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William Dafoe and Jeff Goldblum in Adam Resurrected

Paul Schrader's
Adam Resurrected
Opens Friday, December 12, 2008

Written By: Noah Stollman, from Yoram Kaniuk's novel
Starring: Jeff Goldblum; Willem Dafoe; Derek Jacobi; and Ayelet Zurer.

Ehud Bleiberg/Werner Wirsing Production
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

You could probably make a couple of dozen films about the Holocaust of the early 1940's without repeating any of the themes. One could be a look at two nine-year-olds, one the son of a Nazi camp commandant who in his innocence makes friends with a boy his own age who is wearing striped pajamas on the other side of barbed wire (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). Another could be about a group of Jews who flee into the Polish forest to retaliate against their German tormentors (Defiance). The most popular Holocaust film to date, Schindler's List, is about a high-ranking German who saved hundreds of Jews from extermination by employing them in his factory and insisting to his superiors that their work was absolutely required for the war effort.

Paul Schrader, inspired by Yoram Kaniuk's novel of the sixties as adapted by scripter Noah Stollman, explores the psyches of survivors of Hitler's extermination program to find how their experience in the war affected them emotionally. Since the novel on which the film is based is written with a stream-of-consciousness methodology, what emerges is not the kind of straight narrative that could make it popular in the box office (not that Holocaust films create much ringing of studio cash registers in general). Despite a tour-de-force performance by Jeff Goldblum as the title figure, Adam Resurrected is too theatrical, too distanced from the audience, to have an emotional impact. Watching the cast go through their paces becomes more of an intellectual experience rather than a flowing, cinematic one, making the movie one to be respected rather than wrapped up in.

Goldblum plays Adam, a clown in pre-war Berlin, who makes the audience laugh while at the same time evoking gasps as he flings knives against a stereotypical female target. Arrested by the Gestapo for the crime of being born a Jew, he is sent to a concentration camp and "adopted" by Commandant Klein (Willem Dafoe), a man who was once in his audience during better times. Klein's idea of exerting authority is to require his house servant always to walk about on all fours like a dog—where strangely, the prisoner has a way with Jew-hating German Shepherds who become suddenly tame, performing tricks in his presence. After the war, Adam's experience as a dog affects his stability. Attempting to kill a woman, he is returned to an asylum in the midst of Israel's Negev Desert, where Dr. Nathan Gross (Derek Jacobi) treats a score of deranged victims of Nazi horrors. The particular horrors visited upon Adam are twofold: one is his service as a dog to a Nazi officer; the other is his guilt for surviving, which he accomplished by playing the violin as inmates marched to their death (those inmates including his wife and daughter whom he could not save).

As cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid turns his lenses from the late forties in Israel back to Berlin during the thirties and the camp in the early forties, we see clearly how any man in Adam's position could become deranged. A brilliant fellow, a charismatic performer both on the violin and as a clown, he seems impervious to the institution's curative attempts. Yet he is turned around when confronted with the strange case of a young, abused boy, David (Rumanian Tudor Rapiteanu), who is locked in his own room, a sheet covering his body with two eyelets for vision. David thinks himself a dog. Adam becomes as fascinated by the lad as Gina (Ayelet Zurer), the head nurse, is with Adam; her impromptu couplings with Adam unable to allow him to emerge as a normal person.

In fact, the entire story with its emphasis on man's inhumanities, brings to mind the quote, "''its folly to be sane when the whole world is insane." Adam's Resurrection, filmed in the Israeli desert and within the Bucharest, Rumania studios, is a more of an experimental work than Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Cuckoo, with its themes of good vs. evil, sanity vs. insanity, was an allegory right in line with the hippieish days of the sixties and early seventies. This film, however, is a dark comedy without real laughs and without evoking the feeling that the institution in the middle of nowhere is a symbol for hell.

Rated R. 106 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Elissa Down's
The Black Balloon
Opens Friday, December 5, 2008

Written By: Elissa Down, Jimmy Jack
Starring: Toni Collette; Gemma Ward; Rhys Wakefield; Luke Ford; and Erik Thomson.

NeoClassics Films Ltd
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

Hollywood Reporter critic Megan Lehmann calls this movie "one of the most genuinely enjoyable films out of Australia in years." Having just seen Baz Luhrmann's bloated Australia, I'm not inclined to disagree. The Black Balloon is a downer turned upper, or as Obama might say, "This film gives people hope." Family dysfunction is on display—not exactly a unique subgenre—but originality comes in the form of its causes. There is nothing amiss in the relationship of husband, Simon Mollison (Erik Thomson) and his pregnant wife Maggie (Toni Collette). They seem an ideal, loving couple, with Simon's character evoking the image we'd all probably want in our own dads. What's amiss—and what is almost unforgivable in the Mollison's scheme—is that handsome 15-year-old Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) is burdened with caring for his severely autistic brother, Charlie (Luke Ford), at a time that he's loaded down with activities in his high school and just navigating his way with a charmer of the opposite sex, Jackie (Gemma Ward).

Charlie, who is aptly named (think of Cliff Robertson's character in Ralph Nelson's 1968 film), seems at times to be the happiest of the family household, grinning, laughing, cavorting by banging a stick on the ground, grunting, and driving his neighbors up the wall. But he cannot speak. He has a severe case of autism, the kind of difficulty that would prompt most American families to institutionalize him. This suburban Australian family puts up with bathing the lad after he plays with poop, wiping it on himself and on the carpet. They put up with his running out the door, jogging down the street barefoot, chased by his unfortunate brother. Charlie is favored by his mom, who lovingly gives him baths and shampoos, doles out gold stars when he's good, and tries to get him to open his mouth to administer daily medicine. Charlie behaves pretty much like a dog: having his own bark, keeping his mouth clothed to avoid medicine, playing with feces.

Elissa Down, who directs and co-wrote the film, bases the story on her own experiences living with autistic brothers. She gets us into the daily rhythm of school as well as home, particularly on the activities in the pool—where Thomas meets Jackie (model Gemma Ward), who sneaks in a quick kiss while practicing CPR. Their courtship is burdened by the need to allow Charlie to accompany them on their walks through the area.

What we have, then, is a fairly intimate look at one family on the opposite side of the world from us here in the U.S., featuring activities far more commonplace than those engaged in by the folks in Baz Luhrmann's Australia. The acting is strong all around, eliciting fondness from the audience gazing almost with disbelief the brotherly love on exhibit.

Not Rated. 97 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Darnell Martin's
Cadillac Records
Opens Friday, December 5, 2008

The Truth and Reconciliation in Cadillac Records

Starring: Adrien Brody; Jeffrey Wright; Gabrielle Union; Columbus Short; Cedric the Entertainer; Emmanuelle Chriqui; Eamonn Walker; Mos Def; and Beyoncé Knowles.

Reviewed by William S. Gooch

When movie executives aren’t sure that audiences will appreciate the storyline of a major movie they pack the cast with superstars to satisfy investors and ensure box office success. We’ve seen this many times before, particularly if singing is involved, Renee Zellwegger, Richard Gere, and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago; Queen Latifah, Michelle Pfeiffer, and John Travolta in Hairspray; and more recently Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia, just to name a few.

Although Cadillac Records is stocked with brand name celebrities, the true star of this film is the story of Chess Records and the many blues and R&B artists that recorded on the label. Audiences will appreciate this story of American musical history, survival and triumph.

Set in the early 1950s, Cadillac Records details the story of Polish immigrant Leonard Chess (Adrian Brody) and his quest to build a record label with solely blues and R&B artists. Most black musical artists of the 1950s were relegated to the few record companies that specialized in what was then called ‘race records,’ exceptions being Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and black jazz artists Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and others. Most received limited airtime on the radio and were signed to recording contracts were they cheated out of royalties and recording rights. If any of their material was thought to have crossover appeal, white artists would re-record and market the material without financial benefit to the black artist.

Leonard Chess sought to change some of that. Chess treated his recording artists like family, giving each artist a new Cadillac upon signing with the label. Although some of his business practices may have been suspect, Chess was generous to a fault with most and a true lover of blues and R&B music.

Cadillac Records is a very special film because it presents a wider panorama of black life in the 1950s and 60s. Many Hollywood directors have attempted to capture the black experience on film. Most fall short or even fail due to a lack of understanding of black culture, or for only presenting what is palatable to white audiences or mass markets. What writer and director Darnell Martin has done so successfully in this film is that she not only captures the soul of black folk, but she also captures the nuance of that particular time in Black America. She captures the encroaching urban decay of the Southside of Chicago without diminishing the pride of black folks and their love of music.

Martin also brilliantly demonstrates the linear connection of rock n’ roll, rock music, pop, and even heavy metal to blues and R&B. Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) playing riffs on his acoustic guitar portends Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards. The Rolling Stones even took the name of their band from one of Muddy Waters’ songs.

Every member of this ensemble cast gives rich, layered performances, but special notice goes to Jeffrey Wright, Columbus Short, Adrian Brody, Beyonce Knowles and Gabrielle Union. They not only capture the pathos and humanity of each character, but make each character relevant without losing authenticity.

Jeffrey Wright brings his inimitable acting abilities to the character of Muddy Waters. He ingeniously captures the longings and flaws of this great blues pioneer. He effortlessly transitions Waters from an itinerant sharecropper to the blues genius of his day.

Colombus Short portrays Little Walter as a talented, wounded soul on the precipice of self-destruction and ruin. Short illuminates the emotional cost and repercussions of the black artists who would not submit to white supremacy. His and Beyonce Knowles portrayals are Academy® Award-winning caliber.

As Leonard Chess, Adrian Brody successfully bridges the gap of what it meant to be a white man promoting race music in the 1950s and 60s who empathized with the racial inconveniencies that black folks had to endure. Brody wisely stays away from being the great ‘White Father’ with all the wisdom and answers. Martin has correctly positioned Brody as an outsider who must sometimes stand on the sidelines and watch his artists lives unravel.

In most of her past roles, Gabrielle Union has portrayed well-heeled, self-determined ‘glammed-up’ black beauties. As Geneva Wade, Muddy Water’s love interest, we see a different Union, scrubbed down and in love with a philandering man who can’t help himself. Union shows an openness and vulnerability missing from some of her previous work. She captures the nuance and gesture of women who love unconditionally, knowing that their love will never be fully reciprocated.

The role of Etta James is a breakout performance for Beyonce Knowles. She completely captures James’s angst and grittiness. Since Dreamgirls we expect Knowles to carry off most musical challenges, but what is distinguishing about her performance here is that she makes James a sympathetic character without minimizing James' strength and talent.

Cadillac Records is truly an American movie; speaking honestly about America’s musical lineage and reconciling the past to the present. There is no truth without an acknowledgement of the past, and what a glorious past it is.


Benicio Del Toro in Che

Stephen Soderbergh’s
Opens Friday, December 12, 2008

Was His Living in Vain

Starring: Benicio Del Toro; Maria D. Rosa; Demian Bichar; Lou Diamond Phillips; and Franka Potente.

