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Reviews for September 19th, 2008

All of Us
- Directed by Emily Abt.

This disturbing and poignant documentary tackles the issue of why there’s a high percentage of black women infected with the HIV virus. The current government program, called ABC, doesn’t lower the HIV rate like it’s supposed to do because it doesn’t go to the root of the problem; it just deals with basic, overly simplistic advice such as properly using a condom and abstaining from having sex. In reality, the solutions are much more complicated than that. Dr. Mehret Mandefro interviews two of her HIV positive patients, Chevelle and Tara, to try to get a grasp of their sexual and social lifestyle. Both patients have been through rough childhoods that put pressure on them to have sex with men for money. Not surprisingly, they also took drugs. Basically, they lost control over their lives and became subservient to men, undermining their very own health. Director Emily Abt captures the disturbing details regarding how Chevelle and Tara physically suffer because of the HIV virus. Most importantly, the patients spend their time educating female teens about the importance of not only being knowledgeable about safe sex, but maintaining their self confidence so that they don’t make any regrettable mistakes regarding such important matters. There’s a very powerful and important quote from Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. posted in the back of the classroom, which reads: “Our life begins to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” In many ways, All of Us should inspire all women, regardless of race, to openly discuss their feelings and problems so that they can overcome them, feel empowered and make the right decisions about sex when the time comes around. After all, in the long run, what could possibly be more important than health? Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Pureland Pictures. Opens at the Cinema Village.

- Directed by Matthew Bonifacio.

In Spanish and English with subtitles. Bruno (Carmine Famiglietti), an Italian American who can barely pay his rent, bonds with Ignacio, an illegal Mexican immigrant whom he hires to work with him as a day laborer in Queens, New York. As racial tensions persist between Ignacio and Bruno’s boss, Bruno gradually respects Ignacio and tolerates his culture. He even learns a little bit Spanish while Ignacio hones his skills at speaking English. Bruno also befriends Ignacio’s wife, Gabriela, (Jennifer Peña). Complications arise when Ignacio gets deported back to Mexico, separating him from his beloved wife. Despite that the plot has a few unexpected twists and turns, there’s not enough going on to truly grasp what makes Bruno and Ignacio such good friends all of a sudden. The same can be said for the contrived romance between Bruno and Ignacio’s wife. Screenwriter Carmine Famiglietti makes Bruno seem like quite bland and uninteresting as a character. What does anyone see in him to begin with? Sure, he’s not annoying or mean-spirited, but there’s nothing about him that actually stands out—other than his fat belly. None of the performances are above mediocre and the third act shift gears a little too abruptly from a drama to a thriller. Basically, it starts out as a character-driven drama that falls flat and then turns into a plot-driven drama that falls flat even more. Had director Matthew Bonifacio focused on the more on the complex relationship between Bruno and Ignacio and worked with Carmine Famiglietti to create a organic, tender and sensitive screenplay, Amexicano could have been a much more absorbing and engaging film rather than one that’s often stilted and contrived with insipid characters. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Released by Xenon Pictures. Opens at the Quad Cinema.

Battle in Seattle
- Directed by Stuart Townsend.

