This blog is moving

Movers  Effective today, the Reeling blog will be moving to new digs at miami.com/movies. I will no longer be posting any updates here, although the blog archives will remain intact, for posterity's sake.

The new site has a much snazzier design and feel, and although it doesn't look like a traditional blog, I'm going to maintain it the same way I've maintained this page - although I'll have to be more disciplined and post more often, because the big bosses are watching now.

I hope you'll come check out the new site and register (it takes two seconds) so you can leave comments, which I really appreciate. The more feedback I receive from you, the more I am motivated to write. See you there!

Tilda Swinton talks ''I Am Love''

Here is my story about Tilda Swinton's collaboration with director Luca Guadagnino on the making of the awesome I Am Love, which opens Friday. I really like the way the story looks on the front of today's Tropical Life section, which was designed by Juan Lopez.

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Review: ''Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work''

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The makers of the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work spent a year shadowing the iconic performer everywhere:

• On trips to England and Scotland, where she previewed the one-woman show she hoped to bring to Broadway (audiences loved it, but the British critics dashed her dream).

• To the stage of Comedy Central's Joan Rivers Roast, where she dutifully endured the merciless barbs of other comedians (practically every other joke went after her multiple plastic surgeries).

• To Washington, D.C., where she nervously holds her own alongside the likes of Jon Stewart and Garry Shandling in a tribute to the late George Carlin.

• To the set of NBC's Celebrity Apprentice, the first time she had appeared on the network since Johnny Carson had blacklisted her for agreeing to host her own late-night talk show on rival Fox in the 1980s.

• To a casino in snowy Wisconsin, where she shouts down a heckler with a how-dare-you fury, yet still manages to keep the audience on her side.

Rivers was 76 when the movie was shot, and, aside from the opening credits in which we see her in extreme close-up without makeup, she never appears without her camera-ready game face - one of the tell-tale signs that co-directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg had to abide by their subject's rules while filming.

But although Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is unmistakably a fawning love letter to an amazing performer, Rivers proves to be her sharpest, bluntest critic. The movie uses vintage footage to recount her career, including appearances on The Tonight Show and The Mike Douglas Show, during which she habitually pushed the envelope of what you could joke about on TV (in one clip from the 1970s, she does a bit about abortion but uses the word appendectomy instead).

The movie also covers her marriage to Edgar Rosenberg, who committed suicide in 1987 after her talk show was canceled, and the birth of her daughter Melissa, who would so often work alongside her mother that they even played themselves in a TV movie about their lives. (When Melissa complains in the documentary about having an "image problem," the assumption is that she is inseparable from her mother in the public eye.)

But the most fascinating stuff in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work comes when the filmmakers capture the simple day-to-day details: Rivers' telephone conversations with her agent, pleading for a gig - any gig - because she needs the money; the way she brags about the grandness of her luxurious Manhattan apartment (the work may have slowed down, but she refuses to give up the lifestyle); her surprise appearances at small comedy clubs in New York, where she tests out new material (she remains, all these years later, an explosively funny stand-up comedienne), or a tender and amusing exchange with her grandson during a limo ride. In such moments, Rivers comes across as someone much more complex and vulnerable than her abrasive "Can we talk?" persona. There's a real woman under there, and she's pretty great.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (*** out of ****) opens Friday June 25 in Miami-Dade at South Beach and in Broward at Gateway and Sunrise.

Review: ''Exit Through the Gift Shop''

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In the enthralling Exit Through the Gift Shop, a curious, talkative Frenchman with pork-chop sideburns runs around videotaping everything - his wife, his children, his friends, the customers at his Los Angeles clothing store. Thierry Guetta isn't a filmmaker; he's just a compulsive shooter, and he doesn't go anywhere without his camera. When Thierry discovers that his cousin has a secret identity, Space Invader, and that he pastes small, tiled re-creations of the aliens from the classic video game in public spaces, he begins filming the man's nightly escapades.

Their antics lead Guetta to meet another street artist - Shepard Fairey, now famous for the iconic Obama "Hope'' poster - and then another and another. After almost a year of filming, Guetta decides he is going to make a movie about street artists, who create their often illegal work in the middle of the night or in bursts of daring in broad daylight. Guetta feeds on the danger, the adrenaline; he loves the ride, the excitement. But he just shoots and shoots, never going over his footage, and crates of tapes pile up.

