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. Movies in Brief
(First quarter, 2009 releases)

Cinema Signal:

The world of the ballerina has about it a curtain of mystery. It's as though schools and ballet companies purposely hide their prima ballerinas from the public eye so that they will only be known by their work upon the stage, with no behind-the-curtain reality prevented from altering the image and the magic that you see and experience in the theatre. It's as though adoration dissipates in the air of too much knowledge of a dancer's humanity. Obscurity, on the other hand, feeds the dream, the memory of exhilaration instilled in the mind, the aura of a superreality. Meanwhile, the work, the culture and the humdrum everyday life and fears of dancers render them as fellow humans--citizens and neighbors better left undistinguished and unheralded.

Whether it's a conscious policy or happenstance, there may be something to the concept, for art is more than the score or the tuttus. The creatures of the art can be ethereal in their physical fluidity, gauzily unreal, a spector of a composer's imagination. But here's a documentary about five of them that challenges the notion that the human side somehow diminishes the legend.

It certainly provides insight into what it takes to accomplish the goal of becoming a prima ballerina, the rarity of simply being chosen by a company like the Russian Kirov Ballet for its corpe, thence to be elevated for special attention as a coryphee to perform the occasional solo or duo. We learn the process from the manager, teachers and dancers themselves who share the ideals and goals with rather open confidence.

With that handle on the systematic development of the chosen few, we get a clear picture of five dancers to provide more than the usual depth and demands on the professional level. Alina Somova, the youngest, gets chosen and is given special training because of the unique line of her long limbs and the potential they promise. But her inability to break behond her technical mastery holds her back. In contrast, we meet the fiery Evgenia Obraztsova and Diana Vishneva, whose excitement and verbal expressiveness is brought to the stage with such emotional force as to bring tears to a dance-lover's eyes.

For a glimpse at sheer theatrical power and brilliance of dance, we follow the great Ulyana Lopatkina who is no less generous is sharing her difficulties of coming back after a two-year absence because of an injury. For all her acclaimed mastery, it's predicted that she'll be a changed dancer. What she does with Swan Lake is original art, beyond anyone's conceptualization, which more than validates the prediction--only to top that with her rendering of "The Legend of Love" (by Arif Melikov), a piece of interpretation that every dance neophyte will want to see and study. Which tells us that there are great dancers... and there are those in a class with Lopatkina.

Which makes the biggest point of all, that mastery of an art form is more in the creative capacity of mind and heart than technical perfection. On top of that, dancers bring so much sublime beauty and athleticism to musical composition and to our own capacities for appreciation.

Director Bertrand Normand seems to have inspired all his participants, which makes his documentary consistently balanced and intimately revelatory. It's a special treat that informs an interested audience about what goes on in dancers' minds and lives, featuring one of the more straightforward corpe of talking heads to learn about it from. Behind-the-curtains was never more ravishing.

The DVD - Available now!

Cinema Signal:

Behind Enemy Lines: Colombia
As far as I can tell, this straight-to-DVD release shows what you can expect when you cast important roles in a film with stuntmen and TV actors with stuntman ability. Emphasis on strong and acrobatic, with the athletic agility to play highly trained Navy Seals convincingly. And, maybe, read a line or two with the right emphasis.

While that may sound like the preamble to a putdown, it's not--at least in this case, a film about an American squad mounting an intelligence gathering penetration of a high-level meeting of Colombian army officers. No less than General Manuel Valez (Steven Bauer) lays out Colombia's new peaceful approach toward their largest rebel group, the FARC (leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) . So it's no wonder that, for action like this, you need a ready bunch of boys.

Under the guidance of Commander Scott Boytano (Keith David), Lt. Sean Macklin (Joe Manganiello) leads his team as they make a parachute drop into the Colombian jungle where they deploy a motorized pontoon boat to the obscure site of the meeting, with all the advanced electronics, rifles, and recording devices to carry out their mission. Tactics are tight and convincing enough to command attention, much to the credit of director Tim Matheson who plays a part.

