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Reviews for July 17th, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

Directed by Marc Webb.

Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young man who aspires to become an architect, works as a greeting cards writer at a Los Angeles company. He meets and falls in love with a sexy and charming coworker, Summer (Zooey Deschanel), who has similar musical tastes that does. From the moment that he set his eyes on her, he was certain that she’s the one girl who’s meant for him. Everything begins smoothly for them as they date, goof around, have sex, laugh and get to know one another intimately. They’re a match made in heaven---or so they seem until their officially relationship ends on the 500th day. Co-writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber essentially take a standard boy-meet-girl, boy-loses-girl formula and reinvigorate it with a clever plot structure and well-written dialogue that sounds both organic and witty. The plot gyrates back and forth between the early days of the relationship and the latter days, so, although you know where there relationship will be headed, you don’t know so easily how it’ll arrive to that point or why, for that matter. With the exception of a musical dance sequence that involves an animated bird, many situations that happen to Tom feel so true-to-life that you might find yourself saying, “I’ve been through something like that before.” It’s very rare for two romantic leads to have so much palpable chemistry like Tom and Summer have while together onscreen. They both seem like very real, complex and appealing characters unlike the annoying, cardboard characters that you’d usually find in most romantic comedies nowadays, i.e. The Proposal or the dismal I Hate Valentine’s Day. It also helps that Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, two underrated actors, both shine with so much charisma that you’ll feel engrossed from start to finish. At an ideal running time of 95 minutes, (500) Days of Summer manages to be a refreshingly sweet, charming and heartfelt romantic comedy with just the right combination of wit, humor and tenderness.
Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Opens at the Regal Union Square 14, AMC Empire 25, Clearview 1st & 62nd and AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13.

Heart of Stone

Directed by Beth Toni Kruvant.

This compelling, insightful and heartfelt documentary focuses on the effort of Ronald G. Stone, the principal of Weequahic High School (WHS) in Newark, New Jersey, to bring the school back to the honorable and peaceful reputation the school had once earned during its inception in the 1930’s. When Stone became the school’s principal back in 2001, WHS had serious problems with gang violence. Many have died from gang violence throughout Newark, the 12th most dangerous city in America. So, Stone had a very challenging task ahead of him once he took over as the new principal. Director Beth Toni Kruvant does an outstanding job of showing how Stone was concurrently wise and tough in his methods of diminishing gang violence at WHS. She wisely doesn’t resort to preachiness or excessive voice-over narration. She includes plenty of footage of Stone interacting with the students and blends it together with relevant, insightful information about the history of WHS. Instead of merely condemning the members of the gangs and expressing hatred toward them in any kind of way, Stone had them gather in a room together to express their anger and frustrations through words rather than through violence. Any sensible and morally responsible person should know that, as the saying goes, the pen (or one’s tongue, for that matter) has more long-lasting power and productivity than the sword. Stone essentially treated the gang members with respect as human beings while being firm and honest with them about the realities of what’s in store for their future if they continue down the road of gang violence. It’s equally inspiring and moving to observe how Stone instilled some much-needed hope in their lives along with a passionate drive to succeed in life and to pursue higher education as a means to escape their dangerous life in the hood. In one particularly insightful moment, he gets to the root of the issue by explaining to a gang member that he understands his fear of adjusting to a new social environment if he were to escape the hood by attending college rather than stay in a lifestyle that he’s accustomed to and, therefore, comfortable with. Perhaps he’s numb and/or oblivious to the life-threatening dangers of staying in the hood, but Stone, much like a father figure, mentor and therapist, helps him and others to open their eyes to the harsh realities around them and to persuade them to choose the right path in life that’s best for them and for society as a whole. At a running time of 1 hours and 24 minutes, Heart of Stone, winner of the Audience Award at the Slamdance Film Festival, manages to be a captivating, poignant and inspirational documentary that finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them intellectually.
Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Good Footage Productions.
Opens at the IFC Center.


