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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Feature player

Combing the country for stories, David Samuels rarely comes up short

Posted By on Wed, Apr 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

David Samuels belongs to an increasingly rare species: journalists who can parachute into an unfamiliar corner of America, establish their bearings quickly and extract a compelling narrative at once universally recognizable and resonant with idiosyncratic particularities. Not only is the species endangered; if you follow media trend pieces, so is...

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Deception

Posted By on Wed, Apr 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

When done right, cinematic sex can be pretty hot. But Deception, despite the hunky presence of Ewan McGregor and Hugh Jackman, doesn’t offer much originality. Working late one night, lonely corporate accountant Jonathan (McGregor) meets suave Wyatt (Jackman) and strikes up a friendship over a joint. Before long, he’s getting dragged to swank nightclubs and borrowing Wyatt’s $4,000 suits. When the two accidentally swap cell phones, Jonathan stumbles into a high-class sex club. The buttoned-up accountant quickly finds himself sucked into a daisy chain of trysts before meeting blond bombshell, S (Williams), whom he falls for, which is, of course, against the sex-club rules. Murder, blackmail, double-crosses and kidnappings ensue.

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The Visitor

Posted By on Wed, Apr 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

As Walter Vale, a numbed-to-the-world economics professor who hasn’t quite recovered from the death of his wife, Richard Jenkins returns to his long-neglected apartment only to find it occupied by “illegals” — Syrian Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) — who’re victims of a real estate con. Sympathetic to their plight, Walter offers them shelter until they find another place and a quiet friendship develops. But The Visitor throws us an emotional curveball when Tarek is arrested and locked away in a detention center in Queens. Though it’s usually clear where The Visitor is headed, it still surprises you with small revelations and unexpected choices. McCarthy has a political point of view but he never preaches or sentimentalizes. Instead, he takes very real people and addresses the disillusionment, dislocation and insularity of modern American culture and suggests that finding your place has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the way people connect.

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Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay

Posted By on Wed, Apr 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

It could be that the title locale, for all its cutting-edge state-of-2003 relevance, is a surefire comedy-killer, and no matter how you spin it, racial profiling won’t beget gut-busting guffaws. The bad vibes begin when BFF Jersey grad students — straight-laced Harold Lee (John Cho) and wild card Kumar Patel (Kal Penn) — catch a flight for Amsterdam where Kumar’s amazing high-tech “smokeless bong” gets mistaken for a bomb and the boys are mistaken for terrorists. Faster then you can chirp “Dick Cheney,” the guys end up in an Army hellhole where a goat drops pellets on their pillows and the sadistic guards enjoy making like Pulp Fiction’s gimp. No matter how funny the words “cock-meat sandwich” are, all giggle value is lost when our heroes are on their knees facing the business end of a savage redneck jailer.

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Young@Heart

Posted By on Wed, Apr 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Few things in this world could sound more depressing on paper than the prospect of a feature-length senior-citizen talent show. So consider it a triumph that Young@Heart overcomes it’s dauntingly cutesy premise — a doc about a chorus of old-timers singing punk, hip-hop and rock tunes — to succeed as both rousing entertainment and a poignant reflection on aging. Brit Director Stephen Walker caught the Young@Heart tour on a stop in London and was instantly enchanted by them — and chances are even the flintiest soul will be charmed by them by the second reel.

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French frighty

Torture porn with a twist: It’s good.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

So, what makes Frontier(s) any different from torture porn churned out by overrated hacks like Eli Roth (Hostel)? Well, here’s where a short French history lesson may come in handy: In October and November of 2005, there were a series of large-scale riots in France that stemmed from the death of two teenagers who lived in a low-income suburb of Paris. They were suspected of a construction site break-in, got chased by cops and electrocuted while hiding in a power substation. The plot of Frontier(s) feels culled together from other more high-profile horror films, but don’t hold that against it. Amid a riot in Paris, Yasmine, along with brother Sami, ex-boyfriend Alex, and two friends, steal a large sum of money. Yasmine is three months pregnant and plans to use the money for an abortion because she can’t see bringing a baby into a world that only claims to offer freedom and equality. Soon the cops shoot Sami forcing Yasmine and Alex to take him to the hospital while their partners head for the Danish border. The latter pair lands at a secluded motel and text their location to Yasmine. But the stop is, of course, a mistake when the motel owners turn out to be an especially sadistic Neo-Nazi family. One by one, our gang of thieves is hunted down and tortured in some of the most despicable and blood-soaked ways imaginable.

