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Austin Chick's
August
Opens Friday, July 11, 2008

Starring: Josh Hartnett; Naomie Harris; Adam Scott; Emmanuelle Chriqui; Andre Royo; Robin Tunney; Rip Torn; and David Bowie.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Austin Chick's new film, August, takes the viewer time-travelling through the world of the late nineties' dot com boom. Dot com-mania was a fantasy world, populated by true believers like the towns people in Hans Christian Anderson's The Emperor's New Clothes. And like the story of the fairy tale, when the dot com bubble collapsed, the world finally realized that the information highway was populated by naked kings. Yes, the internet was the future, but almost no one was making any money.....yet. And no one wanted to be the first to say, "The Emperor has no clothes."

John Hartnett plays Tom in August (named for the month just before 9/11). Tom runs an internet company with the help of his hard working brother Joshua, played by Adam Scott. Their internet company is staffed by a large group of attractive older children (twenty-somethings) who, according to Tom's father, David (played by Rip Torn), sit at Ikea desks and eat Oreos.

The dot com boom was a sexy world; a world where youth ruled; a world where no one wanted to say that they did not UNDERSTAND the internet because that would mean they themselves were not COOL. It wasn't COOL to not understand the buzz words and to not be in-with-the-in-crowd who was developing the alternative universe called cyberspace. So we all drank the kool aid and admired the Emperor's new clothes.

Josh Hartnett plays Tom with James Dean style angst. He mopes, he sulks, he charms, he bulllshits. And he uses: uses his brother; uses his girlfriend (played by Naomie Harris); uses his assistants (played by Robin Tunney and Andre Royo); and most of all, uses his long-suffering brother Joshua (played by Adam Scott). Tom is a man who is going down, the only plot point in the film being just when will Tom hit rock bottom.

But in the bleak world of August, there is also a touch of redemption. When Tom's world finally collapses at the feet of a bail-out investor (played by David Bowie), Tom finds a touch of nobility in his soul and uses it save some of the people he has harmed.

The film is at its best when it depicts the dot com world - the clubs, the offices, and players of that fume-powered universe. It is an atmosphere flick, a slice of life in a time now gone. And Austin Chick's August does a good job of portraying this fantasy world, filtered through the smoke-and-mirrors-magic of pre 9/11 Manhattan.



Jan Hrebejik's
Beauty in Trouble (Kraska V Nesnazich)
Opens June 13, 2008

Written By: Petr Jarchovsky, story by Petr Jarchovsky, Jan Krebejk

Starring: Ana Geislerova; Roman Luknar; Emilia Vasaryova; Jana Brejchova; Jiri Schmitzer; Josef Abrham; Jan Hrusinsky; Jiri Machacek; Andrei Toader; Nikolai Penev; Jaromira Milova; Adam Misik; Michaela Mrvikova; andRaduza.

Mememsha Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Grade: A-

This stunning film which deservedly won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2006 Karlovy Vary Festival and Best Feature Film at the Denver International Festival, at base asks the question: Which is more important—hot sex with a rough, working-class thief, or material splendor with a rich, gentle, older fellow? But this is where any similarity between "Beauty in Trouble" ("Kraska V Nesnazich" as it's called in Czech), and soap opera, ends. Jan Hrebejik's film written by Petr Jarchovsky from the writer and director's story contrasts culture with boorishness, loyalty with change, the urban sophistication of the Czech capital with the rustic beauty of Italy's famed Tuscany. The acting is superb all around with a lovely soundtrack featuring some songs taken from the movie Once. The multi-character story is rich in human dimension, Hrebejik and Jarchovsky shucking off all caricatures to show that people (like you and me) have both positive and negative sides which can emerge either without apparent cause or in response to the way we're treated at any moment.

The writer-director team's previous feature Up and Down—about small-time smugglers who discover an abandoned baby, triggering consequences among a disparate group of people—selected the challenging title of this one from a Robert Graves poem which became the inspiration for a popular Czech song which goes "Beauty in trouble flees to the good angel/ On whom she can rely/ To pay her cab-fare, run a steaming bath,/ Poultice her bruised eye" and which concludes "Virtue, good angel, is its own reward."

We're made privy to the lives of disparate people, as in Up and Down, folks who are imperfect in different ways but who deserve our sympathy even as they choose wrong actions. Marcela Cmolikova (Ana Geislerova), for example, is fated to love two men for different reasons, a woman who may live out the rest of her life as though in conflict with society's mandate to select and remain loyal to only one. Her husband, Jarda Smolik (Roman Luknar), is a thief who steals cars and quickly remakes them for sale in his garage. Criminality aside, we understand that he and his family were wiped out by a flood that hit Prague in 2002 and destroyed their uninsured home. Jarda and Marcela must provide a decent life for themselves and their two adorable kids, Lucina (Michaela Mrvikova) and Kuba (Adam Misik). In one of the film's many comic scenes, the children cover their ears as they must do nightly as their parents have loud, incredible sex in the adjoining room. When Jarda is caught and sent to jail, the rest of his family are forced to move into the cramped home of Marcela's mother, Zdena (Jana Brejchova) and Zdena's surly second husband, Richard Hrstka (Jiri Schmitzer), the latter resenting their presence and making efforts to get them out. Even here we are invited to find sympathy for Marcela's stepfather, as he is sick with diabetes and is eager to get back to his own sexual life with his wife.

When Marcela meets Evzen Benes (Josef Abrham), the wealthy owner of the car whose theft led to her husband's imprisonment, she is surprised, after a brief courtship, to be invited to the gentleman's lavish Tuscany digs—an invitation she accepts despite the large difference in age in order to keep her family together. This new courtship is opposed by her mother-in-law (Emilia Vasaryova), a fervently religious woman sticking up for the sanctity of marriage.

Class differences allow for comic scenes, particularly at the dinner table where in a restaurant overlooking the Vltava River (which the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana immortalized in The Moldau) she is introduced to sushi and makes the mistake committed by Sam Malone in one episode of Cheers of taking in a full mouthful of the hot green wasabi condiment. While Benes, a vintner, relishes a glass of dry wine, Marcela finds the grape tolerable only when she combines it with a cola.

Among the cast members who excel we'd have to include Jiri Schmitzer who, in the role of the nasty stepfather Richard tells his nephew and niece the unvarnished truth about their dad after having some time before rhetorically asked the teenage girl "Have the boys in school felt you up yet?" He redeems himself in one heartbreaking moment. Ultimately the film belongs to Ana Geislerova, the conflicted Marcela who, upon her husband's release from prison must decide between a life of material and psychological security with a much older man or her less predictable situation with a sexual dynamo. A fast-paced conclusion provides an interesting, complex answer.

Photographer Jan Malir exploits the russet beauty of Tuscany and the medievalflavor of sections of Prague in a film that has enough respect for the character to treat them in all their conflicting dimensions.

