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Thursday, May 14, 2009

ANGELS AND DEMONS

By D.E.Levine

Director: Ron Howard
Producers: John Calley, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard
Executive Producer: Dan Brown and Todd Hallowell
Associate Producers: William M. Connor, Kathleen McGill and Louisa Velis
Line Producer, Italy: Ute Leonhardt
Writers: David Koepp, Akiva Goldsman, from the novel by Dan Brown
Cast: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgard, Pierfrancesco Favino, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Thure Lindhardt, David Pasquesi, Cosimo Fusco, Victor Alfieri, Franklin Amoebi, Curt Lowens, Bob Yerkes, Marc Fiorini, Carmen Argenziano, Howard Mungo, Rance Howard
Country of Origin: United States
Language: English and Italian with English subtitles
Genre: Action, Thriller, Drama, Mystery
Running Time: 138 Minutes

By D.E.Levine

In this follow up to The Da Vinci Code, Tom Hanks returns as Harvard symbologist Robert Landgon. Although the book was written and published before The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons is being hyped as a sequel to the movie.

Having thoroughly irked the Vatican with the first film so that high-ranking prelates urged a boycott of the film and created adverse publicity which Sony capitalized on to augment ticket sales, this time, just before the Rome opening, director Ron Howard complained that he and his crew were not permitted to film in the Vatican itself and certain churches and areas of the city outside of the Vatican's jurisdiction. The Caserta Royal Palace in Southern Italy was used as a stand-in for the Vatican.

But the Vatican has remained much cooler and reserved this time and L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, has offered no rebukes about Angels and Demons. In fact, the only church official on record is Monsignor Antonio Rosario Mennona who called the new film "highly denigrating, defamatory and offensive" to the Catholic Church.

Professor Langdon, who proved no favorite of the Vatican in The Da Vinci Code is summoned to Rome by the Holy See. The pope has died and while the Catholic Church prepares to elect a new one, Professor Langdon is summoned by Inspector Olivetti because the four Preferenti, the favorites to become pope, have been kidnapped by the Illuminati, a secret 17th century science worshipping society.

Threatening to mutilate and kill one cardinal every hour and then to detonate a newly invented antimatter bomb that will destroy Vatican City, the Illuminati has posted a live camera feed of the bomb and left a series of cryptic clues that Langdon, partnering with physicist Victoria Vetra, deciphers.

Langdon and Vetra, assisted by Inspector Olivetti and Camerlengo Patrick, and somewhat hindered by Swiss Guards commander Richter, go racing against the clock and it's difficult, if not impossible to differentiate between the authentic Roman locations, Hollywood stage sets and CGI effects.

Having been denied access to the Vatican archives for many years, Langdon is now given special permission to use the archives to decipher the Illuminati clues to search for the cardinals and the bomb. His search leads him to angel sculptures in churches that point to other churches.

As Italian police car race dangerously through narrow Roman streets, they arrive minutes too late to save a dead or dying cardinal. Branded by the Illuminati with the words Earth, Air, Fire or Water, Langdon and Vetra do an amazing job of deciphering the clues only to be captured by the fanatic assassin (either a member or or hired by the Illuminati).

In addition to the flight and chase, the race against time and the uncovering of individual deceptions, we see politics behind the walls of the Vatican with hidden agendas, competing jurisdictions, individual greed, and several types of fanaticism.

It's true that the film never lives up to expectations. However, there is plenty of mystery despite the inherent silliness of the overall story. There are twists to the plot and unexpected revelations that the viewer doesn't expect and while the Vatican itself wasn't used, the film is visually stunning. How bad can Rome, the eternal city, look?

Given the aesthetics and excellent performances by the cast, the film is entertaining if not culturally enlightening.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

EASY VIRTUE

By D.E.Levine

Director: Stephan Elliott
Producers: Joseph Abrams, James D. Stern, and Barnaby Thompson
Executive Producers: Paul Brett, Louise Goodsill, Douglas Hansen, Ralph Kamp, George McGhee, Peter Nichols, James Spring, and Cindy Wilkinson Kirven
Co-Producer: Alexander Ferguson
Associate Producer: Sophie Meyer
Writers: Stephan Elliott, Sheridan Jobbins, based on the play by Noel Coward
Cast: Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth, Kimberly Nixon, Katherine Parkinson, Kris Marshall
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Language: English

Witty and quick moving, Easy Virtues was written by Noel Coward when he was only 24 years old. Set in the 1920s it was originally filmed by Alfred Hitchcock (before he found fame in the thriller/horror genre).

Seventy years after the original release, the new version stars Jessica Biel as an American race car driver Larita, who marries a young British aristocrat John Whittaker after a whirlwind romance in France.

