Reviews for October 9th, 2009
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.
Based on a true story. In 1974, 19-year-old Michael Petersen (Tom Hardy) brought a shot-gun into a post office and robbed it without killing anyone. He was immediately sentenced to 7 years in prison, but that turned into 34 years instead, 30 of which he served in solitary confinement. In prison, he became even more deranged and innately angry, while renaming himself as Charles Bronson, yet he projects himself as oddly gleeful and oblivious to the severity of his tragic situations. When he briefly gets out of prison, he meets up with his Uncle Jack (Hugh Ross), who runs a brothel, and attends a very bizarre transvestite party there that’ll make you feel as though you’re watching a David Lynch film. Uncle Jack has one of the funniest and memorable lines in the film when he starts a speech by saying, “Attention ladies and gentlemen in ladies attire.” In another scene outside of jail, Peterson, now as Bronson, has sex with a woman, Allison (Juliet Oldfield), and fleetingly shows his softer side. Director/co-writer Nicolas Winding Refn, who wrote/directed The Pusher Trilogy, combines action, thrills, drama and dark, offbeat comedy with plenty of verve. On the surface, Bronson isn’t a likable character, especially given how insane and aggressive he comes across. However, throughout the thin plot, he grows on you in a strange way and becomes irresistibly entertaining to watch as well as unpredictable. The violence onscreen never becomes too gratuitous—it’s to some degree stylized in a way that diminishes its shock value. Refn chooses not to delve into a psychological analysis of Bronson. Instead, he merely shows you with a unrelenting focus what Bronson was like back then and tries to capture the bizarreness and intensity of being inside his mind. Tom Hardy portrays him in a truly powerful, raw performance that resonates with not only energy, but with lots of charisma as well. It’s also worth mentioning how Refn uses the musical score along with brilliant, stylish cinematography to create a somewhat surreal atmosphere. At a running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, Bronson is ultimately an invigorating, refreshingly stylish biopic brimming with dark humor, surrealism and an unforgettable, brave performance by Tom Hardy. Number of times I checked my watch: 0 Released by Magnolia Pictures. Opens at the Angelika Film Center.
Directed by Peter Billingsley.
Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell) have been married for 8 years, but are currently want a divorce because of marriage problem. Their friends, Joey (Jon Favreau) and his wife, Lucy (Kristin Davis), Dave (Vince Vaughn) and his wife, Ronnie (Malin Akerman), and Shane (Faizon Love) and his younger girlfriend, Trudy (Kali Hawk), agree to tag along with them to Eden, a tropical island resort that provides for couples therapy. Jason and Cynthia hope to save their marriage there while the remaining three couples just want to have fun. Little do they know that they have no choice but to take part in the rigorous program designed by Marcel (Jean Reno) which includes all sorts of exercises and therapy sessions. No tipping the staff is allowed; just smiles. Does the image of Dave freaking out as baby sharks circle him sound funny to you? How about when Shane refuses to take off his shirt and pants during an exercise with the other couples because he’s completely nude underneath? Or how about when one of Dave’s little kids pees in a store’s showroom toilet? Those are just some of the many juvenile attempts at humor in the inane screenplay co-written by Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughn and Dana Fox, which appeals to the lowest common denominator and which seems too desperate with poor comic timing. On a positive note, first-time director Peter Billingsley moves to pace along briskly and includes lots of picturesque scenery from the island that will at least provide some eye candy. However, the lively ensemble cast doesn’t succeed in adding much-needed laughs and none of them gets a chance to actually shine their comedic talents, especially Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn who were so hilarious and memorable as they played off one another in Swingers. The film, worst of all, gets becomes even duller as it attempts to veer toward drama later on, but ends up falling flat on its face with silliness. At a running time of 1 hour and 47 minutes, Couples Retreat has nothing to offer but a lively ensemble cast and beautiful scenery while falling flat as a comedy that’s painfully low on laughs and high on juvenile, asinine and uninspired attempts at humor. Number of times I checked my watch: 5 Released by Universal Pictures. Opens nationwide.
The Damned United
Directed by Tom Hooper.
