Thursday, June 28, 2007

Stolen Life

Stolen Life takes some surprising turns during the voyage of its lead character. As a study of broken families, youth culture in China, and shady dealings in its underworld, it paints a vivid picture of the difficulties faced by its residents. It also has a disturbing central plot point that carries even greater weight with the revelation of its origin in a true story.

As a teenage girl growing up in Beijing, Yan-ni is a meek, reserved student who has never had any real independence. She battles feelings of rejection from her own parents who gave her away when she was a baby, and continually isolates herself from her grandmother and aunt who raised her. She seems destined for an unremarkable life until she surprises her family by gaining acceptance to a university, setting off a chain of events that permanently alters her future.

During her first day of school, she encounters a charming truck driver named Mu-yu who quickly professes his love for her. Yan-ni is easily impressionable and very much alone, so she eventually falls for his charms and begins an all-consuming relationship that finds her shifting her focus away from school. After paying a surprise visit to his home one day, she learns that Mu-yu has a baby with another woman but she still finds herself unable to leave him. She soon becomes pregnant with his child, forcing her to abandon school and move into a dingy underground apartment with him, where they spiral into an economic and emotional tailspin after he loses his job.

Not surprisingly, Mu-yu is not quite as devoted as Yan-ni might hope, but the true nature of his plan doesn’t become clear until after the birth of their child. As it turns out, Yan-ni has fallen into Mu-yu’s ongoing scam of selling his own infants on the black market, and she has become just another number in his continual cycle of abuse and deceit. She discovers his evil plan too late to save her own child, but pulls herself together to embark on a quest for personal redemption and possibly revenge.

The strongest aspect of the film is the depth of its characters, especially the initially hidden, steely resolve exhibited by Zhou Xun in the role of Yan-ni. Rather than just provide broad strokes of the two lead characters or gloss over their motivations, director Li Shaohong examines the forces that shaped them, such as their abandonment by their own parents and the painful aftermath of their relationship. The film has plenty to say about the state of China’s rising middle class and the lengths people will take to reach it, but its primary focus is Yan-ni’s quest to deal with its sometimes disastrous repercussions. Yan-ni’s pivotal choice is to try to put her life back together or succumb to the easy temptation for revenge, and her decision plays out with substance and poignancy thanks to the solid character groundwork put in place.

Stolen Life is now available on DVD, check your local retailer for additional information.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Broken English

Broken English is the feature film debut from a writer/director with a familiar name: Zoe Cassavetes. Yes, she’s part of the famous Cassavetes clan, daughter of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, sister of director/actor Nick, and she’s racked up an impressive list of career accomplishments of her own but has never helmed a full-length feature until now. She chose to partially base her debut film on her own life experiences, resulting in some welcome realism and depth to her characters. She was also blessed with shrewd casting by filling the starring role with undisputed indie film queen, Parker Posey.

For most viewers, the sole reason to see this new film is the presence of Posey. She carries the film firmly on her shoulders and puts in another strong performance to add to her impressive repertoire. As opposed to her financially-motivated and somewhat bizarre turn in last year’s Superman Returns, this is clearly a project that Posey cares about and values as art over commerce. It’s also a rare opportunity to see Posey in a romantic vehicle, albeit one charged with an overarching theme of introspection.

Posey plays a 30-something Manhattan girl named Nora with dismal success in the romance department and an unfulfilling career to match. She’s at the point in her life where people are questioning her inability to land a sustainable romantic relationship and she’s questioning her own value as a person. She wonders how she can value herself when she can’t find anyone else who seems to value her. Although she’s reached a rather mature point of her life, she’s wracked with insecurities and doubt about her future, finding herself on a voyage of discovery to, well, find herself. There’s nothing inherently wrong with her, but in her eyes there’s not much right either. She’s constantly reminded of her advancing age and diminishing prospects by her mother (Gena Rowlands), and envies the seemingly perfect marriage of her best friend (Drea de Matteo).

After a fling with a less-than-virtuous Hollywood playboy (Justin Theroux), Nora encounters a somewhat sketchy French rogue named Julien (Melvin Poupaud) at a party. He’s a bit flighty and seemingly untrustworthy, but also soulful and extremely interested in Nora, immediately cajoling a night out with her in spite of her wishes to leave the party alone. Since Nora has been burned by Romeos so many times before, and he doesn’t seem like the most grounded of individuals, she’s wary of his slick and almost immediate professions of adoration, but eventually allows herself to be charmed by his attention. His imminent return to France doesn’t help Nora’s trust issues, and even when he asks her to leave her life behind and travel with him she finds herself frozen in her original existence, unable to embrace the sudden sea change presented to her. As the film enters its final stretch, she has to decide if she can learn to love herself in time to allow herself to be loved by another, and find out if Julien’s love is real.