Note: The Czechs produce fine films of their own, obviously, but Prague, with its Barrandov Studio, is also a favorite spot for Hollywood film-makers. See my article in Film Journal November 2007.

Not Rated. 110 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online.


 


John Crowley’s
Boy A
Opens Wednesday July 23, 2008


Written By: Mark O'Rowe, from the novel by Jonathan Trigell
Starring: Andrew Garfield; Peter Mullan; Shaun Evans; and Katie Lyons

Reviewed at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival by Frank J. Avella

John Crowley’s Boy A is the best narrative feature I’ve seen at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. If handled correctly (delicately), it could be (should be) an indie sleeper. Granted the film does not have the comic uplift of a Juno or a Little Miss Sunshine but it does have some important and thought-provoking things to say about our society and the world we live in and how we view rehabilitation and redemption. It also contains an incredibly nuanced, star-making performance by newcomer Andrew Garfield (seen last year in the underrated Robert Redford gem Lions for Lambs).

The film opens with a 24-year old “boy,” about to be released from a British juvvy prison, choosing a name as he sits with his devoted caseworker. As the film flashes back and forward, we become privy to his unbelievable story. At the age of ten, Boy A was involved in committing a heinous crime and was hauled away. A decade later, the case is still fresh in the minds of the public as well as the media so “Jack” must start afresh and live his life carefully and wary of revealing who he really is to anyone.

The pic meticulously takes us into Jack’s daily life as he nervously makes new friends and even begins dating a co-worker (an impressive Katie Lyons). Jack is obviously still a young boy in a man’s body. He is forever haunted by memories of his past, and worried about whether he is even deserving of a second chance.

His caseworker, Peter (the always extraordinary Peter Mullan), has been his champion, mentor and protector but must now deal with his own mess of a son moving back in.

As the movie moves towards an inevitable reveal and people’s predictable reactions, the film keeps true to it’s bleak but honest themes about the difficulty of forgiveness and the dangers of the mob (and media) mentality. Jack may very well be a changed boy, but will he ever be allowed to live any type of normal life?

Based on the novel by Jonathan Trigell, the screenplay (by Mark O’Rowe) is smartly structured and probes the complexities of Jack’s impossible situation. We grow to like him and then we flashback to the murder, which makes our feelings all the grayer. Along the periphery the film also examines class and how that effects the boy’s situation.

Throughout the film, Garfield holds our attention, showing us Jack’s fears and newfound joys. We watch how he learns about the world anew (never having heard of a dvd), experiments with drugs (a hilarious scene with him dancing on Ecstasy) and clunkily stumbles through the awkward moments of falling in love for the first time. It is a truly remarkable performance.

Boy A does omit an important part of Jack’s story (possibly deliberately). We are never shown any moments from his time in prison. I would have loved a glimpse of his world and what it was like to be inside his head during some of the defining period of adolescence. But then that’s what a really good film does. It makes us want more.



John Crowley’s
Boy A
Opens Wednesday July 23, 2008

Written By: Mark O'Rowe, from the novel by Jonathan Trigell
Starring: Andrew Garfield; Peter Mullan; Shaun Evans; and Katie Lyons

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

At times Boy A looks more like a propaganda piece for penal reform, or more specifically, a plea that society understand that when prisoners are released, they've paid their debt. Society does appear at first to honor this idea when a fellow commits a heinous crime at the age of ten, is incarcerated in a juvenile facility for fourteen years, is given a new identity, apartment, job and a caring social worker who seems to have only one client. What's more, he appreciates what he's getting, is well-liked on a job he's overjoyed to have—one which comes with an outgoing girlfriend. Yet when "society" finds out that he was in jail not for stealing cars for joyrides but for murder, albeit far below the age of maturity, the people who heretofore accepted him think nothing of casting him out. His big mistake was to return to a Manchester nabe rather than to disappear in London, but that's another story.

Perhaps Boy A will deserve a rating better than "B" from Brit-crix. The biggest problem in this superbly acted downer is the dialogue, which is not as bad as what we put up with in Trainspotting (don't expect to understand Scottish if you're an all-American, but at least that pic had English subtitles—which Boy A could most decidedly use). One wonders why Peter Mullan, who plays a social worker who presumably has had a college education, must talk with a thick brogue, though we accept this as cinema verite from the mouth of his favorite client.

John Crowley's film, adapted by Mark O'Rowe from Jonathan Trigell's novel, is nicely edited by Lucia Zucchetti, who takes us seamlessly from the present to the protagonist's past at appropriate moments. Andrew Garfield, who played student Todd Hayes in Lions for Lambs, anchors the story in a career-making performance as Jack Burridge, a 24-year-old released from juvenile custody after fourteen years for a senseless murder he helped commit at the age of ten. He's most fortunate to be under the wing of a Terry (Peter Mullan) social worker who if anything is too dedicated to his job, a seriousness that ultimately proves disastrous to his client. Jack, whose real name is Eric Wilson, enjoys his job with a delivery company, a gig that affords him not only friendly co-workers but also girlfriend, Michelle (Katie Lyons) who is immediately attracted to the lad: From time to time, photographer Rob Hardy shows us that Jack is tormented by the past by allowing us to eavesdrop on his (Alfie Owen's) hanging out with the wrong company, namely Philip Craig (Taylor Doherty). His current fortune will prove all too good to be lasting.

Aside from its execution as a downbeat story, the real find is Andrew Garfield who evokes the shyness of a guy whose best years have been ruined in a prison cell, where in one scene he is tortured by fellow convicts. Katie Lyons as girlfriend Michelle convincingly brings the young man out of his shell while his caseworker, who is in loco parentis, provides more adult support. Peter Mullan, whose bio includes the starring role of Joe Kavanagh in the working-class study My Name is Joe, plays the sort of guy we'd all want as a dad—even if his own son takes exception.

Not Rated. 100 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 


Julian Jarrold's
Brideshead Revisted
Opens July 25, 2008

Written By: Andrew Davies; Jeremy Brock; from Evelyn Waugh's novel.

Starring: Emma Thompson; Michael Gambon; Matthew Goode; Ben Whishaw; Hayley Atwell; Stephen Merchant; Greta Scacchi; Ed Stoppard; Jonathan Cake;and Patrick Malahide.

Miramax Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B+

"The rich are very different from you and me," said F. Scott Fitzgerald, to which we can add by contrast that emotions remain the same in every century, across whole demographic strains. Evelyn Waugh's masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited, illustrates this point, the film adaptation by Julian Jarrold flawlessly illustrating the way a wealthy, aristocratic British family during the decades preceding World War II spend their days, seeking pleasure yet restrained by religious influences. What the viewer must remember, though, is that the restraints of the Catholic faith, to which Waugh converted, must not be looked upon as a negative. The major theme of the novel is that Divine Grace enters into the lives of people when they open themselves up to the Deity no matter how late in life the conversion, a process sometimes called being "born again."