Based on a true story. In November 1999, Jay (Martin Henderson), Lou (Michelle Rodriguez) and Django (Andre Benjamin) join thousands of peaceful protestors in Seattle to stop the World Trade Organizations Ministerial Meeting from taking place. They all want to their voices to be heard so that they could bring democracy back to America rather than letting the WTO continue to make decisions in the interest of corporations and selfish politicians. A police officer (Woody Harrelson) reluctantly takes part in the physical force against the angry crowds while his pregnant wife (Charlize Theron) who gets injured by a cop during the riots even though she hadn’t been a participant. Then there’s the perspective of the smarmy Mayor Tobin (Ray Liotta) who’s determined to use aggression to disperse the crowd. Meanwhile, a TV reporter (Connie Nielsen) and her cameraman bravely capture the events as they take place without censoring anything for the local news. Writer/director Stuart Townsend doesn’t get deep into the nitty-gritty of the protestors’ beliefs. He merely shows their experiences along with how others react to the protests, which eventually turn violent and chaotic. There are some intense and poignant moments, but they’re ephemeral. It would have been much more absorbing had Townsend focused on one character as a protagonist and further explored his/her emotions and actions throughout the film. The plot feels slightly disjointed and convoluted because it jumps back and forth between so many different perspectives. On a positive note, each actor and actress delivers a strong performance, especially the talented Michelle Rodriguez. Battle in Seattle should hopefully inspire brave people to use their freedom of speech to speak out about universal issues that they feel are truly important. That’s a huge uphill battle, though, given that America currently lacks true democracy and that our incompetent, power-hungry politicians care more about corporate profits than very own citizens. In reality, though, it’ll take more than a movie such as Battle in Seattle for all the sheep, so-to-speak, in our society to finally wake up and smell how our Orwellian government lies and deceives us every day in ways that undermine our basic freedom, democracy and health while posing a threat to evolution itself. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Released by Redwood Palms Pictures. Opens at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

The Duchess
- Directed by Saul Dibb.

Based on the biographic novel Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman. In 18th Century England, Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley) enters a loveless marriage with William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes), the fifth Duke of Devonshire. She falls in love with Lord Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), but her mother (Charlotte Rampling) refuses her to leave her domineering husband and insists that she pretends to be in love him. William lets Georgiana’s best friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell), stay at the palace and, while having an affair with her, he has the nerve to admit that to Georgiana. Georgiana wants the freedom to spend time with Lord Charles, but William stubbornly and selfishly prohibits her from doing so. Despite a decent performance by Keira Knightley, there’s not enough material for Keira to truly shine and the plot eels hollow with contrived, weak character development. Terrific performances by Charlotte Rampling and Ralph Fiennes add some much-needed gravitas and authenticity to an otherwise contrived film. Unfortunately, director/co-writer Saul Dibb fails to bring any of the characters to life with its dull screenplay. On the positive side, he includes exquisite cinematography, lavish costume and set designs and a well-fitting musical score. If only as much sensitivity and attention were given to the dialogue, The Duchess could have been a much more compelling and emotionally resonating film rather than one that’s bland with an ending that feels rushed. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Released by Paramount Vantage.

Elite Squad
- Directed by José Padilha.

In favelas of Rio de Janeiro during 1997, Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura), a member of the BOPE police force, seeks someone to replace him to fight against all the drug dealers. One of those replacements might be Neto (Caio Junqueira) or Matias (Andre Ramiro) who Nascimento eventually trains. Nascimento desperately wants to settle down with his wife and baby without risking his life anymore. Much of the film follows the three characters as they struggle to survive in the dangerous favelas. Matias hasn’t even told his girlfriend, Maria (Fernanda Machado) that he’s a member of the police force. In a rather contrived subplot, Maria has ties to a powerful druglord, Biano (Fábio Lago). Director/co-writer José Padilha does a great job of keep you engaged through the use of energetic soundtrack, the gritty and fast-paced cinematography and the depiction of the raw, disturbing violence that makes the favelas look like hell on Earth. There’s no comic relief, so be prepared for the stark realities of favelas staring right at your face. None of the plot twists and turns will be spoiled here, though. Just keep in mind that you’re in for a non-stop, relentless intense experience that’s not as emotionally powerful and haunting as City of God, but it’ll still make you feel very lucky not to be living in those favelas where even young kids kill others and die day by day. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Released by IFC Films and The Weinstein Company. Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

- Directed by Andrea Staka.

