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Reviews for June 26th, 2009

Afghan Star

Directed by Havana Marking.

In Pashtu, Dari and English with subtitles. This lively documentary follows four contestants as they compete amongst others in “Afghan Star,” an “American Idol”-like TV show in Afghanistan, in hopes of becoming the Afghan Pop Idol winner. The country has been through war and Taliban rule for the last 30 years, so the freedoms that the Afghan citizens have are very limited. In fact, it’s illegal for them to sing, dance and even for people to watch them on TV, especially since the Taliban have banned televisions from being used. The contestants risk their lives every day as they compete on the show, all for the sake of following their passion to sing while providing excitement and entertainment for many viewers. Director Havana, in her feature film directorial debut, follows the four contestants from the audition phase all the up until the final competition located at the International Hotel. Each of the interviewed contestants seems fearless, warm and full of charisma, so you’ll probably be rooting for all of them. Women in Afghanistan risk their lives more than men because of how the country is dominated by males and requires the women, young and old, to cover their faces and hair; the contestants and even the female audience members bravely choose not to abide by those laws. They want to be free and, through their perseverance, they’ve found it. It’s concurrently inspiring to observe how Afghanistan experiences a glimpse of much-needed democracy when the public viewers send in their votes for their favorite contestants by texting through their cellphones. Although it’s not stylishly edited or thoroughly suspenseful, what makes the film so exceptional as a documentary is that there’s no other documentary that has shed light on such positive, uplifting, pro-democracy aspects of Afghanistan before. At a running time of 87 minutes, Afghan Star manages to be a lively, compelling and illuminating documentary.
Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Zeitgeist Films.
Opens at the Cinema Village.

My Sister’s Keeper

Directed by Nick Cassavetes.

Based on the novel by Jodi Picoult. 11-year-old Anna Fitzgerald (Abigail Breslin) lives with her mother, Sara (Cameron Diaz), father, Brian (Jason Patric), brother Jesse (Evan Ellingson) and older sister, Kate (Sofia Vassilieva), who was diagnosed at an early age with leukemia. Anna’s parents had conceived her in vitro as “donor child” for Kate so that she could donate her part of her body to try to save the life of Kate. Until now, Anna had donated bone marrow, blood and more, but now that she’s told to donate her kidneys, she refuses to do so. Instead, she seeks the help of an attorney, Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin), and sues her parents in hopes of getting medical emancipation. Anna’s mother seems so fixated on saving the life of Kate that she neglects to consider Ann’s feelings and freedom, for that matter. Joan Cusack plays the judge who still hasn’t overcome the grief caused by the accidental death of her own daughter. The plot shifts back and forth between the courtroom scenes and flashbacks of Kate’s deteriorating health and her interactions with her family members at the hospital. In a rather contrived and corny subplot during a flashback, Kate has a brief romance with another cancer-stricken patient, Taylor (Thomas Dekker), whom she meets at the hospital. She dates him, they kiss and she lets him take her virginity. Director/co-writer blends tragedy and drama with mixed results. The screenplay has the basic elements, such as intelligent, strong characters, that it could have turned into a truly poignant and inspirational drama with more organic and nuanced moments that don’t try too hard to tug at your heartstrings. Sofia Vassilieva, in particular, gives a heartfelt, warm performance as does the talent Abigail Breslin. Too many of the flashback scenes, though, veer toward melodrama or Lifetime-movie-of-the-week territory, while the courtroom scenes lack enough intrigue and palpable tension, especially because the transitions into the flashback scenes take away from the dramatic momentum. Director Nick Cassavettes, who also directed The Notebook, once again include beautiful cinematography, a terrific soundtrack and uses interesting symbolism, i.e. a flock of birds flying by the seaside. At a running time of 109 minutes, My Sister’s Keeper manages to be a mostly contrived and uneven drama that lacks nuances and fails to pack an emotional punch, but at least it’s mildly engaging thanks to warm, heartfelt performances and exquisite cinematography.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

New York

Directed by Kabir Khan.