Cassavetes doesn’t offer much originality in the basic plot, but gets considerable mileage out of its nuances. It’s a fairly simple love story at its core, adorned with Nora’s personal soul-searching that mostly rings true and holds interest rather than descending into self-pathos. Cassavetes drew from her own experiences as a single 30-something, and it’s particularly intriguing to imagine just how much of her real mom Gena Rowland’s part as Nora’s mom was developed from their own interactions. There are some structure problems, mostly due to an ending that feels like a bit of a cop-out after the self-discovery theme, as well as a detour overseas that runs overlong and adds little to the film other than showing off pretty landmarks, but judged as a whole it’s a solid, entertaining effort from Cassavetes and a strong addition to her family’s legacy.

Broken English is now playing in select theaters, check the film’s website for additional information.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Gypsy Caravan

Gypsies. Just the mention of the word conjures images of mystery and danger, but how much do you really know about them? Sure, most people immediately picture a nomadic, hobbled old woman wearing a head scarf and one large hoop earring who might glance at you with a piercing evil eye as she tries to steal your money or your baby. However, as Johnny Depp points out in this film during a brief interview, "what you've believed about these people has been a lie your entire life". The truth about gypsies is far less threatening, and as it turns out, quite enlightening.

As conveyed in this riveting new documentary from filmmaker Jasmine Dellal, gypsies are more correctly identified as the Romani people, an ethnic group scattered across the globe. They are not wandering nomads, but instead have forged vibrant communities in their respective lands. They mostly share a common language and traditions, but have also integrated into their home countries to the point where there is not much that ties them together. This is evident in the range of music styles chosen for inclusion on last year’s 6-week concert tour across North America that serves as the basis for this film.

The Gypsy Caravan 2006 tour united 5 gypsy bands from 4 countries, and the film follows the tour on the road as well as on location in their homelands. Their musical styles incorporate diverse but related elements like flamenco and brass band, folk music from India, and violin music from Romania. As one performer notes in the film, two of the only things the Roma have in common are their language and their heart, or passion, about their music. The film expertly captures this passion live on stage, but also shows glimpses of their daily lives on tour and back home. While the music might not be everyone’s cup of tea, the film shines by examining the Roma passion and sense of community in spite of their different countries of origin.

As we get to know the performers, we see glimpses of their homes and families in Spain, Macedonia, Romania and India. These interludes between performances give the film its weight, as we learn to accept and care about these people rather than just enjoy their musical compositions. From the old man who worries about the future of his family when he’s no longer around to support them through his performances, to the “Queen of Gypsies” who describes her life experiences raising 47 adopted children, we see how fascinating their backstories are while concurrently enjoying their vibrant music. Gypsy Caravan is much more than a music documentary, shattering myths and stereotypes while providing an enriching, captivating look at the Romani people.

Gypsy Caravan is now playing in New York and opens in Los Angeles on June 29th. For additional information, please visit the website or view the trailer below:

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Treatment

The Treatment is an adaptation of a novel by Daniel Menaker chronicling an emotionally stunted schoolteacher’s fractious relationship with his therapist as well as his budding romance with a wealthy widow. If that sounds like a setup for a Woody Allen film, it’s no surprise that the novel and film are also set in New York and expend significant time chronicling the psychotic tics of the main character. Sadly though, this is no Woody Allen film.

Jake Singer (Chris Eigeman) is a single, 40-something teacher at a prestigious private school, a bookish but pleasant man who has been unlucky in love in spite of his weekly visits to his deranged Argentinian-Freudian therapist (Ian Holm). When he meets a beautiful and enchanting socialite widow named Allegra Marshall (Famke Janssen), they embark on a romantic relationship in search of permanent happiness. Unfortunately, Jake keeps experiencing visions of his therapist offering unsolicited advice at completely inopportune times, seemingly haunting him in opposition to his first steps at finding true love. Yes, the therapist angle is as strange as it sounds, and even though it’s faithful to the novel it hampers a potentially strong love story.

The usually reliable Ian Holm completely hams it up in his role as the unhinged therapist, Dr. Ernesto Morales, maintaining a ridiculous Argentinian accent as well as chewing his way through the silly lines allocated to him. He offers inappropriate suggestions, comes out of left field with preposterous statements, and generally makes a nuisance of himself to the point where Jake is hallucinating conversations with him outside of his therapy sessions, often in the heat of passion with Allegra. It’s mystifying why Jake continues to see him when he doesn’t seem to offer any positive impact, and he’s such an unbelievable character in Jake’s reality that he serves as a major distraction and detriment to the film when he begins appearing in Jake’s imagination as well. In short, although the Dr. Morales character gives the film and novel its title (as he’s giving Jake “the treatment”), his excision from the film would have given it a chance to fully focus on what it does right: the budding romance between Jake and Allegra.

Allegra is still recovering from the unexpected death of her husband the previous year, and takes time to open up to the idea of a relationship with Jake. Jake is also damaged from the sudden end to his previous relationship, especially when his ex quickly finds true love, marriage, and pregnancy after leaving him. He’s far from an alpha male to begin with, plus he’s firmly in the middle class, so his ego has a difficult time realizing that the wealthy and refined Allegra might truly be interested in him. Their tentative steps toward each other, as well as the absolutely charming performances contributed by Eigeman and especially Jannsen, give the film a warmth and heart that make it worthwhile seeing through to its predictable conclusion.