In German, Serbo-Croatian and Swiss German with subtitles. Ana (Marija Skaricic), a young Bosnian immigrant, arrives in Zurich, Switzerland where she finds a job at a cafeteria, run by Ruza (Mirjana Karanovic), who had emigrated from Belgrade 30 years earlier. Mila (Ljubica Jovic), an older waitress at the cafeteria, years to move with her husband, Ante (Zdenko Jelcic), to their house that’s being renovated in Croatia. At first, Ruza doesn’t warm up to Ana’s outgoing, friendly personality and she even sternly warns her to stop chit-chatting with customers while on the job. Life has clearly been very mundane for both Ruza and Mila, but deep down inside they want to change that and loosen-up a bit, although, in reality, that’s easier said than done. Mirjana Karanovic gives a very emotionally stirring performance with utter conviction, much like she did in Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams. Director/co-writer Andrea Staka wisely lets the characters come to life without the use of voice-over narration. She unfolds the plot at a steady pace with attention to human detail and no contrivances, which allows you to feel thoroughly engrossed. Much of what happens throughout the film seems simple and understated at first glance, but patient viewers who pay close attention will notice the emotions that take place beneath the surface, especially during the moments of silence, which are quite complex. Ultimately, there are no real surprises or profound insights to be found here and the ending feels rather abrupt. However, at least it manages to be a richly textured and quietly moving slice-of-life. At running time of only 77 minutes, Fraulein doesn't overstay its welcome. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Film Movement. Opens at the Cinema Village.

Ghost Town
- Directed by David Koepp.

Bertram Pincus (Gervais), a self-centered dentist, has the ability to see dead people after a colonoscopy. He agrees to help one of those ghosts, Frank (Greg Kinnear) with the task of breaking up the engagement of Frank’s wife, Gwen (Téa Leoni), and her fiancé. Will Frank be able to help Frank without revealing to Gwen that he sees his ghost? Will Frank and Gwen eventually fall in love? Despite a predictable plot that has no real surprises and a few clichés, at least director/co-writer David Koepp infuses enough comedy, drama and romance to keep you moderately entertained. Not all the comedic scenes are laugh-out-loud funny, but they’re somewhat amusing and even witty at times. Ricky Gervais knows how to master the right comic timing and can handle the dramatic scenes decently. However, when it comes to the romantic moments between his character and Gwen, Ghost Town fizzles out a bit into corniness and that’s when Gervais seems most uncomfortable. The lack of chemistry between the two originates from a basic problem with the script: Bertram comes across as mostly annoying, unfriendly and even a little bit creepy toward both men and women at first, so it’s difficult to like or care about him until later in the second act. At least Téa Leoni adds some much-needed charm throughout the film in her role as Gwen while Greg Kinnear adds much-needed heart and soul as Frank. If you can suspend your disbelief and check your brain at the door for 102 minutes, Ghost Town will keep you mildly entertained as a harmless comedy that’s irresistibly charming, funny and heartfelt. Number of times I checked my watch: 2. Released by Paramount Pictures.

- Directed by Deborah Kampmeier.

During the 1950s, Lewellen (Dakota Fanning) comes of age while living in a South with her mentally disabled father (David Morse) and grandmother (Piper Laurie). She and her friend, Buddy (Cody Hanford), explore their sexuality together. Robin Wright Penn plays her father’s girlfriend who wants to take care of her on her own. Meanwhile, she befriends a wise, elderly black man, Charles (Afemo Omilami), who encourages her to channel her emotions through music—specifically through Elvis Presley’s song “Hounddog”, which she loves dancing and singing to. Charles also mentors her after she gets raped by a local boy. Although the premise has a lot of potential to be provocative and insightful about race relations, class relations, growing up and overcoming hardships, the vapid screenplay by writer/director Deborah Kampmeier goes all over the place without enough focus. Each character has flaws, but never truly comes to life. Even Dakota Fanning’s bravura performance as Lewellen doesn’t save Hounddog from drowning in its often meandering scenes that fail to resonate any real emotions, so you’re left feeling slightly disgusted and mostly bored. Number of times I checked my watch: 8. Released by Empire Entertainment Group. Opens at AMC/Loews Village VII.

