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Abridged reviews for September 14th, 2007

Across the Universe
-Directed Julie Taymor.
Without out all the eye-popping visuals and refreshingly updated Beatles songs, this would have been just a standard love story about Jude (Jim Sturgess) and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) who meet and fall in love during the 60’s era. Their relationship becomes threatened when Lucy joins the anti-Vietnam war movement while Jude focuses on making his own art. Fortunately, director Julie Taymor, a true artist in every sense of the word, infuses the film with so much wildly imaginative, psychedelic visual sequences and lively musical numbers that, at times, it feels overwhelming—in a good way. Every scene feels like a delicate work of art and the labor of love that it took to create it shows throughout. Very rarely has a romantic musical drama successfully combined so much visual pizzazz and raw emotion along with strong anti-war messages. Beatle fans, especially, will feel exhilarated by this amazing, unforgettable work of art. At a running time of 2 hours and 11 minutes, Across the Universe never overstays its welcome and requires repeated viewings to appreciate it on many different levels. Entertainment Value: Very High Spiritual Value: High. Released by Columbia Pictures.

Angels in the Dust
-Directed Louise Hogarth.
The world needs more people like Marion Cloete, a woman living in South Africa who, along with her family, dedicates her life to helping orphaned children affected by HIV/AIDS by feeding, sheltering and educating them. She knows how important it is for children to have maternal guidance, as shown by a very fascinating analogy of baby elephants that don’t behave the same without their mothers. Some of the orphans contracted HIV/AIDS when they were raped or through their mother. This inspiring and poignant documentary makes Marion seem like a true hero. It also serves as an important wake-up call to alert human rights activists, politicians and the average citizen that something has to be done to prevent this crisis from intensifying. Ultimately, the welfare of each and every child matters because they’re at the most vulnerable stage in their life. Please click here to find out how you can make a difference. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: High. Released by Cinema Libre Studio. Opens at City Cinemas Village East.

The Brave One
-Directed Neil Jordan.
As usual, Jodie Foster delivers a very convincing performance as Erica Bain, a radio show host who becomes a ruthless vigilante after getting beaten up with her boyfriend in Central Park at night. Oh, and the assailants steal her dog, too. While she casually goes about her rampage, killing anyone who seems threatening to her, she befriends Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard) who happens to be in charge of the case. Even though she physically resembles the serial killer according to many witnesses, it takes a while for Mercer to figure out that she might be a suspect. Unfortunately, the screenplay, written by three writers including Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor and Cynthia Mort, lacks any real suspense or surprises. Worst of all, there’s not enough character development of Erica—there’s a huge jump between when she gets out of the hospital and then, much later, acts psychotic. Why should anyone sympathize with her to begin with? Why should anyone sympathize with Detective Mercer either? The third act feels silly and contrived, especially the final scene which leaves you feeling cheated. There’s also a weak attempt to compare Erica’s actions to the war in Iraq. At a running time of 122 minutes, The Brave One overstays its welcome. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Unfortunately, none. Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.

-Directed Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel.
A group of adults, ranging from young to middle-aged, participate in a simulated medieval battle in the field of Baltimore, Maryland. They dress up in full make-up and armor to conquer imaginary territories. Although this sounds more like a mockumentary, it’s actually a documentary about these so-called Darkons, some of whom are married and have regular jobs—they all lead a double life. Co-directors Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel include plenty of lively footage which actually shows these re-enacted medieval battles in all their absurdity. Interviews with the members of Darkon provide some fascinating insight into how people channel their aggressions and fears into a unique modern subculture with all the support of their wife and kids. With a running time of just 89 minutes, there’s not a single dull moment. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by Porchlight/IFC. Opens at the Cinema Village.

December Boys
-Directed Rod Hardy.
In the 1960s, four orphans, Maps (Daniel Radcliffe), Misty (Lee Cormie), Sparks (Christian Byers) and Spit (James Fraser), come of age while on vacation on the South Australian coast. Despite plenty of beautiful scenery and a few enchanting moments, this drama suffers from a thin plot full of contrived and clichéd subplots as well as poor character development. The most dramatic tension the plot has is when a nice couple must choose which of the orphans will be their son. It’s somewhat refreshing to watch Daniel Radcliffe play a more subdued role after all the Harry Potter movies, but the screenplay by Marc Rosenberg fails to bring his character to life, even when he has a brief romance with a beautiful young girl he falls in love with. By the time the film ends, it’s hard to remember any interesting characters or dialogue. At least the breathtaking scenery will tempt you to have your next vacation in the coast of Southern Australia. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Warner Independent Pictures.

