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Going Under

The frequently unclothed Roger Rees (displaying a body that any 60-plus male would be more than proud of) plays the central role of Peter, a married therapist who has had a long-standing professional relationship with his S&M mistress Suzanne (Geno Lechner). That relationship, tacitly condoned by Peter's wife, becomes threatened when Suzanne announces that she is quitting her job in the dungeon, leading Peter to propose that they begin meeting on the outside.

Although she returns his feelings to some degree, Suzanne's professional ethics and personal qualms lead her to resist the proposal. Eventually she relents, leading to the inevitable emotional complications.

The film reveals the influence of director/co-writer Werthman's profession because it adopts a highly clinical and thoughtful rather than exploitative turn. Although at times one wishes for a little more heat, of both the dramatic and erotic variety, there is an admirable intelligence and restraint on display.

Much of the film's impact is thanks to the performance given by Rees, here handed a rare leading dramatic role. Anyone who has seen the actor in the landmark production of "Nicholas Nickelby" is well aware of what this talented actor is capable of, and here he delivers a beautifully nuanced and subtle performance that makes his character a far more sympathetic figure than one might have expected.

Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos

John Dower and Paul Crowder's film exhaustively documents the rise and fall of the scrappy team that, thanks to the late Warner Communications honcho Steve Ross, briefly became the Yankees of the sport. Using a canny combination of archival footage and contemporary interviews with nearly all of the surviving figures involved -- Cosmos superstar Pele is a notable and highly unfortunate exception -- the film is as much morality tale as sports docu.

Cannily scored with vintage pop music of the period, the film details the team's humble beginnings on New York's decrepit Randall's Island, playing on a field littered with broken glass that literally had to be spray-painted green, to selling out 77,000 seats at the newly built Giants Stadium just a few years later.

This was of course be-cause of Ross' fervent passion for the sport and his high-spending ways that brought such superstars as Pele, Italy's Giorgio Chinaglia and Germany's Franz Beckenbauer to the team.

One amusing anecdote follows another in the compelling narrative, from player Shep Messing's decision to pose nude for a magazine spread to Henry Kissinger's persuading the leaders of Brazil to allow their national hero to play for a U.S. team.

As one interview subject astutely predicts, a "Rashomon"-like scenario develops as the various participants in the tale relate their highly differing viewpoints, with many pointing to Chinaglia's "malign influence" on Ross as the team became undone by various forces. The ultimate reason for its demise, however, emerges as far less sinister than mundane, namely the failure of the sport to catch on quickly with the American television audience.

The Groomsmen

But perhaps Burns, now married and a veteran actor on the sets of other people's movies, has grown up. There is a level of maturity we haven't seen before in his films, and the characters feel fresher, less fictional, possibly drawn from his own life. As a bonus, by recruiting Brittany Murphy, Donal Logue, John Leguizamo, Jay Mohr and Matthew Lillard to play alongside him, Burns has pulled together a strong ensemble cast.

The film will still need strong marketing and promotion to get people into seats. Wedding themes have proven strong draws in recent comedies, but this is a more realistic and heartfelt film than, say, "Wedding Crashers." The film needs to attract an over-25 crowd to become a hit in specialty venues.

Burns places his story in City Island, that surprising enclave of New England in the heart of the Bronx. Here a small-town feel prevails, where guys can walk unsteadily down the middle of a street after the bars close without neighbors caring because everyone knows who they are.

In this homey, middle-class environment, Paulie (Burns) should be sitting pretty. He is about to marry his loving fiancee, Sue (Murphy), with whom he lives in a comfy old house. And they are about to have a child. Instead, Paulie gets the feeling he is walking off a gangplank into unknown waters.

Not helping matters is the hugely negative attitude of his older brother, Jimbo (Logue), who when he's not having fights with his wife thinks Paulie is making the worst mistake of his life. And he's the best man! Cousin Mike (Mohr) is no help either. He still lives at home with his dad and can't sustain any intimate relationship because he has never matured beyond the mental age of 22.