Reviewed by William S. Gooch

In less than two months we will inaugurate the first African American as president of the United States and leader of the free world. President-elect Barack Obama ran a successful campaign on the mantra of change. Yet, this eloquent man of the people—or few current political heroes—has never had to make the personal sacrifices for equality or endured the indignities of the hero in Stephen Soderbergh’s Che. Well known as one of the guiding forces behind the Cuban Revolution, Soderbergh‘s 4-hour biopic illuminates an aspect of Ernesto “Che” Guevara unknown to most audiences. Soderbergh not only details Che’s life as an armed, revolutionary guerilla in Cuba and Bolivia, but he also gives insight into Che’s own life challenges. Soderbergh brilliantly crafts dialogue and action that highlight Che’s charismatic ability to inspire peasants, workers and yes, even some elites to forsake family, possessions and political affiliations for the cause of liberation and social equality.

Even though Guevara came from the privileged upper classes of Argentine society, early on he identified with and fought for the liberation of the oppressed and indigenous peoples around the world. Many scholars have questioned if there would have been a Cuban Revolution without Che. That is a question that can never be answered. What is clear from Soderbergh’s biopic is that there would have been a Che Guevara without Fidel Castro, but perhaps, there would not have been a Fidel Castro without Che. There is very little arch in Benicio Del Toro’s interpretation of Che Guevara because there was no arch to Che the man. From the moment of Guevara’s enlightenment about the struggles and conditions of poor folks around the world, his was a singular vision of what needed to be done to topple oppressive, elitist regimes around the world. We see the fruits of his labor today with the election of the first indigenous president in Bolivia; the election of a mixed-race president in Venezuela; female presidents in Chile and Peru; and in some indirect way the election of an African American in the United States.

Part 1 begins with Fidel Castro’s younger brother, Raul, introducing Fidel to Che Guevara in Mexico. Camaraderie is immediately established between both men, and Guevara is enlisted as a company doctor for the revolution. Soderbergh breathtakingly captures panoramic images of the Cuban countryside and the abject poverty of Cuban peasants, most whom have never seen a physician. Soderbergh in these scenes clearly delineates Che’s vision for a socialistic approach to the basic human rights of food, shelter, healthcare, and education. Soderbergh shows Guevara’s military genius as Cuban guerillas take down, city by city, each stronghold of Batista’s government. Soderbergh positions Guevara as a man who is ideologically committed to substantive change, not an exchange of power. Each victory was for the Cuban underclasses and the revolution, not to take the bounty of the elites or replace Batista’s government with a milquetoast facsimile.

In Part 2, we see Guevara working undercover as an Uruguyan businessman for revolutionaries in Bolivia. Separated from his wife and children, Del Toro brilliantly communicates Che’s anxiety and angst at only being able to communicate with family intermittently. Saddled by crippling asthmatic attacks, Guevara soldiers on in his quest to bring liberation to the Bolivian people. Soderbergh also in Part 1 and 2, interweaves Guevara’s grandiloquent oratory before the United Nations. By filming these scenes in black and white, Soderbergh craftily places Che’s speeches in the 1960s, a time when most Americans saw the nightly news on black and white television sets and most news footage was similarly filmed.

Benicio Del Toro rightfully interprets Che as a man with a completely made up mind. From the beginning of the film until its end, Del Toro’s delivers a robust performance of the highest order. Everything in his portrayal works. He is measured where he needs to be, and appropriately charming in the right moments.

Stephen Soderbergh should be commended for completing the herculean task of bringing Che’s life to the silver screen. And whether Che is seen as an infamous thorn in the side of elite governments or a symbol of liberation to oppressed people, his short life’s work, to many, was worth all the sacrifice.

Che opens in limited release on December 12, 2008. Che is directed by Steven Soderbergh and stars Benicio Del Toro, Maria D. Rosa, Demian Bichar, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Franka Potente.

Che is in Spanish with English subtitles.

David Fincher’s
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Opens Friday, December 25, 2008

Written By: Eric Roth, from his story and Robin Swicord's, based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story
Starring: Brad Pitt; Cate Blanchett; Tilda Swinton; Elle Fanning; Jason Flemyng; Julia Ormond; Elias Koteas; and Taraji P. Henson

Paramount Pictures (domestic)/ Warner Bros. (foreign)
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

George Bernard Shaw said that, "Youth is wasted on the young," while Mark Twain added, "It's a pity the best part of life comes at the beginning and the worst part at the end." How true. And how fortunate that a couple of quotes like these can prod a writer to wrack his brain to conjure up a tale of vivid imagination.

A fifteen-year-old is at his peak physically, yet because of the influence of hormones and his thinking with a part of the body other than his brain, he makes so many costly mistakes that later on in life he'll regret. When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the short story, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" in 1921—a tale which can be read online at
as it's only 16 pages long—he posited a person who is born at the age of seventy (eighty in the movie version scripted by Eric Roth), giving him an opportunity to gain wisdom and, most important, to be world's only person who looks forward to getting on in years. By contrast most of us in the real world are tempted to look backward at the glory days of our youth.

The thing about the title character, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is that while he is born in 1918 on Armistice Day at the age of eighty, getting younger every year until he's a baby, he does not particularly use the wisdom he gains by from being in the company of activist pals who think he's a mature man. He's as passive as Forrest Gump, another character created by Eric Roth. In a film that skirts sentimentality without becoming sucked into soap-opera melodrama, Benjamin acts the part of a blank slate accepting offers of adventure from the people he meets.

With the aid of incredibly competent computer generated imagnery that gives us a Brad Pitt looking much shorter and convincingly decades older; with production design that take us to New Orleans, Paris and Benares; with stellar performances particularly from Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Jason Flemyng and especially Taraji P. Henson, in the role of the woman who adopts Benjamin when his horrified dad left the newborn on the steps of a rest home. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is expected to sweep Oscar nominations in as many as ten categories. The story, largely a series of poignant vignettes, most of which are evocative of life's dreams and disappointments and the workings of fate, captures moviegoers' attention even more for the narrative than for the technology.

If only the film were less distant, less emotionally as detached, it would be a shoo-in for best picture. We've come to expect marathons on our year-end prestige films, and at 167 minutes, this is not for an ADD audience who'd feel more comfortable with Transporter 3.

The tale finds Benjamin enter the world of New Orleans at the age of eighty, his mother dying in childbirth, his father, Thomas (Jason Flemyng), hustling the infant onto the steps of a rest home where he is retrieved by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) and, in a few years as a small, old man, he fits right in to the rocking-chair culture. Burdened with cataracts, hard of hearing, and confined to a wheelchair, he is cured of his lameness by an evangelical preacher, is soon seen twelve years later, looking seventy, when he meets red-haired pre-teen, Daisy, who will figure strongly in years to come. Taken into the sea by a tugboat skipper, Mike (Jared Harris), which is seen as a growing-up ritual that would please Eugene O'Neill, he stops off in Murmansk to enjoy an affair with the wife of a British trader, Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), encounters a battle with a German sub during World War 2, returns to New Orleans where he again meets Daisy—a prima ballerina whom he follows to New York to watch her dance in a couple of the picture's best moments: a performance to the music of Carousel. Benjamin and Daisy's romance is on-again, off-again, and on-again, forming the nucleus of the story.

The film is framed by Cate Blanchett's character, now a dying woman made up to look a hundred years older, as Benjamin's diary is read to her by her daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond).

On the negative side: in addition to the remoteness of the material, photographer Claudio Miranda shoots the scenes in digital rather than using the warmer stock of actual film. In short, not the masterpiece that some critics will label it, but still a respectful epic story that should attract an intelligent audience on Christmas Day and thereafter.

Rated PG-13. 167 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Toledo Diamond Toledo and Gabriel Mann in Dark Streets

Rachel Samuels'
Dark Streets

Opens Friday, December 12, 2008

Hot Dances with Dull Acting

Starring: Gabriel Mann; Bijou Phillips; Izabella Miko; Elias Koteas;Jarreth J. Merz; Michael Fairman; and Toledo Diamond.

Reviewed by Francesca Simon

President-elect Barack Obama is preparing to enter the White House and attempt to infuse stability and hope into our uncertain futures. And we American citizens have a responsibility to assist him to the best of our ability. So no one must allow Obama to see the new movie Dark Streets, since he is working hard to stay on the wagon and off cigarettes. The film opens this Friday and if Obama gets one glimpse of Toledo Diamond blowing smoke in this film the White House may be in serious trouble.

Within the first five seconds of the film noir set in the 1930s, there is a close-up of a silver lighter with a blue-white flame flickering in the darkness. A hand holds a cigarette to the flame. Then there is the orange glow of the lit cigarette filling up the dark screen and smoke snakes from the lips of Toledo, a man who makes cigarette smoking a dying art that still holds the hook of sensual allure and mystery. I was ready to run out and light up myself and I don’t even smoke. Obama watch out!

Samuel Goldwyn Films is releasing Dark Streets as an “atmospheric film noir musical fantasy”. The movie does indeed deliver some of the best elements of film noir, beginning with a smoky-voiced narrator telling the story brought to life with authentic sets, sparkling costumes, and staged dance numbers. But the actors lack the razor sharp edge of dramatic intensity one expects from this genre – except for Prince Royale, the narrator, played by Toledo.

Prince Royale, in the opening minutes of the movie lays out the typical film noir fare. It is a story of beauties, betrayal, murder, moral dilemma, mystery, love and heartache. Gabriel Mann, of AMC’s Mad Men, is Chaz Davenport, a wealthy playboy, whose father is mysteriously murdered. Set in Gotham, USA – aka any big city – the movie moves through a succession of power blackouts with Chaz trying to figure out why. The crime of his father’s untimely death is connected somehow to his uncle, who runs the power company, a renegade cop and a corrupt governor. Thrown in is a love triangle between Chaz and Crystal, a drugged up jilted lover (Bijou Phillips) and a competing chanteuse-femme fatale Madelaine (Izabella Miko). The bad guy is The Lieutenant played by Elias Koteas. The plot thickens – you’ll figure it out.

It’s not the story that will keep you in your seat, but the dance and musical numbers. The Tower, Chaz’s nightclub, takes center stage in this film, with sexy scantily-clad dancers prancing through stylish and sultry dance numbers choreographed by Keith Young of Rent fame. The sound track is to die for with B.B. King setting the tone with the title tune Dark Streets. There are 12 original songs written by James Compton, Tim Brown, and Tony DeMeur. In this steamy stew of music icons you’ll get a taste of Aaron Neville, Chaka Khan, Etta James, Natalie Cole, Solomon Burke with some Dr. John thrown in for good measure. This movie is a blues music fest and a dance dessert reminiscent of the Busby Berkeley tradition.

For Phillips, who plays the night club’s star singer Crystal, working on a jazz movie that took place in the ’30s was a dream come true. “Like a lot of girls who want to be in movies, I grew up watching old musicals on AMC. It’s always been a dream to do a musical. The entire time I was pinching myself that I got to do it.” Phillips was even more excited when she told the producers she wanted to write a song for the movie and they were open to the idea. She sings a self-penned steamy jazz number “Let’s Be Nice Some More” onstage in the film. It’s a surprising performance – you almost can’t believe that voice is coming from her mouth!

Dark Streets is billed as a musical, but it’s definitely a different dynamic, since the actors don’t spontaneously break out in song. Rather there is a constant stream of music and vocals. “I didn’t want to make a traditional film musical,” says Glenn Stewart, who wrote and produced the film.“The idea was to use the music in the manner of a Greek chorus. Normally, in film noir you have a lot of voiceover. We chose to replace that with additional off-camera songs, to give an additional layer to the storytelling.”