But, unexpectedly out of nowhere comes a highly skilled and armed FARC squad gunning down the Colombian army elite apparently without knowing the American squad is in the area. But, it's not long before they're all engaged in combat, with two SEALS killed, one taken alive and Macklin and his petty officer Kevin Derricks (Channon Roe) escaped to safety.

While they and Boytano try to figure out what the true purpose of their mission was, a U.S. official comes in theatening to take Boytano's command away from him if he doesn't cooperate with the political decisions already made--decisions that put his boys in even greater danger. When a rescue helicopter pulls away without taking them, and when they see the Colombian president on TV blaming the Americans for the ambush, it's clear to all that this has all been a deception for cynical political purposes.

The mission, for the SEALS survivors is to rescue their comrade from the local FARC headquarters and risk death even further in the attempt to clear their name. When they learn that the general escaped death, Macklin pays him a visit in his hospital room to gain his support.

We've seen this kind of action story before. But, the very fact that's it was done on an obviously tight budget with actors who aren't there for their thespianic skill, and largely because of the great attention to tactical details that their true skills make possible, this works with an almost documentary feel. Not that there isn't stereotyping in Tobias Iaconis' screenplay, but what's worthy of attention here is no small accomplishment, which should earn combat medals for the civilians who pulled it off.

DVD Bonus Features:  Blooper Reel-Hilarious laughs from behind-the-scenes of the film.  Live From The Wrap Party-Julia Roberts sings with Richard Gere while he plays the piano. Director Garry Marshall backs them both up on the drums in an impromptu performance of Elvis Costello's rendition of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood."  Audio Commentary with Director Garry Marshall  LA: The Pretty Woman Tour-A guided tour with director Garry Marshall and visit the Los Angeles hotspots from the film.  Production Featurette - Interviews with Richard Gere, Julia Roberts and Garry Marshall on creating the memorable characters that they brought to life during filming.  "Wild Women Do" - Music video performed by Natalie Cole.  Original Theatrical Trailer

Cinema Signal:

What Doesn't Kill You
In a case of the good news also being the bad, this film's strong sense of real people in real life places a lid on the dramatic level. Just like reality has its moments of explosive drama and tension followed by long stretches of everyday plodding, director Brian Goodman captures it well enough to do the same. Counting in the risk involved, he and his solid cast pull it off well enough for a similarly solid rating.

Performances by Mark Ruffalo as Brian Reilly and Ethan Hawke as Paulie McDougan may well be counted among their best, depending as it does, on a level of naturalism they've got down pat. From early childhood, the pals hung out where the action--of the criminal kind--was, at least in their neighborhood. That would be Pat Kelly's (director Goodman) headquarters--his bar in South Boston. Recognizing emerging talent for his mob activities, he threw them little missions for a few bucks each which, in their youth, pleased them no end. All they really wanted to do back then was prove their worth.

As they matured, so did the seriousness of their crimes, until the boys grew discontent with the cut they were given and branched out to their own private deals, the payoffs of which they split down the middle. They were tight, and totally interdependent, but each was a different man.

Brian, married with two young boys, is the emotional center of the piece as he copes with wife Stacy's (gorgeous Amanda Peet) discontent about money and Brian's lack of presence in the home. Paulie has no such restraint and therefore freer to explore bigger and bigger exploits. But it's Brian who lands in jail for five years because he takes sole blame for a crime both committed.

Brian is caught in the paradox of balancing his criminal activities with its fast, easy money and salvaging his marriage and his fatherhood. His grappling with these two contradictory impulses is the essence of the story. We've all spent plenty of time with the self-destructive character before and this iteration doesn't exactly avoid the tedium of repetition. While Brian's a sometimes arresting character, one's sympathies waver. It's the naturalism, carried out in a highly but well edited style, where the film's holding power lies.

Peet is great and leaves no question in anybody's mind what Brian has to lose if he can't straighten out the track of his life. His desire to be a dad amplifies that theme and the story isn't afraid to ply those waters. Hawke is quite exceptional as he constructs the role of a charming, hopelessly unsalvagable petty criminal who finds happiness only in the scoring of a bundle of money.

Technically, all is well, with composer Alex Wurman going for originality musically.