The only groomsman who is helpful is Dez (Lillard), a level-headed tavern owner and father of two, who can rhapsodize at the drop of a hat on the joys of family life. The odd man out is T.C. (Leguizamo), returning home for the first time in eight years after vanishing without a trace and carrying with him a secret and Mike's favorite baseball card, the latter fact still bitterly resented by Mike.

As these thirtysomething guys do their guy things -- fishing, softball, practice for a band reunion -- all the hidden agendas, secret fears, angst over increasing responsibility and patterns of denial get shaken from their souls. That everything gets resolved so neatly is a stretch though. Burns might have left a thread or two dangling.

The best thing here is the natural acting by the ensemble. Nothing feels forced or false. Every actor knows his or her role inside out. These are realistic, believable characters in all-too-real situations that do spring up before weddings. Throw in a soundtrack of rock standards and warm homes in such a livable community, made all the more enticing by designer Dina Goldman and cinematographer William Rexer II, and you have a film that makes "feel good" respectable again.

Screenwriter-director: Edward Burns
Producers: Margot Bridger, Edward Burns, Aaron Lubin, Philippe Martinez
Executive producers: Karinne Behr, David Gorton, Walter Josten
Director of photography: William Rexer II
Production designer: Dina Goldman
Music: Robert Gary, P.T. Walkley
Costume designer: Catherine Marie Thomas
Editor: Jamie Kirkpatrick
Cast:
 Paulie: Edward Burns
 Sue: Brittany Murphy
 Jimbo: Donal Logue
 TC: John Leguizamo, Mike: Jay Mohr
 Dez: Matthew Lillard

Beowulf & Grendel

Gerard Butler, who seems to have a particular affinity for larger-than-life roles, commandingly plays Beowulf, the Norse hero recruited by his friend King Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard) to rid his kingdom of the murderous troll Grendel (Ingvar Sigurdsson). Complicating Beowulf's mission is the intervention of a beautiful witch (Sarah Polley) who is particularly generous with her sexual favors.

Shooting on rugged Icelandic locations, cinematographer Jan Kiesser provides gorgeous widescreen vistas that give the film a visual power that goes a long way toward compensating for its narrative deficiencies.

Screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins takes more than a few liberties with the source material, to varying effect. The film works best when it hews most closely to the story's mythical elements, with its efforts at providing psychological underpinnings for the characters' behavior often proving more laughable than enlightening.

Still, thanks to its visual imagination and the committed performances of its cast -- Skarsgard provides welcome humor as the beleaguered king and Sigurdsson is as fierce a villain as one could imagine -- this full-blooded rendition of the Norse saga should prove a handy video study guide for students for years to come.

The Outsider

Fortunately, Toback -- a self-admitted addict to drugs, gambling, drinking, women and just about anything else pleasurable with which he comes into contact -- is a highly engaging and frank figure more than willing to shed entertaining light on his passions and personal demons.

While the behind-the-scenes footage of Toback filming his latest opus is fairly routine, "The Outsider" is quite entertaining thanks to its copious use of flip clips from the director's oeuvre, which includes the screenplays for "The Gambler" and "Bugsy." The well-edited assemblage makes clear the extent of Toback's obsession with sex and violence, among other things.

Even better are the filmed interviews with the wide gallery of collaborators who have formed a sort of Tobackian repertory company. These include football great Jim Brown, who talks admiringly (and this is indeed truly saying something) of Toback's ability to seduce women; Robert Downey Jr., who somehow manages to compare him to Shakespeare without sounding ridiculous; Mike Tyson, who admits that they both can "be a little crazy at times"; Norman Mailer, who proclaims that were he starting out today he would want to be a film director instead of a novelist; and Robert Towne, Brett Ratner and Roger Ebert, among others.

Jarecki also was somehow able to snare an on-set interview with Woody Allen (Toback played a small role in "Alice"), who talks about their similar personal approach to filmmaking.

OSS 117: Nest of Spies

With Jean Dujardin -- star of last year's surprise hit "Brice de Nice" -- in the lead, "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies" has plenty of action, exotic locations and a polished surface and should do good business. It will appeal particularly to audiences who enjoy spectacular displays of incompetence from French protagonists in the manner of Inspector Clouseau of the "Pink Panther" franchise. The more demanding will appreciate a brilliant re-creation of filmmaking styles associated with the late 1950s and early '60s.

