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Reviews for September 18th, 2009

The Burning Plain

Directed by Guillermo Arriaga.

Sylvia (Charlize Theron) works as a manager at a fancy restaurant and has been sleeping around with many men, including one of her employees, John (John Corbett), who wants to get more serious with her, but she refuses to. A mysterious man, Carlos (Jose Maria Yazpik) follows her around and tries to confront her for a reason that becomes clearer later on. Gina (Kim Basinger) cheats on her husband, Robert (Brett Cullan), with a Mexican-American, Nick Martinez (Joaquim de Almeida). She and Nick die together in a trailer that explodes in the middle of a plain. Santiago (J.D. Pardo), Nick’s son, develops a romance with one of Gina’s four children, Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence), even though her father, who’s got serious anger issues, forbids her to communicate with him or his family. In another subplot, 12-year-old Maria (Tessa Ia), travels with her father from Mexico to the United States in hope of reuniting with her biological mother. Writer/director Guillermo Arriaga, in his directorial debut, includes terrific cinematography and structures the plot anachronically, jumping back and forth between seemingly different subplots that gradually connect in a logic fashion. The initial scene where the trailer explodes becomes more and more important through time. That kind of plot structure adds a little mystery along the way, but around the middle of the second act, the suspense wanes as it becomes easier to figure out how’s everything and everyone’s actually connected. In turn, the non-linear plot structure feels a bit pretentious and gimmicky. Each actor gives a solid performance, especially the talented Charlize Theron, who delivers a raw performance that masters a wide range of emotions, which helps to make the film at least mildly engaging. However, Arriaga cuts to each plot strand too abruptly, so it’s difficult to be truly immersed in the story or emotionally engaged in any of the characters’ lives, regrets, passions or struggles for that matter. At a running time of 106 minutes, The Burning Plain manages to be initially intriguing with solid performances and impressive cinematography, but its suspense and poignancy diminish as the anachronic plot structure eventually feels unnecessary, gimmicky and tiresome.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Magnolia Pictures.
Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.


Directed by Steve Jacobs.

Based on the novel by J.M. Coetzee. John Malkovich delivers a strong performances as David Lurie (John Malkovich) a 52-year-old professor of Romantic Literature at a university in Cape Town, Africa. He often has one-night stands with many younger women and even hires prostitutes. After he sleeps with one of his students, Melanie Isaacs (Antoinette Engel), her boyfriend discovers her secret, taboo affair and discloses it to the entire school. Soon enough, David appears before the university’s disciplinary committee and agrees to resigns while making no apologies for his actions. He decides to pack up his things and travel to a remote far on the outskirts of Cape Town where his daughter, Lucy (Jessica Haines) resides. Three black youths attack her and her father, leaving David badly burned, but Lucy refuses to press any charges against them because she’s afraid that the racial tensions and violence would only increase while ruining her friendship with one of her black friends, Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney), who works for her as a handyman. David eventually volunteers at an animal shelter and sleeps with its middle-aged, lonely director, Bev Shaw (Fiona Press). The screenplay by Anna-Maria Monticelli could have used fine-tuning to make it more focused and compelling while fleshing out the character David and Lucy more organically and thoroughly. It’s not quite clear what any of the women who sleep with David actually see in him to begin with because he doesn’t have much charisma, charm or good looks to make up for it for that matter. He starts off as a very bitter, self-center man who has a lot of issues to deal with, so it’s interesting to observe the ways in which he changes, but those innate transformations don’t really feel believable enough because you never quite get the chance to grasp what he’s truly thinking and feeling. Director Steve Jacobs moves the film along at a leisurely pace and makes the most of the picturesque, lush scenery which provides a sharp contrast to the violence and racial tensions that continue to occur there in the seemingly serene farmlands. At a running time of 118 minutes, Disgrace manages to be an unfocused and contrived drama that lacks a palpable emotional core, but John Malkovich’s raw performance makes it at least marginally engaging.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Paladain.
Opens at the Quad Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

If Only One This Matters: A Film About Wolfgang Tillmans

Directed by Heiko Kalmbach.

