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Reviews for January 15th, 2010

The Book of Eli

Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes.

30 years after a final war has ravaged the world, Eli (Denzel Washington) roams the post-apocalyptic terrain of America. He carries a precious book, the last remaining bible in the world, and goes on a quest headed westward to find a safe haven for it. After killing survivors who attempt to kill and cannibalize him, he travels to a town out west where Carnegie (Gary Oldman) serves as the town’s ruler with tyrannical powers. Eli soon meets Carnegie’s subservient wife, Claudia (Jennifer Beals), and his adopted daughter, Sorara (Mila Kunis). He learns that Carnegie desperately wants to take Eli’s bible away from him so that he could study it and use that knowledge to strengthen his own dictatorial powers over the townspeople. The screenplay by Gary Whit combines action, dark comedy, suspense and fantasy elements in a very uneven way with mixed results. At least it doesn’t feel as tedious as The Road which treaded similar ground. Denzel Washington, just as expected, adds gravitas to the role of Eli while Gary Oldman is quite compelling as Carnegie. However their characters are written with such one-dimensionality and laziness that neither of them is worth rooting for. Mila Kunis gives a wooden performance that distracts from the film’s overall momentum whenever she’s onscreen. Albert and Allen Hughes, a.k.a. the Hughes brothers, includes some exciting action sequences with stylized violence, but the palpable excitement wanes after each subsequent action scene. The Hughes brothers should have either taken the action down a notch or two and focused more on Eli and his deep connection with the sacred bible. Moreover, a gimmicky twist in the third act comes across as so illogical that it makes the entire film seem so silly, absurd and pretentious in hindsight. At a running time of just under 2 hours, The Book of Eli overstays its welcome and feels preposterous, sophomoric, pretentious and barely engaging thanks to the talents of Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman. It might make for a great midnight movie to laugh at given its abundance of absurdity and mindless violence.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

Fish Tank

Directed by Andrea Arnold.

15-year-old Mia Williams (Katie Jarvis) lives with her mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), and younger sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), in a housing complex located in the slums of Essex, England. She has been kicked out of school and spends her days either bickering with her mother and sister, dancing to a hip-hop music or just lounging around. Surrounded by her alcoholic mother who’s far from a role model, she’s essentially going through the phase of rebellion and angst that every teenager goes through at some point to some extent. She’s very like a fish that’s “out of the water,” which is actually the direct translation of the film’s title in Israel. On the surface, Mia seems tough and strong, but inside she’s very insecure and unsure of herself as well as how to make sense of the world around her. The arrival of Connor (Michael Fassbender), her mother’s boyfriend, only complicated matters even further. Mia and Connor flirt with one another inappropriately and, in one pivotal scene that changes everything, he actually has sex with her on the living room couch. Connor clearly has issues to deal with as much as Mia and her mother have some as well. Writer/director Andrea Arnold, who previously wrote and directed the intelligent thriller Red Road, once again proves to be a filmmaker who achieves a sense of brutal reality without any sugarcoating. At the heart of Fish Tankis Katie Jarvis’ utterly raw and captivating performance that nails Mia’s fragility in quite touching ways, much like Thora Birch’s performance as Enid, the outsider/rebellious teen, in Ghost World. It’s also worth mentioning that Arnold adds an interesting use of thought-provoking symbolism when it comes to the horse that Mia desperately tries to free, but gets beaten up for trying to. That metaphor comes back into play later on in the film as well. The cinematography along with the set design reinforce the film’s overall bleak atmosphere while the many close shots of Mia as the camera follows her walking or running feels reminiscent of the type of camerawork found in the Dardennes brothers’ Rosetta. Admittedly, though, the increase of tension and action in the third act comes across as a bit inorganic , too sudden and poorly transitioned to when juxtaposed with the prior, quietly intense scenes. At a running time of 2 hours, Fish Tank manages to be an emotionally devastating, well-shop and captivating coming-of-age drama boasting a brave and raw performance by the radiant Katie Jarvis.
Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by IFC Films.
Opens at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.


Directed by Geralyn Pezanoski.

This captivating and heartfelt documentary focuses on the pets, mostly dogs, which went missing and were abandoned in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Homeowners, many of the poor, were separated from their pets, not by choice, throughout the evacuation process. They hoped, as would any pet owners, that they would eventually be reunited with their pets shortly after the hurricane. Little did they know that the procedure to get their pets back would be filled with red tape given that so many compassionate people from around the country chose to adopt those orphaned pets as their own. Do the original owners have a fundamental right to get their beloved dogs back after the new owners have already provided food and shelter for the dogs? Is it wrong for the animal shelters to euthanize the dogs after less than a year without anyone claiming or adopting them? Those may seem like questions with simple answers on the surface, but not when you factor in all the stress that animal shelters have to go through when they’re inundated with orphaned pets. Director Geralyn Pezanoski wisely includes revealing interviews with a wide variety of subjects from all sides of the coin, namely, the original and new pet owners, volunteers, rescuers and employees at animal shelters each of whom has their own unique perspectives and feelings about who should be the rightful pet owner. Everyone young and old, especially pet owners, will feel deeply moved by the original owners’ desperate attempts to either find their missing pets at the shelter or get them back from their new owners. Dog owners will particularly relate to the footage of a dog suddenly looking out of the car window as it recognizes its original homeowner’s neighborhood and, later, runs toward its owner and greets him with a plethora of excitement and joy. It’s quite suspenseful to watch as the new owners learn about the original ones’ requests and contemplate what should be done to make both owners happy---a sort of Nash equilibrium---although, in some cases, not everyone ends up happily ever after. At a running time of only 81 minutes, Mine manages to be a captivating, deeply moving, illuminating and well-balanced documentary for everyone, pet owner or not. Please be sure to stay for a stinger after the end credits.
Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Film Movement.
Opens at the Cinema Village.

