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9 Star Hotel, directed by Ido Haar. This documentary, about Palestinians who illegally go to Israel every day to work at a construction site, merely shows the daily and nightly activities of the young Palestinian men as they struggle to eat, sleep and dodge the police. Director Ido Haar’s decision to exclude himself from the footage makes you feel like you’re a passive observer. Some of the footage looks a bit too dark and shoddy, so it’s difficult to see what’s going on. It would have been interesting, though, if Haar had at least briefly included some interviews with the Palestinians in order to humanize them even more and make them somewhat memorable—especially by the time the end credits lists their names. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by Koch Lorber Films. Opens May 23rd, 2007 at the Film Forum.
The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez, directed by Kieran Fitzgerald. Narrated by Tommy Lee Jones. A documentary about Esequiel Hernandez, an 18-year-old American who was murdered by U.S. marines in Texas. Footage which includes interviews of Esequiel’s family as well as the marines that murdered him makes this a well-balanced, engaging film that deals the improper use of aggressive force in border patrol. More footage of what Esequiel was like alive would have been beneficial to make this a bit more poignant. Also, director Kieran Fitzgerald doesn’t explore any solutions to the problem of border patrol. In other words, he tackles the specific story of Esequiel, but without tying it enough to the larger picture. Entertainment Value No distributor, yet. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low.
Black Sheep, directed by Jonathan King. Killer zombie sheep attack a New Zealand farm. This sci-fi, horror comedy could have easily been called Night of the Living Sheep because it pretty much turns into a crazy, gorefest involving genetically engineered sheep that bite humans, turning them into killer sheep as well. Given the low budget, the gore looks appropriately disgusting. If only the film as a whole lived up to the hilarity of its premise because it simply wears too thin and feels bland with mediocre performances at best. The best scenes are the sheep attacks, but there’s not enough of them. Ultimately, this won’t turn you into a vegetarian, but what’s certain is that you won’t be able to count sheep anymore before going to bed. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: None is required or desired. Released by IFC First Take. Opens June 22nd, 2007.
Blackout, directed by Jerry Lamothe. The blackout during the summer 2003 affects the lives of residents in Brooklyn’s East Village. It’s difficult to be engaged by the thin narrative and poorly developed characters throughout this low-budget film. Writer/director Jerry Lamothe fails to bring any of the scenes to life and includes a very contrived drama involving a husband who cheats on his wife. In that same East Village neighborhood, looting occurs and a young man gets killed. To make this a more compelling drama, Lamothe should have focused much more on the aftermath of the blackout, which only gets roughly 10 minutes of screen time. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. No distributor, yet.
The Cake Eaters, directed by Mary Stuart Masterson. When his brother, Guy (Jayce Bartok) returns to his small-town home and misses his mother’s funeral, Beagle (Aaron Stanford) learns that his father (Bruce Dern) once had an affair with Marg (Elizabeth Ashley) and befriends her much younger granddaughter, Georgia (Kristen Stewart) who suffers from a disease called Friedriech's Ataxia. Meanwhile, Guy tries to get back with his old girlfriend, Stephanie (Mariam Shor). In her directorial debut, Mary Stuart Masterson moves the plot along at an appropriately slow pace which builds some atmosphere along with the beautiful cinematography. On the other hand, the screenplay by Jayce Bartok is has too many subplots which makes it feel a bit congested. Fortunately, it becomes quite poignant thanks to Kristen Stewart’s terrific performance—Stuart truly allows her to shine in every scene. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: High. No distributor, yet.