The Treatment is now playing in limited release, check local listings for additional information and view the trailer below:

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

DOA: Dead or Alive

DOA: Dead or Alive might as well be called Dead on Arrival for its overall chances of box-office success this weekend, but here’s the surprise: it’s a fun guilty pleasure! Sure, your head might hurt if you try to make any sense out of the paper-thin plot, but if you’re going to this film for the story you’re in the wrong place anyway. It fully delivers on what it promises: babes in bikinis and hot martial arts action. What’s more, it’s easily the most entertaining film inspired by a video game to date (sorry, Uwe Boll).

The film is based on a long-running fighting game series legendary for its stunning graphics and supernaturally bouncy heroines. The game characters have also been transitioned to a beach volleyball side series that factors into the film as well. While the games have basic storylines, the real attractions are the fast-paced matches and stunning characters and backgrounds, traits they share with this film.

So how do you make a film out of a fighting game? First, hire a competent action director, which they’ve covered quite nicely here with veteran Hong Kong action auteur Corey Yuen (The Transporter, So Close). Next, sign some attractive young lasses with moderate name recognition, again well-done with a genetically superior cast headed by Jaime Pressly and Devon Aoki. Finally, add in skimpy outfits and outlandish fighting moves and simmer to perfection.

The story finds the ladies (and a few men) traveling to an exotic resort island to challenge each other in a tournament to determine the best fighter. Fights can be staged at any time, so the contestants wear electronic bracelets to alert them to their next match. Minor subplots are thrown in, such as the relationships between Tina (Pressly) and her father as well as Kasumi (Aoki) and her brother, but the main attraction is the tournament. Of course there’s an evil villain behind the whole tournament, and there’s no denying the film has completely earned classic b-movie status when the baddie turns out to be Eric Roberts. There are no major surprises in the main plot, it’s strictly a fight to the finish where the best contestants face off in the final boss battle to save the world.

Yuen keeps the action moving at all times, never letting the pace slow down. He expertly stages and films all of the fights, particularly a gorgeous match in the rain on the beach. The film contains plenty of amazing action feats that will leave viewers alternately awe-struck and grimacing in sympathetic pain, although the overall effect is kept mostly light-hearted due to the exhibition nature of the tournament. The tropical beach setting makes for some spectacular backdrops for the fights, and also allows for a 2-on-2 bikini volleyball match that rivals Top Gun for sexiest volleyball game ever.

There are no stellar acting performances to single out, although Pressly gets the most mileage out of her twangy Southern character. On the action front, all of the primary characters seem to hold their own admirably in performing their fair share of the stunts. They’re cute, they’re perky, and they kick ass, putting this film in the same class as D.E.B.S., Aoki’s previous b-movie acronym gem. Dead or Alive is a long way from Shakespeare, but it’s a breezy, action-packed diversion sure to entertain viewers willing to check their brains at the door.

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Friday, June 01, 2007


Bamako follows a mock trial pitting African civil society against its debtors at the World Bank and the IMF, playing out against the backdrop of a typical village home in the African nation of Mali. It’s a highly innovative and politically charged concept, but it loses its way in execution.

The film succeeds in conveying some sobering statistics about the crushing nature of Africa’s debt, none more powerfully than the fact that many African nations shell out more than 40% of their annual budget to debt repayment but only around 10% to building their own infrastructure. With this heavy burden firmly in place, the African argument is that these nations are just working to repay the World Bank and IMF rather than furthering their ability to support themselves without foreign intervention. The Bank obviously has a solid case to collect on the debt, but at what price to the long-term health of the continent?

Writer/director Abderrahmane Sissako expands the film’s focus to the neighborhood activity surrounding the trial, showing the citizens going about their daily routines and incorporating a few of their minor plotlines into the film. None of the villager stories add up to much other than providing a bit of local flavor, although pains are taken to show the hardships they endure that might be lessened if the national debt disappeared.

Real lawyers and judges were used in the court scenes, while the villagers were a mix of professional actors and people from the neighborhood. The trial takes place in an open courtyard and is filmed in a documentary style with no scene interruptions, while the village life is filmed like fictional scenes with multiple angles, master shots, and a conventional script. The mix of fiction and reality feels like an odd juxtaposition at times, but it’s an interesting approach that gives the film an innovative feel.

In addition to the villager stories, Sissako includes a few minutes of a tv show the natives are watching, a completely mystifying interlude that features Danny Glover as a cowboy. It has no relation to anything else presented in the film, and makes little sense on its own, seemingly serving only as a platform to get Glover’s name in the film.

While the film makes its case, the end result isn’t satisfying. There’s no payoff because the trial judgement has no impact, it serves solely as a way to inform the rest of the world of the dire African situation. Also, the village life isn’t particularly interesting, mostly serving as a distraction from the main proceedings rather than functioning as parables of the impact of the nation’s finances. The film may function as a starting point for further discussion on the nature and impact of world debt, but it simply doesn’t offer a very compelling viewing experience on its own.

Bamako is now playing in select markets, check the film's website for additional information or view the trailer below.

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