And then Guetta hears about Banksy, a British graffitti artist who has pulled off some of the bravest and most clever street art of all, including paintings on the Palestinian segregation wall (the film contains footage of Banksy on the day he pulled the stunt). Guetta uses every connection he has, but the highly secretive and reclusive Banksy remains out of reach. Everyone tells Guetta he'll never get him.

But in 2006, when Banksy visits L.A. and needs an assistant, Guetta gets a huge break. Until this point, Exit Through the Gift Shop has been a rollicking, informative look at the world of graffiti art and the people who make it, risking high fines and even arrest to fulfill their creative needs. Once Banksy enters the picture, though, the movie begins to change. Guetta becomes an increasingly active participant in the street-art world, not just a documentarian. (There's some riveting footage of Guetta and Banksy at Disneyland where they hang an effigy of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner on the Big Thunder Railroad ride, a prank that leads to big trouble. Do not mess with the Mouse.)

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And when Banksy tells Guetta that he's filmed enough and should start editing the footage he's amassed, Exit Through the Gift Shop becomes another movie entirely - a provocative and absorbing exploration of what constitutes art, the creative process and the power of hype to triumph over talent. The movie offers a tantalizing peek into Banksy's studio and his methods - the artist, who has never been photographed, appears only in shadows and with his voice digitally garbled - but viewers expecting a film devoted to his career will be disappointed, since Banksy's work takes a second seat to Guetta's unexpected (and scarily prolific) art.

Is Exit Through the Gift Shop the big hoax some have claimed? Is Guetta, now a successful artist known as Mister Brainwash who has had exhibitions in New York and L.A., simply a construct - the latest prank by an artist known for his mischievous streak? In this case, whether the movie is genuine doesn't matter (although I'm highly suspicious of the professional sheen of "madness" displayed by the edited footage Guetta shows Banksy). What makes Exit Through the Gift Shop so fascinating - and it is riveting, regardless of your interest in the art world - is the eloquent and exciting way in which it illustrates how beauty and meaning really are in the eye of the beholder and how that eternal phrase still holds true: There's a sucker born every minute.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (***1/2 out of ****) opens Friday June 25 in Miami-Dade at Sunset and in Broward at Gateway.

Review: ''Knight and Day''

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Tom Cruise spends much of Knight and Day looking as if he's waiting for someone to pour casting mold over his head to make an action figure. When he's not flashing a blindingly fake grin, he's sporting a variation on the "Blue Steel'' look Ben Stiller perfected in Zoolander. Cruise's co-star, Cameron Diaz, fares better, because the movie requires her to shriek and wave her arms around a lot, which she's good at, and to walk around in a bikini or a yellow bridesmaid dress and black cowboy boots, a combo she really sells.

Too bad, though, that whenever characters stand still to talk, Knight and Day induces a fetal-curl stupor in the viewer. And the action scenes, which are intentionally preposterous and over the top and meant to be borderline comical, are just ridiculous. A motorcycle chase through the streets of Spain during the running of the bulls is a great idea. A motorcycle chase through the streets of Spain during the running of computer-generated bulls is not a great idea.

There is a sequence early on involving speeding trucks, vans, motorcycles and a tunnel that had the potential to be a mini-classic. Director James Mangold (Walk the Line) stages the action so things happen unexpectedly at the edge of the frame, startling you - except that most of it looks like a video game. When Diaz verbally references Grand Theft Auto, she's not kidding.

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There are so many CG and green-screen effects in Knight and Day, the movie could almost pass for Sin City II. In one scene, Cruise and Diaz are driving in a car having a conversation, and the exteriors through the windows look so fake you wonder if Mangold wasn't paying homage to Hitchcock's love for rear projection. He's not, though.