While this is sounds good in theory there are times when a scene in the film noir genre can be intensified by silence. None is to be found in this constant music streaming. Even music needs room to breathe! It makes you want to tell the actors to shut up just so you can just listen to the music.

The elegance of the era is reflected in the sets and Miko embodies the time period with her sultry persona, pale skin, blonde hair and big blue eyes. In one scene she slinks in wearing a flowing white frock similar to the one Marilyn Monroe wore in the Seven Year Itch. She’s a vision of ladylike loveliness in her white lace gloves. And since there’s no real heat between her and Mann, dressing her in virginal white is almost warranted.

Mann, with his youthful good looks could be believable as a playboy, if he had the raw sexuality to create the kind of tension that could have made this role seductively dangerous. He doesn’t. The Chaz character called for a John Garfield type or an actor with an inner intensity like Adrien Brody. And if Miko were Marilyn Monroe or had the smoldering femininity of a Lauren Bacall it would have been a perfect match. But alas it was not to be.

The darkest character in the film is the corrupt police lieutenant played by Elias Koteas, who won acclaim for his starring role in the 1996 hit Crash. Constantly dressed in black leather Koteas looked like a modern day Goth and misses the mark by not providing the emotional menace for Mann’s tragic hero,

In the end it’s Toledo’s sensual, seductive song and dance performances that steal the show. This mature man’s six-foot, 180-pound frame carries his elegant yet edgy attire with sizzling style. He designed and made all the clothes he sports in the film. As Prince Royale, his Barry White coated voice coupled with a Louis Armstrong raspy richness makes his vocal moments in the movie exciting.

“The character is very similar to who I am,” says Toledo, who is renowned in LA as an underground performer extraordinaire. Although he had no previous acting experience he nailed this debut. “I thought, ‘this ain’t really that much of a stretch.’” Make sure you stay for the closing credits because Toledo let’s loose and dances up and down on a chair the way that Fred Astair used to do stairs. And the musical backdrop for the dance is belted out by R&B legend Chaka Khan in a number “Too Much Juice”.

Despite its flaws and falling short of the film noir goal another good reason to see this film is that it’s dedicated to musicians of New Orleans and half of the film's proceeds will be donated to The Blues Initiative. This non-profit organization is administered by the Baton Rouge Area foundation will directly aid musicians and contribute to the revival of the cultural and music arts in New Orleans, in the aftermath of Hurricanes Gustav and Katrina. The site is

If you’re a non-smoker like me, you’ll leave wondering how Toledo he gets that smoke to float out of his mouth while he’s singing. This hip cat makes cigarettes look cool again. “My smoking is not for theatrics,” Toledo says. “It’s what I do in my real life,” he explains. This is his daily vice since dropping his heroin addiction more than a decade ago. “I grew up in a time when smoking was romantic and dangerous. I just know how to make smoke drift out of my mouth. Smoke has such a life of its own.” Watch out Obama – don’t try this in the White House. You can be cool without it.

Don’t show this movie trailer to Obama!

Edward Zwick's
Opens December 31, 2008

Written By: Clayton Frohman, Edward Zwick, from the non-fiction book "Defiance: The Bielski Partisans" by Nechama Tec

Starring: Daniel Craig; Liev Schreiber; Jamie Bell; and George MacKay.

Paramount Vantage
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

There are some 270 films about the Holocaust in the film universe, maybe more, maybe less, depending on how broadly you consider a movie to be thematically about the Holocaust. Which do you think gives you better insight into the events of the 1940's: a scholarly documentary, or a Hollywood-style action-adventure pic?

If you answered. "Depends on the movie," you win. Hollywood-style Schindler's List gives the moviegoer a feel, an emotional hook into what it felt like to be on the side of power and on the side of victim. Hitler's Secretary, on the other hand—the dullest documentary ever made—focuses on a single woman, Traudl Junge, who served Der Fuehrer (though she knew nothing about what was going on). But on the other hand, Secretary is a worthwhile endeavour, since it focuses on an actual person whose adult years were spent working just a foot or two away from the devil.

Defiance fits into the first category; it is a revenge tale (not entirely unlike Quantum of Solace) that gives viewers the feeling that maybe there is some just retribution in the world, however small. Director Edward Zwick, known for his war movie Glory and for the warlike drama Blood Diamond, follows a trio of brothers who seek to avenge the deaths of their parents and other family members. This is a true story of a military attempt to put a dent in the Third Reich's bloody determination to rid Europe of Jewry—though production notes for another Holocaust film, Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, claim that the title character sacrificed her life in the only military campaign to rescue Jews throughout the war. Again: this depends on how broadly you interpret the term "military."

Now, Defiance is no Schindler's List or Sophie's Choice. The battle scenes are exciting, all right, but they also take on the ambiance of video games. The romantic scenes, such as may have existed in this true story, are schmaltzy and unconvincing. There is, however, a modicum of complexity in the way that scripter Clayton Frohman and director Zwick, adapting the non-fiction book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec (available at for ten bucks and change). The friction between two brothers, which may have begun long before their involvement in the forests of Belarus, is compared to the far greater conflict between German soldiers and the partisans.

Fight back they did, not only surviving, but almost flourishing—and for years! Tuvia Sielski (Daniel Craig) begins fighting against the oppressors when he and his brother, Zus (Liev Schreiber), gather a few score villagers from a Belarus ghetto—which was patrolled by Germans who are probably awaiting transport to take the hapless Jews to the death camps. Encouraging them to escape into the broad forest, where they could watch for enemy patrols, they assemble the gathering after convincing a few dissenters that the Germans were not going to need their labor in the factories, but were rather intent on sending them to their deaths. Tuvia and Zus in real life were farmers, but also petty thieves and smugglers, a notion that is skipped over in the film. With their third brother, Assael (Jamie Bell), an immature lad who did not know with which sib he should side, they hunted, eating whatever they could, in at least one instance shooting their one horse and even an attack dog for dinner. Fights over whether the fighters should get bigger portions than the women who cook, broke out so often that we don't wonder that so many experiments in socialism such as the Oneida Community in the U.S. fell apart.

The odds against the mission were heavily against them. Recall that the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto lasted a surprisingly long time—a matter of days, though—while these forest people refused to be impotent victims, spending years in their leafy hideout. Many, however, did not survive given the onslaught of German soldiers.

Liev Schreiber's performance is the one to watch. He's the hothead intent on vengeance, vengeance, vengeance, all of which was wreaked upon the unfortunate Nazis who dared to cross his paths. He regularly challenges his brother for leadership of the ragtag army, even as they make friends with a Russian partisan group who do not necessarily consider Jews to be tovariches. Battles royal break out here and there with philosophic talk between acts. There is even a wedding under a traditional chupah, presided over by the group's rabbi.

Whatever the shortcomings of the film, Defiance deserves to be seen by a wide audience, especially by those who say "How come the Jews never fought back?

Rated R. 137 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt

John Patrick Shanley's
Opens Friday, December 12, 2008

Written By: John Patrick Shanley from his play
Starring: Meryl Streep; Philip Seymour Hoffman; Amy Adams; Viola Davis; Lloyd Clay Brown; and Joseph Foster.

Miramax Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

You don't have to be religious to believe in miracles. A minor one occurred in a screening room attended by critics and guild members, as John Patrick Shanley, best known as a playwright, but also by cinema buffs for his 1987 scripting of Moonstruck, strikes it rich with Doubt. Shanley helps put to rest the misbegotten idea that theatrical works cannot translate well to the screen. This one is a humdinger, though one which despite its opening up cinematically, is clear about its roots on the legitimate stage. Doubt is blessed by remarkable acting, not only by the principals (especially by the principal), but by the entire ensemble, many of whom play the roles of kids who are attending the 8th grade at a Bronx, New York Catholic school. If you missed the play when it was off-Broadway, then moved to the Great White Way where it survived 525 performances, take a front-row seat for this one. The pews rarely get this dramatic, nor are you likely on a Sunday morning to embrace in under two hours' time, topics like feminism, authority, politics, or especially the conflict between the traditional and the progressive.

Meryl Streep anchors the action, recreating the role of Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the principal of a Catholic school taught by nuns. Her students attend Sunday services conducted by a charismatic priest, Father Brendan Flynn; these services are also attended by an SRO gathering of mostly working-class Irish and Italians. The contrast between nun and priest could not be more stark. Aloysius is from the old school, believing that the youths must be controlled by absolute tyranny, which might involve a slap on the back of the head, a stern, whispered warning to sit up straight, and a detention assignment to reproduce the multiplication table. She opposes even the use of ballpoint pens (this is during the early 1960's) because, she believes, rightly so, that penmanship is going to hell. Father Flynn favors a friendlier approach, a more informal rapport with kids and chatty sermons with the adults of his congregation. And he uses ballpoint pens. (When I went to elementary school in the Neolithic age, we did not have even fountain pens, writing with quill pens which we dipped into inkwells on our desks when we were not plunging the braids of the girls sitting in front of us into the wells.)

The middle ground is taken by cute-as-a-button Sister James, played by Amy Adams (Enchanted). She is young and innocent, teaching history to her co-ed charges with a smile and a gentle voice (though her manner of questioning leaves much to be desired, says this writer, a former history teacher). She is soon to regret some information she passes on to Sister Aloysius. While the words "sex" and "inappropriate touching" are never mentioned in the film, words considered so taboo that they are not to be uttered, everyone is clear about an implication. Father Flynn is accused by Sister Aloysius of doing something inappropriate in his rectory with the school's only black boy, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), a lad who has been placed into the school by his mother (Viola Davis) out of fear that he would be beaten in a public school.

Shanley mines the story for comedy, showing Sister Aloysius as a woman making suggestions which she barely realizes are funny. For example, she instructs the young sister to put a picture of the pope near the blackboard, any pope living or dead, because the teacher could face the board, look into the glass frame, and spot kids who are acting up--making them think that she has eyes in back of her head.

While the confrontation between Flynn and Aloysius is heated, the stuff of compelling drama, much of the tension comes from the long pauses that often mark spaces in conversations, the kinds of rest-stops that Harold Pinter would enjoy. These pauses give the audience time to reflect on the bon mots as though stated by a comedian with the gift of perfect timing. Contrasts between Aloysius and Flynn are made throughout the picture, such as the dead silence that greets the mostly vegetable dinners of the nuns versus the noisy, red-meat fests between Flynn, acting as a comic emcee, with male colleagues—who drink, smoke, and laugh heartily.

Some of the audience may wish for a resolution to close the story, but whether Flynn is guilty of paying untoward attention to a lonely boy is left for us to ponder. Some will leave the theater saying, "Aha, this (or that) virtually proves his guilt," while others will note, "Nah, the kid would have come forward with hints of inappropriate touching." Interestingly, Sister Aloysius never uses her wiles to question the boy privately.

Yes, Meryl Streep will get nominations from awards groups (duh) and so might the first-class Philip Seymour Hoffman, while Amy Adams stands quite eligible for supporting actress nods. But who cares? All we know for now is that Doubt is terrific and, did I say it is a minor miracle?