This unenlightening and bland documentary focuses on Wolfgang Tillmans, a German-born photographer who moved to England where he gained fame for his photography during the early 1990’s. He took photographs of different aspects of street life, such as clubs and party scenes throughout the UK. Director Heiko Kalmbach follows him as he prepares for an exhibit, called “If Only One Thing Matters, Everything Matters,” located in the Tate gallery. Part of that exhibit includes photographs of German actress Irm Hermann, last seen in A Woman in Berlin. Besides photography, Tillmans also dabbled in other kind of art forms, such as directing a music video for the band Pet Shop Boys. Unfortunately, Kalmbach doesn’t show enough footage that’s compelling or particularly revealing for that matter. Tillmans talks a lot, but actually says very little about his life, passion for art or his thinking process behind his artwork. Does watching him try to straighten out a picture frame sound even remotely exciting to you? That’s just a microcosm of how dull this film feels. It’s quite boring to watch Tillmans and his crew watching and reacting to a music video that he directed which has a rat running through the subway tracks. Even the photo shoot of Irm Hermann fails to be engaging or insightful. There’s not even any background information that gives a chronology of how Tillmans became so passionate about photography to begin with. Kalmbach should have asked sharper, tough and meatier questions about him or at least answered the overarching question that every documentary should answer to some degree: “So what?” It’s never quite clear what makes Wolfgang Tillmans actually stand out in the field of photography to begin with, so this film is ultimately a missed opportunity. At a brief running time of only 1 hour and 12 minutes, If Only One Thing Matters manages to be a dull, meandering, lazy and poorly-edited documentary that fails to be captivating and insightful.
Number of times I checked my watch: 6
Released by Why Make Things Productions.
Opens at the Anthology Film Archives.

The Informant!

Directed by Steven Soderbergh.

Based on the book The Informant (A True Story, by Kurt Eichenwald. Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), the vice president of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), a giant agribusiness corporation, tells his boss that he’s been informed that Ajinomoto, their competitor, has planted a mole in ADM’s factory in order to contaminate their new additive, lycine. According to Mark, Ajinomoto offers $10 million as an extortion demand to reveal the identity of the mole. ADM wants the extortion price to be lowered, but instead of continuing to negotiate the demands, they bring in the FBI, who tap Mark’s phone lines at his suburban Illinois home where he lives with his wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), and young son, Alexander (Lucas McHugh Carroll). He privately confesses to FBI agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) that ADM is involved in price-fixing. Soon enough, Brian persuades him to become an informant/undercover agent and to wear a wire to work as a means to record the firm’s wrongdoing which would be used as hard evidence against them. The plot gets more complicated when Brian realizes that Mark hasn’t been entirely honest and forthcoming with the FBI. To make matters even more chaotic, Mark suffers from some kind of mental disorder that makes him sometimes behave very naively as if he were retarded. Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns blends the genres of comedy, drama, satire and thriller with mixed results. Matt Damon, who gained 30 pounds for the role of Mark by pigging out on junk food, gives a goofy performance that occasionally generates laugher because of his character’s “Palinesque” stupidity, but the performance the goofiness quickly becomes not only tedious, but irritating as well. Too many of the attempts at humor fall flat while the dramatic and thrilling elements become increasingly absurd. There’s nothing wrong with making characters and situations absurd, as long as the absurdity doesn’t come across as pretentious like it does here. All of the production values, ranging from the set design to the stylish cinematography to the perky musical score, seem imaginative and clever, unlike the screenplay itself. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, The Informant! manages to be initially amusing and occasionally funny, but too often uneven and pretentiously absurd with an increasingly grating performance by Matt Damon.

(Additional note: When Mark Whitacre states that many of ADM’s additives are actually by-products of corn, he’s telling the truth, but omits the fact that some of those additives, such as maltodextrin and corn, among many others, contain or result in MSG in the form of Processed Free Glutamic Acid, a flavor enhancer and potential neurotoxin, akin to MSG, that the FDA does not require food/beverage companies to label on their products. Why? Decide for yourself. Please click here to read an article about the cover-up of hidden MSG.)
Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

Jennifer’s Body

Directed by Karyn Kusama.

Jennifer (Megan Fox), popular high school girl, lives in a Minnesota town called Devil’s Kettle. She brings her nerdy best friend, Needy (Amanda Seyfried), to a pub to check out an indie-rock band, Low Shoulder, whose lead singer, Nikolai (Adam Brody) she has a crush on. After she lies to him that she’s a virgin and agrees to enter the band’s van, little does she know that Nikolai and his band are actually Satanists who set out to sacrifice virgins. She emerges from the ordeal soaked in blood and possessed by a blood-thirsty demon, a.k.a. a “succubus.” Soon enough, she’s feasting on male prey who she easily seduces. Amy Sedaris plays Needy’s mother and J.K. Simmons, sporting a wig, shows up briefly as a schoolteacher. Who will be Jennifer’s next victim? Will Needy be able to protect herself, her sweet boyfriend, Chip (Johnny Simmons) and others from Jennifer once she realizes what’s actually going on with her? Despite that there’s no suspense or intrigue to be found here, at least the screenplay by Diablo Cody has plenty of witty, quotable dialogue and tongue-in-cheek humor that’s often quite biting (pun intended). Megan Fox has a great time playing the sexy, seductive Jennifer. It’s often a guilty pleasure to watch Jennifer as she makes use her power over males in order to quench her thirst for blood. If she doesn’t drink enough blood, her skin looks pasty and she’d no longer be among the attractive, popular girls at school. Director Karyn Kusama, who also directed Aeon Flux and Girlfight, moves the film along at an appropriately brisk pace and, although most of the killings take place offscreen, she includes just enough gore to please horror fans. At a running time 1 hour and 42 minutes, Jennifer’s Body manages to be wickedly funny and a guilty pleasure that cleverly combines horror, satire and tongue-in-cheek humor without any dull moments.
Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by 20th Century Fox.
Opens nationwide.

