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By Joe Bendel. In 1981, the New York Republican Party supported lifelong Democrat Ed Koch’s re-election bid. He has since returned the favor, periodically endorsing Republicans like Pres. George W. Bush, Sen. Al D’Amato, Gov. George Pataki, and Andrew Eristoff. Throughout his public life, Mayor Koch has been something of a maverick and he is always good for a lively quote. Neil Barsky documents the triumphs and controversies of the iconic mayor in the simply but aptly titled Koch, which opens this Friday in New York.

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If one thing comes through loud and clear in Koch it is the animosity between him and Mario Cuomo. It all harks back to 1977, when the Cuomo mayoral campaign allegedly gave winking approval to the guerrilla campaign urging New Yorkers: “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” Shrewdly capturing the center and the right of the electorate, Koch ultimately vanquished Cuomo running as the Liberal Party candidate. However, questions about Koch’s private life would persist. In fact, Barsky’s only real misstep is the inordinate about of time spent on this is-he-or-isn’t-he question.

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For those New York transplants arriving during the Giuliani or Bloomberg eras, Koch is a briskly entertaining primer on the City’s 1970’s and 1980’s history. Recognizable names like Bess Myerson and Donald Manes, the late Queens Borough President, whose corruption scandal also tarnished the Koch administration, are put into full context. There are also plenty of his “how’m I doing?” greatest hits and the frequent media appearances that established a new template for New York mayors.

Barsky scored top-shelf access to Hizzoner, but the Koch of today comes across a bit sad, clearly uncomfortable with his status as a New York political graybeard-gadfly. Viewers can tell he misses the action.

While Barsky examines his legacy warts-and-all, his documentary will easily convince viewers Koch was the right no-nonsense man for the job, like a pre-Giuliani Giuliani. Koch is funnier, though. Shrewdly, Barsky emphasizes his humor whenever possible. The results, gently prodded along by Mark Degli Antoni’s peppy underscore, are compulsively watchable. One of the most entertaining documentaries of the young year so far, for both political and pop culture junkies, Koch the movie opens this Friday (2/1) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and the Angelika Film Center downtown.

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on January 31st, 2012 at 12:18pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Ilan Ramon was the Yoni Netanyahu of his generation. A charismatic military officer, he planned and led the daring 1981 bombing raid on Iraq’s nearly complete nuclear reactor. The son of Holocaust survivors, when chosen to be the first Israeli astronaut, he hoped to use the mission to bring a remarkable true story to the world’s attention. Unfortunately, though, he was assigned to Columbia’s tragic, final 2003 flight. Daniel Cohen documents the man and the history that inspired him in Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope (promo here), which airs tonight on PBS stations nationwide.

Ramon was an ace F-16 pilot. He half expected not to survive the then-controversial Operation Opera. Yet all planes came back unscathed in what quickly came to be considered the most successful Israeli military operation ever. At the time, it was duly, if reluctantly, condemned by the U.S. government. Twenty-two years later, he became the only non-American citizen to win the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

As if the Columbia disaster was not heavy enough, Mission of Hope is also profoundly concerned with the Holocaust. While Ramon was just one generation removed, Joachim “Yoja” Joseph, the senior scientist supervising Israel’s Columbia experiments, had survived Bergen-Belsen as young boy. Thanks to a courageous Rabbi, Joseph had his bar mitzvah in the camp with the aid of a tiny Torah. Knowing his time was short, the Rabbi gave the boy that Torah for safe keeping. Decades later Ramon carried it into space, along with several other surviving concentration camp artifacts.

Astronaut Ilan Ramon.

Although Ramon’s story would seem to be one of bitter irony, Cohen wisely emphasizes the inspirational aspects of his life and mission. Featuring interviews with his widow and commanding officers, as well as candid video footage shot by his Columbia mission comrade Dave Brown, Hope conveys a strong personal sense of Ramon as an individual. To his credit, Cohen is not afraid of idealism or patriotism. Hope reminds viewers of the pride and optimism inspired by the early days of the space program. Appropriately, Cohen does not delve into the causes of the disaster. There are better venues to explore such issues. Instead, he focuses on Ramon and his crewmates.

It is hard to imagine anyone watching Hope without getting a catch in their throats. Frankly, it is rather baffling the film has not screened extensively on the festival circuit before its PBS debut, especially considering Hollywood space booster Tom Hanks’ role as executive producer. Educational and unexpectedly uplifting, Mission of Hope is enthusiastically recommended for general audiences when its screens tonight (1/31) on most PBS outlets, with a rebroadcast of Nova’s Space Shuttle Disaster scheduled to follow.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on January 31st, 2012 at 12:17pm.