Rated PG-13. 104 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in Frost/Nixon

Ron Howard's
Opens Friday, December 12, 2008

Written By: Peter Morgan, from Peter Morgan's play
Starring: Frank Langella; Michael Sheen; Kevin Bacon; Rebecca Hall; Tony Jones; Matthew Macfadyen; Olvier Platt; Sam Rockwell; Patty McCormack; Andy Miller; Kate Jennings Grant, and Eve Curtis.

Universal Pictures/ Imagine Entertainment
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Opens: December 25, 2008

By coincidence, Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon, which the director opened up cinematically from Peter Morgan's stage play, is being released at about the same time as Darron Aronofsky's The Wrestler. In a way, the two movies are more alike than, say, Frost/Nixon and W, because the former is a no-holds-barred, gloves-off contest while W is, by contrast, a wax-work.

, logically enough, pits David Frost (Michael Sheen), known before the event as a lightweight talk-show host who was also known for womanizing, against Richard M. Nixon (Frank Langella), the only U.S. President who resigned. For the majority of readers of this review, who are under the age of forty and may have heard about Nixon only by descriptions of his five-o'clock shadow and not know about the Frost/Nixon interviews, our thirty-fourth Chief Executive who was once defeated by John F. Kennedy for the top job in 1960 because of his relatively poor showing on the televised debates, was again vanquished in a one-on-one interview with Frost in 1977, five years after he left the Oval Office for good. What emerges is not what you might have expected: a talking-heads yak-a-thon between characters recognized by much of the world. Instead this docu-drama spends only a relatively short period of its just-over-two-hours' time on segments of the four-part interview which has segments that lasted ninety minutes apiece. Most of the drama is evoked by backstage preparations, the sorts of brainstorming sessions we all know that the candidates for President and Vice-President went through in the 2008 debates. This time, while Nixon is afforded heavy preparation from his chief adviser, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), Frost himself is virtually bulled by his own. The latter includes journalists James Reston (Sam Rockwell), a bona-fide Nixon hater who counsels Frost to draw blood, and two more moderate fellows, Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), who takes a back seat to the emotional Reston, and John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen).

The results are riveting. Here is a political movie that tramples Oliver Stone's W into the dust, making us wonder whether Stone is a sell-out. Director Ron Howard, by contrast, dazzles with a partisan exposition, though he and scripter Morgan are not entirely unsympathetic to poor Mr. Nixon.

As depicted in the film, David Frost, a British talk-show host who is now sixty-nine years of age and who has recently interviewed former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is portrayed by actor Michael Sheen with the same broad smile that helped define his charm as Tony Blair in Stephen Frears's Oscar-winning movie The Queen. One would expect a playboy lightweight to be outclassed in a series of interviews with ex-President Nixon. One would also not expect such a supposed lightweight to put up $200,000 of his own money to pay Nixon after the major networks turned down his pitch. One example in the film of Frost's playboy lifestyle is Frost's flying first-class from Australia, stopping in Monaco to pick up sophisticated Monaco resident Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall). When he introduces Caroline to Nixon, Nixon did not try to hide his admiration for her beauty. ("Are you fornicating?" asks Nixon during one of his informal talks with the journalist.)

Like Bush 43, who has always been considered by his critics to be a lightweight despite his diploma from Yale, Frost had always hidden his background as a Cambridge University graduate. His pre-taping sessions with Nixon are cordial, as though neither man expects the coming interviews to deliver any knockout punches. Langella and Sheen, duplicating their roles in the stage play, never fall into the background, though considerable time is spent looking into the personalities behind the men such as Kevin Bacon's Jack Brennan, who negotiates the rules of the contract with his employer, and Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), an expert at negotiating high payments for the former chief's time.

Nixon, bored with his life in retirement, sees the interviews as way to recapture public support. Frost wants to delve into the Watergate Hotel break-in, an action that found members of Nixon's Committee to Re-elect the President breaking into a suite, rented by the Democratic National Committee, with the aim of stealing documents that might prove damaging to George McGovern, the Democratic nominee who opposed Nixon. Frost wants to prove that not only did the President authorize the criminal act; he also scraped up hush money to keep the burglars quiet.

The first three 90-minute interviews fail to deliver anything dramatic. The fourth and final round draws a knockout punch, though in the interest of keeping the climactic moments a surprise, the audience will have to see the movie rather than getting that information from this reviewer. While the recorded banter between the two fighters is probably taken right from the transcripts of the TV programs, one terrific scene, which is likely to be fictional, finds an inebriated Nixon calling Frost in the middle of the night complaining that no matter how high some of us get in our professional lives, we will always be looked down upon by the elite.

In a far more dramatic way than Sarah Palin's disastrous interviews with Katie Couric, in which the former could not name a single magazine that she read, Nixon is K.O.'d by his own self-loathing.

Once again, Frost/Nixon is a terrific piece of work.

Rated R. 122 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Clint Eastwood's
Gran Turino
Opens December 17, 2008

Written By: Nick Schenk from Dave Johannson and Nick Schenk's story
Starring: Clint Eastwood; Geraldine Hughes; John Carroll Lynch; Cory Hardrict; Dreama Walker; and Brian Haley.

Warner Bros.
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

This Gran Torino has as its passengers, a mixed group of people who are stereotyped throughout, some awfully silly dialogue and some old-fashioned acting. This might please some in the audience who want to reminisce about the grand old movies of the past, like Boys Town and Men of Boys Town, which starred Spencer Tracy in the role of Father Flanagan, a priest who was determined to save the young 'uns. Clint Eastwood both directs and anchors the production, taking the role of Walt Kowalski, an old salt who lives in an inner-city Detroit neighborhood where political correctness is ignored by the blue-collar residents, who revel in calling one another by every racial and ethnic pejorative in the books so they won't be considered girly-men. Walt Kowalski is no girly-man, nor is his aging Golden Labrador Retriever, Daisy—who at the time of the story's opening is not only the man's best friend but his only one.

Kowalski is a stubborn, determined man, holding on to his wood-frame lodging as his neighborhood is deteriorating and every other white family has moved to the suburbs. You'd think he'd be the last man to hold the fort considering his racist attitudes. Kowalski spends a considerable time talking to himself (as a way to let us in the audience get in touch with his background). There is, however, one sentimental touch: while he is still what they used to call shell-shocked by his army days during the Korean War, he can't get out of his head the way he shot one of the Chinese enemies point blank, one of the thirteen men he killed during that action.

One of the immigrant groups to move into Kowalski's neighborhood is a group Hmong, a tribe who lived in Southeast Asian countries like Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam and Thailand. The Hmong have been given entry into the U.S. in return for their loyalty in fighting on our side in the Vietnam War.

When Kowalski catches one Hmong kid, Thao (Bee Vang), trying to steal Kowalski's 1972 Gran Torino, as an initiation requirement set by an Asian gang, Walt begins to ease up on his attitude toward people who—unlike Daisy—do not look like him, especially after he saves the lad from a beating and is rewarded by gifts of food and flowers from the family next door.

Here is a case in which the thief gets rewarded, not just by being rescued but by being taken in by Walt, who now serves as a role model, instructing him how to talk like a man --meaning that he should call Martin, the Italian barber, by the same pejoratives that Walt kiddingly uses, and who is answered in return. When the Hmong gang takes drastic action in a drive-by shooting, the tone of the film turns away from a comedy featuring Mr. Eastwood, acting against type as a crotchety gaffer whose monologues bring smiles to the audience. The star becomes Dirty Harry with one ironic difference.

Many of the characters are types rather than real people. Thao's sister Sue (Ahney Her) is fluent in Hmong and English; she is an assertive gal who is more comfortable with a man five decades older than are Walt's own sons, Mitch (Brian Haley) and Steve (Brian Howe). Correctly labeling his own sons greedy (they have eyes on the Torino and the house as well), Walt finds himself making up for the decades of racial animosity. He also gets a load off his mind through confessing to Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), a pastor who seems fresh out of school and who looks in on Walt per a promise he made to Walt's recently departed wife.

Everything about the film is predictable. We can almost pinpoint the exact time that comedy would give way to melodrama. While some groups like The National Board of Review will nominate or name Eastwood Best Actor for this role, Eastwood radiates only a perpetual scowl and half-closed eyes through the film, as though he were trying to block out his non-white neighbors.

Rated R. 116 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Ole Bornedal's
Just Another Love Story (Kaerlighed Pa Film)
Opens Friday January 9, 2008

Written By: Ole Bornedal
Starring: Andrew W. Berthelsen; Charlotte Fich; Rebecka Hemse; Dejan Cukic; and Nikolaj Lie Kaas.

Koch Lorber Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Scheduled to open just weeks after Revolutionary Road, Just Another Love Story centers on a similar theme. In the former film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, a husband and wife tire of their suburban digs and dull neighbors and think that moving permanently to Paris might be just the right medicine. In Ole Bomedal's Danish film (with English subtitles) Just Another Love Story (Kaerlighed Pa Film), a man with a Walter Mitty imagination dreams of leaving his own suburban humdrum existence (with its ritual of supermarket shopping on Saturdays with his wife and two kids), and living or re-living a life of danger, passion, and love. The trouble is that unlike Frank and April Wheeler in Sam Mendes's Revolutionary Road, who can legitimately make the move, he steals another's identity. While identity theft in the U.S. rarely goes further than ripping off another's credit card, the principal character in Ole Bomedal's movie puts his very life into jeopardy.

And that's what makes Just Another Love Story a psychological thriller, one that's framed with a dying man who is bleeding on the sidewalk while a woman hysterically grasps him. Yet the movie projects a number a comic moments while flirting with naked bodies--full frontal nudity of both sexes, both in a hospital bed and in a morgue.

The film is framed by the dying Jonas (Anders W. Berthelsen), who is happily married (or so he thought) to Mette (Charlotte Fich) until he discovered greener grass. Chugging along on the highway with his wife and kids, Jonas's jalopy stalls, which leads to a collision with another car carrying Julia Castlund (Rebecka Hemse). Julia emerges 90% blind with total amnesia. When Jonas visits Julia in the hospital, he is accepted by her whole wealthy family as the young woman's boyfriend, Sebastian, whom she met in Cambodia and whom the family had never before met. Jonas fools everyone while playing the role of the boyfriend, a cameraman for National Geographic. Jonas is discouraged in this deception by Frank (Dejan Cukic), his colleague at his real job in a crime lab. Despite Frank's warning of genuine risk for his pal, Jonas digs his role playing, figuring that the real Sebastian (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), who is reported as having died in Hanoi, will never turn up.

There are logical flaws which we in the audience simply have to accept, since this film is not a naturalistic event but a noir fantasy. For example, there's a guy with a fully bandaged head, wheeling himself around the hospital corridors who does not belong in the hospital. Wouldn't a hospital check him out within minutes? Another fellow is shot in the chest, yet survives intact. How? The well-acted piece is gripping in parts, full of twists and ironic reversals. It is an entertaining movie that is the opposite of the famous (or notorious) Danish dogma manifesto. The dinner scene in the home of Julia's father does remind one of the birthday party in Thomas Vinterberg's Festen, or The Celebration.

Photographed sumptuously by Dan Laustsen in Copenhagen, Denmark outskirts, and Cambodia with real 35mm film (an endangered species nowadays), Just Another Love Story is a victory of style over logic and substance. Take that as a compliment.