When the young couple arrive back at the Whittaker estate the prim and proper matriarch is horrified by Larita's lack of aristocratic breeding, and willingness to ruffle the stiff feathers of society. Realizing that Mother Whittaker is trying to undermine her, Larita decides to fight back.

John's sisters can't help but be affected by Larita and John's father sees his young daughter-in-law as a kindred spirit, with whom he apparently falls in love.

While director Elliott has rewritten the script, he kept the Coward witticisms and the cast gives great comic performances while a soundtrack of period songs by Cole Porter and others runs along with it and newer songs in swing version, like Car Wash and When the Going Gets Tough add a modern feel to this film version.

The cinematographic settings and costumes are rich in color and feeling, and the cast looks wonderful in the period piece. While Easy Virtue doesn't start out as anything special, the manner and humor in which Larita disrupts the Whittaker household, offending the mother, intriguing the sister siblings, and awakening long dead emotion in the cynical father, is easy to follow and enjoy.

In the end, Elliott achieves a witty and amusing film that is pleasant to view and agreeable to listen to, while getting better performances from the cast members than they've given in a long time.

Monday, May 11, 2009

SUMMER HOURS (L"HEURE D'ETE)

By D.E.Levine

Director: Olivier Assayas
Produced: Marin Karmitz, Nathanael Karmitz, Charles Gilbert
Executive Producer: Claire Dornoy in association with Musee d'Orsay
Screenplay: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Charles Bering, Jeremie Renier, Edith Scob, Dominique Reymond, Valerie Bonneton, Isabelle Sadoyan, Kyle Eastwood, Alice de Lencquesaing, and Emile Berling
Genre: Drama
Country of Origin: France
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Language: French with English subtitles

Instead of a loud, boisterous action film like so many this summer, L'heure d'ete is a quiet, beautiful film about three siblings (two brothers and a sister) dealing with their mother's legacy.

The film opens with the Helene, the matriarch's grandchildren on a treasure hunt at her house during the summer. The family, which doesn't gather frequently, is celebrating Helene's 75th birthday and she has a foreboding that her end is near.

During the celebration she wants to discuss the dispersion of her possessions once she's gone . Frederic, an economist who lives closest to his mother has a romanticized feeling about the house as well as about his mother. Adrienne, the daughter, lives with her American boyfriend in New York. Jeremie, the other brother, is a sneaker manufacturer who has relocated with his family to China. While Frederic wants to keep the house, his siblings are less inclined to do so for financial and geographical reasons.

We learn that Helene has always diminished her late husband's memory while turning the house into a shrine to her late uncle, a moderately distinguished figurative artist. Helene appeals to Frederic to keep her belongings together as a collection once she has passed, feeling that he is the most solid and reliable of the family.

The next time we see the family together Helene has passed and they are meeting to dispose of the house and its contents. Unable to afford to buy his siblings out, Frederic is shattered by the need for everything to be donated or sold. We see them at the house as summer turns to fall and representatives from the Musee d'Orsay visit the house to appraise the contents.

Although his children won't be able to enjoy the house and summer vacations the way he and his brother and sister did, Frederic fails to realize that regardless of ownership of the house, ownership of the memories continues unbroken and he will always have them whether he has the house or not.

The film explores the connection between art and life. Developments are measured between different generations with sibling squabbling over their inheritance deliberately softened to explore how each set of children and grandchildren transform and deal with the family's internal conflicts that are inherited and transformed.

The film begins and ends at the house, and Sylvie, Frederic's teenage daughter remains the one constant. At the start of the film we see Sylvie in the idealized world her father holds dear while at the end we see her acting very much as a girl her age would act once freed from the constraints of her parents and grandmother and holding a student party before the villa is claimed by the new owners.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

STAR TREK

By D.E.Levine

Director: J.J.Abrams
Producers: J.J.Abrams and Damon Lindelof
Executive Producers: Bryan Burk, Jeffrey Chernov, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci
Co-Producer: David Witz
Screenplay: Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman
Original Television Series: Gene Roddenberry
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Ben Cross, Winona Ryder, Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Morrison, Rachel Nichols
Genre: Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Action, Adventure, Thriller
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 127 Minutes

Another prequel awaited with great anticipation since the original television series has become iconic, but the last few movies lacked the luster and excitement fans expect and showed aging characters in the Federation.

This film doesn't disappoint. It's fun. It's exciting. It takes the beloved crew of the USS Enterprise and provides back stories to explain how they got to be who they were. The audience gets to sit back and enjoy what's happening on the screen while J.J.Abrams directs a fast paced exciting fantasy.

The special effects are fantastic, but with a budget of $150 million the audience expects it to be just as fantastic as it is. And because this is Star Trek, we cannot settle for less.

The film has some "names" in it like Leonard Nimoy playing an older and wiser Spock, and Eric Bana, unrecognizable as the heavily tattooed and venomous renegade Romulan, Nero who's seriously into water boarding.