The only thing Knight and Day pays homage to is Cruise's enormous ego, who apparently believes audiences would want to watch him in roles like this one. Cruise is playing a character who is essentially unplayable: Roy Miller, a super-super secret agent who makes 007 look like a playground sissy. Roy can outrun computer-generated jets. He can fly computer-generated planes, He can magically transport unconscious people from the middle of remote wheat fields into the safety of their bedrooms, and he can anticipate every move his opponents make, as if he had ESP. Roy, who may or may not be crazy, even appears to be immortal: In one scene, we see him riddled by bullets and falling into a river, and then he shows up a few scenes later, unscratched and unhurt, with no explanation as to how he survived.

I know Knight and Day is not intended to be the sort of movie in which logic plays much of a role. But the chemistry between Cruise and Diaz is nonexistent (there's a reason why Cameron Crowe cast them as bitter exes in Vanilla Sky). Cruise's considerable magnetism has utterly abandoned him - anybody could be playing Roy - and without any character to engage the viewer, the film becomes a long slog through slick, noisy emptiness.

And I mean noisy. In one scene, Diaz, who plays a gearhead who specializes in restoring old cars, is handed a machine-gun by Cruise so she can defend herself against baddies. Suddenly, without explanation, she starts shrieking, holding the trigger down and waving the weapon around like a marching baton, spraying bullets everywhere. Diaz can play a lot of roles, but screaming ninnies don't suit her. Neither does this movie.

Knight and Day (* out of ****) opens in South Florida on Wednesday June 23.

Catch Springsteen on the big screen this weekend

The three-hour concert film Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: London Calling Live in Hyde Park comes out on DVD and Blu-ray next Tuesday. But if you want to see the show on a screen worthy of Springsteen's music, the Cosford Cinema is screening a 90-minute version of the concert this weekend in HD.

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The movie will be shown tonight at 7 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. Go here for ticket info and directions to the theater. Here's the setlist:

London Calling
Badlands
Night
She’s The One
Outlaw Pete
Working On a Dream
Born To Run
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Jungleland
American Land
Glory Days
Dancing In The Dark
Waitin’ On a Sunny Day

Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz are coming to town

Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz will be in Miami on Friday to do press for Knight and Day, which opens in theaters on Wednesday. I'm seeing the movie tonight, but I won't interviewing either of them, since the fabulous pair is only talking to TV press (and select outlets, at that).

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On Monday, I'll be interviewing director James Mangold, whom I've talked to before and whose work I enjoy. But it's hard to write a story about a movie built around two megastars without a single quote from either of them. I spoke to Cruise in 2008 for Valkyrie and we had a great interview - he stayed on the phone with me for an extra 10 minutes just talking about Stanley Kubrick and his work methods - but I was denied this time. Sorry, but no.

I suppose the logic is that Knight and Day isn't aimed at newspaper readers (just Playboy subscribers), although stories keep popping up about how distributor 20th Century Fox is worried about the lack of awareness around the big-budget film.Public sneak previews have been set up for Saturday night, so the studio definitely isn't hiding the movie. But it seems odd that Cruise and Diaz are coming here on a publicity blitz and can't spare 10 minutes for a story about their film.

Anyways, local paparazzi should get their game face on tomorrow if they hope to land any snaps of the actors, who will do their best to slip in and out of town undetected. I could tell you which hotel they'll be working out of, but then I'd have to kill you. Actually, I don't really know, although I could make a pretty good guess. But I'm not invited, so it doesn't matter.

Review: ''Toy Story 3''

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In Toy Story 3, the wizards at Pixar Animation Studios dust off their most iconic characters for a spirited, playful rumpus. The movie has a noticeably irreverent energy, as if the filmmakers had decided to indulge themselves after cranking out so many masterpieces (Ratatouille, Wall*E, Up) and make something purely for sheer fun.

And what great fun it is! Eleven years after Toy Story 2, Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and the rest of Andy's beloved toys are fretting about the boy's having grown up. Andy, preparing to leave for college, is cleaning out his room. Will his childhood playthings get stored in the attic to collect dust? Will they be put out on the curb with the rest of the trash?

The story hook of Toy Story 3, co-written by Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine), is that Woody, Buzz and the rest wind up being donated to a day-care center, where manic toddlers smash them against walls and find out how far they'll stretch and bend. The concept is ingenious - a playground as torture chamber - and the movie essentially becomes a prison-break picture complete with an evil warden, a pink teddy bear (Ned Beatty) who isn't as kind as he seems.