The film is caught in the tension between wanting to provide depth of social implication and gunplay action but the symbiosis doesn't generate a tight grip. It's style that holds our interest but it's style that also makes 100 minutes seem like 130. Still, very nice try and a fine product for the festival and arthouse circuit.

Cinema Signal:

Poison Ivy: The Secret Society
This made-for-TV soft-porn feature offers more potential in the title than anything realized in the product, and it seems destined for a hard-up late-night audience that's seen everything else on the the schedule. The fourth release under the rubric of "Poison Ivy," supposedly because it's set on a college campus, there's little in this dorm room but shallow, boring characters made to fail by sheer absences of logic. Someone's not studying.

Danielle "Daisy" Brookes (Miriam McDonald) takes leave of her country-boyfriend/fiance who has just bought a ranch in hopes of marrying and starting a family with her. Poor guy can't quite fathom why she wants to go off to college at a critical time like this, but she's clear about her intentions, to the point of allowing him a few kisses in his blanketed truck bed. But she cuts him off at the first feel. Can't let it distract me, is the message, and she's off.

So why does she becomes the sexual aggressor with the first guy she meets on campus, Blake (Ryan Kennedy)? Obviously a womanizer, maybe she's turned on by the fact that he's the son of one of her professors, and interns in the office run by his mother. Talk about connections. Are we smelling anything yet about the level of writing? Hang in, there's worse to come.

It seems she's been tapped for membership in the evil Ivy Society purportedly because Azalea (Shawna Waldron), the leader of the sorority, has eyes... no, not for Daisy... for the internship! And, Azalea is all about playing political dominatrix to get what she wants, including trading her body for access to the campus mainframe where grades can be "fixed." Who's her trading partner in this pursuit? Why Blake. Of course.

This crowd is as saturated with distrust and moral issues as the film is with the regularity of sexual sequences that halt all other dramatic considerations so that we may indulge ourselves--giving away the probable porno pedigree of the material and the reason that, under Jason Hreno's direction, the supposed drama is little more than a simulation. The only thing that's real is Waldron's considerable beauty.

Cinema Signal:

Tokyo Sonata
Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to fabled Akira) set out to bring attention to a sad and sorry phenomenon permeating Japan today, that of the family breadwinner losing his job and trying to save face by not disclosing it to his family. These people (mostly men) leave home as usual but kill the day in the company of their peers, lining up by the hundreds to interview for available jobs that at least resemble the one they lost. That done, they line up for free lunch and kill time in libraries and parks.

The husband and father whom we follow is middle manager Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa), married to attractive, loyal Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) and father to two sons, teenage Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) and young, school terror Kenji (Kai Inowaki) . All are troubled in their individual ways and Ryuhei doesn't make it any better for anyone. Tyrannically, he forbids Kenji to follow his desire to learn piano and comes down hard on Takashi when he decides to join the American Army. When Takashi asks why he's so against it, Ryuhei insists that it is he who will protect the family. Fat chance.

The narrative goes along on this unmerry way with pockmarks of awkwardness in the storytelling and not a trace of humor or a momentary lapse into lightness. We're treading very heavy water, here.

But, that's not the worst of what we're going to get from Kurosawa, who co-wrote the screenplay with Max Mannix and Sachiko Tanaka. For, later in the tragedy, intellectually rebelious Kenji, who has been spending his lunch money on clandestine piano lessons, and from whom we hear but one note on the teacher's piano, is put forth as a child prodigy by her. You would have thought that if such a claim was part of a screenplay (and the title of the film!), they might have cast it with a boy who knew how to play. Clearly, it's the filmmakers who are in bad need of a lesson... in what needs to be made convincing.

This becomes even more evident as the film progresses and the story falls apart sooner than the family does. Of the three writers, none seems to know how to accomplish a natural resolution and, when a pathetic thief (Koji Yakusho) randomly picks this family's apartment to break into--to more or less start the third act on a new, farcical (and preposterous) note--we're suddenly in a whole new movie which, creeping up on two hours, feels unendurable.

There are many Japanese films that play well to the home audience but never achieve stateside distribution. If this amateurish effort is an indication of the prevailing standard, it explains why this may be so. But why it's been chosen as an exception is a mystery. Maybe it was a matter of connections. It sure wasn't skill in writing or directing.

