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By Joe Bendel. They know something about rivalry in Sicily. For years, Orlando and Rinaldo have both vied for the affections of Angelica in Sicily’s puppet theaters. It is a tradition that partly inspires Italian-American actor John Turturro’s return to his ancestral roots. Puppeteer-filmmaker Roman Paska documents Turturro’s combination sentimental journey and spec research tour in Rehearsal for a Sicilian Tragedy. Now available on DVD from First Run Features, Paska’s film also kicks off the Winter 2013 season of Stranger Than Fiction this coming Tuesday at the IFC Center.

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The first generation Turturro has an understandable affinity with his family’s homeland. Off and on, he has developed a project about a traditional Sicilian puppeteer, finding a mentor in Mimmo Cuticchio, who is widely considered the greatest living practitioner of the art (and can also be seen in a straight acting role in the forthcoming Terraferma). While Turturro’s prospective film has yet to come to fruition, he will indeed collaborate with Cuticchio on a production of Orlando’s tragic story.

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Paska makes his wandering focus a virtue, leisurely alternating between Cuticchio’s Opera deo Pupi, Turturro’s emotional pilgrimage to sites of great family significance, dramatic readings, and talking head interviews on Sicilian culture. Not what you might call a tight film, it is rather pleasantly discursive. As a result, one gets an impressionist sense of the region’s rhythms and eccentricities instead of an information dump of names and dates.

Cuticchio and his pupi are ridiculously cinematic. Paska simply cannot miss when he has them in a scene. Likewise, Turturro comes across as a mostly likable, down to earth fellow, in touch with his familial legacy. Even scholar Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi looks interesting on camera, making some intriguing points on the shifting roles the Day of the Dead and Christmas have played in Sicilian culture.

Unhurried and disorganized in appropriately enjoyable ways, Rehearsal’s spirit fits its subjects. It offers considerable insights into art and tradition, capturing a few surprisingly touching moments along the way. Warmly recommended for fans of Italian cinema and puppetry, Rehearsal for a Sicilian Tragedy is now available on DVD and screens in New York this coming Tuesday (1/8) at the IFC Center, with both Turturro and Paska scheduled to participate in a Q&A.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on December 4th, 2012 at 12:41pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Jack Begosian went from cover-ups to bottom-feeding. The former CIA agent now hosts a conspiracy theory driven radio program in Toronto. He claims the new gig eases his conscience. However, he will have the opportunity to atone for past sins with more direct action in Damian Lee’s A Dark Truth, which opens in Miami today.

To be fair, Begosian is not trafficking in space alien rumors, but he gets plenty of those calls on his late night talk show. Although his backstory is never fully spelled out, Begosian left the Agency under scandalous circumstances. A Congressional hearing was involved. Trying to live quietly with his frustrated wife and emotionally withdrawn son, Begosian is not looking for freelance gigs. Nevertheless, one comes his way.

Heiress Morgan Swinton suspects Clearbec, her family’s industrial water filtration company, is up to no good in Ecuador. She needs an independent hardnose to go down there and check things out. For Begosian, it represents karma coming full circle. According to reports, environmental activist Francisco Francis has incriminating evidence on Clearbec. That would be the same Francis who served time in a rather unpleasant Latin American prison thanks to Begosian’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Now his assignment is to get Francis and his wife safely out of the country and into a courtroom, despite the efforts of the Ecuadoran military and Clearbec’s enforcers.

Dark Truth largely recycles Hollywood’s standard issue corporate villainy plot, but Lee’s screenplay is less morally simplistic, portraying the culpable Swinton brother in relatively sympathetic terms. Yet, it is Andy Garcia who truly dominates the film as Begosian. He still has plenty of credibility in the adequately staged action scenes and brings the appropriate gravitas for Begosian’s “that’s the way it is” radio pronouncements.