Toy Story 3, which was directed by Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo), introduces several other new characters, including an amusingly vain Ken (Michael Keaton) who seduces Barbie (Jodi Benson) with his extensive wardrobe, and a beat-up baby doll with a droopy eye that the movie occasionally uses to strike a note of fun, cartoonish horror (new territory for Pixar). A surprising darkness lurks beneath the bright colors and vivid 3D animation - this is really a story about aging and death - although the subtexts are subtle, and young viewers won't be disturbed.

This is also the most hyperactive of all of Pixar's films: The entire second half is essentially one long action setpiece that keeps raising the cliffhanger stakes, like an Indiana Jones picture. And the movie also has a taste for absurdist humor, such as a long, funny scene in which Buzz's inner machinery is reset to Spanish. That sequence, like so much of Toy Story 3, is self-indulgent but irresistible - a loving tribute to characters who have become engrained in the popular culture as deeply as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny once did.

And the movie saves its biggest wallop for the last scene, a surprisingly moving depiction of the transition from childhood to young adulthood that will put a lump in the throat of many grown-up viewers. Even at their most playful, the folks at Pixar know how to give any story emotional gravity and weight. Toy Story 3 is a worthy and delirious final chapter to this hallowed animation franchise.

Toy Story 3 (***1/2 out of ****) opens in South Florida on Friday June 18.

Miami Film Festival seeks a new director - again

Updated 4:40 p.m. Thursday

For the fifth time in 10 years, the Miami International Film Festival is seeking a new director.

Tiziana Finzi, who had served as artistic director since 2009, will not return for a third year. Miami Dade College, which presents the festival, declined to renew her contract, which expires June 30.

Finzi, who had recently attended the Tribeca and Cannes festivals, said she learned of the decision Wednesday via a telephone call from George Andrews, MDC's Chief of Staff.

"I don't understand what happened," Finzi said from Italy. "He just said 'I would like to tell you that your contract is not being renewed, good luck and ciao.' I don't know if something within the festival is changing, but I don't think it was personal, because everyone at the college was very nice to me."

Finzi said she offered to renegotiate the terms of her contract when she returns to Miami on June 22. But she said Andrews told her "there was nothing to talk about." MDC administrators declined to comment.

Finzi's programming had veered toward the daring and experimental, although her choices also included such crowd-pleasers as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes.

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Tiziana Finzi (above, right) with director Abel Ferrara at the Gusman during the 2009 festival. 

In March, she told The Miami Herald that "a festival director needs at least three years in order to really connect with and educate their audience. This is my second, and hopefully I will get a third."

Finzi's departure is one of several staffing changes. Vivian Donnell Rodriguez, MDC's director of cultural affairs, who had managed the festival's administrative operations for the last three years, retired in May. Valeria Sorrentino, assistant director for programming and events, has accepted a position with the Rio International Film Festival.

This year's festival operated under a $1.6 million budget, screened 115 feature-length and short films and drew 65,000 admissions. College representatives issued a statement promising the festival would return as scheduled next year and that staff changes will not "affect the operations nor the status of the festival in any way ... This transition also provides the college an opportunity to assess the operations and implementation of the festival to ensure the beloved cultural event is the very best it can be."

Review: ''The A-Team''

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"Overkill is underrated," says a member of The A-Team, befitting a movie in which an armored tank parachutes through the air, a helicopter flies upside-down and Jessica Biel convincingly portrays a no-nonsense Army investigator. All of these things are, on a theoretical level, possible. But The A-Team sells them with such bombast and flair that you know the filmmakers are in on the joke. This is the movie G.I. Joe should have been.

The genius of a feature film based on the 1980s TV series is that it can't help but exceed expectations, because they're going to be so low to begin with. I never watched the series, and know nothing about it except that it co-starred Mr. T, who sported his iconic mohawk and was the team's toughest member. In the new incarnation, Mr. T's character is played by Quinton "Rampage'' Jackson, a mixed-martial-arts and UFC fighting champion. Jackson also sports a finely groomed mohawk, and, though he never actually says the phrase, he has the words "pity" and "fool" tattooed on his knuckles.