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By Joe Bendel. India Stoker is sort of a female Hamlet. After her father died under mysterious circumstances, her mother is all eyes for her uncle. However, Uncle Charlie is more interested in replacing his brother as a pseudo-father-figure for India in Park Chan-wook’s first English language film, Stoker, which screened during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

India Stoker and her father were always very close, having bonded during their regular hunting trips. Yes, she is a gothic protagonist who can handle a firearm. Her relationship with her mother is another matter. Evelyn “Evie” Stoker is a woman so chilly and severe, by law she has to be played by Nicole Kidman. When Uncle Charlie shows up after the funeral, the widow turns to him for “comfort.” India is not impressed, rebuffing all her Uncle’s overtures of friendship. Kindly Aunt Gin appears quite alarmed by Charlie Stoker’s presence, but she disappears before she can explain why. People seem to do that around the Stoker family.

Stoker is exactly the sort of film Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows should have been, but totally wasn’t. Park’s mastery of mood is reflected in every scene, particularly in some visually arresting transitions. While the lurid nature of the material often approaches camp, Park emphasizes the repressed, brooding and eerie atmospherics. It also helps that Wentworth Miller’s screenplay tells a fully fledged story that mostly comes together down the stretch (rather than stringing together a series of gags).

It would be spoilery to explain why, but it is safe to say audiences have never seen Mia Wasikowska like this before. Yet in a way, India Stoker is something of a psychologically troubled cousin to Jane Eyre. Matthew Goode holds up his end, bringing all kinds of creepiness as Uncle Charlie. Although Kidman is often relegated to the sidelines, she perfectly delivers some scathing Mommie Dearest lines in the pivotal third act confrontation that audience members were quoting immediately after the screening.

Park’s accomplished hands have transformed a V.C. Andrews-ish yarn into an unusually stylish, dark fable. The Oldboy auteur’s admirers should be well pleased with his English debut and it also ought to earn Wasikowska a whole new level of fanboy appreciation. Elegantly sinister, Stoker is recommended for sophisticated genre patrons. It screened as a Premiere selection of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on January 30th, 2012 at 11:10am.

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By Joe Bendel. The blue Kevlar helmets issued by a Filipino armored car company identify their drivers as targets just as much as they provide protection. It is dangerous work, but it is the best opportunity for one desperate economic migrant. However, he finds himself in the midst of a risky game in British filmmaker Sean Ellis’s Metro Manila, which screened during this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

Exploited as rice farmers in the rural north, Oscar Ramirez and his family pull up stakes to seek work in Manila. Unfortunately, they fall victim to a series of cruel scams as soon as they get off the bus. With no other options, his wife reluctantly takes “hostess” work at a sex bar. Just as things look truly hopeless, Ramirez lands a job with an armored car company, thanks to his military background and some timely coaching from his prospective partner, Ong.

The veteran Ong definitely knows how to game the system, but he also seems to take an interest in Ramirez. After a few days on the job, though, it becomes clear the senior driver has a suspicious agenda, involving the recent hold-up that claimed the life of his previous partner.

Metro’s first act is unremittingly grim and naturalistic. Watching the Ramirez family suffer one indignity after another is tough going. Frankly, Ellis maintains the grim tone throughout, but really cranks up the tension as the crime drama takes shape. This is a smart, taut story, but like Ron Morales’ Graceland, Metro portrays Manila as a relentlessly corrupt and predatory metropolis (which some might raise some eyebrows coming from a Brit like Ellis). In a pointed example, the armored car company is just as likely to make deliveries for drug dealers as for legitimate banks. That is where the money is.

Jake Macapagal is very good as Ramirez, the Filipino Job, completely guileless but stretched to his breaking point. Nonetheless, John Arcilla constantly upstages him as Ong with his charismatically garrulous villainy. While completely convincing as a middle-aged ex-cop, he has an electric screen presence that largely pulls viewers through all the teeming misery and inequity miring the characters.

Metro fits a whole lot of plot into about a week’s worth of time. In fact, all the events transpire before Ramirez’s first payday—an important fact to keep in mind, given certain decisions he makes. Dark and gritty as anything screening in Utah last week, Metro will not be to all tastes, but it is a surprisingly powerful combination of class conscious social drama and the caper movie. Highly recommended for fans of Filipino cinema and verité-ish crime-in-the-streets films, Metro Manila screened in Park City as part of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on January 30th, 2012 at 11:10am.

