Directed by Alejandro Gomez Monteverde.
Jose (Eduardo Verastegui), an international soccer star, falls in love with Nina (Tammy Blanchard), a waitress at a New York restaurant. She gets fired from her job for excessive tardiness and runs off with Jose. Not much happens in thin plot to hold your attention enough. Jose and Nina don’t even remotely have the chemistry that the man and woman in the romantic drama Once have, so it often feels bland. When they Jose and Nina run off together, the screenplay by co-writer/director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde lacks focus and imagination. Many scenes seem either contrived, awkward or corny. Ultimately, Bella doesn’t really deserve its People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival because it’s neither truly refreshing, uplifting nor true-to-life. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Roadside Attractions. Opens at the AMC Empire 25 and Regal Union Square 14.

Dan in Real Life
-Directed by Peter Hedges.
Steve Carell plays Dan, a widowed father who takes his three daughters to a family get-together in Maine where he falls in love with Marie (Juliette Binoche), the girlfriend of his younger brother, Mitch (Dane Cook). It’s quite refreshing to watch characters who don’t seem dysfunctional in an over-the-top way, like in the similarly plotted film, The Family Stone. Co-writer/director Peter Hedges wisely minimizes the subplots so that they don’t feel convoluted as a whole. Juliette Binoche adds some charm and even some humor to her role, although it would have been nice if the script expanded a bit more on her interesting character. Steve Carell, once again, has great comic timing like he has in Little Miss Sunshine. Most importantly, many scenes in this delightfully charming dramedy feel true-to-life and uplifting with human characters, unlike in The Family Stone. Please note: to accuse Dan in Real Life of being predictable, which is a fact, is like accusing grass for being green or Earth for being round. Predictability in and of itself is not a bad characteristic—i.e., you can have a charming friend who’s very predictable but yet still like him/her very much. The same can be said for Dan in Real Life. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: High. Released by Touchtone Pictures.

Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains
-Directed by Jonathan Demme.
This documentary about former President of the United States Jimmy Carter as he tours the country with his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid feels often meandering and lacks compelling footage. The book is basically about how the Israelis shouldn’t be using strong force against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and that they’re essentially unjustly invading their territory and barricading them. Watching him explain this meaning his book to a variety of media sources, on television and radio, and how the sources react, is somewhat interesting, but it still doesn’t give you an idea of the real Jimmy Carter. As sociologist Erving Goffman once wrote, everyone has a “front stage” life and a “backstage” life in which they behave differently. Director Jonathan Demme simply includes too much of Carter’s front stage life with not enough one-on-one interviews to get inside his head backstage, so-to-speak. At a running time of 125, Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains often drags and overstays its welcome. Number of times I checked my watch: 7. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Sony Pictures Classics.

-Directed by BLACKandWHITE.
Unlike the documentary Pete Seeger playing concurrently at the IFC Center, this documentary fails to provide anything interesting or revealing about its person-in-focus, filmmaker David Lynch, other than that his office floor has lots of cigarette butts and he has a very strange imagination. Watching him direct scenes of his last film, Inland Empire, doesn’t really help to understand him or his method any better, nor does listening to him talk about how he once “popped” a bloated cow. He just seems to talk a lot and say very little. The unnamed director of this film—who prefers to just be called BLACKandWHITE—shows the David Lynch that his fans are familiar with already without any real surprises or insights into this mysterious man. Ultimately, this feels rather underwhelming and even a bit dull despite how lively Lynch seems. Number of times I checked my watch: 8. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Unfortunately, none. Released by Absurda. Opens at the IFC Center.

-Directed by Marc Levin.
Who would have thought that a documentary about an ex-gangster could be so poignant and complex. The gangster here is Nicky Barnes, who was a drug kingpin during the 1970s and spent many of those years successfully dodging the law enforcement. Meanwhile, he created an very rich drug empire involving so many different employees that it’s no wonder it was difficult for authorities to finally catch up to him. His prison sentence was reduced when he informed them about the whereabouts of other criminals. Director Marc Levin tells this amazing story about the rise and fall of Barnes with plenty of verve and includes a terrific soundtrack. He also includes thoroughly compelling interviews with DEA officers and others, including an exclusive interview with Barnes himself, who’s now recluse, incognito, in a witness protection program. Mr.Untouchable would be a great companion piece to the thrilling blockbuster American Gangster, a narrative film based on the life of Frank Lucas, one of Nicky Barnes’ rivals in the drug world. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by THINKfilm. Opens at Cinema Village.

Music Within
-Directed by Steven Sawalich.
Ron Livingston gives a decent performance as Richard, a deaf Vietnam War veteran who befriends Art, played very convincingly by Michael Sheen as a handicapped man with cerebral palsy. Both Richard and Art struggle to promote tolerance of people with disabilities, especially when people make fun of Art. They soon get kicked out of a diner because only because of Art’s slurred speech because of his disability. Although based on a true story, this drama lacks a believable script. Some of the dialogue even veers toward unintentional humor or inappropriate humor along the lines of the kind you’d expect in a Farrelly Brother’s movie. Co-screenwriters Brett McKinney, Mark Andrew Olsen and Kelly Kennemer do a great job at showing the great friendship between Richard and Art, but some scenes feel contrived, especially a romantic subplot between Christine (Melissa George) and Richard. At least director Steven Sawalich chooses a terrific soundtrack which adds the 70’s vibe of this mildly engaging, mostly uneven period piece. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by MGM.

