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By Joe Bendel. We often overlook the Russianness of one of our most beloved Christmas traditions. It is Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, after all. Almost one hundred twenty years ago to the day, The Nutcracker premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg (known as the Kirov during darker Soviet days). At the time, reviews were rather mixed, but it caught on eventually. The Mariinsky Theatre Ballet Company and the Mariinsky Theatre Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Valery Gergiev, once again perform the holiday favorite where it all began. The Sugar Plum Fairy will indeed dance when The Nutcracker screens in 3D nationwide, for one day and one day only, this coming Monday, via Fathom Events.

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As everyone should know, young Masha’s eccentric godfather, Councilor Drosselmeyer, brings some remarkable toys to her family’s Christmas Eve festivities. However, only she has eyes for his wooden Nutcracker. Waking just before midnight, Masha witnesses an epic clash between the Mouse King’s rodent army and the gingerbread soldiers led by the Nutcracker. Thanks to her intervention, the Nutcracker prevails. Shortly thereafter, they are transformed into fully grown lead dancers and whisked off to a fantasy land. Much dancing ensues.

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Directed for the screen by Andreas Morrell, the Mariinsky Nutcracker does not skimp on pageantry. The sets and costumes are as lavish and elegant as viewers would expect – except the mice soldiers, who are deliberately cartoony enough not to upset even the most sensitive of young viewers. Of course, the dancers are world class, particularly the striking Alina Somova as Princess Masha. Evidently, though, Mariinsky patrons are tough audience. They do not show much love until the principles reach the Land of Sweets. That must be a Russian thing.

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Incorporating Vasily Vainonen’s acclaimed choreography, the Mariinsky Nutcracker should satisfy experienced ballet connoisseurs and first-time viewers. While only available in 2D for review attention, it should lend itself quite nicely to 3D, especially the whirling dances in the Land of Sweets, performed in long, flowing exotic garb. Indeed, Wim Wenders’ Pina proved the utility of 3D cinematography in conveying the spatial dynamics of dance.

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There is a reason The Nutcracker has become a Christmas tradition. Tchaikovsky’s music and the fantastically bittersweet story, sort of adapted from E.T.A. Hoffman’s story, just always seem to work. With dancers of the Mariinsky’s caliber performing in such a storied venue, it can’t miss. Recommended for festive families and the cultured elite alike, the Mariinsky’s Nutcracker screens twice this coming Monday (12/3) at theaters throughout the country, including the AMC Empire and Regal Union Square here in New York.


Posted on November 30th, 2012 at 12:547pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Sometimes even criminals need a bailout. Of course, they can always help themselves to an involuntary one. That is what crime and government are all about. Yet, somehow Andrew Dominik turns a modest heist caper into a didactic statement on political economy in the frustrating lost opportunity titled Killing Them Softly, which opens today nationwide.

Killing reminds viewers how annoying it is to have to listen to CNN in an airport concourse. Say what you will about Tarantino, but at least his gangsters listen to vintage soul music. It is news radio all the way for Dominik’s low life thugs. At almost every point of Killing news reports of the 2007 financial crisis and Obama’s campaign speeches blare down on viewers like Big Brother in Oceania. The economy was bad. We get it, thank you. Here’s a newsflash—it’s still stalled.

Against this omnipresent backdrop, Frankie recruits his dog-napping buddy Russell to pull off a risky score. They are going to hold-up the mob-protected card game run by Markie Trattman. Ordinarily, knocking over a connected game is a losing proposition, but in this case someone else will automatically be blamed: Trattman. A while back, he conspired to take down his own game and blabbed about it afterward. Everyone likes Trattman, so they let it slide, once, but if it happens again things are sure to get ugly.

At first, everything seems to be going according to plan. Then fixer Jackie Cogan is called in to investigate. He intuitively knows Trattman has been set-up, but he does not have much sympathy for the man. Frankly, sentiment really is not his thing, not even for an old past-his-prime hitman chum he mistakenly brings in to help clean up the job.

You can see why Brad Pitt is a movie star in Killing. Even when chewing on over-the-top “America is a corporation not a community” dialogue that would make The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns snicker, he is an electric presence. For the most part, his scenes with Richard Jenkins’ Driver, the exasperated counselor to the mob’s corporate governing committee, are smartly written and bitingly witty. However, Dominik plays out his crime as a metaphor for capitalism well past the breaking point.

Yet, when you strip away Killing’s layers of ostensive “relevance,” one is left with a fairly routine crime drama. A score goes down and several people involved, one way or another, are subsequently dispatched, but it is difficult to care much about their fates. After all, Dominik scrupulously establishes the lack of innocence in this world. Still, Ray Liotta has his moments as the tragic Trattman, a self-defeating figure like so many of Killing’s characters.

There is no meaningful takeaway from Killing, because its premise is faulty. The mob is not like a corporation, it is like a government that can take what it wants and change the rules at its convenience. Dominik’s adaptation of George V. Higgins’ novel gives viewers a few clever lines and a couple of colorful scenes, but that is about the extent of it. A real disappointment, Killing Them Softly is not recommended when it opens today (11/30) in New York at the AMC Kips Bay and Regal Union Square.


