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Reviews for December 19th, 2008

Moscow, Belgium

Directed by Christophe Van Rompaey.

In Flemish with subtitles. Matty (Barbara Sarafian), a 41-year-old mother lives with her three children, Fien (Sofia Ferri), Peter (Julian Borsani) and Vera (Anemone Valcke), in an apartment in Moscou, a small neighborhood in Belgium, while working at a post office during the day. She’s separated from her husband, Werner (Johan Heldenbergh), an art school teacher who lives with his much younger girlfriend, a student he had taught. One day, Matty drives her car in reverse out of a supermarket parking space and it collides with a truck belonging to Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet), a 29-year-old man. The two get into a loud argument and, soon enough, a policewoman intervenes to take down their information. When Johnny shows up the next day to offer to fix the trunk of Matty’s car and to ask her out on a date, Matty begins a romance with him that gradually blossoms even though she initially says that she doesn’t a man in her life. Barbara Sarafian delivers an emotionally raw and lively performance as Matty that plays well off of Johnny’s wittiness and charm. They have more palpable chemistry onscreen here than you’d find in most romantic comedies, especially those made in Hollywood. Writer/director Christophe Van Rompaey takes a simple love story and turns it into a warm, captivating and tender film thanks to an organic screenplay with well-developed characters that come to life with all of their idiosyncrasies. He includes such details as what Matty cooks for dinner and even includes distinguishable personalities between her three children: Fien has an obsession with reading tarot Peter dreams of becoming a pilot---or a truck driver of the skies, according to Johnny---while Vera, the oldest of the children at 16-years-old, doesn’t approve of Johnny and brings home her girlfriend whom she’s romantically involved with. Eventually, Johnny’s troubled past, including run-ins with the law and alcoholism, comes back to haunt him, but both him and Matty have a lot of burdens to carry with them. It’s quite moving to watch them candidly open up to one another about their feelings. In one particularly moving scene, they walk side-by-side on the sidewalk after a date, Johnny says her that he feels like Da Vinci and that she’s his Mona Lisa. Then she replies that Da Vinci was actually gay and that there’s much sadness hidden underneath the Mona Lisa’s smile. That beautiful scene alone represents a microcosm of how Moscow, Belgium masterfully blends romance and comedy in a refreshing, endearing , life-affirming and unHollywood way without feeling contrived, corny or convoluted from start to finish.
Number of times I checked my watch: 0.
Released by NeoClassic Films. Opens at the Cinema Village.

Seven Pounds

Directed by Gabriele Muccino.

Ben Thomas (Will Smith), an IRS agent, mysteriously investigates seven people who he hopes to help out in different ways. In the first scene, he calls 911 to tell them that he committed suicide and then the narrative flashes back to his investigations. It’s up to you, the audience, to figure out how and why he will end up in that tragic situation. He calls up one of the seven selected individuals, Ezra (Woody Harrelson), a customer-service representative at a meat company and makes fun of his blindness and that he’s a vegan. Soon enough, he meets Emily (Rosario Dawson) at a hospital, follows her home and, somehow, falls in love with her. She’s in dire need of a heart transplant. He also helps out a mother with two kids by securing them a new house overlooking the ocean. Every now and then, Ben suffers flashbacks of a car accident that may or may not have something to do with the death of his wife. As usual, Will Smith tries his best to enliven the film with his performance, but he can’t help it from sinking with its bland, vapid and increasingly ludicrous plot. Director Gabriele Muccino includes too many abrupt flashbacks that hit the viewer over the head. Why not incorporate Ben’s past in a more subtle and gentle way? The screenplay by Grant Nieporte generates a modicum of tension from the bizarre events that take initially take place as you wonder how they’re all connected. However, any intelligent audience member will be able to figure out where it’s all going early on just by paying attention to all the clues. Once Ben’s motives are clear, the film’s tediousness and insipidness radiate. Ben and Emily have too little chemistry onscreen, so the scenes when they’re supposed to fall in love fall flat on their face. Also, it’s amazing how shallow and unmoving the film manages to be despite its concluding message, which, although inherently important, feels too tacked-on. Ultimately, Seven Pounds manages to be a contrived, thrill-less thriller that’s more concerned about its inane gimmicks than about keeping you truly riveted, engrossed or enlightened.
Number of times I checked my watch: 5.
Released by Columbia Pictures.