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By Joe Bendel. And now Sebastián Silva presents the second part of Michael Cera’s Chilean vacation. This was the film they intended to make all along, but when the financing temporarily bogged down, they whipped up Crystal Fairy to pass the time. While Silva’s Magic Magic has a darker, more intriguing premise, it was probably too art-house for genre patrons when it screened as part of the Park City at Midnight section of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Alicia has come to Chile so she can visit her cousin Sarah, who is just so gosh-darned thrilled to have her there. Alicia seems a bit high maintenance, which is not what Sarah needs right now. Having some private business to tend to, Sarah pushes Alicia off on her boyfriend Agustín and some friends leaving on a coastal vacation. Something about Alicia brings out the absolute worst in the sexually confused expat Brink, but the shy and clumsy (perhaps deliberately so) Alicia gets on everyone’s last nerve. It is mutual. As Agustín’s friends mock and complain about Alicia behind her back, her mental state begins (or continues) to deteriorate.

Minor spoiler alert: By far the biggest disappointment of MM is the lack of a violent death for Cera’s Brink. Considering how unpleasant he is (just as annoying as his character in Crystal Fairy, if not more so), he really has it coming. In fact, Silva disregards most of the principles of EC Comics, avoiding genre scares in favor of slow brooding atmosphere. Something is definitely off in MM, but Silva lets it all emerge slowly.

Juno Temple and Emily Browning in "Magic Magic."

In a weird way, MM closely parallels Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, right down to its ambiguous third act. However, the climatic event makes logical sense in the Romanian film, whereas in MM it rather comes out of left field.

As Brink, Cera is bilingually irritating, which is sort of impressive, really. As Alicia, Juno Temple is a perfect portrait of arrested development (if you will) and emotional neediness. She is just all kinds of trouble. She also takes the Sundance honors over Cera and Silva, having appeared in three films at this year’s festival (also including Lovelace and Afternoon Delight). To her credit, Emily Browning brings some presence to the underdeveloped role of Sarah, whereas the Chilean characters are even more undistinguished, seemingly on hand just to rub Alicia the wrong way.

Silva masterfully creates a mood of profound unease, but it never really pays off. Magic Magic is the sort of film that is more interesting to look back on than to watch in the moment. Given the big name talent involved, it is a cinch to play fairly far and wide after its premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

LFM GRADE: C+

Posted on January 30th, 2012 at 11:09am.

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By Joe Bendel. Is technology stronger than social tradition and family expectations? That question will be put to the test when two aspiring filmmakers fall head-over-heels in “like” via online video messages in James E. Duff’s Hank and Asha, an Audience Award winner at the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival.

Hank had a short film accepted at a Czech film festival. Asha saw it there. She is studying at a Prague film school for a year, before returning to her regular life in India. Something about Hank’s film prompted her to send him a video message. Something about her question convinces Hank to respond in kind—and so on and so on. Soon their long distance flirtation becomes surprisingly serious. However, the inconvenient realities back in India drastically complicate any future they might have together.

The scenes filmed in Prague nicely capture its beauty and vibe, making viewers want to visit the city again. The New York scenes did not seem to have the same effect (but to be fair, I was only in Park City for a week, hardly enough time to get homesick). Regardless, the sense of place and displacement are a big part of what distinguishes H & A.

H & A is sort of like a hipster updating of sentimental favorites like A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters.Dramatically, it works relatively well because of its realistically appealing leads. Andrew Pastides is not afraid to look silly as the somewhat nebbish Hank. He also forcefully depicts the heartsick desperation of a smitten party with no leverage to make their sort of relationship work. Mahira Kakkar has a pixie-like charm as Asha. However, Duff and co-screenwriter Julia Morrison have her doing things that do not really make sense in light of her full situation. Still, both co-leads definitely convince viewers that each has a deep emotional attraction to the other, despite never appearing in the same scene together.

It is easy to see why Slamdance audiences responded to H & A. It offers some unabashed sentiment for the Facebook generation without feeling out of synch with the times. Small but nice, Hank and Asha is recommended for Williamsburg scenesters as a counter-intuitive date movie. Following its success at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, it should have a long, fruitful festival life ahead of it.

LFM GRADE: B-

Posted on January 30th, 2012 at 11:07am.

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