Not Rated. 99 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Joel Hopkins’
Last Chance Harvey
Opens Friday, December 25, 2008

Written By: Joel Hopkins
Starring: Dustin Hoffman,; Emma Thompson; Kathy Baker; James Brolin; Eileen Atkins; Richard Schiff; Liane Balaban; Michael Landes; Alex Avery; and Patrick Baladi

Overture Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Nobody has yet thought of a better way to live than within families. The hippies tried during the sixties and early seventies, but how much of their life-style is around now? The kibbutz was a noble experiment in Israel, but only two percent of that country's citizens are members now—and even that system has come under criticism from psychologists. Yet families may not be the best way for us to live either, as so many movies point out. Leave It To Beaver has given way to tales of dysfunction, another example being Joel Hopkins's Last Chance Harvey. Hopkins, known for such work as Jump Tomorrow (a young Nigerian man on the verge of being in an arranged marriage, suddenly questions his situation after an encounter with a stunning Latin woman, who is also about to be married) would seem to be in his métier, then, as he tackles the hope that burns brightly against the ashes of misfortune, disappointment, and humiliation.

Last Chance Harvey is the sort of fare that would be criticized by some reviewers as being "sentimental," as though there were something wrong with that. But in deference to them, let's use the word "poignant," as this story, as written by the director, checks off one rejection after another yet leaves open a chance for happiness: a last chance, since both of the characters are middle-aged.

The two principals are not exactly losers, but then they're far from being movers and shakers. The fifty-something title character, Harvey Shine, played by the seventy-one year old Dustin Hoffman, is a failed jazz pianist who is barely holding on to a job writing jingles for an ad firm. A Death of a Salesman motif comes out when his boss (Richard Schiff) seems intent on firing him just when the New Yorker is in London for the wedding of his daughter, Susan (Liane Balaban). Sparks don't quite fly when after missing his plane he spots Kate Walker (Emma Thompson) in the airline bar and tries to chat her up even thought she appears more interested in her book than in his conversation. During a brief period of time, they tentatively reach out to each other, much like Jesse and Celine in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise. He invites her to his daughter's wedding, she accepts, and Harvey—now out of a job—suffers the kind of undeserved humiliation that no father should accept from both his daughter and his ex-wife (Kathy Baker).

The great stage actress Eileen Atkins performs in the role of Susan's smothering mom, calling the poor woman every hour, interfering with her possibilities of romance. Anyone who has been through the dreadful dating game might wonder whether the countries that foster arranged marriages have it right. One of the more poignant aspects of the movie occurs during a blind date that finds Susan with a handsome guy—who finds someone he knows at a nearby table and proceeds to ignore her for the rest of the evening. Those of us who know the terror of being slighted, treated as though invisible, will relate strongly, with maybe a tear or two.

Last Chance Harvey may not have a huge chance for success in the theaters as it's targeted to an older audience which might be more comfortable waiting for the DVD, but if youths cannot relate to people in their forties and fifties who crave the same fulfillment as they, then more's the pity for them.

Rated PG-13. 92 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


David Frankel’s
Marley & Me
Opens Thursday, December 25, 2008

Written By: Scott Frank, Donald Roos, from John Grogan's best-selling memoir
Starring: Owen Wilson; Jennifer Aniston; Alan Arkin; Eric Dane; and Kathleen Turner

20th Century Fox/ Regency Enterprises
Reviewed fo New York Cool by Harvey Karten

To twist a popular saying, "Children are for people who can't have dogs." In the U.S. there are now fifty million dogs which have found homes, though in many cases, happily, have babies and children to play with along with their mature ornwers. Some believe that children put enough tension on a marriage to break it apart, while others say that kids can bring people together. Scott Frank and Donald Roos, who adapted John Grogan's best-seller for the current movie version helmed by David Frankel, adopt the same philosophy about dogs. The four-legged creatures beloved by most of us in the Western World and reviled by many in other cultures can provide years of entertainment for men, women and children who are lucky enough to have them in their households, but the more mischievous ones can put a crimp in the relationship. And while dogs pass through adolescence by the time they are two years old, they can be puckish for many years afterward. Yet when they reach an age that finds them unable to walk without arthritic pain until they can barely move at all, their people yearn for the days that their pets created so much mayhem.

Such is the case with Jennifer Grogan (Jennifer Aniston) and her husband John Grogan (Owen Wilson) in a story that follows the book, taking the Grogan house through a decade or so of marriage. After trying to have a child for quite a while, they decided like quite a large number of young married couples, to buy a pup Their heart is set on a Labrador Retriever which they pick—or are picked by—the least expensive body in a large litter. Marley, as they named their pet because both Grogans are fans of Bob Marley, is button-cute at twelve pounds. Taken home only after being fully weaned, he proves to be a handful. Thinking that the dog's whining after his incarceration in a box to sleep away from his "parents" would be the only real problem, they are flummoxed to discover that in the course of a single day Marley can chew up their starter house in West Palm Beach, Florida, chase down the UPS delivery guy, drink from the toilet, run away from them at the beach, overturn garbage cans, get expelled as incorrigible by a trainer (Kathleen Turner), and require them to hire the services of a young woman to take care of Marley when they take a vacation in Ireland.

The movie, however, is only peripherally about the title character. John Grogan, who knocked out the best-selling volume a few years back, must have figured that his publisher would be lucky to sell a couple of thousand copies. (He may have been put off by the fact that in the Nineteenth Century, the three most popular words in the American-English dictionary were "Lincoln," "doctor," and "dog." Hearing about that ,someone wrote a book called "Lincoln's Doctor's Dog." It was a flop.)

Grogan discover that his writing is in demand when his boss at a Florida daily newspaper, Arnie Klein (Alan Arkin), pronounces his columns so hysterical that Grogan was taken off reporting and his salary is doubled as a columnist. Babies come, the Grogans moved up to Philadelphia where John lands a job with the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Marley begins to age and go downhill as do all dogs who live for more than a decade. The final, inevitable scenes could bring tears to the eyes of those of us who shared the love of their canines only to lose them in the most heartbreaking way.

Marley & Me shows an Owen Wilson who is still funny but takes on a more serious demeanor as his character navigates the course after his wife, Jennifer, has an unfortunate miscarriage following serious attempts to conceive. Chucking the wise-guy self which he exhibited so well in Meet the Parents and Wedding Crashers, and moving closer to his performance as Francis Whitman in The Darjeeling Express, he demonstrates a breadth of talent. His chemistry with Jennifer Aniston, who displays enormous energy and lust for life, is palpable. His relationship with his best friend and fellow journalist, Sebastian (Eric Dane) is poignant. When John runs into Sebastian by accident in Philadephia, he casts his usual envious eye on the handsome man who has been assigned to exciting stories in Colombia and other foreign parts. Yet the real sadness belongs to Sebastian whose envy of his less-traveled pal is evident by the sad look that crosses his face as he leaves John, then immediately puts the move on two young women walking down the street.

In other words, family is the way to go: a house, a white picket fence, a loving wife, adorable children and an affectionate, frisky pup represent the closest we get to Eden. From the looks of Marley—whose role is inhabited by twenty-two different dogs—he is overjoyed to be with these lovely, adoring, and sometimes furious human parents.

Rated PG. 125 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Gus Van Sant's
Opens November 26, 2008

Written By: Dustin Lance Black
Starring: Sean Penn; Josh Brolin; Emile Hirsch; James Franco; Diego Luna; and Brandon Boyce

Focus Features
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B+

After forty-three white men had been elected President of the United States (many of them during a time that slavery was in fashion), mirabile dictu, an African-American made #44. A woman will get the appropriate share of electoral votes in years to come. Heck, possibly even an openly gay person! In fact, gay people, who in almost every state are being denied equality at the marriage license bureaus, have been in positions of political authority only since 1978, when Harvey Milk was elected to the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. Given the publicity about gay civil unions and gay marriage nowadays, Milk would appear torn from today's headlines though the action takes place during the seventies.

As directed by Gus Van Sant, known for quirky films like Paranoid Park (a teen skateboarder is involved in the accidental death of a security guard) and Gerry (two young men go for a hike in the desert without taking food or water), Milk is downright conventional—though some in the audience might be shocked by watching two males kissing. If Milk is in the thick of awards competition this year, credit Sean Penn for "best actor" buzz. Then again everything Penn touches glows, from his role as a fourteen-year-old on the TV series Little House on the Prairie to his performance in Sydney Pollack's 2005 film The Interpreter.

If you're over the age of forty you're probably aware of the explosive story about the assassination of San Francisco's Mayor Moscone and of Supervisor Harvey Milk by a frustrated fellow supervisor, Dan White—who, it is hinted, was a closeted gay himself despite his vigorous opposition to homosexual rights. Milk explores the motive for the murders while focusing on the title character, who persists in the political process of seeking office in San Francisco despite a pair of defeats.

As scripted by Dustin Lance Black, Milk emphasizes that the struggle for the rights for homosexuals are part and parcel of the fight for rights of oppressed people everywhere—ethnic, racial and religious minorities as well—thereby providing a platform for those marketing the film to broaden the audience to those of us who are straights and might otherwise not see the relevance of the struggle for themselves. Photographer Harris Savides (Zodiak) frames the picture with a quiet view of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) reciting into a tape recorder in 1978 as though he understood the possibility of his assassination by religious and other extremists anywhere in the country determined to put an end to his cause. Van Sant flashes back to 1970 where he finds Milk picking up Scott Smith (James Franco), moving with him to San Francisco's Castro Street area in the heart of the city's gay community. Archival footage portrays the campaign across states such as Florida against allowing known gays to teach in schools—taking special care to highlight the loathsome Anita Bryant, recognizable as the women who shilled for an orange juice company, one who like others claimed that there are the laws of man and the dictates of God to justify her animosity. Milk becomes an activist, heading up a boycott of businesses refusing to serve homosexuals. His movement soon embraces volunteers like Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), who had returned from a trip to Spain and was taken aback by the Franco government's persecution of gays. (Ironically Spain today is one of the few countries to sanctify gay marriage.) Also joining is the first woman in the force, Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), who serves as Milk's campaign manager in his struggle to become elected to the Board of Supervisors. He also takes a Mexican-born lover, Jack Lira (Diego Luna), against his own best instincts: this fellow, unstable from the very start, would prove envious of the time Milk must stay away from home and whose relationship with Milk would lead to a personal disaster.

Van Sant has an eye for detail, such as his honing in on a phone conversation between Milk and a young Minneapolis man confined to a wheelchair, desperate to be himself but unable to break free of a conventional culture. Much attention is paid to Dan White (Josh Brolin, from W), a fellow supervisor who rails against homosexuality, providing the movie's best dialogue: Dan: "Can gays reproduce?" Harvey: "No but God knows, we keep trying."

As a biopic, Milk hasn't a moment of tedium in its swiftly paced action, as Van Sant takes in the community as a whole and specific group of individuals, who are colorful in their own special ways. The crowd scenes which find Milk boldly campaigning for change (sound familiar?) are in parts electrifying, while the quiet, reflective moments reveal to us a man who has the character to persevere despite personal tragedy and political setbacks.