Eastern Promises
-Directed David Cronenberg.
Viggo Mortensen gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Nikolai, a chauffeur who has ties to a notorious crime family, led by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Anna (Naomi Watts) befriends Nikolai to try to figure out how a prostitute ending up dying while giving birth to a baby. A diary that the prostitute leaves behind holds the key to many unresolved questions. As the intricate plot unfolds, director David Cronenberg increases the tension between Anna and Semyon as well as between Seymon and Nikolai. At times, it feels like a horror film and even looks like one given some gratuitous violence. The main problem, though, is in the final third of the film when the plot becomes convoluted and absurd. A lengthy fight scene in a sauna with naked people stabbing each other becomes unintentionally funny. Nonetheless, strong performances and impressive production values help to add some value to a rather ho-hum thriller. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Focus Features.

The Great World of Sound
- Directed by Craig Zobel.
Martin (Pat Healey) and Clarence (Kene Holliday) work as record producers for a production company that sends them out together to the Midwest to audition aspiring musicians. Pat Healey and Kene Holliday play off of each other quite well and both have impeccable comic timing and charm, especially Kene. Most importantly, co-writer/director Craig Zobel has written a witty, smart and hilarious script which only briefly looses its pizzazz in the middle of the second act. At once a satire of the record industry and as well as the show “American Idol”, this indie gem is refreshing from start to finish. Entertainment Value: Very High. Spiritual Value: Moderate.Released by Magnolia Pictures. Opens at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

In the Valley of Elah /u>-
Directed Paul Haggis.
Charlize Theron gives another terrific performance as a detective who helps Hank (Tommy Lee Jones) to solve the case of his missing son who disappeared after returning from the war in Iraq. The first act feels too brief as Hank’s son has already returns from Iraq and his father is unable to get find him. When Hank learns that a dead body was found that turns out to be his son, the plot becomes intriguing and suspenseful as he believes that there’s a military cover-up. Unfortunately, writer/director Paul Haggis fails to tie all the loose ends in a believable, satisfying way in the messy third act. It’s good to know that he avoided including a lengthy court trial, but it would have been nice to have at least a brief one or a lengthier interrogation between his killer and the detectives. Also, the killer’s motives are not quite interesting or imaginative. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by Warner Independent Pictures.

Ira & Abby
-Directed Robert Cary.
Ira (Chris Messina) and Abby (Jennifer Westfeldt) rush into marriage after their first date and try to keep their chemistry alive. Despite the charming performance of Jennifer Westfeldt, who also serves as the screenwriter and co-writer of Kissing Jessica Stein, this romantic comedy begins with a refreshing and funny first act. However, it quickly feels somewhat tedious, contrived and awkward throughout the rest of the film. The “meet the parents” scenes work best when Ira meets Abby’s mother (Frances Conroy) and father (Fred Willard), who adds some well-needed, offbeat humor. Chris Messina, on the other hand, gives a mediocre performance with poor comic timing. Screenwriter Jennifer Westfelt eschews any real character development when it comes to Ira and Abby, so it’s hard to care for either one of them. Too many subplots later in the second act just makes the plot feel more convoluted than it should be. With a sharper, more focused script, this could have been just as delightful and funny as Kissing Jessica Stein. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Magnolia Pictures. Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and AMC Empire 25.

King of California
-Directed Mike Cahill.
Michael Douglas is typecast as a father, Charlie, who recently leaves a mental institution to live his 17-year-old daughter, Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood). In one of the many absurd turns of events, he claims that he knows where to find an ancient chest with gold. According to his measurements, it happens to be buried under a Costco. The rest of the plot gradually loses plausibility until the very Hollywood, ludicrous ending which insults your intelligence. Quirkiness usually becomes funny as long as the scenes and characters are interesting and imaginative enough. Writer/director Mike Cahill, though, fails to generate any real laughs, though, because many scenes drag during the dull second act and Charlie just seems too absurd. The screenplay awkward gyrates between drama and comedy with very little success in either genre. Fortunately, the performances of Michael Douglas and Evan Rachel Wood help to enliven this otherwise underwhelming film. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by First Look Pictures.