The Evelyn Waugh novel was given an eleven-episode treatment on TV in 1981 under the direction of Charles Sturridge and Michael Lindsay-Hogg with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews assuming the roles of the two principal characters. Compressing the novel (now available for just over ten bucks at Amazon) into just over two hours required Julian Jarrold to omit several minor characters from the tapestry, concentrating particularly on the relationship between young Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode, Match Point and The Lookout) and Sebastian Marchmain (Ben Whishaw, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), a friendship that began when each entered Oxford University.

The current film gets the treatment we've come to associate with Merchant-Ivory productions, punctuating the privileges of the very rich during the decades that the aristocracy was to decline in Great Britain. Without sentimentality or preaching, Brideshead Revisited, adapted from the novel by Andrew Davies (Bridget Jones Diary) and Jeremy Brock (The Last King of Scotland), evokes the principal motifs: The importance of Catholicism; nostalgia for the age of English nobility; and the passionate, though platonic, relationship between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte.

The story opens on Charles Ryder, a British officer during World War II who moves his men to a castle known as Brideshead. He wistfully recounts his days among the Marchmain family inhabiting what Charles considers the most beautiful home he had ever seen. While now a middle-aged, somewhat disillusioned fellow, he was just a naïve freshman at Oxford when he is introduced by Sebastian to an intimidating crowd of students. His friendship with Sebastian leads the latter's family to invite Charles to spend the summer, whereupon he slowly develops an affection for his friend's sister, Julia Flyte (Hayley Atwell, Cassandra's Dream). Though an atheist (an agnostic in the novel), he gains the trust of Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), who takes her Catholicism seriously, though her husband, Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) has moved to Venice with another woman, Cara (Greta Scacchi) Charles's atheism, however, makes him a poor match for Julia, who has been ordered by Lady Marchmain to marry a rich, boorish, Canadian businessman. Sebastian, an alcoholic who will eventually move far from his home to get away from his devout mother who controls him through guilt, proves to be a handful for both his family and Charles. As Charles's bond with Julia becomes firmer, we in the audience question the man's motives. Is he in love, or is he (despite his newly acquired fame as a painter) all too hungry for the trapping of aristocracy?

Filmed by Jess Hall to evoke the incredible wealth and privileges of the 20th century aristocracy in Britain, Brideshead Revisited is both a compelling piece of cinematography and a slow, painstaking look at the diverse fortunes of the anointed. As one non-believer after another—including to some extent Sebastian but more directly Sebastian's father, and even Charles—becomes "born again"—their dissolute lives become more constructive in ways that should be seen rather than revealed in a review. Brideshead Revisited is smart, handsome film-making without the usual summer panoply of special effects and computer generative industry, a picture graced by solid acting and a rich empathy with people who find themselves through religion rather than wealth.

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



Felicity Jones as Cordelia Flyte, Hayley Atwell as Julia Flyte,
Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain and Matthew Goode
as Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited.

Julian Jarrold's
Brideshead Revisted
Opens July 25, 2008

Written By: Andrew Davies; Jeremy Brock; from Evelyn Waugh's novel.

Starring: Emma Thompson; Michael Gambon; Matthew Goode; Ben Whishaw; Hayley Atwell; Stephen Merchant; Greta Scacchi; Ed Stoppard; Jonathan Cake;and Patrick Malahide.

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

A film adaptation of a literary classic is difficult at the best of times. The situation is only complicated when said classic has already been televised in an epic, 13-hour mini-series starring a gaggle of Britain's literary talents, the prospect becomes even more daunting. Fortunately, director Julian Jarrolds has had the testicular fortitude to attempt a new version of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, resulting in a compelling and innovative take on one of Britain's
finest and most nuanced pieces of literature.

Needless to say, when condensing a 30-page book Page book (or an 11
hour miniseries) into a 2-hour, much will be lost in translation. Certain plot points are excised, several characters are reduced in significance, but this is all in aid of Jarrolds' intent, which is to shift the main focus of the story toward the bizarre love triangle between seductively charming siblings Julia (Hayley Atwell) and
Sebastian (I'm Not There's Ben Whishaw) and their lesser-born, introspective friend Charles Ryder (played by Matthew Goode; Goode strongly resembles Jeremy Irons, who originated the role in the miniseries.)

Obviously, this approach loses some of the epic sweep and deeper political and philosophical concerns of Waugh's vision. The book and original adaptation can be viewed as a Canaletto canvas, with the characters carefully and distantly through the grand landscapes of Oxford, Venice, and the titular stately homes, their emotions carefully (if barely) in check. Jarrolds, on the other hand, has filmed Brideshead as a Caravaggio, where the rich settings are a backdrop for the desperate passionate grappling and anguish of lovers trapped in murky waters.

This approach is aided immensely by powerful performances by the three
leads. Atwell is positively dazzling as Julia, a woman torn between a nature of vitality and passion tempered by a sense of duty and devout Catholic faith. As Sebastian, the outwardly vivacious but deeply fragile and insecure gadabout, Whishaw balances impish charm with heartbreaking pain and fragility. Goode, the most enigmatic of the trio, is something of an unsteady chameleon, but with a great deal of emotion and compassion.

While this trio works beautifully together, the standout performance in Brideshead is Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain, Sebastian and Julia's mother. Almost un recognizable in grey set curls, Thompson doesn't shy away from the staunch domineering, aspects of Marchmain's character, but also brings moment of exquisite vulnerability and uncertainty that makes her character much more human.

With this new focus, some of Waugh's intent falls by the wayside. There's much mention of the film of the Marchmain-Flytes being Catholic, but little demonstration of how their faith guides their actions. Nevertheless, this new angle on Waugh's complex story is teeming over with romantic, lustful and tender, and the social formalities that labor in vain to constrain them. Gloriously set and
sumptuously costumes, it's a drama of emotion and passion not to be
missed.


 



Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan’s
The Dark Knight
Opens Friday, July 18, 2008

Starring: Christian Bale; Heath Ledger; Aaron Eckhart; Michael Caine; Maggie Gyllenhaal; Gary Oldman; and Morgan Freeman.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is easily the best action film to be released so far this summer. I almost hesitate to label it an action film because it is smart, clever, dark and disturbing. Audiences will probably not leave theatres feeling good about their fellow man. They may leave pondering certain moral and ethical issues the film brings up (and, mercifully, does not necessarily answer) and that is reason enough to celebrate!

