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Films I Forgot To Review
by Peter Sobczynski

In a token effort to get caught up with reviewing as many of the films currently in release as possible, please accept these capsule reviews of a half-dozen titles that I wasn’t able to get around to writing about in a more extensive manner. Please accept my apologies--I will endeavor to do better next time. (Besides, do you really want to read 1000+ words on the likes of “12 Rounds”?)

Throughout his career, Renny Harlin has made a number of cheerfully over-the-top action extravaganzas--some good (“Die Hard 2,” “Cliffhanger” and yes, even “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane”) and some unspeakably awful (“Cutthroat Island,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and “Mindhunters”)--but I can’t immediately recall him doing one as utterly boring as his latest effort, the somnambulistic thriller “12 Rounds.” On the surface, the premise--lunkhead New Orleans cop John Cena is forced to undertake a number of increasingly implausible tasks at the behest of a disgruntled Irish terrorist (Aidan Gillen) because he was vaguely involved in the death of the guy’s girlfriend while arresting him a year earlier--sounds like it is right up Harlin’s alley (even if it does essentially turn out to be little more than a bald-faced rip-off of “Die Hard With a Vengeance”) but it contains none of the grubby glee, excitement or even the creative violence found in his best work. Despite consisting almost entirely of one action sequence after another, a sense of weariness and exhaustion permeates virtually every scene and Harlin never manages to snap either himself or his film out of their respective doldrums. (Granted, he isn’t helped much by his star, who appears to have studied acting under the tutelage of Kathy Ireland--no matter the situation, the only emotion he can offer is dull surprise.) For fans of old-school action epics, it is hard to know what is more depressing--the fact that Harlin, formerly one of the top dogs in the field, is now reduced to making vanity projects for the WWE’s film division or the fact that he can’t even seem to pull something like that off anymore. Either way (and I know this is an old joke), based on the evidence supplied here, it would appear that, barring a major comeback, Renny Harlin is Finnish in Hollywood.

On first glance, the plot of the critically praised drama “Goodbye Solo”--a Senegalese-born cabbie (Souleymane Sy Savane) working in Winston-Salem picks up an old man (Red West) who offers him $1000 to take him on a one-way trip to a local mountaintop in a couple of weeks and, assuming that the guy plans to jump, tries to insinuate his way into this stranger’s life in the hopes of changing his mind--sounds like yet another one of those insulting and cloying fables featuring a black man who has nothing better to do with his life than to help some troubled white guy with his personal problems. However, this powerful and deeply moving film is anything like that and there are two very good reasons why. The first is that co-writer/director Rahmin Bahrani (whose previous films. “Man Push Cart” and “Chop Shop,” have pushed him to the forefront of emerging American filmmakers) isn’t interested in going down the path of phony melodrama and cheap sentiment that others might have chosen without hesitation--he is far more interested in getting us to know and understand these two characters (without overly explaining their motivations) than in forcing them to march in lockstep according to the parameters of the plot--this is the kind of film where the resolution isn‘t nearly as important as the journey to that point. The second is the brilliant work from the two leads--Savane is a complete newcomer and West is perhaps best known as a one-time member of Elvis Presley’s entourage but you wouldn’t know that from the performances that they give, which are among the most touching and indelible in recent memory. Because this is one of those ultra-minimalist films in which everything has pretty much been stripped to its bare essentials, there is the chance that some viewers may come out of it wondering what all the fuss is all about--for such people, I am sure that there is a showing of “Fast and Furious” that is about to start. For those of you who are interested in watching a truly human and humane drama that doesn’t constantly poke and prod at you in order to get an emotional reaction, this film is a small treasure that is definitely worth seeking out.

When I heard the premise of “Knowing”--Nicolas Cage comes into possession of a piece of paper that was locked in a time capsule for 50 years that accurately predicted every major worldwide disaster in that subsequent half-century and which still has three more events to go--I naturally assumed that it was going to be another dopey thriller in which Cage would rush from one locale to the next solving puzzles and saving the day in the service of another easy paycheck gig. In fact, the film is actually a mind-blowing blend of apocalyptic imagery and metaphysical discussion that is easily the best film of its type since “Southland Tales” (and I should stress that I mean that as a compliment). In his best work since the equally impressive “Dark City,” Alex Proyas (who, unlike someone like the absurdly over-hyped Zack Snyder, actually is a filmmaker deserving of the appellation “visionary”) brilliantly unfolds a story (about which I cannot say any more without ruining any number of surprises) that sets up a truly audacious premise and then has the nerve to set it through to its ultimate implications without pulling any punches, offers up some of the most sensational disaster set-pieces to hit the screen in a long time (the haunting plane crash sequences alone is worth the price of several admissions) and even gives us some food for thought about whether the universe as we know it is merely the result of billions of coincidences or the end result of some pre-determined plan. Yes, the plot is fairly preposterous and yes, there are a few hiccups here and there--a couple of the subplots, specifically Cage’s estrangement from his pastor father, aren’t developed as fully as they could have been and there is one particular aspect (about which I can say nothing) that smacks a little too closely of one of the key elements of “Dark City” for its own good--but if you are willing to overlook these problems and have a taste for wildly ambitious filmmaking from both a narrative and visual standpoint, you are as likely to be bowled over by “Knowing” as I was.