Rated R. 127 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Rod Lurie's
Nothing But The Truth
Opens December 19, 2008

Written By: Rod Lurie
Starring: Kate Beckinsale; Matt Dillon; Angela Bassett; Alan Alda; Vera Farmiga; David Schwimmer; Courtney B. Vance; and Noah Wyle.
Yari Film Group
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

A well-acted, if mechanically driven, story based on the complex Valerie Plame Wilson affair (which dealt with the repercussions of outing the truth about the alleged attempt of Saddam Hussein to buy uranium from Niger), Nothing But the Truth thankfully simplifies the dynamics that might have gone into a documentary. As a result, theatergoers are treated to a oft-time melodramatic story that would please anybody who likes films based on John Grisham's novels. Granted, no one in the audience who is to the left of Attila the Hun wouldn't side with a journalist who is put on trial for refusing to name a source of information that led to a front-page story in her newspaper. But Rod Lurie's tale goes further and delves into the wisdom of the America's founding fathers who penned the First Amendment. (For the benefit of those who went to public high schools, that addition to the Constitution in 1791 guarantees that Congress shall make no law abridging our freedom of speech.)

In Nothing, the protagonist, Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale), is told by a prosecutor and judge that her own freedom of speech is whatever the courts say it is! Rachel, a journalist who finds out from an unidentified source that one Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga) is a CIA operative who has challenged an administration-held belief that Venezuela was behind an attempted assassination of our President. (The movie opens with bullets flying as the Chief Executive is hustled away in a limo.) Rachel's lead story outs a CIA operative, a move that convinces the government that her act and the revelation of the identity by an unidentified source are tantamount to treason.

Rod Lurie, whose previous work, The Contender, was about a female Ohio senator who is appointed to take over the term of a vice-president who has died, knocks out another woman-based thriller that has a determined reporter testing the limits of the First Amendment despite the harm her decision causes to herself, her husband Ray (David Schwimmer), and her adorable son Timmy (Preston Bailey). While Rachel expects the government to be critical but not to prosecute her, she is surprised by the forceful action of federal prosecutor Patton Dubois (Matt Dillon), who summons her before a grand jury, has her case heard by Judge Hall, Rachel is convicted of contempt of court for refusing to name her source, and jailed for such time as the grand jury is in session or she decides to come clean. Little does she know that after spending a year in a cell with a large number of women inmates in a ward-like setting, she could be brought up in a federal court on the same charge with the chance of a five-year sentence.

While Alan Alda, playing the part of a top lawyer who wears bespoke suits, is indignant about the way his client is treated, he, the prisoner's husband, and even the accused ponder the virtues of compromising. Should a mom be willing to give up her liberty for an indefinite time, leaving her child in the custody of a man who, while his wife is rotting in jail, takes up with another woman? Is it even sexist to say that a woman is selfish for living by her principles, a charge that few would make about a man who is imprisoned? There is great personal cost in standing up for one principles, but under the right circumstances, even one who is looked upon as a martyr may be ready to throw in the towel.

We ponder the balance that must be maintained between personal freedom and national security. Nothing in the Bill of Rights seems absolute: for example, freedom of speech does not give a person the right falsely to yell "fire" in a crowded theater, nor are we immune for libel or slander suits for defamation of character. Nothing But the Truth is a rah-rah call for our allegedly center-right country to find itself in sympathy with a center-left cause.

Rated R. 107 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Stephen Daldry's
The Reader
Opens Friday, December 12, 2008

Written By: David Hare from Bernhard Schlink's novel The Reader
Starring: Ralph Fiennes; Kate Winslet; Bruno Ganz; David Kross; and Lina Olin.

The Weinstein Company
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: A-

With some 300 films already produced about the Holocaust, a presumably weary audience would buy yet another only if it stands out, lives apart from the rest with an original idea, complex characters, and an unpredictable plot that would cast box-office doubts among the suits at mainstream Hollywood companies. Fortunately The Weinstein Company, known for bracingly original human stories, has picked up The Reader, based on a novel by Bernhard Schlink, which has already been translated into forty languages. The novel, The Reader, sets a time span from the 1950's to the 1990's in just 218 pages. The film, adapted from the novel by first-class British playwright David Hare (Amy's View, The Judas Kiss), is gripping not because of (non-existent) explosions, car chases or scenes of Nazi brutality, but because of its restraint. Though the performers spend some time in a courtroom that is prosecuting Nazi war crimes committed by lower-level workers, most of the emphasis is on two people, whose lives are intertwined and whose actions after a frightening discovery, are not the sorts of measures that you'd expect them to take.

The Reader weaves a passionate sexual affair into a tapestry that includes a war crimes trial based on actual events that took place in a Frankfurt courtroom several years after the war. Focusing on a perpetrator rather than on victims, photographers Chris Menges and Roger Deakins cast their lenses in Cologne and other German locations while director Stephen Daldry (The Hours)—breaking away from the novel's division into three, discrete sections, takes us seamlessly into various periods between 1950 and 1990.

The principal spotlight is on the relationship between 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross—played in later life by Ralph Fiennes)--and a 32-year-old Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). Fifteen-year- old Michael is just coming down with scarlet fever and is throwing up on a dark, rain-soaked street, when he meets and is cared for by a much older Hanna. After a months' long recovery from the illness, Michael visits Hanna to thank her. Whether the flowers did the trick or his handsome, youthful body, the two quickly embark on a summer affair in which lovemaking is followed, sometimes preceded, not by a shared cigarette, but by Michael's reading German and Greek classics to Hanna. Then, for no known reason, Hanna disappears.

Eight years later Michael finds himself in law school, where he is put in an honors seminar taught by Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz), in which the latter states, in effect, that there is only law, not justice—which makes one wonder about the trials of workers in the camps who were simply doing what was perfectly legal in the Germany of the time. While in the seminar, he learns that his lover, Hanna, has been put on trial for serving as a guard in a camp, making selections of people periodically to be sent to Auschwitz, never believing, even during the questioning, that she did anything wrong. The trials themselves are part of history: the grim Frankfurt Auschwitz court held sway between 1963 and 1965 in which lower level workers from Auschwitz-Birkenau were prosecuted.

We in the audience can become so enraptured by the superb performances, especially from eighteen-year-old actor David Kross and the magnificent Kate Winslet (with Ralph Fiennes playing a lesser role) that we might not consider how the story transcends its basic plot. Consider, allegorically, that Michael represents a generation that may not have even been born during the reign of National Socialism and who understandably resent any implications of guilt, while Hanna stands in for the generation told that all Germans are collectively guilty for the atrocities.

The Reader is a splendid addition to the library of Holocaust-centered films, noteworthy not only for exquisite performances, but for the restrained tone that it takes in contact to other perfectly decent movies like this year's Defiance.

Rated R. 123 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Stephen Daldry's
The Reader
Opens Friday, December 12, 2008

Written By: David Hare from Bernhard Schlink's novel The Reader
Starring: Ralph Fiennes; Kate Winslet; Bruno Ganz; David Kross; and Lina Olin.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Holocaust films have taken myriad forms, some dealing directly with the camps, such as Schindler’s List and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Others are more robust like this December’s release of Edwards Zwick’s Defiance, a film that tells the story of three Jewish brothers who escape to the forest and form a band to fight the Nazis. But all Holocaust films take on a mammoth task, attempting to explain the unexplainable.

Stephen Daldry’s new film, The Reader (based on Bernhard Schlink’s novel of the same name), is a Holocaust film more on the line of Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice. Both Sophie’s Choice and The Reader deal with the aftermath of the Holocaust and its resulting devastation on the human spirit. Sophie’s Choice told the story of one woman’s survivor’s guilt; The Reader deals with the effect the Holocaust had on the German second generation, the children who were born after the war and are forced to come to terms with what their parents’ generation did during the war.

In the opening 1950’s scene of The Reader, we see Kate Winslet’s character, Hanna Schmitz, helping a teenage boy, Michael Berg (played as a young man by David Kross). Michael has suddenly become ill with scarlet fever as he walks home from school. Hannah helps him by pouring water over his soiled shoes and walking him part of the way home.

A few weeks later, having recovered from his illness, young Michael calls to thank Hannah for her help. An unlikely love affair begins between the two characters, unlikely in that they had so little in common except physical attraction. Michael comes from a middle class family that values education while Hanna is a coarse working class woman who is in her thirties. But both Hanna and Michael are gorgeous and nature always manifests itself.

As the summer goes on, Michael becomes more and more infatuated with his older lover. When they make love, she often asks him to read to her. Hanna wants to hear everything from Greek mythology to children’s books. She seems to have just as much of a voracious appetite for the spoken word as she has for her young lover’s body.

And then, Hanna, suddenly and inexplicably, disappears.

We next see Michael (still played by David Kross) in his twenties. It is now the sixties and Michael is attending law school and is in a seminar taught by Professor Rohl, played by Bruno Ganz. As part of his seminar, the class attends a Frankfurt trail, one of the very few German trials of concentration camp guards. When Michael enters the courtroom, he is devastated to see that his former lover, Hanna, is one of the defendants. Hanna and a group of other women guards are charged with selecting which prisoners are no longer fit to work and sending them off to the ovens. Hanna defends herself, “There was no room, more prisoners kept arriving.” At one point asking the judge, “What would you have done?”

But there is more. There was one horrific crime committed by the guards and the other guards accuse Hanna of being the ring leader. Michael, who is watching the trial, is thrown into a moral dilemma; he has information that could mitigate Hanna’s guilt. But in the end he chooses to not help her.

In the third part of the story, we see Michael (now played by Ralph Fiennes) as a lawyer in his thirties. Michael life has not worked out to his satisfaction. He has married and is divorced and cannot seem to relate to his daughter. He is a particularly sad man.

But then in one of the most human and loving ways possible, Michael reaches out to his ex lover, giving her a gift that changes her life and brings her some measure of happiness. But this film has no happy Hollywood ending. There is way to much weight for this story to end in anyway but ambiguity. The subject is too profound; there is no place for a bow.

The tone of the film is especially fine. Yes, it is depressing, but this story could not have been told in a non depressing way. But underlying the second generation guilt subject matter is a love story. For throughout this story of guilt and loss, there is no doubt that these two people truly loved each other. And they both suffered because their love was impossible.

The cinematography by Roger Deakins and Chris Menges is simply stunning. The physical scenes between the characters are beautifully lit. Winslet and Kross look radiant. Winslet, Kross and Fiennes do wonderful work portraying their characters. Bravo to director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare for doing such a thoughtful and lovely job of bringing Bernhard Schlink's novel to the screen.

Sam Mendes'
Revolutionary Road
Opens Thursday, December 25, 2008

Revolutionary Road: The Battleground of Deferred Dreams

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode? — Langston Hughes

Starring: Kate Winslet; Leonardo DiCaprio; Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon; Katherine Hahn; and David Harbour.
Reviewed by William S. Gooch

The well-worn cliché ‘love is not enough’ is usually bandied around by people who believe there is no romance without finance or that people from dissimilar backgrounds are unequally yoked. The complete package—some contend—would be a combination of comparable socio-economic backgrounds, ardent affection, and enough money to maintain the relationship when the passion dies. But sometimes a relationship is difficult to sustain, even if all the right ingredients accompany love, as is the case of the central couple in Revolutionary Road.