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My Blueberry Nights

Posted By on Wed, Apr 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Blueberry centers on the malleable Elizabeth, who reflects different facets of her personality in diverse locales. (She’s alternately Lizzie, Betty and Beth.) Elizabeth would have made an excellent femme fatale, with an innate ability to draw strangers into her sphere, but Wong and his co-screenwriter, crime novelist Lawrence Block, have chosen another archetype: the innocent. As Elizabeth, musician Norah Jones displays an oddly engaging anti-charisma. She has a heart-on-her-sleeve eagerness, but the acting novice is mostly reacting to Jude Law, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman. Their emotional intensity sometimes borders the hammy, yet all give achingly real performances. Dusting off her Where the Heart Is twang, Portman is magnetic as a duplicitous gambler. As in Closer (2004), she excels at portraying a winning woman whose straight-talking brashness masks a manipulative nature. Weisz (The Constant Gardner) also thrives when portraying duality and her desperate floozy is a lost Tennessee Williams character, married to an alcoholic state trooper (Strathairn) who clings to this tarnished belle as his salvation. These damaged folks make the honest, unvarnished Elizabeth their confidante, just as she relies on greasy-spoon proprietor Law (who regains his charm by forgetting that he’s a movie star) to provide comfort food and unwavering compassion.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pacino's big bust

Even hot young things can't save him

Posted By on Wed, Apr 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

It’s not just that this craptacular serial-killer thriller doesn’t make sense; it’s that it’s a prime example of incompetent filmmaking. Jack Gramm (Pacino) is an FBI forensic psychologist and Seattle college professor. His testimony sent serial killer Jon Forster (Neal McDonough) to death row. When a series of copycat murders arise, Forster not only gets a stay of execution but suspicion falls on Gramm, as evidence incriminating him crops up. As if that weren’t plot enough, Gramm gets a phone call telling him he has 88 minutes to live. Pacino grunts and sighs and rolls his eyes in typical Pacino fashion but with half the gusto you’d expect. And director John Avnet tries in vain to energize the film’s lethargic pace with choppy, slow-motion reaction shots and fidgety zooms. Inane, inept and incompetent.

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The Forbidden Kingdom

Posted By on Wed, Apr 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Watching any Jackie Chan and Jet Li spar is fascinating. Unfortunately, the lazily connected elements and dangling plot points will keep the many viewers amused but perplexed. Michael Angarano is Jason, a dweeby Boston kid whose Bruce Lee obsession is supported by the kindly elderly antiques dealer (Chan). Enter the bullies who make Jason a punching bag and devise a plan to rob the old man. Violence ensues, and, faster than you can say Last Action Hero, our boy grabs an enchanted golden staff and is transported into a fairy tale version of ancient China. There, he can set things right by returning the staff to its rightful owner. Confused? We are too.

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Chicago 10

Posted By on Wed, Apr 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Watching Brett Morgen’s Chicago 10, one can’t help but long for the days when American citizens actually believed that political activism mattered. For those familiar with the unrest that surrounded the 1968 Democratic Convention, Chicago 10 is both slippery and superficial, ignoring much of the period’s historical context and putting the focus on history as performance. Taking a sensationalistic approach, Chicago 10 narrows the focus to on-the-street confrontations between protesters and police, then juxtaposes them with the ensuing show trial where protest leaders Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale were hauled before doddering U.S. District Court Judge Julius Hoffman and made into scapegoats. What makes Chicago 10 so groundbreaking (and divisive), is Morgen’s decision to re-create the carnival-like atmosphere of the trial from transcripts by using computer animated stand-ins voiced by Hollywood actors. Unfortunately, the motion-capture animation is barely a cut above computer-game technology from 10 years ago. The character stand-ins are cartoonishly awkward and inexpressive, sometimes undermining important moments in the trial. If for nothing else, Chicago 10 should be praised for breaking from documentary convention to present a more immediate and energetic take on the humor and outrage of the ’60s. The movie is blissfully free of talking-head interviews, predictable period music and somber narration. It’s also absent a depth of perspective or intellectual heft. Still, as a chronicle of that day, it serves as an inspiration to reject the “official” narrative of our nation and protest for change. Of course, that’s assuming anyone under 40 actually sees the movie.

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