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Review: Millions


When a giant stash of money literally falls from the sky, sensitive little Damien (Alex Etel) — who sees really dead people, like St. Francis of Assisi and Saint Catherine of Alexandria — sees it as a gift from God to be shared with the poor. For his older, savvier brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), it’s £250,000 to be exploited.

    It might seem as if director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) has stepped away from grit and gore and delivered a charming family film, but don’t let the Nativity-play scene confuse you. Millions is no ordinary kiddie film, thanks to content and style that doesn’t condescend to any demographic.

    The film delivers darkness with its optimism: Damien and Anthony are getting over the recent death of their mother, but smart enough to tell shopkeepers she’s dead in exchange for free sweets. They lie on their backs and stare at the sky, not in a lush meadow but on the grounds of a housing development that’s built right before our eyes. And despite its Christmas setting, this is no Love Actually saccharine fest — the local policeman comes round to remind the new neighbors that it’s the holiday season, so expect to be burgled.

    Since the movie is set in the near future during the transition from pounds sterling to euros, there’s a ticking clock on the boys’ mystery money (and, as a bonus, a lesson in the continental currency market). Damien is doing his best to share it with the down and out: stuffing it into neighbors’ mailboxes, and at one point, taking a roll of £1,000 to school, pissing off Anthony, who wants to launder the fortune into real-estate investments and keep it hidden from authority figures as long as possible.

    There are enough quick cuts and CGI graphics — of quickly built houses, an explanatory heist in a train station — to keep ADD-addled grown-ups and kids entertained, and to keep the story from being bogged down by too much sentiment (inevitable, when you have young, bright-eyed actors with plummy accents). The forces behind Millions are selling it as an indie family film, and even if it’s built on good deeds and the power of imagination, at least there are no talking animals in sight. — Lily Oei

Review: In My Country
Neither group therapy nor diplomacy seems much en vogue these days, especially compared with the final days of South Africa’s apartheid era, when Nelson Mandela’s newly elected government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC allowed the victims of apartheid to publicly accuse their persecutors, who in turn could seek amnesty by fully confessing their crimes. This was before 9/11, of course; even so, the response to this unorthodox justice was mixed. Some saw the commission as a means to heal the country through Christian forgiveness (or its African equivalent, ubuntu) while others dismissed it as a wrist-slapping for war criminals.

    In My Country explores both viewpoints through two
journalists covering the hearings. Poet Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche) is a white
South African who opposed apartheid but, like the Good German, never fully acknowledged
her own complicity in it. Playing opposite Binoche is pissed-off Washington
reporter Langston Whitfield (Samuel Jackson), who wants to reconnect
with his roots but rejects ubuntu.

    Sounds like an interesting set-up, but the film is unfortunately plagued by sketchy dialogue and repetitive action. The victims’ monologues steadily lose power, partly thanks to Jackson’s canned anger and Binoche’s melodramatic grimacing. Worse, the movie seems to regard the hearings as the final fix for South Africa’s woes, ignoring the racial divide that remains there today. Still, In My Country is an earnest film that reproaches our global failure to solve problems through forgiveness rather
than bombs; it’s unfortunate that such a simple admonition couldn’t have been voiced more deftly. — Justin Clark
Review: The Upside of Anger
When Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) walks in on her teenage daughter Andy (Erika Christensen) sleeping with her much older boss Shep (Mike Binder), she’s speechless. But her face turns multiple shades of red and every muscle, vein and tendon in her neck bulges. “Wow,” says Shep of the riveting sight, before trying to score again with Andy. It’s an uneasy, funny moment, but the next scene violates narrative logic by having Shep present at the dinner table. Throughout this domestic dramedy, writer-director Binder manages some fleeting insights and offbeat humor, but never provides emotional continuity.

    After her husband disappears, apparently with his Swedish secretary, Terry is hit hard by rage. Numbing herself with vodka tonics, she reluctantly allows herself to be courted by neighbor Denny (Kevin Costner), a former baseball player, radio DJ and fellow daytime imbiber. Three of her daughters throw her coming-of-age curveballs, while the youngest observes and narrates (evoking American Beauty). Unfortunately, despite Allen’s vibrancy and Costner’s appealing performance, the story stumbles on several clichéd plot twists, as when the eldest daughter introduces her boyfriend at graduation and tells mom she’s pregnant and engaged. Its message muddled, Upside settles for being a mood piece punctuated by gags. — Daniel S. Housman
Review: Mail Order Wife
Like most new marriages, the faux documentary Mail-Order Wife starts off promisingly enough. Schlumpy hotel doorman Adrian (Adrian Martinez) has a house in Queens, a job, and an El Dorado — all he lacks is some loving. Subsidized by a filmmaker shooting a documentary about his globalized romance, Adrian sends away for an Asian bride (Eugenia Yang as Lichi), teaches her how to make chili, and leaves little Post-It notes around the house saying, “Don’t cry.”

    Soon enough, however, Mail-Order Wife reveals the dyspepsia that lies under its SNL-skit facade. Like something out of a B-grade The Quiet American, Adrian may be an abusive dick, but nebbishy mommy-pecked filmmaker Andrew (co-director Andrew Gurland channeling Woody Allen in more ways than one) turns out to be one black-hearted white knight. As for Lichi, she has her predictable “I’m dragon lady, hear me roar” moments. They’re all using and abusing each other — equal-opportunity misanthropy.

    Although it wins a few good laughs in the beginning, Mail-Order Wife is played too straight and lacks the antic madness of Christopher Guest’s work, which jabbingly points out its own artifice even as it mocks its characters. Wife tries for a revenge-filled denouement to shake things up a bit, but by then it’s too little, too late. — Noy Thrupkaew
Date DVD #23: The Ring
Why are the best date movies the ones that scare the hell out of us? Is it just
all that hand-squeezing in the dark? Or is it hormonal:
the way that creaking, top-of-the-rollercoaster anxiety rushes down into jittery excitement when the chainsaw touches that sweet blonde’s throat? I like to think that horror flicks and romance go together like peanut butter and
chocolate because the only things as terrifying as zombies and hockey-masked
serial killers are first dates and commitment. But maybe that’s just me.

    Either way, you can’t go wrong with the Ring series. Ring
hits theaters on March 18th, and completist shut-ins can now find a
bounty of original Ring materials on DVD. Hideo Nakata’s original, startling
Japanese flick Ringu has long been available, and there’s a new special
edition of the American remake. Sure, the new special edition really isn’t all
that new or special, but the Hollywood remake is still damn terrifying and a
sly bit of social commentary, too (it’s significant that Naomi Watts plays a
journalist). This is perhaps the only successful studio remake of a Japanese
horror film, and the first good film by Gore Verbinski (before his wonderfully
campy Pirates of the Carribean, he was only known for was those damn Budweiser
frogs and Julia Roberts’ flop, The Mexican). And Verbinski makes all the
right decisions here: smartly casting Watts in what may stand as her best performance,
spending Hollywood money on a few effects, but holding onto the grainy, Cronenberg-like
gut-punch of the original. Verbinski exploits Nakata’s weird iconography, instead
of simplifying it as you might expect, and steals a few of the most simple, startling
shocks: Those broken fingernails dug into the well’s walls still make me cringe.
To get the full Ring/Ringu experience, search eBay or a good video
store, and you can find the very different, original Japanese sequel Ring
(sans Naomi Watts), and even the third (less interesting, but still fun)
film in the series, Ring Zero. Get a couple, and watch them as all horror
movies are meant to be watched: as a date double feature. — Logan Hill

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