The Education of Charlie Banks, directed by Fred Durst. While attending college, Charlie Banks (Jessie Eisenberg) gets a surprise visit from Mick (Jason Ritter0, an old friend who he had once ratted out to the cops for beating two guys up. This directorial debut by Fred Durst has a compelling plot with a fine cast, especially Jason Ritter as the smarmy Mick and Jessie Eisenberg as the low-key Charlie. Basically, Mick is street-smart and confident while Charlie is book-smart and a bit shy, especially toward Mary, a smart, attractive girl he likes. Not surprisingly, Mick tries to steal Mary away from him while Mary has no clue of how wild and abusive Mick can be. Although the soundtrack and costume designs are authentic give then time period of the 70’s, the screenplay by Peter Elkoff fails to bring any of the characters to life and doesn’t take enough risks in order to make this feel refreshing. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Low. No distributor, yet.
The Gardener of Eden, directed by Kevin Connolly. Adam Harris (Lucas Haas) leads an aimless life as a deli worker until he becomes a local hero when he accidentally beats up and captures a rapist and has a romance with Mona (Erika Christensen), one of the rapist’s victims. Adam tries to stay out of trouble, but still hangs out with his wild buddies, such as Vic (Giovanni Ribisi), who sells drugs. Screenwriter Adam Davis includes lively characters and complex ones, especially the protagonist. The snappy, witty dialogue along with Giovanni Ribisi’s charismatic performance makes this an engaging film. Adam and Mona don’t have that much chemistry together, though, and the third act feels rather over-the-top, convoluted and unsatisfying. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Moderate. No distributor, yet.
Golden Door, directed by Emmanuel Crialese. Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato) and his family emigrate by ship from Sicily to America, where they go through the challenges of immigration procedures on Ellis Island. The radiant Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Lucy, a British woman who comes aboard the ship looking for a man to marry. Despite breathtaking cinematography, especially during the first thirty minutes, the lack of any character development makes many scenes feel dull. Also, writer/director Emmanuel Crialese includes too many tedious scenes on the ship when more focus should have been on the events that occur on Ellis Island. With a more character-driven script, this could have been much more absorbing and powerful, but ultimately feels underwhelming. Entertainment Value: Low. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Miramax Films. Opens May 25th, 2007 at the Angelika Film Center.
Good Time Max, directed by James Franco. Max (James Franco) struggles to get off drugs once-and-for-all while his twin brother, Adam (Vince Jolivette), stays clean. Very few scenes in this muddled drama feel authentic and convincing. First of all, it’s difficult to believe that Max has ever been a genius and, for that matter, why he would resort to taking drugs rather than using his knowledge. Co-writer/director James Franco fails to give Max any redeeming qualities that would make anyone care about him, especially after he defecates on a rug. The script feels lazy and unimaginative, which often causes scenes to feel tedious and dull. On top of that, Franco’s jolty camera work comes off as pretentious, headache-inducing and, in some cases, vomit-inducing. Entertainment Value: Low. Spiritual Value: None. No distributor, yet.
Half Moon, directed by Bahman Ghobadi. In Kurdish and Persian with subtitles. Mamo (Ismail Ghaffari) and his musicians get into trouble when he hides a female singer on the bus when he travels across the Iranian border to perform a concert in Kurdistan. Although it takes a while to get going with its slow pace, this road trip movie has some surprises in stock. Writer/director Bahman Ghobadi expertly blends off-beat comedy, drama and tragedy without going over-the-top. None of the actors are professional, yet they still bring plenty of liveliness and conviction to their roles, especially Allah-Morad Rashtian, who stands out just like he did in another one of Ghobadi’s film, Marooned in Iraq. Pay attention closely to the dialogue or else you’ll miss what the title refers to. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by Strand Releasing.
I am an American Soldier, directed by John Laurence. A documentary about the 101st Airborne Division’s experiences during the war in Iraq. If you’ve already seen other documentaries with soldiers who claim that war is hell and that their experiences were challenging, you won’t learn anything new or interesting watching this film. Director John Laurence doesn’t get to know the individual soldiers enough during the interviews. It would have been much more interesting to show more of the aftermath of their experiences or to interview their family members while they’re away at war. This simply lacks the powerful impact of other anti-war documentaries, such as The War Tapes. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. No distributor, yet.