Nolan, who helmed the terrific Batman Begins, along with his writer/brother Jonathan and David S. Goyer, probe the gray and dig deep down into the grim in order to hypothesize about the point where hero becomes villain. Can anyone hold onto his own code of ethics in a fickle and rush-to-judgment society? Does power always corrupt? Why do heroes matter so much to us? And if we knew the real truth about those we are led to believe are models of propriety, would we ever be able to believe in anyone or anything?

Heavy? Sure. And thank God for that!

The plot is deliberately confusing and repeat viewings are encouraged. Suffice to say that our caped crusader has his work cut out for him this time around. The mob, led by a smarmy Eric Roberts, is getting away with murder and a new D.A.; Harvey Dent (the terrific Aaron Eckhart) is on the scene to battle crime in Gotham City. His girlfriend is Bruce Wayne’s former squeeze, Rachel Dawes (a perfectly cast Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes).

Batman is more brooding and angst-ridden than usual and Christian Bale has pain and suffering to spare. He’s at a moral crossroads and the arrival of a new and unpredictable threat tosses him into a confounding tailspin. From American Psycho onward, Bale proves he is one of the best and most fascinating actors working today.

“The which doesn’t kill you, makes you stranger.” The Joker.

The threat arrives in the form of the initially bumbling Joker (Heath Ledger). But don’t let his first few scenes fool you--this villain is vile and wicked. With his mussy, stringy hair, repulsive yet beguiling (white) face and badly painted smile to accentuate his scars, this card (pun intended) believes in chaos and anarchy. His evil cannot be predicted, reasoned or controlled because he doesn’t want anything other than to cause mayhem, destroy and prove the malignant nature of man. As Michael Caine’s wise Alfred puts it: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” He doesn’t even want Batman dead. Quite the contrary, he stares at him and freakily states, “You complete me.”

If the Joker’s reasons are buried in childhood trauma or abuse we are never given his real story and Ledger’s performance is the better for it. As a matter of creepy fact, the Joker actually provides a few horrific childhood scenarios, but we soon realize that we can’t ever trust what he says; he’s simply having a macabre laugh at his victim’s expense, after all, he is a sadistic fuck. He’s also a masochist. It’s a mesmerizing, messy portrait, loaded with mad nuances.

There has been much posthumous Oscar speculation among critics, prognosticators and Hollywoodites regarding Ledger’s performance--and with good reason. It’s an all-immersive, vanity-free portrayal and a fitting swan song to a promising career cut tragically short. Ledger should have won his gold dude for Brokeback Mountain, so it would not be surprising if his genius turn here gets him the prize.

The look of the film is stunning and spectacularly gloomy. All tech credits are extraordinary.

The Dark Knight proves a superhero film can be more than a cacophonous, pyrotechnic, effects-driven video game. It can have non-stop action, amazing effects and still have an untidy, topsy-turvy plot and performances that strive to be more than simply good and actually achieve a kind of transcendence.




Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan’s
The Dark Knight
Opens Friday, July 18, 2008


Written By: Jonathan Nolan; Christopher Nolan; Story by Christopher Nolan; David S. Goyer from characters in DC Comics. Batman created by Bob Kane.

Starring: Christian Bale; Heath Ledger; Aaron Eckhart; Michael Caine; Maggie Gyllenhaal; Gary Oldman; and Morgan Freeman.

Warner Bros.

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B-

It's difficult to criticize a movie in which a fellow who is considered "a White Knight," "the best of us," goes by the first name "Harvey"—a District Attorney who has locked up half of Gotham (filmed by Wally Pfister in Chicago). The picture is a mixed bag, one that might be summarized by part of a terrific commercial that appeared years back before trailers, in which one moviegoer is pondering whether to attend a film that's "visually arresting but ultimately pointless." Not that The Dark Knight is pointless, but on the other hand comes across as though it were a series of trailers. Christopher Nolan who directs from a script he co-write with his brother Jonathan Nolan, appears to make a few moral points: that even the best of us can turn rotten when pursuing vengeance; that a caped crusader can be disliked by much of the city he protects because he is blamed indirectly for quite a few murders; that you can't negotiate with a terrorist, because (at least in this case), the demon has no interest in money or power but only in fomenting as much chaos as he can.

The Dark Knight is graced by an astonishing performance from Heath Ledger as The Joker, one scary fella who covers up scars he received from his knife-wielding dad with makeup that gives him a face covered with white paint while leaving lips to be decked out in dark red. If an Oscar can be awarded posthumously, Mr. Ledger should be guaranteed at least a nomination for portraying what will probably be this year's most exciting portrayal of a villain. The movie comes to life whenever he is on the screen, but becomes pedestrian whenever Christian Bale, so fearsome and authentic as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, enters the screen. Bale is a dull Bruce Wayne and a less than awesome hero.

There are two fundamentally distinct ways to judge the quality of this plot. One group of moviegoers and critics are going to find gems in its complexity, stating even that the film deserves multiple viewings (at two and one-half hours a pop) to figure out who's who and what's what. Others will take an opposite approach, holding that the story is so incoherent, one might as well throw up his hands and consider the film of value only because of some awesome visual delights. I'll have to take that latter point of view. David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, or for that matter Christopher Nolan's Memento, have trajectories which become clear by the second or third viewing. The Dark Knight, by contrast, throws together a pot pourri of criminals and crime fighters that are nearly impossible to sort out or make even comic-book sense of. Additional screenings are likely to be fruitless.

Gotham is portrayed as a city rife with police corruption, organized crime, and one weird, psychopathic killer who seems motivated to get revenge against the father who scarred him for life. He takes out his anger on an assortment of citizens. His chief nemesis is the incorruptible (at least for a while) District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), but The Joker is not eager to kill Batman. He considers the caped crusader someone who "completes" him, someone to play with to prove his skills to the entire city. The Joker is an expert at demolition: in one scene, he blows up a hospital and buildings surrounding it, walking away laughing to himself. When he gets the drop on an individual, he licks his lips, slowly, calmly explaining to his victims why he has become the psycho he is. Every actor wants to play the bad guy, Heath Ledger providing a textbook example--as the D.A., Bruce Wayne, and Batman are dishwater-dull by contrast (until one of them shows his dark side, thereby helping to prove the maxim). The film can be interpreted as an indictment of American foreign policy. In one scene, a scientist sets up a system of wiretapping that will allow Batman to spy on millions of Chicago's citizens. In another, Batman mercilessly delivers a beating to a prisoner, hoping to get information about a kidnap victim's whereabouts.

There are faux Batmans, bank robbers, Hong Kong businessmen, all thrown into the mix helter-skelter along with the usual array of car crashes, truck somersaults, and a terrific-looking Batpod. There's even a romantic triangle as Bruce Wayne's former squeeze, Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), has shifted her loyalties to the district attorney—an unusual switch considering that she once had the attention of a billionaire playboy. Gary Oldman shows up regularly with a restrained performance as a detective about to become the city's police commissioner, Morgan Freeman as a scientist, Michael Caine as Bruce Wayne's lifelong butler Alfred.