But essentially the cast is young, eager and relatively unknown, They're not imitating their predecessors but adding a whole new dimension to the character Of course, they're out to save the world after Captain Nero comes back from the future harboring a grudge against Spock and swearing to destroy everyone who comes in contact with him.

Since the story starts with James T. Kirk's birth and continues through the Federation Starship Academy we meet the younger version of the beloved characters, fresh and alive with great hopes and dreams. The audience already knows the characters will succeed, but how they do it is what we learn.

When Captain Nero first returns from the future, he ambushes and kills the captain of a starship. The first officer who takes command following the captain's death has only 12 minutes before Nero destroys him and the starship, but during that time he saves 800 people. The young captain is James T. Kirk's father, and among the lives he saves are James' mother and her newborn son, James.

It's a brilliant way to weave the story of the future and the past together and to explain the rationale or the irrational of the different characters.

After four decades of reruns and being stuck in the same dimension, the characters of Star Trek suddenly have a foundation upon which to grow and build their lives. Their emotions and their actions are now explainable and understandable. For the viewers, including the most devoted Star Trek fans, it's a whole new world and it's definitely a world where they will live long and prosper.

A blond blue-eyed heart throb (Chris Pine) plays James T. Kirk just starting out, not as an accomplished captain but as a smart alec who challenges authority. He doesn't play William Shatner, the original Kirk, but instead gives a believable performance as the young, intelligent and overly cocky former juvenile delinquent.

Zachary Quinto so breathtakingly resembles the original young Spock that it's uncanny and he's totally believable in both his looks and his actions. It's the beginning of the explanation of what formed the friendship between Kirk and Spock.

J.J.Abrams directs a magnificent epic in Star Trek. There's a lot of the "I'm from the future theme" going around these days. We've seen it on the "Lost" television series, another of Mr. Abrams' creations. Yet, that particular theme works well in Star Trek. It seems perfectly believable that the evil Nemo comes back from the future to wreak revenge and destroy Spock. It's just as believable that the young crew of the USS Enterprise rise to the challenge and defeat their adversary.

All of our old favorites are there -- Dr. "Bones" McCoy, "Beam Me Up" Scotty, Mr. Chechov and Pilot Sulu. But with the new script and in the hands of a capable cast and director, we see who these people really are - what caused them to be the way they are and what fosters their friendship and bonds them together.

Communications Officer Uhura, a relatively flat character in the previous series and films is emotionally rounded, fulfilled and given dimension by capable actress Zoe Saldana. Uhuru turns out to be the girl that Kirk can't attract, the one who got away. It's a real eye opener to learn she passes on Kirk because she's involved and in love with Spock. Who knew? And what an interesting twist in the Star Trek story.

We, the audience, the "trekkies" are privy to watching the characters develop their friendships and discover traits about themselves and each other that we already know because we saw it in the television show.

There are unusual events, brave battles cementing friendships and acknowledgement of skills perhaps not thought to be heroic. When Sulu states his skill is as a fencer, young Kirk can barely restrain his laughter since that skill doesn't compete with the marksmanship and other skills the other cadets have. Yet it is Sulu's expert fencing that will save both Kirk and Sulu to fight another day.

This is the year of the prequel, but Star Trek is so much richer and more interesting than it's competitors that there is no comparison. When you go to this film the only requirement is that you enjoy yourself, and that is very easily done. It isn't beyond belief that this will be the start of a series of Star Trek movies.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE

By D.E.Levine

Director: Gavin Hood
Producer: Lauren Shuler Donner
Executive Producer: Richard Donner
Screenplay: David Benoff and Skip Woods
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Will I Am, Kevin Durand, Dominic Monaghan, Taylor Kittsch, Daniel Henney, Ryan Reynolds, Scott Adkins, Tim Pocock, Julia Blake, Max Cullen, Troye Sivan
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Thriller
Country of Origin: USAaction
Language: English
Running Time: 107 Minutes

2009 is turning out to be the year of the prequel. With a huge cast, many stunning special effects, and a cast of already established characters played by recognizable actors, X-Men Origins: Wolverine sets out to explain the earlier films about X-Men and how they got their start fighting evil.

Starting in the mid-1850s, we follow James Logan and his brother Victor Creed run away from home after James kills their biological father. James and Victor fight and live through the great wars (the Civil War to the present) in some large and spectacular action scenes.

Recruited by William Stryker to serve in a special unit composed of mutants, Logan becomes disgusted by Stryker's greed and inhumanity. Logan quits the unit and goes to live in the Canadian Rockies with his girlfriend (Silver Fox), working as a lumberjack and severing all contact with his brother and other members of the unit.