Based on a true story and on the novel by David Peace. Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) started out as the manager (a.k.a. coach) for the English soccer team Derby County in 1968. By 1974 he became the manager of Derby’s rivaling team, Leeds United, where he replaced the Leeds manager, Don Revie (Colm Meaney). Revie, in turn, became the manager of Derby County. He and Clough often clashed with each other from the get-go and couldn’t stand one another. Clough’s good friend and assistant manager of Derby County, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), didn’t follow him to Leeds to be his assistant manager there. Screenwriter Peter Morgan smoothly jumps back and forth in chronology between Clough’s rise to become Leeds’ soccer manager and the many frustrations and issues that he dealt with and suffered from during his new management position without Taylor as his crucial assistant. It’s equally compelling and poignant to watch how his friendship with Taylor gradually deteriorated throughout. Morgan succeeds in bringing the character of Brian Clough to life with all of his complexities and fallible qualities that makes him all the more human and worth care about. Michael Sheen delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as he sinks his teeth into the meaty role of Clough with such skill and ease. He portrays Clough with the right balance of toughness and fragility. The supporting actors, especially the underrated Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent, as Derby’s chairman, also give strong, convincing performances that keep you fully immersed in the true story. Morgan also wisely balances the drama with some much-needed dry British humor. Even if you’re not into soccer as a sport, you’ll still have something to take away from the film and won’t find yourself bored because the drama is very character-driven and much of it occurs beyond the soccer field. Director Tom Hooper, in his directorial debut, moves the film along at an appropriately brisk pace that seldom drags and doesn’t feel too rushed or awkward, especially when it comes to the juxtaposition of flashbacks along with the present-day scenes. At a running time of 97 minutes, The Damned United manages to be a compelling, sprightly and heartfelt drama. Michael Sheen deserves an Oscar. Number of times I checked my watch: 1 Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Opens at Regal Union Square 14 and AMC/Loews Lincoln Square 13.
Directed by Lone Scherfig.
Based on the memoir by Lynn Barber. In early 1960’s, Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a sixteen-year-old girl, lives Longon with her uptight father, Jack (Alfred Molina), and mother, Marjorie (Cara Seymour). She’s a diligent, bright student at an all-girls school, brings home a shy, well-behaving teenager, Graham (Matthew Beard), and dreams of getting accepted to Oxford University. Once she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a man in his thirties, her life drastically chances. David drives slowly beside her on a rainy day, notices that she’s carrying a cello and confesses his passion for music while convincing her to get into his car. The two gradually develop a May-December romance that leads to her abandoning her focus on schoolwork for going out to nightclubs and concerts with him until the late-night hours. He also introduces her to his two friends, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and his girlfriend, Helen (Rosamund Pike), who always dresses elegantly. Olivia Williams plays Miss Stubbs, her English teacher who encourages her to purse studying English at Oxford. Emma Thompson briefly shows up as the school’s stern headmistress. Will Jenny’s parents let her go on a trip with David to Oxford and Paris? Should she really trust him? What are his true intentions with her? The heart and soul of An Education though, is Carey Mulligan’s raw and captivating performance that radiates with tenderness and charisma. She helps to make the film quite engrossing to watch and the character of Jenny easy to like and care about. Director Lone Scherfig includes beautiful costume and set design that’s authentic for the specific time period. It’s also worth mentioning the exquisite cinematography and musical score, especially during Jenny’s enchanting trip to Paris with David. The sensitive screenplay by Nick Hornby, who also wrote About a Boy, fleshes out the characters of Jenny and David enough so that there’s much more to them than meets the eye. Jenny is quite intelligent, fragile and a romantic at heart, but the more she spends time with David, the more her naiveté shows. David’s character is equally complex because he seems sweet, charming and sincere on the surface, but he’s got issues to deal with buried inside him that makes him quite mysterious. Hornby wisely balances the drama and romance with a light touch of comedy, especially during the scenes with Jenny’s father when he meets David. Admittedly, though, the screenplay weakens during rather hurried third act that’s a bit uneven in tone and pacing compared to the rest of the film. At a running time of 1 hour and 35 minutes, An Education manages to be an engrossing, beautifully shot romantic drama that slightly rushed and contrived toward the end, but boasts a radiant, Oscar-worthy performance by Carey Mulligan.Number of times I checked my watch: 1Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Opens at Regal Union Square Stadium 14 and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
Directed by Chris Rock.