If you thrill to visual mayhem, try to see the picture on the IMAX screen, which delivers the goods particularly when Batman descends quickly from skyscrapers or spreads out his bat-wings to fly across buildings. By now, though, the usual visual thrills have become a common-enough staple in blockbusters. Ditto the thumping soundtracks, in this case provided by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. What's missing is a solid, coherent story, one that pares down the numbers of subplots and subplots to subplots.

Rated PG-13. 152 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Wayne Price's
The Doorman
Opens July 18, 2008

Written By: Lucas Akoskin, Wayne Price

Cast: Lucas Akoskin, Matthew Mabe, Peter Bogdanovich, Thom Filiica, Denise Qunones, Amy Sacco

Gigantic Release

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Grade: C

At my age, gaining access to the right club is picking up the appropriate Ace when I'm holding a ten, Jack, Queen and King of clubs. For me, watching a movie about a doorman at a night club is in equal parts a trip down memory lane and a voyage to a foreign land. A movie about a doorman? It's not a bad idea at all to hone in on some of the people who act in society's supporting roles, though one might not necessarily find a doc about a bathroom attendant to be compelling viewing—unless, of course, Judd Apatow has a hand in the writing.

The Doorman is a mockumentary, a subgenre that tends to add interest to a movie rife with talking heads. As a maker of this mockumentary, though, Wayne Price in no way even begins to match up to the talent of Christopher Guest (Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman). His principal character may be charming and comic at first, but quickly becomes so irritating (particularly when he peppers virtually every sentence with the adolescent filler "you-know") that the movie outlives even its brief seventy-six minute length halfway through. What's more most of the men and women, many of whom play their real-life selves, comes off as superficial as the consumerist quartet in Michael Patrick King's Sex and the City.

The title doorman, known allegedly by the hippest people in New York, Miami and Vegas, calls himself Trevor W., though he is played by the Argentinian actor Lucas Akoskin—who sports a heavy Latino accent. He is the creation of writers Wayne Price and Lukas Akoskin, who originally thought of making a short video about a guy who imagines himself to be a subway doorman, emerging from the train with a list and refusing to let most people board "the VIP car." That sounds like something that could be funny for about three minutes. Instead, Akoskin and director Wayne Price extended the idea to focus on a guy who is clueless about his real importance but believes himself to be a celebrity, an authority figure who could bar entrance to hip night clubs to all he does not like or who are not wearing the right shoes, or maybe too old, too uncool, or what-have-you. During the film he is shown using his Great Powers at the door—though one big guy who is denied entry simply barges through and, since the doorman is not a bouncer , he can do nothing about that.

Lucas Akoskin, then, tells "his own story" in a movie that has far too much improvised dialogue, the principal raison d'etre presumably being to show off a cast of real-life movers and shakers, none of whom I know (except for Peter Bogdanovich who inexplicably invites Lucas to dine with him and to listen to Lucas's plea for a film part). The conversation involves one of the few genuinely humorous lines: Bogdanovich tells the waiter that he does not eat dairy, while Lucas curries favor by adding, "Yes and I don't eat dirty either. Clean it up and maybe I'll order it."

Lucas is at the top of the game when he shows up in an assortment of purportedly high-fashion threads at a New York Club and is also invited to work at special events at Las Vegas and Miami. While VIPs like Thom Felicia, a notable interior designer, and Amy Sacco, owner of Lot 61 club, tell the interviewer their impressions of Lucas, Lucas eventually finds himself on hard times when he is fired from his job presumably because he did not recognize Nicolas Cage and refused him entry. He applies for jobs as a rock singer, a TV actor, and a film star, in all cases showing himself to be boorish, ill equipped to sing, and obnoxiously insistent on his qualifications. The point of the film appears to be that when one is given a little authority in a small sphere of operations, he becomes grandiose—emerging as a sad caricature of a man. Again, good idea, Mr. Price and nice try, Mr. Akoskin, but while the tagline is valid, "Trevor W. knows people. More importantly he knows people who know him," those of us in the movie audience may find little to cheer in a vehicle that falls short of entertainment.

Not Rated. 76 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Marcos Carnevale's
Elsa & Fred
Opens June 27, 2008

Written By: Marcos Carnavale, Lily Ann Martin, Marcela Guerty

Starring: China Zorrilla; Manuel Alexandre; Blanca Portillo; Roberto Carnaghi; Jose Angel Eglo; and Gonzalo Urtizberea.

Distimax Inc

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Grade: B

For every hundred movies about romance among the young, there's maybe one that deals with the chemistry of folks over the age of sixty. In this case, the Elsa of the title is eighty-two, her "boyfriend" is seventy-eight. When the emotions of people over seventy are given expression, their children are more than likely to say "ewwww," as though there's something perverted about dirty old people, who should presumably keep their bond private—certainly not show their exuberance by stomping about Rome's Trevi Fountain.

Elsa and Fred are two people of different temperaments—she is bubbly, outgoing; while he is by her own judgment subdued. But their kinship works in this small film featuring the Montevideo-born China Zorrilla and Madrileno Manuel Alexandre in the roles of an Argentinian lonely-heart and a Spanish man who is grieving the recent death of his wife, a self-absorbed hypochondriac with a bevy of varied-colored pills.

Marcos Carnevale, Argentinian by nationality, examines the partnership while at the same time paying homage to the movies, in particular to La Dolce Vita, undoubtedly Elsa's the number one favorite, one that has her comparing her own youthful self to Anita Ekberg. The movie serves as well as a travel poster for Spanish tourism, featuring a vibrant Madrid with upscale restaurants and urban sophistication.

Elsa and Fred meet cute after she has accidentally broken the headlights of a car parked behind hers. Fred's daughter, Cuca (Blanca Portillo), the woman whose car was damaged by Else, is meddlesome, playing the role of her dad's overseer—entering his apartment without knocking while urging him to invest in a business which he passively agrees to do. But when he again has someone to live for, he reconsiders putting his life on automatic pilot. With Fred pulled reluctantly, at first, into living once again, the film gains its heartening motif.

Else & Fred will likely be seen by people long past their prime, which is unfortunate. Young people, who likely caricature those in their declining years, as irrelevant at best and deplorable at worst, will gain insight into the real selves of people beyond the age of seventy who are, like these two delightful folks, teenagers in oldster bodies.

Not Rated. 106 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 

Peter Tolan's
Finding Amanda
Opened June 27, 2008

Cast: Matthew Broderick; Brittany Snow;, Peter Facinelli; Steve Coogan; Maura Tierney; and Bill Fagerbakke.