A lot of director Joe Carnahan's humor is of the wink-nudge variety - an elbow to the ribs and then, to prove he's not completely kidding, a spectacular action sequence that must set a new record for onscreen explosions. The rest of the A-Team is comprised of Liam Neeson (loyal, brave leader), Bradley Cooper (irrepressible playboy) and District 9's Sharlto Cooper (a talented pilot and also completely insane). The plot, which involves the heroes' being framed and sent to prison and some stolen counterfeiting money-pressing plates, practically defies conprehension. When one character says "What is happening? What is going on?" you know the filmmakers are having a good-natured laugh at your expense.

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The A-Team is a gigantic pile of ear-deafening nonsense, but it is brisk and goofy and well shot by Carnahan (Smokin' Aces) and a lot livelier than Robin Hood or Iron Man 2. Did this mostly forgotten series really deserve to be dusted off and turned into a film franchise? Probably not. But logic and common sense have no business in a movie in which even the characters can't keep track of what's going on.

The A-Team (**1/2 out of ****) opens in South Florida on Friday June 11.

Review: ''Mother and Child''

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The first half of Mother and Child, a drama about adopted children and the mothers who gave them up as infants, has a steely, engaging fire - the flames of anger and life-long disappointment. Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia (Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her) uses quick, deft strokes to establish the emotional constitution of his three main characters. Karen (Annette Bening) is a brittle, acerbic woman who lives with her ailing mother (Eileen Ryan), who clucks her disapproval constantly and prefers the company of their housekeeper (Elpidia Carrillo).

Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) is a supremely confident lawyer who impresses her new boss (Samuel L. Jackson) so much, they're soon embroiled in a sexual affair. Elizabeth has no trouble separating her personal life from her work: She separates herself from the world entirely, her calculating, sometimes condescending manner hinting at a great, unspoken resentment that will never be satisfied.

Lucy (Kerry Washington) cannot bear children, but she is eager to adopt with her husband, and they meet a potential donor in pregnant Ray (Shareeka Epps), who demands to interview her baby's would-be parents before consenting to the adoption. To say that the interview process is grueling does not properly describe it.

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Mother and Child is at its best when Garcia observes cruelty and kindness with the same detached, impassioned eye: These characters are all wounded in one way or another and are wont to commit small acts of emotional brutality as a way of giving their inner pain some escape. The movie might have been a bruising little masterpiece if Garcia had maintained that tone all the way through, but he lets the picture start to go soft in the middle, and teary melodrama floods in like water from a broken dam.

Suddenly, we've got scenes involving necklaces with sentimental value, a little blind girl who is wise beyond her years and an unexpected pregnancy that goes wrong in all the worst ways. The none-too-subtle mystery running throughout Mother and Child is the connection among the protagonists. The link betwen Karen and Elizabeth is obvious from the get-go, but Lucy's role in the puzzle isn't made clear until the closing scene, which is easily the film's worst.

Mother and Child is good when it takes a harsh, unsparing look at lament and the burdens we carry throughout our lives. Then it goes for your tear ducts,and we're suddenly stranded in Lifetime TV territory - as if another filmmaker had taken over and decided to soften the hard edges that previously made Mother and Child so compelling.

Mother and Child (** out of ****) opens at the Regal South Beach in Miami-Dade and Sunrise and Gateway in Fort Lauderdale on Friday June 4.

Review: ''Splice''

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In the monster romp Splice, biochemists Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) use DNA splicing to hatch a half-human, half-animal creature in their lab, then take a parental shine. Big mistake. Scientists, whether sane or mad, should never treat their lab subjects like offspring. Disaster is inevitable.

But Clive and Elsa have obviously never watched Frankenstein (or any of David Cronenberg's films) , and the movie none-too-subtly lets us know they're thinking about starting a family. Why not try things out with this deformed, mewling slug? The horrible-yet-strangely-cute mutant grows up quickly (she ages days within minutes) and becomes Dren (Delphine Cheneac), a humanoid with peculiar characteristics, such as vaguely supermodel looks, wings that sprout when she becomes angry or aroused and a tail with a phallic stinger that pumps poison. Dren is usually gentle - she likes kittens, sugary foods and playing with toys - except when she throws a tantrum, in which case tranquilizer darts and a titanium steel cage might come in handy.