Cinema Signal:

Shall We Kiss? (aka, Un Baiser S'il Vous Plait)
Imagine any guy you know posing the question of the title to a gal. Imagine the possible replies by any woman you know. In the game between the genders in 21st century America, or France, for that matter, such formality would label the dude stupidly stiff or hopelessly robotic--if not a moron. Hardly the stuff of conquest. Yet, however you characterize it, it's writer-director-actor Emmanuel Mouret's ("Change of Address") chosen style for the story within the story of a brief encounter.

His framing device is Gabriel meeting attractive businesswoman Emilie in the town of Nantes, when Emilie is on a one-day business trip and where Gabriel is a local resident. They go through the stages of cautious attraction, dining together and arriving at her hotel in his outsized vehicle having enjoyed the companionship and a romance that's merely implied. When he tries to kiss her, she bolts away. But, as she explains, it's because of the importance she attaches to a meeting of lips, which stems from a life-changing event in her life.

The promise of something developing that's even more physical than kissing remains alive as she decides to tell him the story, for which she invites him up. Thus begins the central episode in which school teacher Nicolas (Emmanuel Mouret) and Judith (Virginie Ledoyen, "The Beach") play out. They are best of friends and confidants until he poses the title question because he's dying for affection. He's come to asking his close pal for it after an experience with a prostitute who wouldn't allow him to kiss her.

Judith's response matches Nicolas' indecisiveness without guile or complaint, making for the intrigue of their relationship's development while defying any sense of hipness--pointing out the irrelevancy of what we may consider a standard requirement in such matters. Here, artificiality becomes reality, and it will apply to the framing relationship as well. You remember... the couple telling and following the tale in a Nantes hotel room?

Moiret's construction does work, showing the variability of certain basic themes in drama and how, on an obviously low budget and no frills, but with a credible cast adopting the offbeat behavioral norms, he creates a world that is engaging enough to hold your quiet interest. Relying on an exaggeration of conduct, Moiret somehow finds a way to tell a double story that has much to do with sex while avoiding much depiction of the titillating details or erotic content. Ledoyen, Mouret, Gayet and Cohen deliver the goods in a consistent skein that holds together as much for its discipline as for the team's thespian talent and the women's seductiveness. Can I feel you up now?

Cinema Signal:

Perestroika (aka, The Restructuring)
With solid actors like Sam Robards, Ally Sheedy (where's she been?) and F. Murray Abraham) in the cast, I expected --as it turned out-- too much. This film demonstrates that a good talent lineup doesn't always add up to the brilliance of which they're capable. Sometimes it happens... a certain personality and performance lifting poor material into a sphere of interest. There's no sign of that particular alchemy on this occasion, a story defeated by a silly style of writing and directing by producer Slava Tsukerman ("Stalin's Wife") who rounded up a huge supporting cast for it.

It's Moscow in 1992 and we're into the life of Sasha Greenberg (Robards), purported to be an astrophysicist who left Russia, his professor and mentor (F. Murray Abraham), his ex-wife (Sheedy) and other girlfriends, friends and associates. No one thought he'd be returning, but here he is.

The script is full of dialogue about returning to a new Russia and the astrophysicist's confusion about all things not astral. Like coming to terms with the probability that he's the father of a fetching young teenager with a mind of her own, and not able to make much sense out of the string of women who seem to pile on as exes of all kinds. Just seems like there's a whole univers of women with a claim on him. The cosmos never had it so good.

Unfortunately, the musical staging and oddball visual tricks and awkward narration give it so little gravity that it loses all cohesion.

For more reviews, please use these links:
Cinema Signals Master List
Cinema Signals Alphabetical List
Movies in Brief, 2007)
Movies in Brief, 2008 1st Quarter
Movies in Brief, 2008 2nd Quarter
Movies in Brief, 2008 3rd Quarter
Movies in Brief, 2008 4th Quarter
DVD reviews (regularly updated)

Behind Enemy Lines: Colombia
What Doesn't Kill You
Poison Ivy: The Secret Society
Tokyo Sonata
Shall We Kiss?

     ~~  Jules Brenner  
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