Love Happens

Directed by Brandon Camp.

Burke (Aaron Eckhart), a widower who lost his wife in a car accident, has written a best-selling self-help book called A-Okay! and gives seminars to help people deal with their grievances. While staying at a hotel in Seattle to host a seminar, he bumps into Eloise (Jennifer Aniston), a flower shop owner who happens to be single and agrees to go out with him on a date. However, he’s not quite good at handling a relationship with her and doesn’t reveal to her that he’s a widower or how much emotional baggage he’s carrying with him until later on. Walter (Lynch), a bereaved father who reluctantly joins Burke’s seminar group, has lost a son and it’s now up to Burke to convince him that he can actually turn his grievances from lemons into lemonade to move forward with his life. Dan Fogler plays Burke’s agent and Martin Sheen plays Burke’s father-in-law who doesn’t quite get along with Burke. Unfortunately, the screenplay by director/co-writer Brandon Camp never really gels in terms of romance, drama or comedy. Not a single moment resonates with palpable warmth or tenderness because many of the situations feel too contrived and inorganic. Essentially, Love Happens lacks everything that made When Harry Met Sally..., the quintessential romantic comedy, so immensely entertaining, genuinely heartfelt and hilarious. Both Aniston and Eckhart don’t have any charisma to carry their roles nor do their characters have any chemistry onscreen. Too many scenes feel dull while Burke’s pseudo-intellectual insights are soporific. The audience knows some background info about Burke while knowing virtually nothing about Eloise, but because of the lazy screenplay that’s often corny, you don’t end up caring about neither of them. A subplot involving Burke trying to set a parrot free will probably just make you roll your eyes even more given how Camp tries so hard to hit you over the head with symbolism as if you’re not intelligent enough to notice it right away. To make matters worse, feels so unrealistic and ends on such a bizarre note that you wonder if Camp even knows how human being actually interact with one another. At a running time of 109, Love Happens manages to be bland, corny, sophomoric, unimaginative and painfully contrived with two leads who have no charisma or chemistry together. It often drags so much that you might find it to be a great cure for insomnia.
Number of times I checked my watch: 12
Released by Universal Pictures.
Opens nationwide.


Directed by Cédric Klapisch.

In French with subtitles. Pierre (Romain Duris), a chorus dancer at a cabaret, learns that he has a serious heart disease and needs a heart transplant operation, which he may or may not survive. He quits his job and seeks out assistance from his older sister, Elise (Juliette Binoche), a single mother who moves into his Parisian apartment with her three children. Roland, a university professor, played by amusingly by the charismatic Fabrice Luchini, has a romance with one of his students, Laetitia (Melanie Laurent), whom Pierre happens to fixate on after he sees her. In another subplot, Jean (Albert Dupontel) works with his ex-wife Caroline (Julie Ferrier) as a vendor selling fish at a market in Paris. They both get along with one another, although Jean has mixed feelings about her. Karin Viard briefly shows up as a racist bakery owner. Writer/director Cédric Klapisch, who previously wrote and directed Russian Dolls and L’Auberge Espagnole, interweaves the lives of so many characters with so many subplots that you’d the film would have to be at least three hours long rather than two hours and ten minutes. The most engaging and moving relationship happens to be the one between Pierre and his very kind and caring sister, Elise, while the rest of the relationships aren’t quite fleshed out enough to captivate you. The same can be said for the characters themselves who never really come to life enough so that you truly care about what happens to them. They each haven’t been lucky with love and romance while living in Paris, also known as the city of love, which essentially becomes an integral, living and breathing, so-to-speak, character in and of itself. Although the plot occasionally meanders as it jumps around from subplot to subplot, Klapisch at least does a decent job of bringing out the charms and enchanting qualities of Paris throughout. Had he set the film in a different city, such as New York, London, Madrid or Tokyo, the scenes would have a very different ambiance in general. Ultimately, Paris boasts a terrific ensemble cast and beautiful, enchanting sights of the City of Love, but it feels too convoluted, unfocused and somewhat bland as a whole.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by IFC Films.
Opens at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

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