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But Clive and Elsa, who have squirreled Dren out of their laboratory and to a remote farmhouse where they can raise her away from their meddling bosses, haven't really prepared for the worst-case scenario. Splice was directed by Vincenzo Natali, who made the fiendishly creepy, low-budget shocker Cube, and he fares well in the scenes depicting a pre-grown Dren and her brethren - fleshy, formless slugs you don't know whether to pet or euthanize. But although Brody and Polley do their best to sell the increasingly illogical behavior of their characters, Splice grows progressively sillier the older Dren gets, finally resorting to chases in dark woods and sudden gotcha! appearances by a pissed-off mutant, who is none too happy about the corrective behavior her parents have planned for her.

The creature effects are terrific, but the human protagonists aren't nearly so interesting, and the don't-mess-with-nature message is too hoary to be made interesting with this feeble setup. By the time the film's climactic 15 minutes rolled around, viewers at a preview were laughing as if they were watching The Hangover. For a horror picture, such a reaction is the equivalent of a stake through the heart.

Splice (** out of ****) opens Friday June 4 in South Florida.

Excuses, excuses

Studios opt to not screen movies in advance for critics all the time, the logic being "Why spend good money to show a bad film to people who are going to turn around and tell the whole world just how wretched it is?"

I normally don't care that pictures like MacGruber or Legion are released without press screenings. If the people who made the movie think it sucks, then they're doing me a favor by saving me two hours of my life. What does irk me is when a studio tries to rationalize their decision to hide a film from persnickety critics with some psychobabble.

Paramount Pictures vice chairman Rob Moore did it last summer when he decided to hide the would-be blockbuster G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra from reviewers, claiming "After the chasm we experienced with Transformers 2 between the response of audiences and critics, we chose to forgo opening-day print and broadcast reviews as a strategy to promote G.I. Joe. We want audiences to define this film."

Killers_1Sht_Trim_a  At least Moore was honest: He was essentially saying G.I. Joe was just as bad as Transformers 2. But Lionsgate is taking a different approach to its decision to not screen the Ashton Kutcher-Katherine Heigl comedy Killers, which opens Friday. In a feeble effort to combat the negative buzz surrounding themovie, the company issued the following statement:

“In today’s socially connected marketplace, we all have the ability to share feedback instantly around the world. In keeping with this spirit, Lionsgate and the filmmakers want to give the opportunity to moviegoing audiences and critics alike to see Killers simultaneously, and share their thoughts in the medium of their choosing. We felt this sense of immediacy could be a real asset in the marketing of Killers.“

I have read that statement three times and am still not sure what it means. But I think the message here is "We'd rather wait until people start tweeting about how bad Killers is, and hopefully have racked up a few million dollars in tickets sales before then, rather than have critics slaughter it from the start.

Who says critics don't matter any longer?

Meanwhile, Kutcher is promising to "pirate" the first 10 minutes of the movie tonight live from the premiere via his Twitter feed, to give audiences a taste of what they're in for. Desperation, anyone?

Lionsgate has a substantial history of not screening movies for critics that turned out to be really decent B-pictures (Crank, Hostel II, Daybreakers). I don't blame them for not screening the Saw sequels, because no one in their right mind would want to sit through those. But I do think the studio is awfully sensitive about protecting their pictures from those mean, cranky critics. Then again, Killers was directed by Robert Luketic, whose previous film was The Ugly Truth. So maybe they are doing the right thing.

Review: ''Casino Jack and the United States of Money''

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In Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side) tackles his most complicated subject yet: The corruption and abuse of power by lobbyists with access to the highest echelons in Washington, D.C.

The film's main protagonist is Jack Abramoff, the former high roller now serving four years after pleading guilty to tax evasion, fraud and conspiracy to bribe public officials. But the movie cuts a much broader swath than just Abramoff's tale - already fiendishly complicated - reaching all the way back to the Nixon 1970s to lay out in scrupulous detail how the former champion weightlifter, College Republican National Committee chairman and occasional film producer (the Dolph Lundgren stinker Red Scorpion) was able to pull off his elaborate schemes in the public eye.