After six years Stryker shows up and tries to lure Logan back into a special Weapon XI project. Logan wants no part of it until his brother Creed arrives and murders his girlfriend. Overcome with grief and anger, Logan agrees to work with Stryker and be infused experimentally with the adamantium metal, which is intended to make him indestructible and allow him to avenge his girlfriend's murder.

However, there is evidently no honor among murderers and Logan is double crossed by Stryker after the process is a success and he assumes the identity of Wolverine. While still underwater in the process tank he hears Strykers plans, breaks out and hides at a nearby farm.

Befriended by the elderly couple who own the farm, the writers quickly build Wolverine's background, explaining his motivation, state of mind and even the clothes that become associated with him.

Logan and a few members of the old team reunite and learn that Stryker and Creed are actually working together to kidnap and imprison mutants. Teaming with John Wraith, Logan and Wraith set out for New Orleans to find Remy LeBeau, aka Gambit, the only mutant to ever escape from Stryker's prison.

After a well choreographed fight, Logan gets Gambit to agree to take him to Three Mile Island, where Stryker is imprisoning mutant children with the help of the US government. Logan confronts Styker and learns that Silver Fox is still alive and that she too is a mutant who Stryker used to manipulate Logan into complacency.

Shattered by the truth, Logan decides to leave them all behind but returns to rescue Silver Fox when he hears her screams after Creed promises to really kill her this time after she tries to get Stryker to free her sister, another mutant imprisoned on the Island.

The battle between Weapon XI, Creed and Logan is violent and impressive. During this battle we see, the mutant children flee to safety and the two brothers fight each other and Weapon XI from the inside of the prison to the top of a nuclear reactor.

By the end of this film, we are finally at the beginning of the story of the other X-Men films. It's obvious that Jackman worked hard on his body so that his transformation to Wolverine would be startling and impressive. Schreiber is pure evil, murderous toward his brother and everyone else and actually quite terrifying.

The story has unexpected twists and turns and the special effects are remarkable. The writers have cleverly woven together characters and incidents to explain the other X-Men characters and how they became who they are.

The script isn't great but the audience isn't looking for great drama. Jackman looks great but regardless of how buff and stunning he is in certain scenes, Jackman is many years older than the character he initially portrayed in the earlier films which are meant to be chronologically later.

Undoubtedly fans will overlook these flaws since X-Men is a huge franchise with a worldwide following and it has consistently topped the box office in the U.S. and abroad since opening. This prequel opens the door for additional films in the series and broadens the character base while retaining some of the well known favorite characters.

Friday, May 1, 2009

ADORATION

By D.E.Levine

Director: Atom Egoyan
Producers: Atom Egoyan, Simone Urdl, Jennifer Weiss
Executive Producers: Robert Lantos, Michele Halberstadt, Laurent Petin
Screenplay: Atom Egoyan
Cast: Arsinee Khanjian, Scott Speedman, Rachel Blanchard, Noam Jenkins, Devon Bostick, Kenneth Walsh
Genre: Drama
Country of Origin: Canada
Running Time: 100 Minutes

Written and directed by Atom Egoyan, Adoration is an absorbing tale of Simon, a young orphaned high schooler being raised by his single, uncle, Tom.

Through early scenes of Simon interviewing his grandfather in the hospital, we see the older man as a caring and wise man.

However, through a different perspective, that of the uncle, we see the grandfather as a racist who hated Simon's Middle Eastern father and claims that the father intended to murder Simon's mother in the car crash that took both their lives.

Flashbacks to the evening of the car crash reveal different memories on the part of each character, causing disparate stories.

Simon's family narrative is cleverly interwoven into a news story presented as a translation by Simon's high school French teacher. Simon gets the idea to not only translate the story, but also present it from the perspective of a child in the womb of his mother.

Through the teacher's encouragement, Simon develops the idea but takes it further by presenting it not only in class, but also to the world via the Internet.

Only later do we learn that the French teacher is motivated by her own unique relationship with Simon's dead father and is not necessarily working in Simon's interests.

The film is really about Simon's search for identity in the digital age, where the truth is often irrelevant. His interaction with people online via web cam shows that his tale is met with anger, sympathy and even support.

However, Simon experiences alienation as a result of the world-side response to his story, and that is the motivating factor that forces him to turn away from his computer and face the actual story, which takes an unexpected twist that involves all the other characters in his life.

Adoration is fascinating in that it presents all types of post-9/11 questions about terrorism, deceptiveness of appearance, racism, bigotry, ethics, and enabling a dialogue via technology which simultaneously also hinders the truth.

While extremely interesting, there are many non-believable or muddled concepts in the film, and Atom Egoyan himself admits that Simon's perception of many events is drawn from what he imagines in his mind, in other words, what he wishes or believed had happened.

Since we have no proof that what he imagines is real, we are left at the end disappointed because the problems are unresolved.
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