This occasionally funny, stylishly-edited and amusing documentary explores African American women’s fixation on having “good hair.” Most black women not only spend so much time at the hair salon, but so much money there as well for such superficial things as hair weaves and relaxers. That might initially sound like a stereotype, but there’s a lot of truth to it. Without a trip to the salon to get their hair styled for a large sum of money, these women wouldn’t be able to feel confident about themselves or to impress others. When asked why she’s getting her hair relaxed, a young girl responds that she does it because she has to, as if there were no other choice out there. Relaxers, as a chemist explains, are made up of sodium hydroxide, a caustic, harmful chemical that burns one’s scalp. Is there any kind of short term and or long term neurological damage from the chemical once it seeps into the skin, though? Director Chris Rock doesn’t really dig deep into the science with facts and figures or even any kind of analysis of the pros and cons of relaxers or even all the highly expensive weaves that come from India. A serious-minded documentarian would have explored the topic of superficiality as well as the controversies and, perhaps, the cover-ups of the dangers of hair products with more insight and revelations. Instead, Chris Rock uses his comedic talents to put a euphemistic, humorous spin on what’s going on in the business of hair, from the companies that produce the many different hair products to the companies in India that export hair to America. Interviews with various celebrities such as, Nia Long, Raven Simone, Al Sharpton, Ice T and the always-insightful Maya Angelou, prove to be somewhat fascinating, although much less so than the footage from the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show which could have easily been omitted and delved into in a separate documentary. At a running time of 95 minutes, Good Hair manages to be a stylishly-edited, often amusing and funny documentary that’s too euphemistic and poorly synthesized to be truly enlightening or revelatory. Number of times I checked my watch: 2Released by Roadside Attractions.
Directed by Oren Peli.
When Katie (Katie Featherstone) moves in with her boyfriend, Micah (Micah Sloat), to a new suburban home, she believes that a supernatural entity has been following her and has entered their home. Micah doesn’t quite rush to that conclusions so fast, but he nonetheless agrees to set up a night-vision camera in their bedroom to capture on video any supernatural sights or sounds that might occur while they’re sound sleep. They eventually consult a psychic (Michael Bayouth) who immediately senses the presence of an evil entity the second he enters their home, be he’s unable to help them get rid of it. Writer/director Oren Peli has essentially taken a simple premise that’s been done before, i.e. in Poltergeist, The Entity and The Exorcist, and, with a shoe-string budget of only $11,000, has created an creepy, suspenseful and psychologically terrifying experience without the relying on blood and guts as a means of entertainment and shock value. Hitchcock once stated about suspense that, “There's no terror in the bang, only the anticipation of it.” Avid horror fans should know from the get-go that paranormal activities will only get worse for Katie and Micah each night, so the suspense comes from watching the night-vision camera fixate on them in bed during the eerie silence while anticipating that something terrifying will occur at any given moment. Although the cinema verité camerawork does have a few moments of shakiness, it’s kept to a minimum, so it hooks you in without being nearly as nauseating as the vomit-inducing camera movements in The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. Moreover, it’s worth noting that Peli does an exceptional job of balancing the horror elements with just the right amount of comic relief to briefly lighten the mood. At a running time of 1 hour and 39 minutes, Paranormal Activity manages to be a clever, psychologically terrifying and suspenseful low-budget film with a lot of mainstream appeal. It will frighten the bejesus out of you.
(If this terrific little horror film isn't playing near you, please click here to demand that it play in your town/city.) Number of times I checked my watch: 0 Released by Paramount Pictures.
Directed by Eric Bricker.
This well-edited, thoroughly engaging and insightful documentary, narrated by Dustin Hoffman, focuses on the life and career of Julius Shulman, an American architectural photographer born in 1910 and died in July of 2009. He photographed many different structures throughout Southern California since the 1930’s and, through the popularity of his modern and progressive photos, he helped to boost the careers of architects, namely, Frank Gehry, John Lautner, Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra, who had all commissioned him. In fact, Frank Gehry had his very first client thanks to the success of Shulman’s photographs of the homes that he designed. Shulman spent his younger years living in Los Angeles where he observes the way that the architecture there evolved into the postmodern designs of today that he doesn’t quite approve of. His career pretty much went downhill during the postmodern era of architecture, but he still remains a very integral, intelligent and highly skilled photographer. Director Eric Bricker includes candid, fascinating interviews with Shulman at the age of 97, his daughter, Judy McKee as well as the architects. What Bricker does so well is to combine background facts about Shulman in a lively way while explaining the ultimate question that every documentarian out to answer: “So what?” Shulman’s photographs always showed architecture that’s matched and blended in a thought-provoking way by its natural surroundings. They were true works of art that really stood out in the world of photography until this very day. By explaining the significance and uniqueness of Shulman’s photographs vividly and coherently with also some clever use of animation, Bricker makes this film quite interesting and easy-to-follow, especially for those previously unfamiliar with Shulman or his work. At a running time of only 1 hour and 23 minutes, Visual Acoustics manages to be a thoroughly compelling, well-edited and illuminating documentary that rarely has a dull moment. Numbr of times I checked my watch: 1 Released by Arthouse Films. Opens at the Cinema Village.