Written By: Peter Tolan

Distributed by Magnolia Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

Anyone reading the supermarket tabloids is familiar with the number of stories about celebrities entering rehab—for drugs, usually, some for drinking, others for gambling. But whoever heard of entering a classy rehab center in Malibu for hooking? Peter Tolan, did, that's who. His film, Finding Amanda, is about a twenty-year-old prostitute whose uncle, a TV comedy writer in Pasadena, heads over to Las Vegas to find his niece and get into a center which he had already paid for. If there's really no such thing as "curing" a prostitute, who cares? The movie uses that theme to show us that the forty-three-year-old uncle is more in need of help than the woman who is half his age. Tolan has cast his film well, especially in the person of Brittany Snow in the title role of Amanda, one who determines that eight clients in a weekend would give her more money, a fabulous apartment, and even more fun than her job at the International House of Pancakes could give her in an entire month. The story has a tonal change that's quite acceptable, as many light comedies turn serious during the final third of a story. In this case the switch works: it's competently prepared for by all that precedes.

Money seems no object, at least for a while, for Taylor Peters (Matthew Broderick), a richly rewarded TV comedy writer whose show is in the toilet with low ratings and who seems oblivious to his chances of being more canned than its laughter. When his wife, Lorraine (Maura Tierney) prods him to convince his niece to enter rehab, he agrees with no objection, not because he really is into helping the young woman but because going to Vegas gives him the chance to continue his gambling addiction—to the horses and then to the card tables—even to go off the wagon and become the drunk he once was. He finds Amanda in a hotel lobby aggressively out to seduce the men, meets her idiotic boyfriend, Greg (Peter Facinelli), who finds nothing wrong with bringing girls into her home, and is not too concerned that she is not convinced from his pitch. He has his own problems by steadily losing at his favorite hotel, where he is welcomed big just as all losers are, and convinces the casino host, Jerry (Steve Coogan) that the check he bounced will be covered by a bank transfer.

The weakest segment of the picture deals with boyfriend Greg, an odd-looking, hostile fellow who does his best to get rid of Uncle Taylor, even pouring pasta and sauce all over the older man's clothes. Aside from a splendid side role by Steve Coogan (24 Hour Party People), who somehow is not credited with the role on the Internet Movie database imdb.com, much credit goes to Brittany Snow, whose Amanda is happy-go-lucky for the bulk of the movie but in one scene finds her exploring herself in some depth and finding a core of self-loathing. Matthew Broderick, who at the age of forty-six looks not a day older than when he played Ferris Bueller in 1986, turns in his usual reliable performance as a man who loses his money, his sobriety, his soul.

Rated R. 90 minutes. (c) 2008 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online.




Courtney Hunt's
Frozen River
Opens Friday, August 1, 2008

Starring: Melissa Leo; Misty Upham; Michael O'Keefe; Mark Boone Junio;Charlie McDermott; James Reilly; Dylan Carusona; Jay Klaitz; Michael Sky;John Canoe; and Nancy Wu.

Reviewed by Bryan Close

Don’t let the fact that Frozen River won the dramatic grand prize at Sundance fool you. Director Courtney Hunt’s low-budget indie about two poor mothers – one white, one Native American – who risk their lives smuggling illegal immigrants across the Frozen St. Lawrence river is not just a complex, well-acted, authentically naturalistic slice of forgotten lives; it is also a tightly plotted, gripping thriller.

Frozen River tells the story of Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), a poor upstate New York mother who lives in an insulation-free trailer with her fifteen and five-year-old sons. When her gambling addict husband relapses a week before Christmas and runs off with the cash for the doublewide of her dreams, leaving Ray and the kids (Charlie McDermot and James Reilly) to live on popcorn and Tang, Ray goes looking for him. Nobody’s victim, she brings along a revolver, which she immediately uses to shoot a hole in the side of the camper where she finds husband’s car. The camper is on the Mohawk reservation that straddles an unpatrolled section of the US-Canadian border, and in it is Lila Littlewolf (Missy Upham), a luckless smuggler who is trying to get her own baby son back from her late husband’s mother, who, she says, “stole him.”

From this inauspicious meeting, the partnership is born. For a while, the river holds and the money flows. But complications ensue. These involve, in no particular order: deep-seated racial tensions, the law, a finicky blowtorch, gunshots outside a strip club, looming blindness, ingrained bitterness, single motherhood, the suffocating realities of poverty, the (at best) indifference of nature, possible complicity in a variety of heinous crimes (including, Ray suspects, of terrorism) and both metaphorical and literal thin ice. Along the way, the women may even participate in an authentic Christmas miracle involving a pair of unwanted travelers and an infant that somehow doesn’t feel the least bit cheesy.

The leads are so strong that it is difficult to imagine other actresses in the roles. Leo (best known for the 90’s TV series Homicide: Life on the Street) anchors the movie with a tough, vanity-free performance as a woman with whom life has not been gentle, but who retains a core of decency. Upham’s open face conveys worlds of emotion beneath a deep mistrust not only of white people and their world, but of almost everyone around her. The bond they share as single mothers fighting for their broken families is unspoken but palpable and one of the films biggest strengths.

The other main players deliver as well: in an especially well written role, McDermot expertly navigates between the poles of teenage selfishness and maturity, pettiness and generosity. And old pros Michael O’Keefe as the local sheriff and Mark Boone Junior as a thoroughly scummy human trafficker give strong support.

Hunt’s writing is crisp and unsentimental, and her pacing is unusually taut for a low-budget indie. Cinematographer Reed Morano shoots the bleak Plattsville, NY location in all its gray oppressiveness and natural grandeur, and the score (several composers are credited) is haunting, further contributing to the thriller-like atmosphere. That it was done on the cheap in less than a month in sub-zero temperatures makes the accomplishment all the more impressive.

But don’t take my word for it. Sundance jury president Quinten Tarantino, a guy who knows a little something about provoking a reaction from an audience, said the film “put my heart in a vice and didn’t let go.”


 

 


Peter Segal's
Get Smart
Opens June 20, 2008

Written By: Tom J. Astle, Matt Ember

Starring: Steve Carell; Anne Hathaway; Dwayne Johnson; Alan Arkin; Terence Stamp; James Caan; Masi Oka; Nate Torrence; Ken Davitian; Terry Crews; David Koechner; and Dalip Singh.

Warner Bros/ Village Roadshow

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Grade: B-

People under the age of twenty-five probably can't believe that on the TV series Get Smart that began in 1965, a secret agent's gadget consisting of a shoe with a wireless phone inside was considered a far-out, James-Bond style toy. Remember that as recently as then, a telephone in your car was considered an expensive luxury: few could have conceived that more Americans would own cells today than not. In adapting the Get Smart concept for a big-screen movie, director Peter Segal (The Longest Yard, Naked Gun 33-1/3) pays homage to the old episodes created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry which starred Don Adams and Barbara Feldon while simultaneously updating the story to throw in some more gadgets. At the same time, though, Barbara Feldon in the role of Agent 99 for 131 episodes was already a liberated woman who did not defer to Adams's Maxwell Smart (138 episodes). In a sense, then, the small-screen and multiplex versions are not dissimilar.

