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American Teen - Directed by Nanette Burstein.
(*Opening Night Film)
color="black">This highly entertaining, yet somewhat vapid documentary follows the lives of five high school seniors at Warsaw Community High School. Have you ever wondered how teenagers think, feel and interact with one another? You might get a few truthful glimpses watching them on camera here, but those are fleeting moments. The wide variety of teens--ranging from a jock, an artsy girl, a dorky, shy guy, a handsome guy and a prom queen—come across as characters from a typical teen movie. Sociopsychologist Erving Goffman once wrote that everyone has a life “backstage” which is much more personal and natural than their life “frontstage.” American Teen shows a lot of what happens to the teens “frontstage” and you’ll be able to relate to some of their dreams, hopes, frustrations and regrets at least to some degree. However, there’s not enough of their “backstage” that delves into their complex emotions. It’s as if director Nanette Burstein were asking you to be the therapist and come up with your own ideas of what’s wrong with each teen. Why not include some interviews with the parents of the teens who are the ones who nurture them to begin with? Burstein seems to care more about creating a dramatic arc with some suspense and, while she does keep you engaged through terrific editing as well, she misses the opportunity to dig into the teenagers’ minds which would have added much more insight and interesting revelations. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Released by Paramount Vantage. Opens July 25th, 2008 at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, AMC Empire 25 and AMC/Loews Lincoln Square.
Choke - Directed by Clark Gregg.
Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk. Victor (Sam Rockwell) works as an actor at a theme park and attends meetings for sex addiction. Meanwhile, his mother (Angelica Huston) suffers from dementia at a nursing home where a sexy new nurse, Paige (Kelly Macdonald), falls for him and, of course, they have sex right inside a church. The residents at the nursing home as well as his own mother seem to think that he’s the descendent of Jesus Christ. Oh, and how does Victor pay for most of his expenses, including his mother’s nursing home? He pretends to choke at restaurants and gets paid by those who “heroically” save him. Right from the very first scene, there’s nothing appealing about Victor as character at all. He’s crude, rude and very lewd to the point of being irritating. Writer/director Clark Gregg surprises and shocks the audience often with the type of dark, sick and twisted humor, which makes the film quite unpredictable. As a whole, though, its combination of drama, romance, dark comedy and mystery feels unbalanced and often awkward. Sam Rockwell’s lively performance, though, helps to keep you at least mildly engaged while Kelly Macdonald adds a little bit of charm. However, that doesn’t compensate for Choke’s excessive bitterness, vulgarity, meanness and, worst of all, a bad aftertaste that leaves you feeling perverted just for watching it. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Opens nationwide on September 26th, 2008.
Dark Matter - Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng.
Based on a true story. Liu Xing (Liu Ye) travels from his homeland, China, to a university in America where he joins the cosmology research team headed by Professor Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn). He struggles to adapt to Western culture while proposing a theory about “dark matter” that goes against the theory of his professor. Meanwhile, Joanna Silver (Meryl Streep), the professor’s wife, occasionally mentors and encourages him to pursue his research further. Despite an imaginative plot and a provocative look at the tensions within academia, none of it really goes far enough to be powerful or surprising. Aidan Quinn gives a strong performance as Liu’s smarmy professor who always likes to be in control. Unfortunately, Liu Xing doesn’t have enough material here to truly stand out here as a student who eventually loses his mind. Writer/director Chen Shi-Zheng fails to get you into Liu’s head so that you know what he’s feeling throughout his experiences and interactions until he finally snaps. Shi-Zheng also underuses the talents of Meryl Streep, who rarely shows up onscreen even though she’s considered part of the cast. With poor character development and contrived subplots that fail to be moving or engaging, the plot completely falls apart in the over-the-top third act. The details of what happens won’t be spoiled here, but keep in mind that it’s depressing, too sudden and unsatisfying given where the rest of the film was headed. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by First Independent Pictures. Opens April 11th, 2008 at the Village East Cinemas.
Flow: For Love of Water - Directed by Irena Salina.