When one of its agents is reported dead and a Soviet freighter loaded with arms goes missing in the Suez Canal (this is 1955), Paris packs OSS 117 (Dujardin) off to the Egyptian capital to find out what's going on. Posing as the head of a poultry export company, he links up with local colleague Larmina (Berenice Bejo), who is to serve as his "secretary."

Fending off the attentions of a sultry, murderous vamp, Princess Al Tarouk (Aure Atika), an offshoot of the recently ousted royal family, OSS 117 soon finds himself entangled in a complex skein of plots, counterplots and general mischief-making involving Soviet agents, Islamic extremists (the "Eagles of Kheops") and a den of runaway Nazis hiding out in a nearby pyramid. The "dead" agent (Philippe Lefebvre) resurfaces, and the plot builds to a climax from which OSS 117 naturally emerges triumphant.

Along the way, the swaggering, preening hero proves to be racist, misogynist, homophobic and unfathomably ignorant. After one escapade, his foreman Slimane (Abdallah Moundy), to whom he has been unbearably patronizing throughout, looks at him and wonders aloud: "He's either extremely intelligent or incredibly stupid."

The spectator is tempted at times to think the same about the filmmakers. The movie's humor is highly uneven, ranging from subtle (the hero's underwater escape after he is dumped, bound and weighted, into the canal) to obtuse (much of the dialogue). Some of OSS 117's jokes are plain unfunny. Or perhaps we are intended to laugh at their unfunniness. The high politically incorrect quotient is similarly borderline: The invitation to laugh at offensive attitudes might be found by some to be offensive itself.

The movie plays heavily on the dated nature of the material and the attitudes of the period it portrays. Director Michel Hazanavicius, working on a script by Jean-Francois Halin, says he saw the movie as a tale set in 1955 as told in 1962. He and his technicians have faultlessly reproduced the style of such Hitch***** movies as "Vertigo" and "North by Northwest" and the first of the Bond movies, "Dr. No." The period effects range from the use of Technicolor and back-projection to the lighting, title sequence, costumes and acting techniques, particularly in the fistfight and clinch scenes.

Dujardin mugs with great gusto, camping a young Sean Connery down to the last jut of jaw and slick of hair and effectively carrying the movie. In a postscript back in Paris, OSS 117 is informed that in view of his "profound knowledge of the Islamic world" he is next to be sent on a mission to Iran. "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies" ends with mission accomplished, but whether the joke can be extended to a franchise remains to be seen.

Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Screenwriters: Jean-Francois Halin, Michel Hazanavicius
Based on the novels by: Jean Bruce
Producers: Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer
Director of photography: Guillaume Schiffman
Production designer: Maamar Ech-Cheikh
Music: Ludovic Bource, Kamel Ech-Cheikh
Costume designer: Charlotte David
Editor: Reynald Bertrand
Cast:
 OSS 117 (Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath): Jean Dujardin
 Larmina: Berenice Bejo
 Princess Al Tarouk: Aure Atika
 Jack: Philippe Lefebvre
 Setine: Constantin Alexandrov
 Slimane: Abdallah Moundy
 Egyptian spokesman: Said Amadis
 Plantieux: Eric Prat
 Imam: Youssef Hamid

Land of the Blind

The highly committed performances of Ralph Fiennes and Donald Sutherland, as well as stylish visual design and cinematography, give the film more gravitas than it would otherwise possess. The overly cluttered story line involves a mythical country led by Maximilian Jr. (Tom Hollander), a childlike, maniacal dictator who reserves his greatest pleasure for his sexual romps with his alternately bored and debauched wife (Lara Flynn Boyle).

Maximilian's greatest enemy is Thorne (Sutherland), a socialist-minded playwright (think Vaclav Havel) who is being kept under lock and key. Thorne's plight attracts the sympathy of Joe (Fiennes), one of his jailers, who ultimately helps him escape and even assassinate his tormentor. Problem is, once Thorne himself incites a revolution and comes into power, he is transformed into an even worse fascistic demagogue than his predecessor, coming to rule the country with an iron fist and ultimately imprisoning his former ally and subjecting him to various imaginative forms of torture.