-Directed Craig Gillespie.
John Farley (Seann William Scott) tries to stop Mr.Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton), who once was his abusive gym teacher, from marrying his mother (Susan Sarandon). Although the premise sounds like it does have a little potential to be at least an average comedy, it start out somewhat funny, but quickly loses steam. Billy Bob Thornton basically plays the same obnoxious, smarmy role he played in Bad Santa and School for Scoundrels except he’s more creepy, silly over-the-top than funny here. Likewise, Seann William Scott doesn’t have enough strong material to use from the juvenile screenplay, written by Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert. Director Craig Gillespie simply doesn’t take enough risks with the comedy, like in the upcoming Good Luck Chuck, so too many jokes, especially an inevitable one regarding the title, come across as cheap, recycled and just unfunny. It’s highly advised that you check your brain at the door before watching Mr.Woodcock or else it will quite often insult your intelligence. Entertainment Value: Low. Spiritual Value: None is required or desired. Released by New Line Cinema.

My Brother's Wedding
-Directed Charles Burnett.
In South Central Los Angeles, class tensions arise for Pierce (Everett Silas) when his brother becomes engaged to an upper-middle-class black woman. Meanwhile Pierce’s best friend comes back from jail. Just like in his first film, The Killer of Sheep, writer/director Charles Burnett has a knack for writing dialogue that feels organic with a natural flow. The plot here doesn’t manage to be particularly surprising or refreshing, though, but at least it has strong character development which helps to keep you aborbed, particularly given how Pierce react to the events. Despite that the actors are non-professional, they give decent performances without seeming wooden or over-acting for that matter. Its worth noting that the final shot of the movie is quite is quite moving and memorable. Filmed in color back in the early 80s and impressively very well since then, My Brother’s Wedding, warrants its official theatrical release now. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by Warner Independent Pictures.

The Rape of Europa
-Directed Richard Berge, Nicole Newnham and Bonni Cohen.
Narrated by Joan Allen, this gripping documentary focuses on the rescue mission to retrieve many lost paintings which Hitler stole during the Holocaust. Hitler had a passion for art and tried to take away the culture from European countries by taking away their valuable art—he even stole from the Louvre. Through fascinating interviews with curators and art historians, you get a grasp of how precious the culture in each country is and how they desperately tried to protect it. It’s quite suspenseful to watch as, years later, many of these precious items (including menorahs and torahs) are found and must now be returned to their rightful owners. Although the running time of 2 hours tends to drag a bit toward the end, anyone who appreciates art will appreciate this fascinating documentary. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by Menemsha Films. Opens at the Angelika Film Center and the Paris Theatre.

-Directed François Girard.
Lush visuals don’t even come close to compensating for this muddled, miscast period piece, set in 19th century France, about a silkworm merchant, Herve (Michael Pitt), who feels romantically torn between his wife (Keira Knightley) and a beautiful young woman (Sei Ashina) living in Japan. The lack of chemistry between anyone makes you indifferent as to which of the two women Herve should choose or what will happen to him. Even the usually reliable Alfred Molina, who plays Herve’s employer, can’t enliven this painfully dull and unnecessarily lengthy film that recalls a similarly dull and miscast film, The Lake House. For better or for worse, co-writer/director François Girard doesn’t even bother to include any subtitles when some characters speak Japanese. Entertainment Value: Very Low. Spiritual Value: Unfortunately, none. Released by Picturehouse.

-Directed Kristi Jacobson.
This lively, focused documentary is about the rise and fall of Toots Shor, a New York Ciy saloonkeeper from the 40’s and 50’s who was acquainted with many famous celebrities who ate at his restaurant. There’s more to Toots than meets the eye, which makes him a very interesting person—he can be mean to some people who he suspects have ulterior motives or very friendly. Director Kristi Jacobson, his granddaughter, pays a very loving, informative and honest tribute to this complex and intriguing individual. With a running time of only 84 minutes, Toots never has a dull moment and leaves you understanding who Toots Shor is and, most importantly, what makes him stand out after all of years. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Menemsha Films. Opens at the Quad Cinema.

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