This provocative, yet poorly assembled documentary tackles the issue of water privatization and contamination which has a largely negative impact on basic health and the environment. Everyone knows that water is one of the most essential elements of life and that your body as well as Earth itself is primarily made up of it. Sure, it’s very infuriating that greedy, selfish, corrupt corporations (a.k.a. “psychopaths” if you’ve seen the insightful documentary The Corporation) such as Nestle takes over the control of land rightfully owned by homeowners that supplies fresh water for drinking. Perhaps you didn’t know that Poland Spring, which Nestle owns, is the equivalence of tap water when it comes to the levels of contaminants presents inside it. Director Irena Salina certainly has the courage to oust other companies such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi who also privatize tap water and sell it as “natural” spring water. However, none of these revelations should be surprising to any intelligent audience member. On related note, did you know that Coca-Cola and Pepsi are both part of a potential cover-up in the health industry? There are many different, seemingly benign ingredients that contain the potentially addictive and harmful neurotoxin called “free processed glutamate” through processing. Regular Coke has 2 of those ingredients (High Fructose Corn Syrup and Natural Flavors) while regular Pepsi has 3 of them (High Fructose Corn Syrup, Citric Acid and Natural Flavors), yet neither corporation includes the quantity of free processed glutamate on its labels. Unrightfully, the FDA doesn’t even require them to label it and claims that MSG is natural and generally safe along with the many other ingredients that contain free processed glutamate. So, then what’s stopping Coca-Cola and Pepsi from including its precise quantity on its label? Why isn’t the list of ingredients that contain free processed glutamate fully disclosed to students of nutrition along with the mainstream media, most importantly, the public? Why doesn’t the ADA (American Dietetic Association) live up to its mission statement (see www.eatright.org) by educating consumers with that very important list that can potentially benefit their health? Corporate profits should never be more important than public health. Do you smell a potential cover-up within the health industry? Decide for yourself. Click here for more important information about ingredients that contain the potentially addictive and harmful neurotoxin, free processed glutamate and here to learn about what specific foods to avoid that contain it. Anyway, back to Flow, it would have been much more insightful and brave had director Salina included interviews with CEOs of any of the wealthy corporations to let them have a chance to express their side of the story and to answer piercing, yet important questions, which would make the film much more balanced as well. Without those interviews, it seems incomplete as a documentary. All of its intriguing generalizations need to be backed up with further investigations to get much deeper into the root of the controversial, eye-opening issues at hand. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Released by Oscilloscope Pictures. Opens at the Angelika Film Center on September 12th, 2008.
Frozen River - Directed by Courtney Hunt.
In a small New York town near the Quebec border, Ray (Melissa Leo), a mother of two who can’t afford her trailer home anymore, meets Lila (Misty Upham), a Native American from a local Mohawk reservation. Lila convinces her to smuggle illegal immigrants in the back of her trunk from across the frozen St.Lawrence River as a means to help her make enough money to save Ray’s trailer home. Meanwhile, Ray’s teenage son, T.J. (Charlie McDermott) stays at home with his younger brother, Ricky (James Reilly). Ray, initially, doesn’t quite get along with Lila and just wants her husband’s car back that she had stolen. It’s interesting to watch how the two of them become unlikely friends with one another. Writer/director Courtney Hunt gradually builds up the plot tension as Ray becomes involved full throttle in Lila’s smuggling scheme and gets more desperate for money. Hunt knows that in order to keep you immersed in the story, she needs to create believable characters. Ray might not be particularly likable based on her actions, but at least there’s more to her than meets the eye. Moreover, Melissa Leo sinks into the role of Ray with utter conviction and delivers a truly raw performance. The other strong character in the film is the snowy location itself which adds to the somewhat foreboding atmosphere much like in Fargo. Despite a third act that ties the plot a little too neatly with all of its contrivances, Frozen River still manages to be a mostly compelling drama. Number of times I checked my watch: 2. Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Opens August 1st, 2008 at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson - Directed by Alex Gibney.
This lively, fascinating, well-researched documentary covers the life of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, a writer/journalist who became well known for his highly personal, edgy and “gonzo” journalism during the ‘60s and ‘70s. His direct experiences on the road with the Hell’s Angels gave him full access into their lives and made him into a brave journalist when he wrote the book about them. Rolling Stone Magazine hired him to write for them and his gutsy article about the Kentucky Derby continued to show off his craziness and delusions. What made him crazy and delusional? Director Alex Gibney points to the most obvious factor: the effects of his drug habits. His controversial writing peaked when he covered the 1972 Presidential campaign which pitted George McGovern against Richard Nixon—a liar and a crook, not much different than our very own President, George W. Bush. Johnny Depp, of course, narrates the segments that show the clips from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which he had starred in. Through stylish, fast-paced editing and many footage and interviews, i.e. with Hunter’s wives, Gonzo not only entertains and intrigues, but also keeps you compelled by its many timely and profound insights about politics, journalism, writing and the importance of bravely maintaining one’s freedom of speech even during times of censorship or fascism. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Magnolia Pictures. Opens July 4th, 2008 at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
Good Dick - Directed by Marianna Palka.