The new French romantic comedy “Shall We Kiss” tells the story of two longtime platonic buddies, Nicolas (Emmanuel Mouret, who also wrote and directed the film) and Judith (Virginie Ledoyen), whose friendship reaches a crossroads when Nicolas, whose love life has been in the dumps following a recent break-up (he even confesses to a failure with a prostitute because of her unwillingness to kiss), asks Judith in the most logical and rational manner possible if she will sleep with him in the hopes that it will jump-start his libido and allow him to move on. Because he is a trusted friend and because they assure each other that this will be a one-time thing, she agrees but after they do the deed, they discover that things have become more complicated than they could have possibly imagined. Although it is clear that Mouret is trying to follow in the footsteps of the low-key moral fables of Eric Rohmer and Woody Allen, his souffle-light concoction (to call it a trifle would be to give it too much weight) lacks both the wit and wisdom of their works and those with a low tolerance for whimsy are likely to find themselves ready to either hurl something at the screen or just hurl period. What the film does have, and what eventually makes it worth checking out, are the incredibly charming performances from Mouret and Ledoyen as the couple who first try to deny their attraction and then try to intellectually justify its continuation even as they continue to see other people. The whole thing is nonsense, of course, but it is likable enough nonsense for those in the mood for romantic piffle with no strings attached. Besides, my guess is that some enterprising Hollywood studio is going to pick up the remake rights to this one and give us a much cruder retread at some point down the line, so you might as well check out the authentic version while you have the chance.

Ever since it premiered earlier this year at Sundance, “Sin Nombre,” the debut film from writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga, has been receiving rapturous reviews and for the life of me, I can’t understand why. It tells the story of Casper (Edgar Flores), a young member of a brutal Mexican gang run who is, of course, the kind of soulful and sensitive type (right down to his teardrop tattoo) that people love to center cockeyed redemptive melodramas around. After his girlfriend is raped and murdered by an especially depraved fellow gang member, it begins to dawn on Casper that this may not be the life for him and when the other guy interrupts the robbery of a train bearing immigrants hoping to sneak into America to try to rape Honduran teenager Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), Casper kills him and accompanies Sayra and her father and their journey while the rest of the gang, including the young friend (Kristian Ferrer), follows in hot and vengeful pursuit. Borrowing bits and pieces from many other films of its type (especially the similarly overrated “City of God”), “Sin Nombre” just plods along and the fact that neither of the two leads are particularly interesting or charismatic doesn’t exactly help matters much either. Although his coincidence-filled screenplay (at one point, a character who has just run into someone else in a highly unlikely manner actually says “Hey, I can’t believe you are here too!”), Fukunaga does show a certain flair for filmmaking style that suggests that he will one day direct a great movie--unfortunately, despite what you may have heard, this film isn’t it. Frankly, the best thing that one can say about it (and this may account for some of the recent good reviews) is the fact that it is nowhere near as terrible as the recent and thematically similar “Crossing Over”--of course, you could say the same thing about practically every other film in general release right now as well.

Best known for such celebrated creepfests as “Séance,” “Pulse” and “Dopelganger,” Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa trades in supernatural terrors for social-economic ones in the new drama “Tokyo Sonata,” which follows the changes undergone by a seemingly normal family when the father (Teruyuki Kagawa) unexpectedly loses his administrative position at a large medical supply firm. At first, the changes aren’t especially noticeable since Dad continues to go out every day as though he were still employed (only to spend most of his time trying to find work or free food handouts with many other people in his position, but as time goes on, the family dynamic begins to shift--Mom (Kyoko Koizumi) begins to crack from the pressure of pretending everything is fine even though she suspects that something is up with her husband from the beginning, the older son () struggles to find meaningful work for himself and contemplates going off to fight in Iraq and the younger son () begins to demonstrate a surprisingly strong personality as he becomes obsessed with the idea of taking piano lessons (even going so far as to finance them with his lunch money). During its first half, the film is a strong and sensitive drama that is all the more surprising because it is most assuredly not the kind of thing that those familiar with Kurosawa’s work might be expecting. However, the second half takes a turn for the bizarre with a number of strange plot twists that don’t really work as well as they should and which distract at times from the strong performances from the cast. That said, these moves don’t completely destroy “Tokyo Sonata” and while it is unlikely that many people will want to escape from the grim economic news of the day by going to see this story, those that do should find it a fairly engrossing (if fairly perplexing work) on how the cratering economy is affecting those from different cultures.

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originally posted: 04/03/09 06:47:27
last updated: 04/03/09 07:16:06
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