Get Smart has a lot of action shots filmed by Dean Semler—a low-flying propeller plane threatened with breakup; a car about to collide with a train; some skydiving with and without parachutes; explosions within a bakery; car chases; people chases; gunplay; all punctuated by Trevor Rabin's pulsating music with breakneck speed encouraged by editor Richard Pearson. But comedy is scripters' Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember's primary consideration, the laughs coming out of the situations that the agents of CONTROL find themselves in, while verbal wit is virtually nonexistent. In fact there is just one quip worthy of the term in the entire one hundred ten minutes of the movie, that involving an essay on existentialism that Maxwell Smart has written on an exam that he takes for a hoped-for promotion in the agency.

Steve Carrel anchors the show as CONTROL agent Maxwell Smart, who will turn out to confirm the Peter Principle: "In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." An expert at analysis, he picks up chatter of enemies of the U.S., delivering valuable information to the staff of the clandestine agency. When he passes an exam that should have promoted him to agent, the bureau chief (Alan Arkin) wants to keep him doing what he has been doing, though circumstances change. He becomes a field operative, Agent 86, is teamed up with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), and is no longer responsible for preparing dull reports for Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson). The job is to uncover nefarious activities by the head of KAOS, Siegfried (Terence Stamp), suspected of considering sabotage somewhere in the U.S.

The laughs are designed around essentially a series of Saturday Night Live skits involving the relationship of Agent 86 and Agent 99, with Anne Hathaway's character resenting a man who is brand new to the job and could compromise her safety. After all, she proves herself several times during the story by being able to run with high heels, kick, punch and shoot like the best of the men. Inevitable bickering between the two will give way to sentiment, with Agent 86 finding herself sufficiently attached to her partner that she will presuambly crumble if he is hurt or killed.

As in the James Bond series, gadgets are the co-stars: 86 and 99 appear competitive even in showing off what they're carrying, the paraphernalia including the shoe phone, a pocket smokescreen, a small flamethrower, a hook, a blowgun; while sports cars formerly seen in the TV series strut their stuff—the Opel GT, the Karmann Ghia, the Sunbeam Tiger. James Caan turns up as our country's chief executive, a man who is not identified but who cannot pronounce "nuclear" and who falls asleep during a concert of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Not surprisingly, Steve Carrel is the man to watch, his Agent 99 being out of his depth in the field, but unlike The Pink Panther's Inspector Clouseau, sensitive enough to be taken aback by criticism. Bond wannabees have included Mike Myers's Austin Powers, Dean Dujardin's Oss 117, and in real life quite a few people in Britain who want to join M16 thinking that they will really be license to kill. There is only one James Bond: his comic imitators on the screen are pale by comparison.

Rated PG-13 110 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 


Alex Gibney's
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson
Opens Friday, July 4, 2008

Featuring: Interviews with former President Jimmy Carter; Democratic Presidential Candidate George McGovern; Conservative Commentator Pat Buchanan; Jann Wenner (the publisher of Rolling Stone); Author Tom Wolfe; singer and song writer Jimmy Buffett; and cartoonist Ralph Steadman. Narrated by Johnny Depp. Produced by: Graydon Carter; Jason Kliot and Joanna Vicente; Eva Orner; and Allison Ellwood.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Even if you were not around for Hunter Thompson’s glory days, the days when he rode the bus/planes to cover the Presidential campaigns of Senator George McGovern and President Jimmy Carter for Rolling Stone, you might have become enchanted with Thompson when you saw the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (starring a whacked out Johnny Depp as Thompson). And you would have become enchanted as in “That was one funny fucked-up guy. I think I would have liked him.”

Here is a quote from the press release for Alex Gibney's (of Academy Award winning Taxi to the Dark Side fame) new documentary film Gonzo: “Gonzo is a three-dimensional portrait with a focus on Thompson's work, whose legendary status is due as much to his scintillating writing as his outrageous antics. A die-hard member of the NRA, Thompson was also a coke-snorting, whiskey-swilling, acid-eating fiend. While his pen dripped with venom for crooked politicians, he surprised nervous visitors with the courtly manners and soft-spoken delivery of a Southern gentleman. Careening out of control in his personal life, Thompson also maintained a steel-eyed conviction about righting wrongs. Today, in a time when “spin” has replaced the search for deeper meaning, Thompson remains an iconic crusader for truth, justice and a fiercely idealistic American way.”

Thompson created a creative form of interpretive journalism which he called Gonzo Journalism. He wrote spoofy coverage stating things like Senator Ed Muskie was under the influence of a psychoactive drug, Ibogaine. He could also be mega goofy, acting for home movies while wearing a Richard Nixon masks and swimming in his pool. No one was immune from his scathing comedic coverage, but it was never just name calling - Thompson was clever; his words are a delight to read. But underneath the humor is a lot of anger, anger about the state of affairs in this our United States of America. And the anger that Hunter felt resonates today; we are still surrounded by reaming buckets of hypocrisy.

Director Alex Gibney obviously had a hell-of-a-time making Gonzo. He interviewed George McGovern, Jimmy Carter AND Pat Buchanan. He also incorporated Hunter’s home movies, psychedelic clips from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (starring Johnny Depp) and interviews with both of Hunter’s wives into his film. What emerges is a definitive biography of (as described by director Alex Gibney) America’s first blogger, Dr. Hunter Thompson.

For more information about the movie, log onto: huntersthompsonmovie.com




Peter Berg's
Hancock
Opens Wednesday July 2, 2008

Starring: Will Smith; Jason Bateman; Charlize Theron; Eddie Marsan; Johnny Galecki; Thomas Lennon; and Jae Head.

Written By: Vy Vincent Ngo, Vince Gilligan

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Grade: C

Moviegoers across our fair country have accepted, nay even embraced, the idea that summertime calls for light fare: books we can read at the beach, theater that leaves us feeling good, and big-studio movies that allow us to check our brains at the door. Prone as we critics are to seek out indies that help us to explain the human condition, there are exceptions that give us hope for big-studio fare. Pixar studio's Wall-E is one major offering this summer that appears to have almost unanimous critical acceptance. But for the most part, we understand that the megaplex will offer the likes of Hellboy 2, The Incredible Hulk, You Don't Mess with the Zohan and The Love Guru.