A video store clerk (Jason Ritter) stalks and pursues a troubled woman (Marianna Palka) who frequently rents adult videos. He goes to the extent of showing up at her door and sleeping in his car outside of her apartment even though she doesn’t show outward signs of interest in him. When she finally invites him inside, the friction between them continues but with a little bit of flirtation added as a hint that there’s the potential for some sort of a relationship. Writer/director/star Marianna Palka doesn’t even provide a name for the woman and makes her too often play hard-to-get, which eventually becomes tedious. Why can’t these two characters sit down and have a real conversation? What’s emotional baggage does the woman have that’s stopping her from yielding to human affection? Those answers become clear as more layers of the plot gradually unfold. Some scenes are darkly humorous while others are tender and slightly heartbreaking. The two characters come across as both complex and interesting human beings rather than one-dimensional caricatures. However, the woman deals with her all here troubles, which won’t be spoiled here, in the third act s in a way that feels oversimplified and too rushed. It’s as if the film just ran out of gas toward the end and suddenly loses its momentum. Although not particularly refreshing or as provocative as its title, Good Dick at least manages to be a mildly engrossing, harmless romantic drama. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Released by Morning Knight and Present Pictures. Opens October 17th, 2008 at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.
The Order of Myths - Directed by Margaret Brown.
This mildly fascinating, poorly documentary tackles the origin and evolution of the Marti Gras celebration in New Orleans. People have been celebrating Marti Gras since 1703 in Mobile, Alabama during a time of racism. Still today, racism exists in the celebrations taking place in New Orleans. There’s one celebration for whites and another for blacks. Unfortunately, director Margaret Brown plays it too safe by showing each celebration in all of its details, but not properly analyzing/synthesizing all of the observations. The interviews with Marti Gras celebrators from this generation show that the tradition has certainly stayed alive. However, the real unanswered question is: So what? It should be infuriating that racism still exists. By not exploring that provocative theme further, Brown misses a great opportunity to add much needed meat to her film. The Order of Myths ultimately leaves you feeling underwhelmed and yearning for much more insight. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Released by The Cinema Guild. Opens July 25th, 2008 at the IFC Center.
Smiley Face- Directed by Gregg Araki.
Stranded: I Have Come from a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains - Directed by Gonzalo Arijon.
In Spanish with subtitles. This compelling and poignant documentary focuses on the experiences of 25 Uruguayan men who initially survived a plane crash. On Friday the 13th of October, 1972, 45 young men, most of them rugby players, flew in a plane that crashed into the Andes Mountains in Chile. Just 16 of those men ultimately survived the many brutally cold, grueling, harrowing days before their rescue two months later. Instead of merely interviewing the survivors and using them as talking heads, director Gonzalo Arijon wisely recreates their ordeal through the use of stylish visual dramatizations that immerse you right into the intense moments of the men’s desperate struggle to survive. Their accounts of what they went through are so vivid, articulate and detailed that those scenes don’t have dialogue nor do they require any. Some of those moments feel quite disturbing, especially when they discuss how they were forced into cannibalism in order to survive. If you’ve watched the Hollywood action/drama Alive from 1993, you’ll have a general sense of how they survived, but there’s nothing more captivating and moving than hearing it from the actual survivors themselves and to feel the palpable emotion they express through their words. Much like Touching the Void, Stranded, at a running time of 126 minutes, never drags and manages to be an emotionally powerful and gripping documentary. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Zeitgeist Films. Opens October 22nd, 2008 at the Film Forum.
Trouble the Water - Directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal.
This provocative and important documentary follows the experiences of Kim and Scott Roberts, a married couple who survived the catastrophes of Hurricane Katrina while living in the Ninth Ward district of New Orleans. The couple recorded some footage on the day before the hurricane and once the hurricane arrived, with all the floodwater rapidly rising. It’s equally infuriating and sad when a New Orleans woman, trapped in her attic, desperately calls a 911 operator only to be told that help cannot arrive at that time. If you thought the worst part was over when the storm ended and the flooding receded, think again. Every American should feel ashamed at how our government, particularly FEMA, handled the catastrophe with such slow and negligent response that it should be downright criminal. Co-directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal wisely allow Kim and Scott Robert to recall what they went through in vivid detail. Words cannot adequately describe the powerful images from the aftermath of Katrina, though, which make the Ninth Ward district looked like it was devastated by war. The couple struggles to receive financial aid from FEMA that would help them to survive on the basic needs of food and shelter. It’s very inspiring and uplifting to watch how they both have grown as individuals from such a harrowing experience that turned their life upside down, particularly Kim who channels her anger and frustrations through singing rap music. From start to finish Trouble the Water manages to be a thoroughly engrossing and powerful film that must be seen by every American and, especially, by our incompetent government members who ought to be ashamed of themselves. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Zeitgeist Films. Opens August 22nd, 2008 at the IFC Center and the Faison Firehouse Theatre.