- Directed by Anthony Leondis.

Igor (voice of John Landis), a hunchback, aspires to become an evil scientist and to win a mad scientist fair for the most evil invention. Through meticulous work, he designs a monster named Eva (voice of Molly Shannon), but even though he put an evil bone inside her, she would rather hone her acting skills rather than perform evildoings. Eva aspires to be in the show “Annie”, so, in a hilarious twist, Igor does his best to train her to do an evil version of the show. Admittedly, the screenplay written by Chris McKenna takes about 30 minutes its tongue-in-cheek, offbeat and dark humor comes into play. Sci-fi film buffs will be happy to spot all the references and winks to other films ranging from The Nightmare Before Christmas to the most obvious one, Frankenstein. Refreshingly, Igor manages not only to be witty, funny and imaginative, but it also has impressive CGI animation. Whenever the film occasionally loses steam, at least your eyes will be entertained by all the stunning visuals. At an ideal running time of 86 minutes, Igor doesn’t overstay its welcome. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Released by MGM.

Lakeview Terrace
- Directed by Neil LaBute.

Chris (Patrick Wilson) and Lisa (Kerry Washington), a newlywed couple, move into a new home in Lakeview Terrace, where their neighbor, Abel (Samuel L. Jackson), a psychotic, angry and racist LAPD officer, torments them. Abel clearly needs a lot of therapy given the way that he bullies the couple and treats his two children (Regine Nehy, Jaishon Fisher) poorly. Unfortunately, co-writers David Loughery and Howard Korder fail to add any real suspense or mystery because all of the plot points can be easily foreseen right from the first act. Had the writers made the character of Abel ambiguously bad rather than obviously bad, that could have been much more compelling in the same way that the underrated psychological thriller Arlington Road was. The plot becomes more and more implausible as it goes on, especially in the third act that leaves. On a positive note, it’s always a pleasure to watch Samuel L. Jackson playing a tough, angry cop. Also, it’s worth mentioning that there aren’t any unintentionally funny scenes like in Neil LeBute’s last film, The Wicker Man. Instead, the dialogue feels very bland and often stilted. With a more imaginative and intricately structured screenplay, Lakeview Terrace could have been much more riveting to watch. Number of times I checked my watch: 5. Released by Screen Gems.

My Best Friend’s Girl
- Directed by Howard Deutch.

Tank (Dane Cooks) agrees to help his best friend, Dustin (Jason Biggs), a genuinely goodhearted guy, get back his ex-girlfriend, Alexis (Kate Hudson), back by going out on unromantic dates with her and acting like a jerk. Alec Baldwin plays Tank’s sleazy father while the underrated Lizzy Caplan adds some offbeat charisma as Alexis’ roommate. The events that ensue include plenty of crude, rude and lewd humor (read: Judd Apatow humor) which will surely test your boundaries of decency, but at least it’ll make you laugh out loud just like it’s designed to do. If you’re a romantic at heart, you’ll most likely relate to the character of Dustin if you’ve been in the situation before when you confess your love to your boyfriend or girlfriend and they’d rather keep your relationship non-exclusive or just stay friends with you. It’s strangely refreshing and hilarious to watch and hear Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn’s daughter, use such a potty mouth throughout the film. No, she doesn’t have any nude scenes, but director Howard Deutch does include a few scenes with topless nudity at a strip club that Tank takes Alexis to on their first date. Not all dirty comedies work because they run out of steam early on and have repetitive jokes that get tired too quickly or simply bad comic timing-- take College or Good Luck Chuck for example. However, the screenplay, by Jordan Cahan, will keep you laughing with many funny one-liners and hilarious, sick visual gags, none of which will be spoiled here. As long as you’re willing to keep an open mind for comedy, check your brain at the door and suspend your disbelief as you should do with most comedies, My Best Friend’s Girl will keep you thoroughly entertained, especially if you're a fan of similarly outrageous R-rated comedies like There’s Something About Mary and Judd Apatow-produced films such as The 40 Year Old Virgin. Please be sure to stay through the end credits for additional scenes. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Lionsgate.