In Search of a Midnight Kiss, directed by Alex Holdridge. Two lonely people, Wilson (Scoot McNairy) and Vivian (Sara Simmonds) meet through an online personal ad on New Year’s Eve. Shot in black-and-white throughout the streets of Los Angeles, the plot follows a standard formula in terms of the expectations you have for a romantic drama, but it unfolds in such a natural and imaginative way that it makes for a thoroughly refreshing experience, much like when watching Before Sunrise or Once. Wilson and Vivian start their relationship by getting on each other’s nerves. It feels quite absorbing and even a bit suspenseful to watch how they gradually become more and more flirtatious and realize how much they truly have in common. Writer/director Alex Holdridge allows the dialogue to flow smoothly with some well-needed comic relief, charm and sweetness without any corny or pretentious moments. Although not as unforgettably classic and brilliant as Annie Hall or When Harry Met Sally…, In Search of a Midnight Kiss still makes for a warm, satisfying date movie that has more palpable romantic chemistry than the average romantic drama. Most importantly, it will leave you feeling uplifted and hopeful about embracing life and find your love if you haven't already done so in all the hustle-and-bustle of the Computer Age. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: High. No distributor, yet.
My Best Friend, directed by Patrice Laconte. In French with subtitles. François (Daniel Auteuil) has 10 days to prove to his girlfriend (Julie Gayet) that he has a best friend or else she will take away his valuable vase. Hilarity ensues when he takes advice from a very friendly cab driver (Dany Boon). Although the premise sounds absurd and even childish, it mostly works thanks to the comic timing and charms of Daniel Auteuil and Dany Boon. Co-writer/director Patrice Laconte doesn’t take risks like in the slightly similar French comedy The Dinner Game, but the dialogue at least has some wit, which makes for a refreshingly delightful spin on the mid-life crisis. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by IFC Films. Opens July 13th, 2007 at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
Making Of, directed by Nouri Bouzid. In Arabic with subtitles. Bhata (Lofti Abdelli), a 25-year old Tunisian man, joins a group of fundamentalists who turn him into a suicide bomber. The plot takes its time to become intriguing and occasionally seems to meander. However, writer/director Nouri Bouzid includes a few interesting surprises. It turns out that Bhata is just a character in a film-within-the-film and the actor playing Bhata has conflicts with the director. It’s not nearly as intense as Paradise Now or as Day Night Day Night, but at least it manages to imaginative and somewhat compelling. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Moderate. No distributor, yet.
Nanking, directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman. In English, Japanese and Mandarin with subtitles. Nanking documents the rape of Nanking, when Japanese forces raped 20,000 Chinese and killed a total of 200,000 between 1937 and 1938 during WWII. Those who don’t know about this important part of the history of Nanking, which was the capitol of China back then, will be shocked and saddened to learn that the Chinese had their own holocaust during World War II. Co-directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman do a great job of show the horrors of Nanking through photos as well as interviews with the survivors, who break down in tears. Some images are difficult to watch because of their emotional impact. Actors and actresses such as Muriel Hemmingway read the accounts of those who saved many lives and who are now remembered as heroes. This profoundly moving, unforgettable, important film deserves to be nominated for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Very high. Released by THINKfilm. Opens December 12th, 2007.
Napoleon and Me, directed by Paolo Virzi. In Italian and French with subtitles. A young teacher, Martino (Elio Germano), who dreams of assassinating Napoleon (Daniel Auteuil), becomes his personal secretary. Monica Bellucci plays Baroness Emilia, Martino’s lover who also despises Napoleon. Although Daniel Auteuil has plenty of charm and comic timing, he doesn’t have enough material to work with here in order to shine. Likewise, Elio Germano comes off as bland and unremarkable. The problem lies within the script written by four writers including director Paulo Virzi, which unimaginatively blends comedy and drama with awkward results. It simply doesn’t have enough biting satire as expected. For a much livelier, imaginative spin on the Napoleon story, check out The Emperor’s New Clothes with the splendid Ian Holm. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: None is required or desired. No distributor, yet.
