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Journey to the Center of the Earth
This One’s For You, Mom & Dad!

From Indy to Caspian, theaters are packed with people anticipating exciting effects, heroes in peril, witty repartee, and crowd-pleasing endings. So how does a relatively “smaller” film—one with only one big star, little advance buzz, and not as much money spent on production… although quite a bit, still—get a summer audience? Make it 3D! And make it PG, too so that it can be a family event. In Journey to the Center of the Earth, Brendan Fraser slips into his well-used Mummy “scientist accidentally roped in to an adventure” bit and heads up this (actually) fairly entertaining jaunt into Jules Verne’s imagination. Oh… and it’s in 3D!


Encounters at the End of the World
Aren't Humans Natural, Too?

Werner Herzog, with one cameraman, headed to Antarctica under a scientific grant, and jokes as he narrates that he warned those footing the bill that this would not be another film about penguins. Rather, he wanted to answer questions of human nature: what drives people to come to this frigid and desolate continent and what will their discoveries uncover? He loathes the “camp” he must stay at, calling it a “dirty mining town”—and yes, it is ugly—yet if he were out to make a film about natural Antarctica, why does he spend so much time following these “loathsome” humans around? These are quirky people, to be sure; but Herzog’s narration puts him squarely outside of that pool, as if he is the only one that really respects the earth, the only one there with pure motives. Unfortunately his attitude makes some of the film, and what it hoped to do, off-putting.


The Promotion
If Watercoolers Could Talk...

What is great about the comedic element of the film itself is that the comedy is underplayed. This is not the gag-reel type of goofball comedy. Instead, these are two guys who could very easily exist in reality—and could just as easily get themselves into and out of these awkward situations. This adds to the charm of the film. As we watch the motivations and lives of both main characters, there is no clear winner or loser. You want them both to win. Conrad knows how to put his characters—and his audience—through the wince-inducing moments in life.


Jellyfish
Israeli Film Good But Not Great

I’m a sucker for films following different narratives with characters who barely overlap with each other. I enjoy the anticipation, the revelation of how the stories intertwine and what fruit will ultimately be borne. While Jellyfish is an admirably crafted film, I sensed that the characters required not only more space, but more story, in order to develop into sympathetic characters that I would care about. While the film tries to capture whimsy and mystery, particularly in the character of the little ocean girl, it never quite makes it out of its shell and into the hopefulness it wants to impart.


My Brother Is An Only Child
Two-Party Systems as Metaphor

Directed by acclaimed Italian filmmaker Daniele Luchetti, and garnering high praise at both the Cannes and Toronto film festivals, My Brother Is An Only Child explores Italian politics of the 1960s and 70s through the lives of two brothers in a small town outside of Rome. The film evokes a sense of the blurred political allegiances through the story of two brothers, remarkably similar in their intensity, passion, and sense of urgency to save their country and their people. But it is not only a film about Italian politics personified; it is also a film about the delicate and complex relationships between people, regardless of politics. Anyone can appreciate the film as a worthy exploration of the common human desires to improve a corner of the world, whether that means leading a political movement or making sacrifices for one’s family.


Son of Rambow
What’s A Little Reckless Behavior?

A dark-horse hit at the Sundance Film Festival, Son of Rambow is a charming and insightful story of friendship, childhood, boundaries, and making movies—all wrapped up in a smart British bow. Impressive work is done by all the young actors in the films, especially the two leads. They appear as real boys, not some version of what an adult imagines a boy to be. And, as with the issues the film deals with, none of the performances are forced or over-the-top. They have surprising nuance and wit not often seen in child actors. All of this makes for a wonderfully different film that families can watch and enjoy together. It hits just the right note on universal issues of not only growing up but of being in true relationship with oneself and with others.


Flight of the Red Balloon
Childhood and Adulthood Intersect

This is not a fast-paced, plot driven film. It is slow and drifting, with long shots of the cast sipping tea or the balloon floating through the Parisian rooftops. It is a film meant to be taken in slowly, much as Paris itself is best seen while enjoying a drink in a boulevard café, or while strolling through a city park eating a crêpe. No hurrying: simply calming down and quietly observing the life going on everywhere around you, and letting it soak in. The child in me wanted more of the balloon, more of the wonder of Simon, more of his discovery that the balloon is following him—that the balloon, in a sense, cares about him. But Hou is asking the child to genuinely look at the adult, and the adult to genuinely look at the child, in long contemplative stares.


The Life Before Her Eyes
Living in the Wake of Violence

The Life Before Her Eyes asks the question, “What would you do?”—not only in the moment itself, but in living with the outcome as we watch Diana’s life unravel. The survivor’s guilt is not just that she lives through something that others did not, but that she lives because others, namely her best friend, did not. As the film slowly climbs to its dramatic peak, the audience is drawn into not only the difficulty of making moral decisions, but also into vacillating ambivalence between empathy and shame for Diana. People of faith may wonder if they could be as strong as Maureen, loving Diana so deeply despite her sin, even being willing to die for her friend.


The First Saturday in May
More Than Horses, More Than Trainers

The filmmakers themselves are two brothers who grew up in horseracing and thus had unparalleled access to the stables, the trainers and the races. For telling the human story this worked quite well, but what I was really itching for was more footage of the horses and races themselves. But watching these men struggle to fulfill their dreams, their stories become part of the American Dream. The blood, sweat and tears of their struggle is that of the classic Horatio Alger novel, Struggling Upwards.


My Blueberry Nights
It's Not Pie When All the Sugar’s Gone

Wong is known for his unique and personal visual style with shooting films, and he brings that vision to play here. The problem, however, is that with a script that is only almost good and almost poignant, the story winds up seeming like an excuse to practice his cinematographic inventions. His visual tricks wind up detracting from the film, distancing the viewer from the story instead of engaging the audience to interact and understand the characters or atmosphere. The close-ups of pie à la mode, once I figured out what they were, just made me hungry for pie, while the stuttering, slow motion “action” feels more like a school film project. My Blueberry Nights is a worthy effort put forth by a promising director and a hard-working cast; unfortunately, it ultimately falls well short of greatness.


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