Directed by Morgan J. Freeman.

Mike (Matt Long), a football jock at Northwestern, comes back to his hometown in PA for Christmas break during his freshman year at college. He returns with a new girlfriend, Elizabeth (Jessica Stroup), which makes his ex-girlfriend, Shelby (Mischa Barton), extremely jealous and unable to accept that he’s no longer her boyfriend. One night, as Shelby drives down the road, her car strikes and wounds Elizabeth. She takes her into her dilapidated home and holds her captive in an upstairs bedroom. Meanwhile, she’s somehow believes that Mike would somehow take her back if she’s able to convince him that Elizabeth has disappeared without answering his phone calls because she’s ditching him. Does she really think that they’d simply live happily ever after? Why should anyone care about any of these bird-brained characters anyway? What do any of the women see in Mike to begin with? He’s got no charisma or brains, so perhaps they’re both superficial. The dull screenplay by Jake Goldberger, Katie Fetting and Frank M. Hannah doesn’t give you much of a reason care what happens to anyone, even poor Elizabeth. Once Shelby holds her captive, the plot becomes tedious and inane when it should have been intense and riveting instead like other, much more nuanced and intelligent thrillers that pretty much tread the same water, i.e. Misery and Fatal Attraction. Sure, there’s some occasional torture and catfight scenes between Shelby and Elizabeth, but they’re far from exciting or memorable. There aren’t any real surprises or clever twists to be found here. Director Morgan J. Freeman includes poor pacing and editing that doesn’t really add any much-needed palpable grittiness to the film. To top it all off, the third act falls apart with ludicrous scenes that’ll make you roll your eyes in disbelief and frustration. At a running time of 90 minutes, Homecoming feels too lazy, preposterous and inane to even be considered as a guilty pleasure.
Number of times I checked my watch: 5
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Opens at the Village East Cinema.

Off Jackson Avenue

Directed by John-Luke Montias.

Olivia (Jessica Pimentel) arrives from Mexico to New York City, expecting to get a respectable job at a restaurant upon arrival. Instead, Milot (Stivi Paskosi), the man who hired her, turns out to be an Albanian pimp and forces her into being a sex slave at an apartment in Queens off of Jackson Avenue. She meets other sex slaves there who have been prostituting themselves for quite a while and have been unable to escape for fear of getting killed. Milot gives her an empty promise that if she continues to work as a prostitute for him, she’ll eventually work at a restaurant. Will Olivia find the courage to escape her captors or will she remain trapped forever in that dangerous lifestyle? In second subplot, Tomo (Jun Suenaga), a Japanese man who works as an English teacher in Japan, leaves his ailing mother there and travels to New York City, where he gets a new job as a hitman for the mob, run by a Chinese mob boss, Eddie Chang (Clem Cheung). In the third and final plot strand, Joey (John-Luke Montias) lives with his unemployed Jack (Gene Ruffini), and works as a car thief. He decides to go on one last crime spree in hopes of making enough money to fulfill his dream of opening his own tire store. Writer/director John-Luke Montias has written three plotlines that certainly have dramatic tension that keeps you somewhat engaged, but the tension wanes as the plot jumps back and forth between each story without developing any of its characters enough. All of the characters seem one-dimensional and forgettable, even though they’re stuck in true-to-life situations. Unfortunately, the performances are mediocre at best while the dialogue too often feels awkward and lacks much-needed wit. Rather than stuffing each plotline into one film, Montias could have easily fleshed out Olivia’s story into the 80 minutes running time, therefore allowing the audience to get to know much more about her and, perhaps, what her life was like back in Mexico. He could have also made the plot more thought-provoking, intricate and engaging by connecting the stories and characters in clever and interesting ways rather than leaving them running mostly parallel. Ultimately, Off Jackson Avenue manages to be mildly engaging, but often contrived and dull with stilted dialogue that lacks much-needed pizzazz.
Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Goltzius Productions.
Opens at the Quad Cinema.