Normal Adolescent Behavior, directed by Beth Schacter. Wendy (Amber Tamblyn) shows affection toward Sean (Ashton Holmes), which jeopardizes her relationship with her clique of sexually-liberated teen friends. This meandering teen dramedy initially feels like an R-rated version of Mean Girls, but without the witty dialogue or insightful observations of teenage behavior. For a filmwith so much sexual content and even some orgies, it’s amazing that doesn’t have any nudity. Amber Tamblyn, who showed her range in acting ability in Stephanie Daley, does her best to make her character interesting here, but the script by writer/director feels too awkward, dull and occasionally corny with poorly developed characters. The behavior in film doesn’t seem realistic or even normal. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by New Line Cinema. No release date, yet.
Santiago, directed by João Moreira Salles. In Portugese with subtitles. A documentary about the filmmaker’s butler, Santiago, and why he failed to complete a documentary about him back in 1992. The black-and-white footage director João Moreira Salles uses is intimate and compelling while the voice-over narration which Salles expresses his regrets over the years helps to add some interesting insight into filmmaking techniques. It’s not too often that you get to watch a movie mainly about somebody’s butler, but fortunately, Santiago as a person seems interesting, articulate, and lively enough to keep you engaged for 80 minutes. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Moderate. No distributor, yet.
Still Life, directed by Jia Zhang-Ke. In Mandarin with subtitles. A miner (Han Sanming) and a nurse (Zhao) search for their spouses during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, which gradually floods the village of Fengjie. With its slow pace and thin plot, Still Life lives up to the implications of its title. Writer/director Jia Zhang-Ke does a better job at creating a somber mood through cinematography, set design and the use of muted colors—this could have been in black-and-white and had the same effect. Unlike the director’s last film, The World, this one often drags and fails to be memorable, insightful and engaging. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. No distributor, yet.
Taxidermia, directed by György Pálfi. In Hungarian with subtitles. The plot is separated into three generations: A Hungarian officer, Vendel (Csaba Czene), who enjoys being perverted; his obese son, Kalman (Gergely Trócsányi), competes in a speed-eating competitions; Kalman’s son, Lajos (Marc Bischoff) spends his days as taxidermist while taking care of his exaggeratedly obese father. Co-writer/director György Pálfi tries to push the envelope with as many perverted, grotesque, vomit-inducing images as possible here, unlike his oddly beautiful and lush gem Hukkle. Most of the plot feels pointless and the shock value gradually diminishes into mere discomfort and disgust, unless your idea of entertainment is watching people you don’t care about vomiting for 10 minutes. Matthew Barney would have handled this subject matter with much more grace. Entertainment Value: Low. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Tartan Films. No release date, yet.
Third Monday in October, directed by Vanessa Roth. In this lively and mildly fascinating documentary, students compete in student council races in 4 different middle schools around the country. The competition itself isn’t as riveting as the competition in Spellbound or even Mad Hot Ballroom, mostly because director Vanessa Roth doesn’t include enough scenes documenting the personal life of all of these kids. They’re all certainly interesting people, but focusing on only a few students would have prevented it from feeling overwhelming and unfocused. Also, it would have been interested to include more footage from the students’ speeches that they worked so hard preparing for. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Moderate. No distributor, yet.
Times and Winds, directed by Reha Erdem. In Turkish with subtitles. Three preteens, Omer (Ozkan Ozen), Yakup (Ali Bey Kayali) and Yildiz (Elit Iscan) come of age in a small Turkish village. Each of these children has their own problems to deal with: Omer rebels against his strict father; Yakup hates his father for spying on young girls; Yildiz feels traumatized after watching her parents having intercourse. The thin plot, divided into parts of the day such as “Morning” and “Evening”, lacks tension, but never drags. A few scenes seem poetic without being pretentious, such as when each child sleeps under something from nature such as flowers and twigs. Writer/director Reha Erdem lets every scene breathe with life while keeping the pace moving slowly and including lush, breath-taking scenery. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: High. No distributor, yet.