Quilombo Country
- Directed by Leonard Abrams.

This mildly fascinating documentary, narrated by Chuck D of the hip hop group Public Enemy, focuses on the quilombos, or “encampments”, in Brazil, where African slaves had escaped to nearly 400 years ago. Quilombos still exist today, although with much more advanced technologies such as electricity around for basic survival. Director Leonard Abrams travels to many different villages to capture their lifestyles and traditions, which includes singing and dancing. He also gives a tour of the people’s homes, some of which are made out of mud brick walls, and allows the inhabitants to explain and show their different cooking methods. All of these details are certainly compelling and revealing about quilombos, but, unfortunately, Abrams only briefly stops to explore the larger picture in terms of social, political and economic issues that plague quilombos nowadays. More provocative interviews would have helped to truly enlighten the audience. In a somewhat interesting interview, though, an educator explains how she tries to teach students about the culture through song, but it would have been more insightful to observe her actually teaching and to interview some of her students. Despite its lack of real insight and analysis, Quilombo Country nonetheless manages to preserve the essence of an important, although painful, part of Afro-Brazilian history that should never be neglected or forgotten. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Released by Quilombo Films.

Taking Father Home
- Directed by Ying Liang.

In Mandarin with subtitles. Seventeen-year-old Xu Yun (Xu Yun) travels from his family’s small village all the way to Zigong City in hope of bringing his potentially wealthy father back home. He only brings two ducks on the trip and tries to trade it for a place to stay with the help of a friendly older man (Wang Jie) whom he meets. A policeman (Liu Xiaopei), eventually, also helps him to find his father, which becomes much more difficult than Xu originally thought because the last known address of his residence, the Happiness Hotel, turns out to be demolished. Xu bravely treks on to find the man whom he hasn’t seen for six years. Meanwhile, there's the looming threat of widespread flooding throughout the country and his own family will soon be displaced by industrialization. On the surface, the plot seems very simple and uneventful, but as it gradually unfolds, it brings thought-provoking,sociopolitical and environmental themes to the table, which adds some well-needed complexity. It’s very easy to feel moved by Xu’s journey because of the importance of any child to physically be with his or her father, especially through economic hardships. Writer/director Ying Liang masterfully brings out the naturalism of the film through its laconic, yet organic script. He wisely doesn’t resort to using any preachiness or pretention as a cheap way to hook you into the story. Instead, he breathes life into the film by merely following Xu throughout his endeavors and interacting with various people along the way without using voice-over narration. On top of that, many of the images speak volumes about what’s going on moreso than the dialogue itself. Taking Father Home ultimately feels both captivating and emotionally stirring from start to finish. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Tidepoint Pictures. Opens at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater.

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
- Directed by Wayne Wang.

Mr. Shi (Henry O) struggles to communicate with his Chinese American daughter, Yilan (Faye Yu), when he visits her in Spokane, Washington all the way from China . Yilan works as a librarian during the day and leaves him home alone until she arrives for dinner, usually very late because she spends time with her American boyfriend. Not much really happens in terms of plot. Instead, screenwriter Yiyun Lee cares more about the dynamics between Yilan and her elderly father and how he tries to adapt to life in America. It’s also interesting to observe how the generational gap between the two affects their relationship. Fortunately, Yiyun Lee includes some offbeat comic relief every now and then to balance the serious, gentle drama. Director Wayne Wang moves the film along at a steady pace and allows there to be scenes that have no dialogue, yet they still help you to understand the two characters better. Ultimately, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers manages to be a genuinely poignant, wise and tender drama filled with life-affirming warmth and humor. It’s a must-see for generations young and old. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Released by Magnolia Pictures. Opens at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

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