Revolutionary Road spans the two disparate worlds of the male-dominated culture of corporate New York in the 1950s and provincial life in a staid, Connecticut suburb. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) Wheeler in their respective roles as New York businessman and suburban hausfrau have taken on a lifestyle that neither bargained for. Once fancying themselves as unique individuals with passion and imagination, they have succumbed to a banal existence of routine busyness. Director Sam Mendes expertly details the unsatisfactory choices the Wheelers have made in scenes that show April exasperatingly putting garbage very neatly on the curb, just like all the other neighborhood wives, and Frank grudgingly taking the daily commute into New York only to dictate insipidly into a recorder about stuff he cares nothing about. In an effort to rescue their marriage from conventional boredom, April suggests selling their Connecticut home and starting a new, unpredictable life in Paris. Frank initially warms to the idea until he receives a big job promotion and April reveals that she is expecting another child.

Revolutionary Road poses the question of reconciling dreams juxtaposed against societal norms and marital bargaining power. On the surface, Revolutionary Road is a fiercely feminist film, but at closer examination, Mendes has a created a cinematic work that examines what happens to people when they exchange purpose and meaning for comfort and acceptability.

Kate Winslet gives an Academy Award-winning performance as April Wheeler, a woman who will go to extremes to opportune viable possibilities for her family and maintain her own sense of self. As a woman in the 1950s, she has few options, but April is willing to fight for every shred of her vision of a better life. And what a fight she puts up. Her character causes us to ask how much of oneself can be bartered for love. Winslet is not afraid to go to that dark, uneasy place of unanswerable questions and irreversible solutions.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives a breakthrough performance as Frank Wheeler. He brings a wizened maturity sometimes missing in some of his previous work. DiCaprio’s Frank Wheeler wants out just like April, but is more constrained by the social morays of his day. DiCaprio brilliantly positions Frank as a man torn by his desire for truth and his need for security.

In the supporting role of John Givings, Michael Shannon delivers one of the most exciting performances of the year. Insightful and brutally honest to a fault, Shannon takes the proverbial lid off the cookie jar in this role. Screenwriter Justin Haythe gives Shannon some of the most nuanced dialogue in the film. “Plenty of people see the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness,” says Givings, supporting the Wheelers decision to leave Connecticut. It also helps that Givings mental instability gives him latitude to lash out and be truthful without consequence.

Revolutionary Road, like all great films, causes introspection and a deeper examination of why people make the choices they make. Can perfect love replace deferred dreams? You decide.


Sam Mendes'
Revolutionary Road
Opens Thursday December 25, 2008

Written By: Justin Haythe, from Richard Yates's novel
Starring: Kate Winslet; Leonardo DiCaprio; Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon; Katherine

Paramount Vantage
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Thirty years ago a colleague of mine, a fellow high-school teacher, moved from Brooklyn, N.Y. to a Long Island 'burb. I was stunned, because this guy is urbane and regularly told his English classes to question not only authority but commonly held ideas as well. (He moved back to New York within a month.) The idea, of course, was the American Dream: that living with a spouse, two kids and a dog, surrounded by a white picket fence, equals lifelong happiness. What misfortune befalls to the two principals in Revolutionary Road may not be entirely the fault of their move to the suburbs, but leaving the city after they had kids didn't help their situation.

Since Revolutionary Road is the directorial product of Sam Mendes, who helmed American Beauty about a depressed suburbanite with a mid-life crisis who develops an infatuation with his daughter's good-looking friend, we're not surprised by an anti-suburbs tone throughout the picture. With stunning performances from Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road could influence moviegoers in their early twenties to forget about marriage, kids, and life outside the major metropolises. Let them at least question the American Dream before leaping to conform to the way of thinking that has such a hold on our society and that now has millions of homeowners in serious trouble, unable to pay their mortgages, at risk of losing the very roofs over their heads. And many of these homeowners were not particularly happy even when life seemed secure.

Then again, the movie is not designed to educate or to instill some sociological point, but to entertain, and that it does. As pictured by scripter Justin Haythe's adaptation of Richard Yates's 1961 novel, Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his wife April (Kate Winslet) are a well-spoken, intelligent couple who fall in love at first sight when they meet in a dance hall. But their very intelligence will cause them bitter frustrations. She is dismayed by her failure to succeed as an actress, while he, though enjoying an income good enough to support a house in the Connecticut 'burbs and two kids, hates his job on the 15th floor of the Knox building. Gradually descending into the marital hell that faced George and Martha in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, they make an impetuous decision to move to Paris with the two kids where she expects to work as a highly-paid secretary while he determines to find what sort of work he is really cut out for. When that impractical plan becomes illusory, the two descend into a morass of ill will, their facial expressions, body language, and a few melodramatic arguments spelling an end to their marriage.

Mendes has a nice touch with the ambiance of the 1950's which, take it from this writer who came of age during that decade, was one of sickening conformity. Large crowds of Organization Men, all wearing Fedoras, march in lock-step from the commuter trains to the workplace. Helen Givens (Kathy Bates), a real-estate agent who sells the Wheelers their house, is a frightful bore. The only major person in the film who dares to speak his feelings is John, the emotionally disturbed son of Helen Givens and her husband. John (Michael Shannon), fresh from a stay in a psychiatric institution, gives Frank Wheeler hell for caving in to the conformist culture rather than spreading his wings in Europe.

The quick flings that the two have are certainly not sufficient to giving them a sense of life—he with an office secretary, she a quickie in the car with a neighbor. Most interesting to watch are John, the loony-tunes, whose eviscerating prose brings Frank's emotions to fever pitch, and the protean Kate Winslet who can change emotions like a two-year-old going from crying to laughter in seconds. The final scene, a close-up of the hearing-impaired Howard Givings (Richard Easton), sums up the story's point. Revolutionary Road is a downer, a sad movie like American Beauty, but filled with the resonance of lives actually lived; lives, to quote Henry David Thoreau, of quiet desperation.

Rated R. 119 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Abdellatif Kechiche's
The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et le mulet)
Opens Wednesday December 24, 2008

Written By: Abdellatif Kechiche
Cast: Habib Boufares, Hafsia Herzi, Faridah Benkhetache, Abdellahamid Aktouche, Bouraouia Marzouk

IFC Films
Reviewed forNew York Cool by Harvey Karten

Tunis-born, French-raised writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche provides an engaging, if overlong and talky, tale inspired by events in his own life. His latest film is thematically about a group of Tunisian émigrés who make their home in the far from-glamorous French town of Sete, located Northeast of Marseilles with the Etang (pond) de Thau on the west and the Mediterranean on the east. The French village can be looked upon as a microcosm of immigrant groups throughout France and, in a stretch, as a sample of minority representation in any of the world's countries that house cultures distinct from those of the majority.

The Secret of the Grain, whose French title is literally The Grain and the Mullet, or more loosely, Fish Couscous, could also be subtitled The Close-Ups, as director Kechiche puts image after image of this lively group right into audience faces. The Tunisian-French, a varied group bearing the same jealousies and hostilities and propensity to gossip that we find anywhere here in the U.S., provides the movie's universality: to coin a cliche, "We're the same the whole world over."

The opening segments, which provide more development than needed, are a tough sell, as we eavesdrop on dialogue that includes complaints by the principal character's estranged wife that a toddler is not keeping up with the usual developmental stages of infants in that she pees in her diaper instead of on the potty. When Kechiche moves beyond the idle chatter into the real meat (or fish) of the story, he affords us a more precise delineation of the conflicts that lie barely dormant in the family and those subtle clues of racism that you'd expect when a bourgeois segment of the majority culture chat within themselves about "the other."

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the tale is not the alienation that miffs some Tunisians living in France, but the dissonance between the first generation of immigrants and their offspring, the latter feeling completely at home in the French language, fully able to negotiate with the French in business affairs. The father as family head? That's out the window now, though happily the older men do not appear threatened by loss of their authority.

Slimane (Habib Boufares), now past the age of sixty, has been laid off from his job on the docks after thirty-five years, half of which were spent toiling off the books. His identity as a worker now threatened, he turns to his dream of opening a restaurant on a decaying boat, one which will specialize in fish couscous for which he acquired a taste from his estranged wife, Souad (Bouraouia Marzouk). Living in a small dockside hotel managed by his mistress, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui), he and his girlfriend spend Sundays feasting and arguing at Souad's home, the dialogue revealing more than we want to know about their lives. Slimane's son Majid (Sami Zitouni) is the irresponsible one of the brood, a stud whose Russian wife Julia (Alice Houri) cries bitterly at the man's refusal to be a good father or spend time with her, time he tends to instead spend with a French woman who takes him away from his job as a tour guide on a boat for a quickie now and then. Slimane and thetalented and attractive daughter of Slimane's lover, Rym (Hafsia Herzi), open negotiations with a banker and some city officials on Slimane's wish to open a restaurant. This negotiations leads ultimately into their planning a party for the necessary officials and for their friends with the couscous prepared by Slimane's wife, Souad—a prospect that his girlfriend finds humiliating. When the food is delayed for over two hours, tensions come to a boil rather than the couscous.

If awards are to be given for ensemble acting, one hopes that The Secret of the Grain would be considered, as this picture is made for an ensemble—family squabbles, family support on a business plan, families acting perversely. Special recognition should go to Hafsia Herzi, whose extended belly dance makes the chorines at the Moulin Rouge look positively effete .

Not Rated. 151 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Will Smith and Rosario Dawson in Seven Pounds

Gabriele Muccino's
Seven Pounds
Opens Friday, December 19, 2008

Written By: Grant Nieporte
Starring: Will Smith; Rosario Dawson; Woody Harrelson; Michael Ealy; and Barry Pepper
Columbia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Christmas movies are here, many of them cynical comedies as befits our cynical times. Yet Christmas is also a time for giving. Getting back to our jaundiced times, however, do you wonder about the people who have extended themselves to you by contributing presents so different from the usual, with so much of the giver's own time and life behind the offering? What is your benefactor is someone you do not know, or perhaps have met once or twice? Now you're really suspicious.

Such are the characters that populate Will Smith's latest movie, with Smith acting in the most downer role of his career. As Ben Thomas, an Internal Revenue Service agent who seems to have a lot of time on his hands especially in a year that our country needs to dig deeply into the pockets of folks who are not quite honest, Ben is the opposite of what you expect from the folks at the I.R.S. He's not taking, except in one case of a bad guy who runs a hospital as though it were a used car lot. He's giving, but there's one condition: the people to whom he donates his services must be good guys—which, again, in our cynical age, seems to be a Sisyphean task.

Holiday season or not, Seven Pounds turns out to be not only sappy, which is OK: sometimes we get the blues and we need something sweet. It's convoluted, a simple story told by scripter Grant Nieporte and directed by Gabriele Muccino (The Pursuit of Happyness) as though a tale well told and comprehensible would be too simple a task for the month that prestigious films are all the thing to do.

Pitched as a gripping mystery and surprising love story which asks questions about life and death, regret and forgiveness, Seven Pounds gives us Ben Thomas (Will Smith) as a fellow who for reasons that may be clear early on, has become an emotional basket case. While showing exaggerated charm, unusual for an I.R.S. man, his smile is superficial, until he meets someone who recharges his batteries in the person of Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson). Emily has been in and out of hospitals, afflicted with a failing heart, now given just a few weeks to live. When confronted by agent Thomas for being derelict in her tax payments, she at first is justifiably suspicious since he appears to be stalking her. As she gets to know him she figures the best use of her remaining days would be to spend quite a bit of time with the new love in her life.

