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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Snow Angels

Posted By on Wed, Mar 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

We’ve all heard this downer story before: A small town, seemingly nice guy loses control of his marriage, becomes estranged from his wife, grows increasingly angry (and religious) and ends committing a murder-suicide. This could be a gripping drama, but, executed as it is, you have to wonder what in the world would attract a first-rate cast like Sam Rockwell, Kate Beckinsale and Amy Sedaris to a disjointed and shallow rehash of domestic tragedies we see in countless news stories. Faithfully translated from Stewart O’Nan’s novel, each character, so carefully drawn by the talented cast, is only able to scratch the surface, leaving the darker undercurrents of their behavior wholly unexplored. The supporting cast is good. Amy Sedaris shines as Annie’s betrayed friend Barb, injecting every scene with lived-in humor and energy. Even better are Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby (Juno) as a pair of awkward teens in a budding romance. But, ultimately, Snow Angels disappoints because writer-director David Gordon Green has the talent to pull you along but doesn’t know where to take you.

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Teenage wasteland

Gus Van Sant's tilted view of adolescence, where estrangement is everyday

Posted By on Wed, Mar 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

It’s tempting to say Paranoid Park flirts with self-indulgent and pretentiously artful irrelevance, but that’d be a disservice to the poignant sense of guilt and alienation he so brilliantly captures in this tale of a numbed-to-the-world teen who may have caused the grisly death of a rail yard security guard. Adapting Blake Nelson’s novel into a purposely shapeless portrait of disaffection, Paranoid Park is controlled and lyrical. More than just another it-sucks-to-be-a-teen flick, Van Sant presents a tilted view of adolescence, where estrangement is everyday; these kids wear suspicions and loneliness on their sleeves. Simultaneously empathetic and creepy, Van Sant — like the film’s police detective (the terrific Daniel Liu) — never judges Alex (Gabe Nevins), the teen protagonist, instead seeking to understand his tortured state of mind.

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Steal a Pencil for Me

Posted By on Wed, Mar 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

There are illicit love affairs and then there’s Jack and Ina. Michèle Ohayon’s Steal a Pencil for Me kicks things off with the now-elderly Jack quipping, “I’m a very special holocaust survivor. I was in the camps with my wife and my girlfriend; and believe me, it wasn’t easy.” The comment pretty much sets the stage for Jack and Ina’s incredible story, unfortunately told in a less-than-remarkable film. Director Ohayon reduces Jack and Ina’s tale to romantic melodrama, filling her documentary with schmaltzy music, gauzy montages and embarrassingly bad voiceovers of their love letters. The documentary’s best moments come when the now-elderly lovers recount their traumatic experiences. You can’t help but wish that Ohayon had taken her cue from candid moments like these and delved deeper — that she had the courage to confront this inspirational couple’s pain and suffering as well as to honor their storybook romance.

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Drillbit Taylor

Posted By on Wed, Mar 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

The idea of a screenplay co-written by Seth Rogen that focuses on three hapless high school kids may promise Superbad-style laughs, but dredging up the same three teenage archetypes that inhabited Superbad, the boys in this movie are trying to get revenge on two relentless bullies. They hire Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson), who’s supposed to be in the Special Forces, but’s really just a homeless Army deserter. Their protector is, of course, just pulling one over on them. Disappointingly, the primary conflict here isn’t between the kids and the bullies, but between the boys’ faith in Drillbit and his duplicity.

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Shutter

Posted By on Wed, Mar 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

This remake of a Thai horror flick is the story of newlyweds Ben and Jane Shaw (Joshua Jackson and Rachael Taylor), who move to Japan for Ben’s new photography job, but on their honeymoon accidentally hit a woman (Megumi Okina) with their car. She subsequently appears in many of Ben’s photos and proceeds to haunt the couple relentlessly. For all its imperfections, Shutter does one thing undoubtedly well: It scares the crap out of you.

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The Counterfeiters

Posted By on Wed, Mar 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Stefan Ruzowitzky’s slick thriller is a “Holocaust” film in name only. Based on a true story but undeniably gussied up for the screen, The Counterfeiters charts the survival tactics of Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), a Jewish criminal-turned-concentration camp inmate, whose counterfeiting talents spare him the gas chambers. As a character study, the film plays like a Semitic version of 1965’s King Rat, showing us a compelling but unsympathetic protagonist forced into an impossible situation. But as a treatise on survivor ethics, Ruzowitzky’s movie is sketchy at best, simplifying its moral drama to melodramatic plot turns and trading in countless cinematic clichés. All told, The Counterfeiters is much less than the sum of its best parts.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who!

Posted By on Wed, Mar 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul pad this children's classic with a cleverly expanded narrative that introduces some evocative ideas without undermining the charm and creativity of the original story. Similarly, directors Jimmy Haywood and Steve Martino have muzzled Carrey’s over-the-top mugging and effectively capitalized on his goofball sense of innocence. Smartly teaming him with Steve Carell, as the ridiculed mayor of Whoville, the filmmakers deliver a flick that’s both respectful and respectable. In other words, aside for a few comic missteps, the heart of Geisel’s brave little tale remains intact. And the visuals are stunning.

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Never Back Down

Posted By on Wed, Mar 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

The stock hero is Jake (Sean Faris), a high school football stud from Iowa who’s uprooted to Florida (Florida, of course!) by his widowed mom, and he’s predictably sulky about it. At the new school, instead of fitting in and becoming the instant jock icon he’d likely be, Jake’s an instant target for the after-school fight-club clique and their obnoxiously smug, blond leader Ryan (Cam Gigandet). If there’s any reason to see this turkey, it’s for this amazingly snarky, one-note performance: Gigandet commits to his superior sneer with a thickheaded obliviousness that’d make Dolph Lundgren blush. Though Ryan appears so wispy soft that Ian Zeiring could kick his ass, he wipes the floor with farm boy, because he’s mastered the fighting disciple of MMA, which Jake gets to learning quickly. Chief among the flick’s host of problems is that while strategy and unpredictability make MMA exciting on TV, it doesn’t lend itself to compelling big screen choreography, so the director simply zooms in and cranks up the bone-crunching audio.

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Faces of death

Naomi Watts writhes and falls in her torture-porn debut

Posted By on Wed, Mar 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

This is a shot-for-shot English remake of German director Michael Haneke’s own 1997 movie, a savage repudiation of film violence that also manages to be the squirmiest exercise yet in the dodgy and done genre of “torture porn.” Haneke's craftsmanship can't save this self-consciously arch civics lecture in the guise of popcorn entertainment. The bare-bones plot involves a bourgeois couple (Tim Roth and Naomi Watts) and their 10-year-old boy away for a weekend in their country home, where they are assaulted and abused by a pair of reprehensible trust-fund sadists who casually toy with their prey like it was an evening of Pictionary. The husband is an ineffectual pussy and the wife’s an emotional wreck; both are shallow critiques of indolent American consumers, meant as proxies for the audience, which is expected to gratefully sit through this trash. It’s insulting.

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Blind Mountain

Posted By on Wed, Mar 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

It takes a village to perpetrate a crime in Blind Mountain, Li Yang's disturbingly intimate look at human trafficking in rural China. Writer and director Yang approaches his subject with the urgency of a reformer, but there's a muted quality to his outrage. Like the Italian neorealists, he uses a...

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