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song
-Directed by Jim Brown.
This documentary about Pete Seeger, a singer/songwriter who let his personal views seep into his folks songs ever since the 1940s, is lively, informative and quite intimate. It’s no surprise that the FBI investigated him and even charged him for his ties to Communism and, soon enough, he was blacklisted from the airwaves. Although he couldn’t perform anymore with The Weavers, he continued to stick to his beliefs without explaining himself to the government. The lyrics of his songs, such as “We Shall Overcome” and “Turn, Turn, Turn”, speak for themselves and feel quite powerful and even moving. Director Jim Brown wisely incorporates fascinating interviews with many different people who share their views and recall their experiences with Pete (who’s approaching 90-years-old now), namely, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Pete’s wife and three children. In many ways, Pete is a stubborn non-conformist, but, concurrently, he’s a great role model and a true inspiration. He’s honest, confident and, above all, besides being an amazing singer/songwriter, he’s a very caring, good-natured individual who still shares his political, social and environmental concerns to this very day. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Very High. Released by The Weinstein Company. Opens at the IFC Center.

Rails & Ties
-Directed by Alison Eastwood.
Tom (Kevin Bacon) conducted a train that accidentally killed the mother of a young boy, Davey (Miles Heizer). Davey then runs away from his strict foster mother and confronts Tom, who he blames for the accident. The two gradually bond and Tom’s wife (Marcia Gay Harden), who happens to be suffering from terminal breast cancer, begs Tom to keep Davey for a while because she always wanted to have a child of her own. Meanwhile, the Department of Social Services searches for the boy. Despite lots of coincidences and clichés that exist just for the sake of plot development, many scenes feel profoundly moving thanks to terrific, heartfelt performances, especially by Marcia Gay Harden and the young Miles Heizer. Director Alison Eastwood, daughter of Clint, has created a warm, tender and heartbreaking directorial debut that truly resonates. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: High. Released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Opens at the Angelika Film Center and AMC/Loews Lincoln Square.

Saw IV
-Directed by Daniel Darren Lynn Bousman.
If you need to know the plot of Saw IV then you probably haven’t seen any of the other Saw movies. This time around there’s just new victims, new traps and a new evil mastermind who Jigsaw recruited before he died in Saw III. Those who expect lots of disgusting blood and guts along with imaginative, squirm-inducing traps will be very satisfied as long as they don’t expect to care about any of the victims. Director Darren Lyn Bousmann knows how to combine creepy setting design, chilling music, fast-paced editing and very realistic special effects (and make-up) to relentlessly disturb and shock, which should please avid horror fans. Fortunately, the Saw movies haven’t become unintentionally funny and silly, yet—but, who knows? Maybe that will happen by the time the franchise reaches Saw XXI will come out. For every beginning, there’s an end, but it’s not quite in sight yet. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Entertainment Value: High (Avid horror fans only). Spiritual Value: None is required or desired. Released by Lionsgate.

-Directed by Anthony Hopkins.
Anthony Hopkins stars as Felix, a writer on the verge of a mental breakdown as characters from his murder mystery script come in and out of his life. The mind-boggling plot, if you want to even call it a plot, involves, among others, a hitman (Christian Slater), a movie director (Gavin Grazer), a bouncer (Michael Clarke Duncan) and a crazy producer (John Turturro). Not much makes sense and none of the characters seem even remotely likable or developed enough, but, then again, the same could be said for David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Slipstream, however, feels pretentious and goes a bit too overboard with its confusing, anarchic script and, ultimately, fails to generate anything other than a massive headache. It’s not a difficult ride to sit through, especially on the big screen, but it’s not a particularly fascinating or memorable one either. Number of times I checked my watch: 7. Entertainment Value: Low. Spiritual Value: Unfortunately, none. Released by Strand Releasing. Opens at the AMC Empire 25.

Total Denial
-Directed by Malena Kaneva.
This eye-opening, provocative documentary focuses on how Ka Hsaw Wa and his wife try to prove that the corporations UNOCAL and TOTAL have done nothing to stop the Myanmar military forces from abusing, torturing and killing innocent civilians. The military was established in Myanmar, a.k.a. Burma, to guards the construction of a natural gas pipeline, run by UNOCAL and TOTAL, that stretches from Myanmar to Thailand. Through photographs and accounts from victims and witnesses, it’s undeniably horrifying how inhumanly the military treats the Burmese. Luckily, Ka Hsaw Wa devotes his time to trying to stop this injustice by going directly to the roots: UNOCAL and TOTAL. Of course, the corporations’ liars (oops…I mean, lawyers) do everything in their corrupt, greedy power to make the corporations appear innocent. Director Malena Kaneva includes plenty of fascinating and alarming footage that provide evidence that the corporation’s inaction to stop the abuse has caused much damage in Myanmar. Kaneva, unlike Michael Moore, cuts no corners and presents this reality with all of its harshness. Anyone who cares about justice and human rights will be moved by this documentary and will be tempted to take action right away. Click here if you want more information about how to take action: Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: High. Released by MK Production. Opens at the Cinema Village.

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