Posted on November 30th, 2012 at 12:46pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Over the centuries, it has been tough to be a Chinese peasant. Famines have been a fact of life, but because they have been traditionally interpreted as a sign of heavenly displeasure with the ruling authorities, those in power have been more inclined towards denials than an activist response. Such was the case during the Great Leap Forward and such was the case during the Republican era, at least according to Feng Xiaogang’s latest historical epic, Back to 1942, which opens today in New York.

The war is not going well for the Nationalist forces, but Chiang Kai-shek is trying to keep up appearances with the Allies. He is looking to Henan’s granaries to support his beleaguered troops and his local administrators do not have the guts to explain the boots-on-the-ground reality to him. Faced with high taxes, drought, locusts, and the Imperial Japanese military, the peasants of Henan do what they have traditionally done: take flight to Shanxi.

It turns out the drought is a great leveler. Amongst the refugee contingent is Landlord Fan and his family, accompanied by their (sort of) faithful servant and their formerly resentful tenants. As they trudge towards an unwelcoming Shanxi, they are victimized by deserters and strafed by the Japanese, losing what little they had left. While the Nationalist government turns a blind eye, American journalist Theodore H. White sets out to shame them into action. Yet, even when relief is authorized, it is held up by graft and incompetence. So pervasive are the horrors, they might even cause the ardent Father Sim to lose his faith.

Adrien Brody as Theodore H. White in "Back to 1942."

Back is a tough film to take. Based on Liu Zhenyun’s memoir (adapted by the author), Feng’s film puts his characters through the ringer for precious little pay-off. Granted, it was a bleak period of history, but viewers are still left with the feeling of “all that for this?” As one would expect from Feng (whose jingoistic Assembly happens to be a ripping good war film), Chiang Kai-shek rather takes it in the shins. However, the film arguably has a soft spot for trouble-making Americans, like White (indeed, defying authority is what we’re best at, or at least it used to be).

Like the inverse of Iron Man 3 casting Andy Lau, Back to 1942 recruited some name actors to appeal to the American market, including a not half bad Adrien Brody as White. Unfortunately, Tim Robbins looks completely out of place as Father Thomas Morgan. Almost as if by design, the refugee characters largely blend together into a throng of downtrodden humanity, but Assembly star Zhang Hanyu stands out as the humbled Father Sim; for shell-shocked angst, he is the man to get. Likewise, Ziwen “Fiona” Wang has her moments as Xingxing, the disillusioned former daughter of privilege.

Although Feng is remarkably adept at staging big warfighting scenes, there is little of the spectacle of battle in Back. Instead, he concentrates on the overflowing transports and teeming masses of refugees. It is all quite a big, impressive production, but after a while it becomes exhausting overkill.  For hardy war movie enthusiasts, it opens today (11/30) at the AMC Empire and Village VII and in San Francisco at the AMC Mercado, courtesy of China Lion Entertainment.


Posted on November 30th, 2012 at 12:46pm.

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By Joe Bendel. How did Luc Deveraux go from being the hero of the original Universal Soldier to the messianic villain of the latest installment? One can hardly tell from the five previous of films. While only two or possibly three are considered “canonical,” none bear much narrative relationship to each, besides some shared names and unreconstructed 1980’s style action. At least 1999’s The Return had Kianna Tom, and the latest outing recruits Scott Adkins. Somewhat fittingly, the action star of the future is out for revenge against an action star of the past in John Hyams’ Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, which opens today in New York.

One night, Luc Deveraux broke into innocent citizen John’s home, killing his wife and daughter and leaving the man in a coma. When John comes to, he is interviewed by an FBI agent, who conveniently points him in Deveraux’s direction. Of course, the audience can immediately tell it is all an implanted memory designed to turn John into a vengeful tool of the government. Nonetheless, the opening segment’s violent cruelty is a definite buzz kill.

As John proceeds on his manipulated mission, Deveraux and his band of rogue Unisols try to stop him with a series of hallucinatory messages and some straight forward muscle provided by Magnus, one of the most recently “awakened” Unisols enlisted into Deveraux’s doomsday cult. While Deveraux and his apparently immortal former nemesis Andrew Scott have developed a serum to counteract the Unisol programming, it appears that its net effect merely switches their blind obedience to Deveraux, himself. Frankly, there seems to be plenty good reason for the Feds to be hunting Deveraux, regardless of their methods.

From "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning."

For some reason, a number of critics have embraced Reckoning even though it merely revisits the same sort of terrain John Frankenheimer’s infinitely superior Manchurian Candidate first staked out decades ago. At this point, the film’s moral ambiguity and government paranoia are so old hat, they are just plain boring.

Still, bringing in Adkins helps. He will be making action films long after his above-the-title Expendables 2 co-stars. Playing to his strengths, there are a few nifty fight sequences, including a particularly well choreographed melee in a sporting goods store. As Adkins’ baseball bat wielding opponent, former UFC Champ Andrei “The Pitbull” Arlovski nicely steps into the Randall “Tex” Cobb-ish role of Magnus.