Thomas, though has a plan to help others in a way that we in the audience are not privy to. He is determined to pay it forward to a blind pianist, Ezra Turner (Woody Harrelson), a physically abused woman, an associate in a children's welfare agency, a sick child in a hospital, and others. He must first be sure that each of them is a good person.

The title becomes comprehensible only near the film's conclusion, yet some of us in the audience will figure out the game as early as the opening scenes while others, perhaps only those not paying attention, might be even blown away by the blockbuster finale. Will Smith's performance is engaging, as expected, but the film is weighed down by director Muccino's shameless manipulation of our emotions and knotty storytelling.

Rated PG-13. 120 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Bryan Singer’s
Opens Thursday December 25, 2008

Written By: Christopher McQuarrie, Nathan Alexander
Starring: Tom Cruise; Kenneth Branagh; Bill Nighy; Tom Wilkinson; Carice van Houten; Thomas Krestchmann; Terence Stamp; and Eddie Izzard.

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Should Claus von Stauffenberg be considered a hero because he led one of the fifteen attempts to assassinate Hitler? That depends on your system of ethics. One school believes that what counts in determining people's ethics is their motivation. Why are they doing what they are doing? Another school believes that what counts is WHAT people choose to do regardless of their motives in doing so. Those who hold to the latter idea may consider actions heroic in that they serve a rightful purpose: to rid the world of a psychotic monstrosity. The former, though, asks: Did Stauffenberg engage in the assassination plot because he considered Hitler's genocidal beliefs to be immoral—that such events as the Holocaust and the insane rush to conquer Europe and the Soviet Union are morally off the charts? Or, as is more likely (though not deeply probed by Bryan Singer's film), did Stauffenberg and his followers commit themselves to the assassination plot only because Germany was losing the war?

What I took away from the film is that the man was doing the right thing, but was not motivated particularly by the moral stench of a country's trampling upon the sovereignty of other nations and employing death camps to wipe out an entire group of people merely because of their religion. What's more, Stauffenberg failed: this is not by way of a spoiler since it's well known that Hitler survived all fifteen attempts on his life, the only attempt that succeeded being his suicide as Soviet troops were marching on Berlin.

Nonetheless Germans today look on Stauffenberg as a man who showed the world that not all Germans were Nazis, that some indeed resisted the Fuhrer's absolutism and unbounded hatred. In a script by Christopher McAurrie and Nathan Alexander, Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil) overcomes the predictable, sad ending of the story by ratcheting up the suspense to such an extent that we wonder whether the plot to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944 will succeed. The film is photographed by Newton Thomas Sigel in contrasting locations like the Tunisian desert, Hitler's mountain retreat, and Germany's capital city. Valkyrie opens in the deserts of Tunisia where British planes dog the German occupation forces. Stuaffenberg (Tom Cruise), descended from a long line of Teutonic aristocracy, is badly injured by a bomb, losing his left eye, his right hand, and three fingers of his left hand. He falls into a conspiracy that includes the half-hearted participation of General Friedrich Fromm (Tim Wilkinson), who is vaguely anti-Hitler, but lets it be known that he will side with whatever group is winning: that of the plotters or that of those loyal to the Fuehrer. While their personal ambitions are not probed, we get the idea that if just one man, Hitler, were out of the way, a new government resulting from a coup would be able to negotiate a peace with the allied powers. (What is not mentioned at all is the theory held by some that Germany, siding with Britain and the U.S., could then attack the Soviet Union and strangle communism in that vast country).

Doubtless to the surprise of many in the audience, Tom Cruise, known largely by fun scenes such as those found in Roger Donaldson's Cocktail and for comic-book heroism in movies like Mission Impossible, is brilliant as the aristocratic colonel intent on changing the course of European history. With a patch over his lost, left eye, albeit occasionally with the replacement by an apparently uncomfortable glass prosthetic, he convinces as a charismatic figure brash enough to counteract the warnings of some who outrank him and determined to be a key player despite the danger that his participation would place on his wife Nina (Carice van Houten) and five children.

With Nazi emblems trotted out en masse, including scores of flags on government buildings and on some three-engine Junker planes that look positively Orville Wright-ean compared to today's F-18 fighter jets, Singer brings to life events transpiring in North Africa, the Berlin War Ministry, Wolf's Lair, and Hitler's Berghof quarters. Production designers Lily Kilvert and Patrick Lamb even dust off the actual spots used to execute Stauffenberg by firing squad.

This film has stellar performances from its actors, particularly from Tom Wilkinson as the now-with-'em, now-agin'-'em general, Terence Stamp as General Ludwig Beck (who transforms himself into civilian clothes to show that he is at one with the German people), and Bill Nighy as Stauffenberg's right-hand man, General Friedrich Olbricht.

Further information about Operation Valkyrie can be found in the Wikipedia, where we learn that the film accurately defines Valkyrie as a plan designed by Hitler to bring order to the country should he die.

Rated PG-13. 125 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Brian Goodman's
What Doesn't Kill You
Opens Friday, December 12, 2008

Written By: Brian Goodman, Donnie Wahlberg, Paul T. Murray
Starring: Ethan Hawke; Mark Ruffalo; Amanda Peet; and Donny Wahlberg.

Yari Film Group
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

We all know those stories about brothers, one good, one bad; one a cop, one a hoodlum. Brian Goodman's story, which he directs, is similar, but then again stories about crime that reach a decent-size audience tend to be that way. What Doesn't Kill You is one of those same ol' same ol's deals, but it gets away with murder, so to speak, because of the superb, realistic acting. Some of the characters are incorrigible; some have decency and can be saved. We can see through this tale why so many people who are released from prison wind up back in a cell (they have no salable skills and there is resistance from businesses to hiring them) and some have the enormous discipline to go straight (they tend to have a family waiting for them and kids to come home to).

Goodman's movie, shown at the Toronto Film Festival, tells the story of two men who are about the same age, one single (Paulie, played by Ethan Hawke), one with a wife and two kids (Brian, played by Mark Ruffalo). They've known each other from way back, as is a tendency in tough neighborhoods which tend to not be particularly mobile. Like people who start on marijuana and alcohol and move on to cocaine and crack, they begin their careers in petty crime such as stealing from the backs of trucks. Since they are dealing with the Irish mafia in South Boston and see what larger amounts are garnered by the crime bosses, they have ambition to move up as is the capitalist way.

You'd think that Brian would be the more rational one given that he has a beautiful wife (Amanda Peet), but he turns into a drug addict. After serving a sentence in the Middlesex House of Correction (which it isn't, for some), Brian feels guilty once again as he cannot find a steady gig to keep his wife and kids happy.

Once the film hits its stride halfway through, it moves with remarkable speed, having thrown at us maybe too many different guys who are pressuring Brian to return to the only thing he knows. When Paulie gets out of jail six months after Brian (he takes the rap for the beating that both of them give to a child molester), he looks to con his pal into a robbery of an armored car. Will Brian risk all for a sum that would allow both to retire?

Production notes state the director Goodman, who co-wrote the script with Donnie Wahlberg and Paul T. Murray, grew upon on Southie's mean streets. He certainly has a feel for the dialogue, which is executed nicely by the characters, particularly by Amanda Peet. On the one hand, we get the impression that South Boston could actually be part of "the real America" that Sarah Palin touts: it's in the big city but we see that the blocks form a neighborhood of their own where, like the characters in Cheers, everyone knows your name.

What Doesn't Kill You
is, then, a crime drama which is straightforward; it is filled with comic moments, and sports solid performances.

Rated R. 100 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Darren Aronofsky's
The Wrestler
Opens Friday, December 19, 2008

Written By: Robert Siegel
Starring: Mickey Rourke; Marisa Tomei; and Evan Rachel Wood

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

I always thought that professional wrestling was fake—that the word "professional" was not the most judicious term to use for a sport that's authentic only on the college level. Judging by Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, here is the answer for those who question the sport's authenticity: Pro wrestling is a fake. BUT and that's a big but, the people in the ring get hurt, sometimes seriously. How can they not, when panes of glass are broken over the heads, when they climb to the top of the ropes surrounding the ring only to land with a thud on the mat, when they fall on each other with their 250-300 pounds which may be muscle, all the more to damage what's left of the brains of the opponents.

The Wrestler
is a switch for director Aronofsky whose Pi, made ten years ago, explored the mind of a scientist who despite his splitting headaches, thought he could calculate the universal patterns found in nature, and whose Requiem for a Dream featured surreal visions from the mind of a drug-addicted woman, who at several points watched her refrigerator doing a dance. There's nothing experimental this time, as the director, using Robert Siegel's script, fashioned a show with melodrama and sentiment in equal doses, and which will be known (far more than for its plot) for the astonishing performance of Mickey Rourke.

In a demonstration of art following life, Mickey Rourke, who pretty much disappeared from the cinema scene (though he regularly made movies that one critic states "no one sees,"), plays a has-been character as well. In the title role of Randy "the Ram" Robinson, who insists that everyone call him Randy and not Mr. Robinson, Rourke explodes on the screen as an archetype of white trash. This is a wrestler who had been out of the ring for a couple of decades and who lives in a New Jersey trailer from which he is regularly locked out by the landlord because he cannot afford the rent.

So what's a poor guy to do when he's twenty years past his prime in a sport that requires the agility and muscularity of youth, and he knows nothing else, given his apparent lack of education and smarts? Why, go right back into the ring, of course, with the popularity that is often gained from an audience which, however tough and street-smart, feels the appropriate sentimentality about a kid making a comeback.

While much of the action takes place in the ring as Randy takes on a fellow called "Ayatollah" who waves a Middle-Eastern flag at the audience (of course they agree in advance on what antics they will create for maximum audience cheers and jeers), the major segment of the movie explores the loneliness of a man who may inspire the plaudits of the crowd and the hugs of his fellow sportsmen, but remains fearfully alone. He seeks to overcome his angst by trying to reestablish a relationship with Cassidy aka Pam (Marisa Tomei), a stripper in a local Jersey club, and attempts to forge a new bond with his lesbian daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who has no use for the man who was not "there" for her when she needed him.

A neat parallel is drawn between the washed up wrestler and the stripper, the latter a mom in the real world, who knows that her days dancing around a pole are numbered. Yet Ram has an additional problem: he is not only fighting well beyond his prime, but he is kicking, punching and leaping around the ring not long after succumbing to a heart attack, getting a bypass operation, and being warned by the surgeon to lay off the drugs he cops from his pals in the game and, more important, to retire from wrestling. Scooping German potato salad in the local supermarket does not pan out as a long-term career choice (the most humorous moment in the movie has an elderly lady instructing him to give her "a little bit less" of the salad, then "a little bit more," then "a little bit less," and remarking "finally" when he caps the plastic.

Maryse Alberti shoots the action with hand-held cameras that gives us better than front-row seats, allowing us to eavesdrop on what the fighters say confidentially to each other during the brief pauses in the mayhem. Bathed in sentiment though the movie may be, this is a must-see for anyone wanting to marvel at an awards-worthy performance from Mr. Rourke.

Not Rated. 109 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



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