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11/16/11 4:00am

London Boulevard
Directed by William Monahan

For London Boulevard, his directorial debut, The Departed screenwriter William Monahan has assembled a bevy of accomplished British talent in front of the camera, including Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley, Ben Chaplin, David Thewlis, Ray Winstone and Eddie Marsan. They try their best to make something worthwhile out of the morass they’ve been thrown into, but ultimately a poor script kills their efforts.

It’s always surprising when a film loaded with talent backfires and sputters but unfortunately, that’s what we have here. The problem isn’t that it’s Monahan’s first time behind the camera—it’s his own flat script. As reformed badass Mitchel (Colin Farrell) is sucked back into the life by his old underworld friends, a homeless friend is senselessly murdered by some teens, his trainwreck sister descends into alcoholism and he’s asked to protect starlet Charlotte (Keira Knightley) from paparazzi vultures. He welcomes the new job as it’s easy and Charlotte is beautiful and vulnerable, but ruthless mob boss Gant (Ray Winstone) has other plans for him; and add to the mix Charlotte’s live-in friend, Jordan (David Thewlis), who befriends Mitchel.

That’s a lot of story to follow, but none are especially believable, fun or sympathetic. You’d expect major chemistry between Farrell and Knightly, but the romance provides no spark and Knightley comes off as cloying. Winstone provides some tense fun, but he, like the rest of the movie, is written off far too easily—his climactic scene is notably unsuspenseful. David Thewlis seems to enjoy playing a washed-up actor but a trigger-happy twist negates his character’s credibility. And then there’s the murdered homeless man. We should care that it be avenged, but we have no insight into him or his relationship to Mitchel. All of this adds up to a convoluted and tepid thriller-romance.

09/16/11 10:31am

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Tonight, Anthology Film Archives kicks off their series “GenMex: Recent Films from Mexico.” Drama/Mex plays Sunday afternoon and Tuesday evening.

The sophomore effort from Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo contains flourishes which are reminiscent of early Wong Kar-wai. Though not quite as visually accomplished as in Days of Being Wild or Chungking Express, the strong compositions and roving handheld camerawork still offer much to admire. (Also adding to the visual candy are some pretty young actors, playing characters who act on pure emotion more than developed thought.) The film ultimately feels like a promise of something greater—perhaps that something is Naranjo’s Miss Bala, which will be playing at the New York Film Festival next month.

The lives of five characters intersect over the course of one dayin rundown Acapulco. Teenage beauty Fernanda (Diana Garcia) can’t seem to resist the temptation of her bad-boy ex-boyfriend Chano (Emilio Valdés), who seems to resurface only to have sex or to steal. When Fernanda’s goofier new boyfriend, Gonzalo (Juan Pablo Castaneda), discovers her infidelity, it drives him mad but his instinct is to win her back, not punish her.

Meanwhile, businessman Jaime (Fernando Becerril) quits his job and escapes to a motel room to end his life, but becomes intrigued by a roguish, first-time teenage prostitute, Tigrillo (Miriana Moro). He rejects her sexual offers but is entertained enlivened by her reckless abandon.

Drama/Mex burns more quietly than the New Mexican Cinema’s heart-pounding standard-bearers, like the similarly interconnected Amores Perros, but the verve of the actors will keep you engaged. They make the treatment of sexual interplay, suicidal tension and salvation (do prostitutes really provide as much life affirmation as movies suggest?) entertaining to watch, even as Naranjo’s characterizations stay close to the surface. There’s no doubt he had talent from the beginning, even if here it feels a film or two away from full realization.

08/17/11 4:00am


Amigo

Directed by John Sayles


Leave it to one of the godfathers of independent film, John Sayles, to explore a period of American history barely portrayed on film or covered in textbooks. Amigo, his 17th feature, is set at the turn of the 20th century during the Philippine-American War. Don’t know much about it? You’re probably not alone, but an estimated million Filipino deaths should bring our attention into sharper focus.


Joel Torre plays Rafael, the mayor of a small rural village who mostly oversees minor disputes.  (He settles an argument between two farmers after one farmer’s  pig eats the other’s sweet potato crop.) But the arrival of big, brash American soldiers, who come to town to weed out Filipino revolutionaries, seriously disrupts the quiet, happy rhythms of village life.  Mostly incompetent, young and ignorant, the soldiers are meant to treat the villagers as allies but instead put them to work and trust no one. Their lone interpreter is a duplicitous Spanish priest (Yul Vasquez) who, at best, treats the locals as children.


The soldiers’ mission is to smoke out the mayor’s brother (Ronnie
Lazaro), head of the local guerilla forces, who is hiding out in the jungle with a small band of revolutionaries who refuse to submit to American annexation. Some local moonshine, a budding romance, and a village celebration ease tensions until a bloodthirsty American colonel (Chris Cooper) pays a visit, reprimands his soldiers and tortures the mayor for information.


At its worst, Amigo occasionally plays as flatly functional as a History Channel drama, but the writing and acting generally elevate the proceedings. An intriguing subplot concerns a young soldier and villager who fall in love despite the language barrier separating them: the affair becomes much more complicated when the soldier is ordered to torture the mayor for information on the guerillas, and his betrayal is simply answered with a turn of the back.
The characters initially seem one-dimensional: a devious Catholic priest, ignorant, rampaging Americans and innocent, doe-eyed villagers.  However, as the film unfolds, the characters do as well, becoming more than mere stereotypes. Ultimately, even more than a reenactment of an often-overlooked chapter of history, the film is an engaging drama about the victims and complexity of war. One quibble: given the lush locale, more evocative cinematography would have given the film more expressive depth.