The Tale of Despereaux

Directed by Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen.

Based on the children’s book by Kate DiCamillo. Despereaux (voice of Matthew Broderick), a tiny mouse with big ears who lives in the underground Mouseworld, doesn’t behave like a proper mouse and befriends the human Princess Pea (voice of Emma Watson) up above in the kingdom of Dor, so the Mouseworld mayor (Frank Langella) banishes him into the Ratworld down below. That’s where he meets Roscuro (voice of Dustin Hoffman), a rat that had once caused a queen to drown in her soup and for the king to ban all soups and all mice from his kingdom. Botticelli (voice of Ciarán Hinds) rules the Ratworld with his tyranny. Meanwhile, up above, a pudgy-looking human, Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), who lives on a farm, dreams of becoming a princess. As the story unfolds, it essentially becomes the tales of Despereaux, Miggery and Roscuro. Co-directors Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen do a decent job with creating an imaginative, visually stunning world with CGI effects. The dark colors reflect the overall grim atmosphere of the underground worlds. Unfortunately, none of the subplots are fleshed out enough to be captivating, thrilling or moving. Each of those subplots could have easily been turned into a major plot of separate films. Despereaux certainly looks adorable, which will delight little kids whenever he’s onscreen, but he’s nowhere near as endearing or memorable as other animated characters such as Remy the rat from the far superior Ratatouille. Also, there’s not enough comic relief to damper the serious tone of the film while the narrator (voice of Sigourney Weaver) interjects the film every now and then with preachy, tacked-on messages about courage, tolerance and forgiveness. Perhaps if Sylvain Chomet, the director of The Triplets of Belleville would has served as the director as original planned, he could have turned The Tale of Despereaux into a much more exhilarating, focused and intelligent film rather one that often feels bland, over-stuffed, chaotic and ultimately underwhelming for both kids and adults.
Number of times I checked my watch: 6.
Released by Universal Pictures.

Yes Man

Directed by Peyton Reed.

Carl Allen (Jim Carrey), divorced bank-loan officer, leads a boring life without spending enough time with others and often saying “no” to people, including his friends, Rooney (Danny Masterson) and Peter (Bradley Cooper) who would like to see him go back into the dating scene. When he learns about a special seminar led by Terrance (Terrance Stamp) which would help him to change him from a “no” man to a “yes” man, he decided to attend it in hopes that it would lead his life in a better direction. While filling his motorcycle up with gasoline, he meets Allison (Zooey Deschanel), a young, charismatic woman whom he agrees to spend time with. Little does she know that his positive, “yes” attitude about everything involving their relationship comes from the seminar that he had attended. Soon enough, he gets a promotion for approving all of the customers’ loans at the bank and ends up taking Allison on a vacation to any regional destination that’s the first flight. The plot gets more and more silly as it progresses, but, fortunately, the screenplay by Nicholas Stoller, Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel doesn’t resort to the use of toilet humor as means of entertainment. Jim Carrey adds a little comic energy with his performance as Carl just like he did in Liar Liar, The Cable Guy and Ace Ventura. He doesn’t have too many truly laugh-out-loud moments here, though, because the script pretty much recycles much of the humor and some of it just feels too forced. For example, there’s a scene that lasts too long when he accepts a call on his cellphone while hanging upside down from a bridge while bungee jumping or when he brings with him a Persian wife whom he bought online. The romance between him and Allison feels contrived, but that’s forgivable because, after all, this is meant to be a comedy. If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and check your brain at the door for 104 minutes, you’ll be able to at least be mildly entertained and even uplifted by the film’s positive message about embracing life. At a running time of 104 minutes, Yes Man manages to be sporadically funny, mostly amusing and harmless. Please be sure to stay through the end credits for an additional scene as the credits roll.
Number of times I checked my watch: 2.
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.

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