This blending of Kafka, Orwell and nearly every other politically tinged writer you can think of contains so many contemporary and historical allusions that one becomes less engrossed in the story line than in playing the game of spot-the-references. And while the copious doses of outrageous black humor are not entirely unwelcome, the cartoonish nature of the proceedings eventually detracts from the power of the film's message.

Mario's Story

With their cameras rolling for seven of those years, co-directors Jeff Werner and Susan Koch have assembled the extensive footage into a stirring document that raises some serious issues regarding the integrity of our criminal justice system.

Rocha was all of 16 when he was tried as an adult in the shooting death of a fellow partygoer and subsequently incarcerated at the maximum-security Calipatria State Prison, on the basis of a questionable, lone eyewitness identification.

While the title subject proves to be a highly eloquent individual who was encouraged to take up writing poetry while serving time, the film is just as much about the passionate gathering of advocates who took up Rocha's cause, led by Sister Janet Harris, the tenacious former chaplain at Central Juvenile Hall who first brought his case to a team of pro-bono attorneys at Latham and Watkins.

Down to their last remaining legal bid -- known as a habeas corpus petition -- Harris and the attorneys give Rocha's case their all despite the cold hard fact that of the about 30,000 habeas petitions filed each year, less than 1% are granted.

Directors Werner (an award-winning editor and frequent Barbra Streisand collaborator) and Koch (an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker) generally do an effective job in telling Mario's story from both sides of those prison bars.

Aside from a couple of creative missteps -- like the distracting decision to have blurred actors dramatizing hearings each time cameras aren't allowed in -- it is an account that rivals some of the best courtroom fiction in its ability to create an undeniably powerful emotional journey out of the real-life chain of events.

Only Human

Written and directed by the husband and wife team of Dominic Harari and Teresa De Pelegri, the film depicts the cross-cultural collision that occurs when Leni (Marian Aguilera) brings her Palestinian college professor fiance Rafi (Guillermo Toledo) home to meet her family. Said group includes her sexually charged older sister (Maria Botto); the sister's precocious 6-year-old daughter; her brother, David (Fernando Ramallo), newly enthralled with Orthodox Judaism; her blind grandfather (Max Berliner), prone to such dangerous habits as sticking knives between his fingers; and her perpetually flustered mother (Oscar nominee Norma Aleandro).

The inevitable family conflicts ensue, aggravated by such bizarre flourishes as the baby duck who lives in the bathtub. But when Rafi accidentally drops a frozen soup out the kitchen window, only to have it land on and possibly kill a man who may or may not be Leni's father, the proceedings reach an even broader farcical level.

Unfortunately, that's about when the film loses control, as the proceedings degenerate to a level of silliness, much of it involving the father suffering from temporary amnesia and getting embroiled with a prostitute and her surly pimp.

Although it has its undeniably funny moments, the film sacrifices its credibility in its strained attempts to achieve a level of screwball comedy that requires a level of wit and pacing, not to mention some credibility, that is not reached here.

Al Franken: God Spoke

The filmmakers essentially adopt a fly-on-the-wall approach, following Franken as he engages in various activities, including a book tour for his best-selling "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them"; the formation of the left-leaning radio station Air America (a subject covered far more extensively in "Left of the Dial"); and most significantly, passionate stumping for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign.

There's no shortage of entertaining material, from Franken's rancorous on-air dust-ups with such right-wing media icons as Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly to numerous clips from his "SNL" tenure, including the now-classic routine in which his character Stuart Smalley attempts to comfort a post-2000 election Al Gore.

The film only sporadically succeeds in providing biographical information or thematic depth, but Franken is such a witty and thoughtful presence that these flaws don't matter greatly. And an emotional resonance of no small impact is reached by the conclusion, in which the depth of his dejection over Bush's re-election is all too obvious.

Although hardly conventional by those standards, "Al Franken: God Spoke" should prove an effective campaign film should its subject decide to run for the U.S. Senate, which he has recently been mulling.
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