The Way We Get By

Directed by Aron Gaudet.

This mildly fascinating and affecting documentary focuses on three senior citizens who, among others, have been greeting and saying farewell to U.S. Marines arriving and departing from Bangor, Maine on their way to or from Afghanistan and Iraq. Jerry Mundy, a 74-year-old man, lives alone with his dog and has heart problems to deal with. Whenever soldiers arrive or depart from the small Bangor airport, he receives a phone call and goes straight to the airport to give them a warm hug, regardless of what time it is. The soldiers even receive access to cell phones as soon as they arrive so that they could communicate with their loved ones. Mundy s briefly vocalizes his dissent about the war going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. He even candidly admits that his beliefs make him unpatriotic, but if he wouldn’t express those beliefs, he would also be unpatriotic. That confession could have easily been expanded further had director Aron Gaudet asked what he thinks patriotism truly means to him at its very core. There’s also Joan Gaudet, a 75-year-old grandmother who raised 8 children, one of whom happens to be the director of the film himself, lives alone, suffers from health problems and discusses her negative sentiments about the Iraq War. Even though both she and Jerry oppose the war, that still doesn’t stop them from wholeheartedly supporting the troops. Finally, there’s Bill Knight, an 87-year-old widower who battles cancer, has escalating financial debts and lives alone with his cats in a house that’s littered with garbage. He, along with Jerry and Joan, greets the soldiers at the airport as a means of finding his own purpose and usefulness as well as escaping loneliness. Throughout the interviews, director Aron Gaudet does a great job of bringing out the warmth and poignant moments when the seniors interact with the soldiers and, in turn, feel emotionally rewarded. However, he merely scratches the surface while failing to dig deeper into their background, thoughts, feelings and exploring their beliefs so that you get to know them better. A truly great documentary finds the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them intellectually as well as emotionally. At a running time of 84 minutes, The Way We Get By manages to be a heartfelt, mildly fascinating documentary that lacks sufficient insight to keep you thoroughly intrigued.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by International Film Circuit.
Opens at the IFC Center.

A Woman in Berlin

Directed by Max Färberböck.

Based on the autobiographical novel A Woman in Berlin by Anonyma. During the end of World War II in 1945, a German journalist/photographer, Anonyma (Nina Hoss), has been writing about the events that she witnesses in Berlin while her boyfriend, Gerd (August Diehl), a soldier, goes off to fight in the Eastern Front. The Red Army invades Berlin, which forces Anonyma to hide out in the basement of an apartment complex. That’s where she meets a many women who’ve been hiding out. The Russian soldiers often rape her and the other women as well. She’ll do anything should can to survive, though, and tries her best to remain strong. In an effort to protect herself, she seduces an officer, Andreij Rybkin (Evgeny Sidikhin), who eventually becomes emotionally attached to her. Will Anonyma be able to survive? What might happen when Gerd returns to Berlin and finds her with Andreij? Those are just some of the questions that arise throughout the film and keep you intrigued as Anonyma continues to bond with Andreij. It’s compelling to watch the dynamics of their relationship unfold and evolve. Moreover, the underrated actress Nina Hoss delivers a truly super performance as Anonyma that’s both raw and convincingly intense, so you’re able to care about her as a real human being from start to finish. Writer/director Max Färberböck includes some scenes that depict Anonyma’s experiences with such brutal, disturbing images that you often won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen. Färberböck simply doesn’t resort to comic relief or veer toward distracting subplots; the plot unfolds in a straightforward yet true-to-life manner. The focused screenplay humanizes the characters in a way that helps you to feel emotionally immersed into the story. At a running time of 2 hours and 11 minutes, A Woman in Berlin manages to be captivating and emotionally resonating with a powerfully raw performance by Nina Hoss.
Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Strand Releasing.
Opens at the Angelika Film Center.

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