Vitus, directed by Fredi M. Murer. In Swiss German with subtitles. Despite his parents’ wishes for him to become a pianist, Vitus (Teo Gheorghiu), a 12 year-old prodigy, prefers to lead a normal life and to learn how to fly. This heartwarming, uplifting film boasts superb performances by Teo Gheorghiu as the title character as well as by Bruno Ganz as his grandfather who he bonds with. It’s a testament to Ganz’ versatility given that he had once played Adolf Hitler in Downfall. Much of the plot feels just as sweet as the similar film Valentin from 2002. Co-writer/director Fredi M. Murer does a great job of blending comedy and drama while including an interesting twist that works without merely serving as a gimmick. The dialogue is funny, witty and often very wise. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: High. Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Opens June 29th, 2007.
Vivere, directed by Angelina Maccarone. In German with subtitles. Francesca (Esther Zimmering), a taxi driver, searches for her younger sister, Antoinetta (Kim Schnitzer) on Christmas Eve while dealing with her affections for Gerlinde (Hannelore Elsner), lonely older woman who she saves from a car accident. Despite decent performances, especially by Hannelore Elser, Vivere has a somewhat dull and confusing plot, especially with its shifts in perspective which rewinds the narrative, just like in Go. Writer/director Angeline Maccarone includes very little character development and melodramatic scenes that belong in a soap opera. The romance between Gerlinde and Antoinette feels contrived and awkward rather than poignant. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Low. Released by Regent Releasing. No release date, yet.
Watching the Detectives, directed by Paul Soter. Neil (Cillian Murphy), a cinephile working at a video store, meets Violet (Lucy Liu), who tempts him to become adventurous for a change. What refreshing, lively plot with plenty of hilarious zingers and references to film noir, turns into a rather stale comedy. Cillian Murphy is very well-cast as a movie geek and plays of off Lucy Liu quite nicely. However, Lucy Liu lacks the comic timing that Murphy has and, more often than not, comes across as merely strange rather than funny. Writer/director Paul Soter doesn’t take the somewhat imaginative plot far enough to keep you consistently entertained through the entire running time of 91 minutes, which feels more like 2hours. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: None is required or desired. No distributor, yet.
The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, directed by Cao Hamburger. In Portugese and Yiddish with subtitles. In 1970, Mauro (Michel Joelsas), a 12-year-old Brazilian boy obsessed with the World Cup, feels alienated living with his grandfather, Shlomo, in a Jewish neighborhood, where his left-wing parents leave him while they hide from the government. This mildly engaging drama works thanks to young actor Michel Joelsas, whose performance makes the protagonist Mauro both charming and likable. Mauro’s scenes with Shlomo feel warm and absorbing, although it would have been helpful to include more scenes with them interacting. Also, there’s not enough comic relief. Writer/director Cao Hamburger chooses to downplay the tragic and dramatic elements, which, in turn, diminishes how poignant and powerful this film could have been. Entertainment Value: Moderate. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by Kino International. No release date, yet.
You Kill Me, directed by John Dahl. Frank (Ben Kingsley), an ex-hitman, becomes a funeral home assistant and flirts with Laurel (Téa Leoni) while hiding from her his problems with alcoholism and joy of killing people for a living. Ben Kingsley gives a terrific performance in a complex role, reminiscent of Robert De Niro’s character in Analyze This. He and Téa Leoni have great chemistry together and, along with the supporting cast which includes Dennis Farina and Bill Pullman, they manage to hold your attention. It would have been great if director John Dahl had the charismatic Christopher Walken show up, too. Fortunately, the screenplay by co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely has plenty of witty and smart dialogue as well as dark comedy that add some much-needed pizzazz. Entertainment Value: High. Spiritual Value: Moderate. Released by IFC Films. Opens June 22nd, 2007.