Omar (Neil Nitin Mukesh), a young man from India living in New York, has been arrested, detained and accused of being a terrorist.An undercover FBI agent, Agent Roshan, played with utter conviction by the talented Irrfan Khan, interrogates him while refusing to grant permission to have a lawyer present with him. Even though Omar denies being involved in terrorism, Roshan continues to harass and pressure him for information and locks him. Omar tells him the details of his experiences in America, starting with his arrival at a university and befriending Maya (Katrina Kaif) and Sam (John Abraham). The events of 9/11 changed the life of Omar significantly to the extent that he separated from his friends. Back in the present interrogation scenes at the detention center, Roshan makes a deal with him that he’d be set free if he becomes an undercover FBI agent to gather information about Sam and his alleged involvement with a group of terrorists. It turns out that during the time when Omar separated from Maya after 9/11, Maya married Sam and even had a child with him. Maya lets Omar stay at a guest room for a while, but little does she or Sam know that he’s an undercover FBI agent. Back to the film New York, the interrogation scenes between Agent Roshan and Omar feel quite horrifying to watch, especially as Omar is treated so inhumanely with no due process as if he were guilty until proven innocent rather than the other way around. The second half of New York veers into Arlington Road territory with plenty of taut, intense scenes as Omar gradually uncovers more and more clues about Sam’s secret double life. What makes the film so engrossing is that the intricate screenplay humanizes Maya, Sam, Omar and even Agent Roshan so that they’re not merely cartoonish or stereotypical. With the exception of a few corny scenes that come across as awkward and contrived, much of the plot feels captivating. Director Kabir Khan moves the pace along briskly, includes a lively soundtrack and an appropriate musical score along with stylish cinematography. Screenwriter Sandeep Srivastava masterfully weaves a very suspenseful story that keeps you at the edge of your seat while tackling very provocative issues of post-9/11 racial profiling against Muslims as well as the U.S. government’s use of fascist tactics such legalizing torture and invasion of privacy, i.e. through surveillance. (Please read Naomi Wolf’s The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot to read more about how the post-9/11 tactics of the George W. Bush administration echo the tactics used by fascist leaders such as Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and Pinochet.) At a running time of 2 hours and 30 minutes, New York manages to be a captivating, gripping and thoroughly provocative thriller.
Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Yash Raj Films.
Opens at the ImagineAsian.

The Stoning of Soraya M.

Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh.

In Persian and English with subtitles. Based on a true story and on the book by Freidoune Sahebjam. In 1986 Iran, Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo) lives in a small Iranian village where she meets a French0Iranian journalist, Sahebjam (Jim Caviezel), who records her accounts of the events that led up the stoning of her niece, Soraya (Mozhan Marnò). Soraya’s husband, Ali (Navid Negahban), wants to leave Soraya in order to run off with a 14-year-old girl, but she refuses to leave him. To retaliate for her disobeying, he falsely accuses her of cheating on him with Hashem (Parviz Sayyad), a good friend of hers whom she visits every now and then. As the rumors of her cheating spread throughout the town, she faces a death by stoning for the charge of adultery, even if she claims to be innocent. Her aunt, Zahra, does everything in her capabilities to save the life of Soraya, but Ali and the corrupt men in the town have dominant power. The screenplay by Cyrus Nowrasteh and his wife, Betsy, fails to bring any of the characters to life, especially the titular character, so it’s difficult to truly care about anything happens to them. There’s really not enough background information about Soraya other than that she became Ali’s wife through an arranged marriage. Were her character fleshed out more fully with more interactions with her husband prior to the false accusations and perhaps some scenes from her childhood, she would’ve been a much more memorable character. What keeps you mildly engaged, though, are the strong performances all across the board, especially that of the radiant Shohreh Aghdashloo. The inevitable stoning sequence lasts a bit too long to the point of feeling tedious, but it’s the only heart-wrenching and enraging part of the entire film. Ultimately, The Stoning of Soraya M. has strong performances and courageously exposes the horrifying, inhumane Islamic practice of stoning adulterers, but it suffers from poor character development and a contrived script that lacks subtlety, authenticity and emotional resonance.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Roadside Attractions.
Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.


Directed by Jennifer Lynch.

After two killers brutally murder a couple in their bedroom at night, FBI agents Elizabeth Anderson (Julia Ormond) and Sam Hallaway (Bill Pullman) arrive in town to investigate recent highway murders. They believe that those second string of murders were perpetrated by the same killers as the first set of murders. The survivors of the murders, Officer Jack Bennett (Kent Harper), Bobbi Prescott (Pell James) and eight-year-old Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins), sit in a room at the police station and, while under surveillance, give their own accounts of what they witnessed. Each survivor gives a different version of the events that occurred. Bobbi and her boyfriend, Johnny (Mac Miller), who was among the victims of the highway murders, were both high on cocaine and drunk during that day. They took some drugs from a local drug dealer who OD’d before heading back on the highway. Officer Jack Bennett ‘s partner, Jim Conrad (French Stewart), also died in the highway murders. They had pulled over the car of Stephanie’s parents as well as the car of Bobby’s boyfriend for speeding. Director/co-writer Jennifer Lynch, the daughter of David Lynch, weaves an intricate plot that begins intriguingly, but grows more and more absurd with diminishing suspense as it progresses. The performances are decent and it’s great to see Julia Ormond playing a tough FBI agent. However, none of the characters are particularly interesting or memorable because of the lazy screenplay. A truly good murder mystery, such as Fargo, should have a lot of interesting details, suspense, at least a modicum of true-to-life moments, and an intelligent final act that offers at least some interesting and believable way to piece together the details of the mystery in hindsight. At a running time of 97 minutes, Surveillance has solid acting, but offers very little in terms of suspense, intelligence and intrigue. During the over-the-top, gimmicky third act that has so many implausible twists, it completely falls apart into an inane, contrived and perverse mess that leaves you with a bad aftertaste.
Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Magnet Releasing.
Opens at the Cinema Village.

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