A critical flaw is the absence of Abramoff, who appears in copious C-SPAN and other vintage news clips but never before Gibney's camera to tell his side of the tale. (The filmmaker had access to him in prison, but the sit-downs were not filmed.) The movie places Abramoff's crimes - primarily his misappropriation of millions of dollars contributed by casinos owned by Native Americans - against a dauntingly complex backdrop involving the Conversative Christian Right, Chinese sweatshops, Karl Rove, former House majority leader Tom DeLay and various Democratic and Republican state representatives.

Gibney is a canny filmmaker who knows how to put together a flashy, entertaining picture. Casino Jack and the United States of Money opens with a re-creation of the assassination of Fort Lauderdale casino-boat owner Gus Boulis, which immediately seizes your attention. The picture is briskly edited, and the energy never lags. But the amount of information the viewer is asked to process is voluminous - and never stops coming. By the time Casino Jack has laid out its case, you'll understand a lot better how people like Abramoff can take flagrant advantage of the system for personal gain. But most viewers except hardcore political wonks will feel a little exhausted.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money (**1/2 out of ****) opens Friday, May 21 at the Regal South Beach in Miami-Dade.

Review: ''No One Knows About Persian Cats''

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There's a terrific, crowd-pleasing musical nestled within the Iranian import No One Knows About Persian Cats. The movie won the Audience Award at this year's Miami International Film Festival and has accrued similar honors on the international-festival circuit. But it opens with an ominous title card informing us that it was "based on real events, locations and people," a notice immediately followed by a brief, blurry shot of a bleeding man being wheeled into a hospital. That image quickly evaporates from memory when the film begins, but it will make an unfortunate and misplaced return by its end.

For much of No One Knows About Persian Cats, which was shot on the fly in a scant 17 days without the official sanction of the Iranian government, director Bahman Ghodabi presents an energetic, at times exuberantly comical tale of two indie rock musicians (Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad) trying to find guitarists and drummers to round out their band and then secure the illegal visas and passports they need to perform outside Iran, where their brand of music is illegal.

Their quest hinges on the help of Nadar (Hamed Behdad), a fast-talking promoter and bootlegger of American movies on DVD. Nadar, who has connections to the underworld, listens to the rockers' music and decides to help, introducing them to various musicians from all genres - thrash metal, Persian rap, nightclub crooning - and to a pair of shady businessmen who specialize in forging passports and visas at steep prices.

No One Knows About Persian Cats has a droll sense of humor about the realities of modern-day life in Iran and its endless restrictions (there's a terrific scene in which Nadar talks himself out of a bootlegging charge in front of a stern judge). At times the film is explosively funny: the passport forger rants about the lovey-dovey movies Nadar has been using to bribe bringing him (he only wants to watch action movies with "100 killings and no romance.") The movie has no shortage of memorable characters, such as the heavy-metal guitarist who practices with his band on a remote farm so as not to annoy his neighbors but whose ear-splitting music so upsets the cows that they go on a hunger strike and moo vociferously with displeasure.

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The film also turns its plentiful musical numbers (all diverse and insanely catchy) into videos depicting the vibrancy of Iran's youth, respectful of their cultural tradition but eager to break free of the restrictions it imposed. The similarities between these young people and American teens are striking and surprising. Unfortunately, Ghodabi doesn't trust his film to convey the message that has already been clearly and entertainingly spelled out, and No One Knows About Persian Cats ends on a sudden note of tragedy that almost ruins the exuberant spirit of everything that has preceded it.

The movie falls into the trap of underlining the obvious, and the heavy-handed finale is so completely at odds with the rest of the film that you're baffled why it wasn't left on the cutting-room floor. The best way to enjoy No One Knows About Persian Cats is to leave five minutes before it's over and conjure your own ending: Whatever you dream up is better than the one the movie gives you.

No One Knows About Persian Cats (**1/2 out of ****) opens at the Cosford Cinema and Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday May 21.

 
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