Watching Adkins and Van Damme have another go at each other is certainly entertaining, but Reckoning lacks both the slickness and the self-awareness of a quality B-movie beatdown like the old school Assassination Games. Hyams (son of Peter) seems to want to do Universal Soldier as adapted by Philip K. Dick, but most fans would rather see the Golan-Globus version. Not nearly as original as it believes it is, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (or UniSol 3½) is only recommended for hardcore Adkins and franchise die-hards when it opens today (11/30) in New York at the Village East.


Posted on November 30th, 2012 at 12:45pm.

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[Editor's Note: the full version of the article below and its accompanying slideshow appear today on the front page of The Atlantic.]

A guide to the famous Hitchcock trademarks that appear in Sacha Gervasi’s film about the director

By Govindini Murty. Sacha Gervasi’s new film Hitchcock takes a smart and entertaining look at the creation of Alfred Hitchcock’s scandalous Psycho, one of the seminal films of the 20th century. Based on Stephen Rebello’s book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, it sheds light on Alfred Hitchcock’s (Anthony Hopkins) pivotal collaboration with his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), his battles with studio executives and censors, and his ambiguous relationships with his leading ladies Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel).

And while Psycho was considered a risky departure for Hitchcock, the film shared much with the director’s prior work, ranging from the influence of ’20s German Expressionist cinema to Hitchcock’s obsession with beautiful blondes, voyeurism, and split identities.

Here is a cultural guide to some of the themes, personalities, and cinematic references in Hitchcock.

Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho

Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho created a sensation for its depiction of the violence lurking in small-town America. The story of a demented killer who cross-dresses as his tyrannical mother in order to murder young women, the novel was based in part on the true story of convicted killer Ed Gein. When Alfred Hitchcock decided to film Psycho, he was told it would be impossible because of its controversial subject matter and was turned down by Paramount. It was only when Hitchcock announced he would fund the film’s $800,000 budget himself that Paramount agreed to distribute it.

Although Hitchcock declared that he only filmed what was in the novel, screenwriter Joseph Stefano made significant changes to the story, turning Norman Bates from a pudgy, unattractive middle-aged figure into a shy, handsome young man. Stefano also changed the story’s structure, beginning the movie with the more sympathetic Marion Crane character, rather than with Norman Bates.


Posted on November 28th, 2012 at 9:36am.

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Nov 272012

By Joe Bendel. China is a big country. In 1917, a man could get lost there if he had a reason to. A court investigator suspects an unassuming paper-mill worker is such a person in Peter Ho-sun Chan’s martial arts historical-procedural Dragon (a.k.a. Wu Xia), which opens this Friday in New York.

One day, Liu Jin-xi wandered into town, catching the eye of Ayu, a single mother deserted by her husband. Liu married her, adopting her clan name and providing the sort of stability she yearned for. Then one day two escaped convicts start terrorizing the community. Liu dispatches them with a series of “lucky shots” in an unlikely melee that could have been choreographed by one of the great silent film comedians. Or perhaps not.

Xu Bai-jiu is not buying it. Highly skilled in arcane knowledge, the investigator can practically see Liu radiating chi. Putting two and two together, Xu deduces Liu is actually Tang Long, the presumptive heir of the ruthless 72 Demons criminal clan. Unfortunately, Xu’s efforts with the corrupt judiciary attract the attention of the 72 Demons, who come reclaim their turncoat brother, one way or another.

Considering Wu Xia (as Dragon was then known) broke Michael Jackson’s record for the largest public billboard, one might expect it to be a big sprawling epic. Yet, Dragon is a moody character driven piece, dominated by the cat-and-mouse game played by Donnie Yen’s Liu and Takeshi Kaneshiro’s Xu. Of course, action director Yen does his thing when the Demons show up – including late 1970’s Shaw Brothers superstar Kara Hui, who appears as the Demon Master’s lethal wife. Fans will be happy to hear he stages some great smack-down action, including a super finale smartly incorporating the film’s holistic themes.

Yen has the right mix of affability and earnestness for Tang-trying-to-be-Liu. Yet it is Xu who emerges as the film’s truly tragic figure. Cerebral and intense to the point of snapping, Kaneshiro makes a great movie anti-hero. A man who uses acupuncture to deaden his emotions and holds regular dialogues with his subconscious, Xu’s unyielding fealty to the letter of the law bears bitter fruit for everyone, most definitely including himself. Tang Wei is also right on the money as the sensitive Ayu, still struggling with abandonment issues.

Chan knows his way around the set of a large scale action film, having helmed The Warlords and produced Teddy Chen’s high octane Bodyguards and Assassins. He certainly delivers the martial arts goods, but it is his early scenes establishing Liu as a family man, filmed with a pastoral beauty by Jake Pollock or Lai Yiu-fai, that set-up the film’s dramatic essence so effectively. It is a life viewers will agree is worth fighting for. Smarter and more emotionally engaging than most wuxia period action films, Dragon (or Wu Xia) is highly recommended for genre fans when it opens this Friday (11/30) in New York at the Village East.


Posted on November 27th, 2012 at 11:22am.

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