Garcia is still one bad cat and so is Kevin Durand, who is coolly hardboiled as the unpredictable hitman, Torrance “Tor” Mashinter. Unfortunately, Forest Whitaker and Eva Longoria do not fare so well as the Francises, awkwardly trying to look noble as they scramble through the jungle. In contrast, Kim Coates makes an intriguingly human villain, nicely conveying Bruce Swinton’s guilt and desperation.

Lee, whose credits including producing Death Wish V, is not exactly a distinctive visual stylist, but if you’re filming a difficult scene in the Dominican rain forest, he can probably be relied on to get it in the can quickly. He also delivers some pretty good work from his cast, most notably Garcia, Durand, and Coates. An okay diversion on a commercial flight or as a VOD time killer, A Dark Truth is really just recommended for Garcia’s biggest fans. Conveniently, it begins its theatrical run at the O Cinema in Miami (where a fair number of them probably are) today (1/4), expanding to Lake Worth the following week. For New Yorkers, it is already available on-demand.

LFM GRADE: C+

Posted on December 4th, 2012 at 12:39pm.

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A new trailer has been released for A Good Day to Die Hard, the latest Die Hard sequel starring Bruce Willis – this one set in Russia, and involving nuclear terrorism. Check out the trailer above. A Good Day to Die Hard stars Willis, Jai Courtney, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Amaury Nolasco and Yuliya Snigir and opens on February 14th.

Posted on December 4th, 2012 at 12:37pm.

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By Joe Bendel. In the 1980’s, the Soviets really did launch an ambitious “remote viewing” program, training psychic spies to watch and perhaps even read the American President’s mind. It is hard to imagine any hostile powers bothering with such efforts now, unless they had no other access to the latest news from ESPN. Nonetheless, the “technology” was taken seriously and it is about to blow up in the face of a clandestine Australian research institute, becoming the Macguffin of Justin Dix’s Crawlspace, which debuts on VOD and begins a series of midnight screenings at the IFC Center beginning today.

Echo Companies 1, 2, and 3 are approaching the double-secret Pine Gap facility buried beneath the Australian desert (where there are no pine trees). They have two missions: terminate the dangerous inmates let loose during a power failure and rescue the scientific personnel. It seems like it is a bad idea to combine a maximum security prison with a research lab, so maybe these prisoners are not whom they are billed to be. Oddly enough, one of them also appears to be the late wife of company leader Romeo, who apparently harbors a wee bit of guilt over her assumed death.

Much to his team’s surprise, Romeo goes rogue, deciding to protect E.V.E., as her wristband identifies her, rather than fulfill their mission objectives. This becomes particularly awkward when the monsters start attacking. It is not until they “rescue” a truly annoying group of scientists that the psychic battle unfolding around them is insufficiently explained. What does that make Eve? Dangerous.

The directorial debut of SFX artist Dix, Crawlspace liberally incorporates narrative elements from the original Alien and Solaris, but little of their artistry. It is long on atmosphere, though, taking viewers through air ducts, service tunnels, and all manner of passages requiring grown men to stoop. There are also several distinctively gruesome deaths for those who measure genre films by such standards.

Again, Crawlspace’s cast might not earn marks for distinction, but they get the job done. While not remarkably expressive, Ditch Davey (a name so awesome it must be Australian) is appropriately manly as Romeo. Strangely, both Peta Sargeant and Ngaire Dawn Fair exhibit more cinematic presences (as Wiki the commando and Emily the psychic blocker, respectively) than Eve, the pseudo-romantic co-lead, but Amber Clayton can at least act twitchy and roll her eyes back in her head when necessary.

Crawlspace is no genre classic but it is entertaining in a Big-Mac-with-fries kind of way. Basically, it is heavily armed people going nuts in confined spaces. Horror movie fans, particularly those with a taste for flicks with a light sci-fi seasoning, should have at it this Friday (1/4) when it screens Midnights at the IFC Center and hits VOD platforms.

LFM GRADE: B-

Posted on January 4th, 2012 at 12:35pm.

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