Opens August 19

07/27/11 4:00am

Mp>The Guard
Directed by John Michael McDonagh

Writer-Director John Michael McDonagh has said of his film, “The Guard is a Western.” Well, the problem is that it’s also trying to be a black comedy, a buddy cop film, a fish-out-of-water tale, a conspiracy mystery, a world-weary cop’s redemption story and a whole slew of other genres.

Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) is a police officer in the Irish town of Galway. Despite presiding over a rather sleepy burg, he’s Seen It All—he plays with the genitals of a corpse of a man murdered in serial killer fashion and seems unfazed when a major drug cartel is rumored to be in town to smuggle half a billion dollars of drugs. He’s forced out of his blasé attitude when the FBI comes to town to bust the drug ring, a naive rookie cop is murdered and the victim’s beautiful Croatian wife asks him for assistance. Don Cheadle plays FBI agent Wendell Everett, a smart, by-the-book investigator who needs Boyle’s local knowledge, but doesn’t know if he’ll prove a help or a loose cannon—until, as you’d expect, they find common ground and mutual respect over drinks.

Enter some philosophizing bad guys who argue over Nietzsche, a sweet prostitute, a dying mother and a concluding shoot-out and you have a mess of a film. Gleeson and Cheadle are likable as always but the writing is uneven and the tone scattershot. At one moment, we’re meant to be giggling at seeing Boyle in his underpants when he answers the door, at other points, we’re meant to be enthralled by a gun battle and at other points, we’re meant to be intimidated by bad guys who look into the screen and say, “I like sharks.” The film lacks the cohesion and edge of more successful genre-hoppers like Hot Fuzz or In Bruges (written by McDonagh’s brother Martin). The plot is too easy—and with jokes falling flat, we miss the pathos and tension all the more. We know Boyle will regain his interest in life and redemption. We know that Boyle and Everett will be buddies and that the bad guys will get caught in the end. The pleasure should therefore be in the mechanics and in this case, they feel schematic and at the service of a half-baked comedy.

Opens July 29

07/06/11 10:41am

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Indiewire.com, wouldn’tcha know it, is observing its 15th anniversary this summer, and celebrating with a series of screenings at 92YTribeca. Things kick off tonight with another indie film mainstay who launched in ’96: Nicole Holofcener, on hand at a screening of her debut feature, Walking and Talking. (In this indiewire piece, Holofcener, who went on to do Lovely and Amazing, Friends with Money, and Please Give, recalls making the film).

Insecurites reign supreme in Nicole Holofcener’s first feature. In mid-90s Manhattan, two best friends struggle with getting to the next phase of their young adulthood: Laura (Anne Heche) is a therapist and on the verge of marriage but tempted by a flirtatious waiter, as Amelia (Catherine Keener) complains enviously to her therapist about Laura’s relationship and the struggles she faces as a single New Yorker. She enjoys the company of Andrew (Liev Schreiber) but he’s a former boyfriend who has a porn addiction. Her local video store clerk, Bill (Kevin Corrigan), gives her tons of attention but is far from her physical ideal.

The film easily could’ve slipped into sappy chick-flick territory, but it’s largely unsentimental tone is lightly comic and affecting. Billy Bragg’s score adds feeling without schmaltz, and there are two sympathetic characters with identifiable and distinct romantic dilemmas: one’s on the verge of settling down and is understandably nervous about it, and the other seems interminably unsettled and far from being able to find a match. Many of us have experienced both situations and, like these characters, felt as if the grass were greener on the other side, and Holofcener gives each position equal weight: being single seems torturous, and being tied down seems staid. The film’s also bolstered by uniformly strong and believable performances by the then young and unknown cast. Keener is vulnerable and neurotic.  Corrigan is creepy but sweet and confident, and Schreiber is charming but needy.  

Holofcener, who has now written and directed four solid features in fifteen years, is often referred to as the female Woody Allen, and there are many commonalities: both make seriocomic relationship studies marked by neurosis and liberal guilt.  She’s not nearly as prolific as the Woodman (who is?), but perhaps that’s why she’s more consistent.

06/08/11 4:00am

One Lucky Elephant
Directed by Lisa Leeman

Another circus-related documentary released this year, Circo, followed a Mexican traveling family circus, documenting the hardship and strain of perpetuating tradition. While that film posed the moral questions surrounding training children for back-breaking work, One Lucky Elephant raises similar questions about animals—or, in this case, an orphaned elephant.

Flora is an aging elephant who has only known the life of the circus since her mother was slaughtered in Africa. Her owner, who cares deeply for her, is David Balding, ringmaster of the eponymous Circus Flora, a big top tent, one-ring circus in St. Louis. When it becomes clear that testy Flora doesn’t enjoy performing as much as she used to, David must find her a new home. It proves to be a difficult task, as she’s never been acclimated to other elephants or environments. Zoos are often too small for David’s taste, or they mistreat their animals; an elephant sanctuary seems the perfect fit except that Asian and African elephants don‘t get along. The filmmakers followed Flora and David for ten years and other variables inevitably arose as Flora was moved from one venue to another. Would Flora accept dominant behavior from another animal? The care of a human being other than David? And—withheld until the halfway point, perhaps in a bid for audience sympathy—there’s her history of tantrums, including one where Flora knocked a rider unconscious against a tree.

At the core of this documentary is the bond between a very sentient and temperamental animal and her owner who treats her like the daughter he never had, agonizing over her care and excusing away all her bad behavior. It’s a touching relationship that very much keeps the viewer interested, while posing a larger issue: should humans be raising and playing with wild animals to begin with? While Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, say, provides a very clear answer, the resolution in One Lucky Elephant is a bit murkier.

Opens June 8 at Film Forum