The Spy Next Door

Directed by Brian Levant.

Bob Ho (Jackie Chan) works as an undercover CIA spy and decides to give up his job so that he could spend more time with his girlfriend and next-door neighbor, Gillian (Amber Valletta), and her three kids, Ian (Will Shadley), Nora (Alina Foley) and Farren (Madeline Carroll). When Gillian has no choice but to leave town for a few days, she lets Bob take care of them while she’s gone. Little doe s he know that his babysitting task won’t be quite as easy as he expected it to be given all the household chores, i.e. cooking breakfast, that he hasn’t yet mastered. Ian snoops around on Bob’s computer one day and downloads a top-secret formula in order to show to his classmates how cool he is. Little does he know that the download has angered a Russian terrorist, Poldark (Magnus Scheving) and his sidekick, Creel (Katherine Boecher), who now hunt down Bob do get the formula back, but not before fighting him off. Will Bob be able to keep his former job as a spy secret from Gillian and her kids? Will Gillian eventually forgive him if she were to find out the truth? Will there be a lengthy final battle between Bob and his enemies? Anyone who has ever watched an action comedy geared toward little kids would already be able to answer those questions without hesitation. Just because co-writers Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer and Gregory Poirier follow a standard formula filled with clichés doesn't necessarily mean the predictability and use of clichés take away from the film’s entertainment value, though. Jackie Chan still proves to be a charming actor with great comedic timing and it’s a lot of fun to watch him during the fresh action sequences. It’s also worth mentioning that Madeline Carroll, last seen opposite Kevin Costner in Swing Vote, shines as Gillian’s teenage daughter, Farren. So what if the villains seem very cartoonish and often silly? They’re not meant to be realistic or truly menacing because, after all, The Spy Next Door’s target audience are little kids who find it easy to laugh at slapstick humor. Adults willing to find their inner child and suspend their disbelief will find the film to be pleasantly diverting and amusing albeit forgivably juvenile. Director Brian Levant wisely keeps the pace moving along at an appropriately brisk pace and an ideal running time of just 92 minutes that pass by rather quickly. The Spy Next Door manages to be an entertaining comedy loaded with action and laughs for all ages. It’s forgivably silly, cartoonish and far from a classic, but nonetheless feels fast, funny, fresh and harmless. Please be sure to stay through the end credits for outtakes.
Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Lionsgate.
Opens nationwide.


Directed by Steven C. Barber.

This engaging and illuminating documentary, narrated by Dan Aykroyd, follows thirty-one paraplegics as they prepare for a two-hundred sixty-seven-mile road race called “Sadler’s Alaska Challenge.” Some of them race in wheelchairs while others in hand cycles. The race itself lasts six days and takes place in Denali National Park way up in the state of Alaska. As paraplegic racer Chris Kohler explains clearly, the main difference between a wheelchair and a hand cycle is that wheelchairs only have one gear while hand cycles have twenty-one gears like a mountain bike. He and the other Alaska Challenge racers interviewed, namely, Geoffrey Erickson and Edwin Figueroa, give their accounts of how they ended up paralyzed and what sparked their interest in joining the race. Director Steven C. Barber interviews them in a way that brings out their unique personalities, wisdom and charisma while showing how some of them have the joy of expressing a sense of humor and wit. Barber includes well-edited footage from the Sadler’s Alaska Challenge and then follows two U.S. Paralympic athletes, Alejandro Albor and Oz Sanchez, as they compete at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. Sanchez has the very inspiring words “Know No Limits” tattooed on his chest. The race footage not only feels captivating, but also quite suspenseful as you root for them to win during their arduous race. As one of the racers wisely states, just because they’re disabled doesn’t mean that they’re unable; they merely find other ways to reach their goals and don’t let their disability become an obstacle. It’s very uplifting and inspirational to watch as they not only talk about their courage, persistence, passion, endurance and joie de vivre, but also put those individual positive qualities into action as well, a task that’s much easier said than done. At a running time of 1 hour and 19 minutes, Unbeaten manages to be thoroughly engaging, inspirational, illuminating and genuinely uplifting. It’s the rare kind of documentary that finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. Please be sure to stay through the end credits for additional footage.
Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Polaris Media Group and Vanilla Fire Productions.
Opens at the IFC Center.

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