Thanks to Mike Myers's vanity project in that last citation, Hancock cannot be called the worst movie of the summer. However, even by action-adventure standards, namely those movies targeted to the 16-25 year-olds, Peter Berg's creation scripted by Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan, is a dud. You'd think that with a budget of $150 million, money that could go quite a way toward hiring hundreds more Wall-E's to clean up our waste, you could dream up a movie that does not assault us with CGI and stunt work involving a human being's ability to take off like a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings with a single bound, and who, more powerful than a locomotive, cannot make a soft landing in L.A. Every time the title character, a sometimes airborne superhero played by Will Smith, sets himself back down on terra firma, he uproots enough concrete to assure employees of companies with government road-repair contracts of steady jobs even during our current recessionary times.

Aside from a clever twist that I couldn't see coming at just about midpoint, director Berg (The Kingdom) must have figured that the public would eat up a film with an original idea, and it is an intriguing one: that a superhero who has lived for centuries without aging—just as do Captain Marvel, Superman, Wonder Woman, maybe Spiderman—would be so sick and tired of his job that he would drink himself into a stupor, not bother shaving, and take naps not at a super-home but on a park bench. A fallen superhero, not bad. Premise notwithstanding, the hackneyed car crashes, train wrecks, building destructions, automatic artillery still dominate the picture while the human angle, which should have been exploited more and with greater subtlety, exists as a throwaway. The dreary explanation of Hancock's origin sounds like pure gobbledygook.

As for the human angle: We first meet Hancock (Will Smith) sleeping off a hangover on a park bench, called an a-hole by a kid as he will be called many times throughout the story. Having aroused the public to dislike him because everywhere the superhero goes to stop crimes, he creates wreckage, Hancock is about to get a makeover by a public relations executive, Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), whose life he had saved albeit at the cost of wrecking cars and a locomotive in the process. Embrey teaches Hancock to say "Good job" to police, a start toward gaining the public's affection, and to try to do his superwork without so much collateral damage. If Hancock is to change radically though, it will not be through another man's counsel but through the chemistry he develops with Embrey's gorgeous wife, Mary (Charlize Theron). Almost needless to say, there a kid in the picture, Aaron (Jae Head), who adores Hancock and is about the only guy who doesn't call him an a-hole. On the other hand, Eddie Marsan plays Red, a villain who winds up in jail thanks to a Hancock intervention during a crime, and who is determined to locate the hero's kryptonite and do him in.

Hancock tries to appeal to everyone, mixing genres so quickly that the movie cannot bear the weight of its central theme: that nobody's perfect, that we all have vulnerabilities that should be worked on while at the same time we must accept what we cannot change. Explosions give way to sermonizing, romance steps aside for tragedy. The feelgood ending is even more absurd than any mystical notions introduced in the movie about the hero's origins, while subtlety and nuance take a summer vacation.

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



M. Night Shyamalan's
The Happening
Opens June 13, 2008

Written By: M. Night Shyamalan

Starrung: Mark Wahlberg; Zooey Deschanel; John Leguizamo; Spencer Breslin; Ashlyn Sanchez; Betty Buckley; Tony Vevon; Victoria Clark; Frank Collison; and Robert Bailey, Jr.

20th Century Fox

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Grade: C

Leonardi da Vinci once said, "The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men." Given the way the vast majority of human begins think nothing of subjecting defenseless animals to horrendous living conditions and the degradation of the slaughterhouse, one is not surprised to find that we homo sapiens have been unkind not only to animals but to all of nature. But nature is not defenseless at all, taking revenge on us with regularity. Think of Katrina, of the floods this month that inundated Cedar Rapids, Iowa, of a tornado that killed four children in a Boy Scout camp, of fires that claims the lives of thousands, of earthquakes that have recently destroyed the lives of tens of thousands, particularly in the poverty-stricken Asian lands like Bangladesh. Nature may be a friend, but it can be awfully hostile as the residents of the American Northeast find out in M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening." Foods that have caused salmonella like, most recently, a breed of tomatoes, are just a taste of what is to come, as grass, trees, flowers and plants in general have their day destroying lives and putting fear into the minds of millions. Killer trees: Maybe President Reagan knew what he was talking about, because in Philadelphia, plants have spread deadly toxins into the air, affecting everything with a pulse in the City of Brotherly Love. What's different about these poisons is that they do not make people keel over, get sick, even die, but affect their brain cells to cause them to become suicidal.

There's a big shop of horrors going down in Philly, the opening scenes of The Happening being the only truly scary segment of the story. In fact the very first scene has the needed effect, after which the picture gets duller by the minute thanks some wooden acting and redundant suicides. In Central Park, two women are sitting on a bench when they note that people around them have become immobile, as though paralyzed, perhaps by chemical warfare. One of the women slowly pulls a dagger-like pin from her hair and, just as you expect her to plunge it into her neighbor, she slides it casually through her own neck. Minutes later, at a construction site, workmen begin throwing themselves from the roof of a building, one shot being tragically reminiscent of an experience at the World Trade Center on 9/11. While the talking heads on the news programs suggest a possible terrorist attack, the truth eventually comes out: plants, whether by vindictive design or by some freak occurrence of nature for which the green things are not at all responsible, are messing up our brains, causing us to want to die.

Since all the action takes place within a twenty-four period, the populace could not imagine that staying indoors with windows closed could save their lives. Instead there is a mass exodus from Philadelphia, which is hardly the thing to do since the plague is to spread throughout the Northeast. (This makes us wonder what trees have against New York, Pennsylvania, Maine and company since logging takes place in the Pacific Northwest!)

But of course there's an intimate story, one that revolves around high school science teacher, Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) who has a nutty problem worrying that his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), is having an affair when all she did was enjoy a tiramisu one day with a guy named Joey, who keeps calling her. (Joey's voice is played by the writer-director.) Elliot's friend Julian (John Leguizamo), with an eight-year-old daughter in tow, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), has the real problem, as his wife is not with him during the epidemic. He leaves his girl with the Moores to search for her. As the Moores and Jess bolt from Philadelphia by train, they become stuck in the small town of Filbert, as railroad communications have broken down, whereupon they seek help from one of the nuts, Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley).

The film's problems are that given the blandness of the leading two Moores, the dialogue is bereft of wit. Nor can the formerly remarkable Zooey Deschanel save the pic, an actress who is still playing loopy roles as she did in Miguel Arteta's The Good Girl but who has lost her former cuteness with advancing years. There's a lack of any real scares (even people seen hanged on trees are caught for just some three seconds by cameraman Tak Fujimoto), There is not a single surprising revelation: no dead Bruce Willis as in Shyamalan's great debut The Sixth Sense, no surprise when some people find a highway in The Village. There is no explanation of this plant terrorism, though the writer-director just might be telling us that we are paying a price for messing with Mother Nature, polluting the atmosphere and causing global warming.

The problem with turning out a strong debut, whether of a book, play or movie, is that the public expects more of the same in the years to come. Given our expectations of Shyamalan after his exceptional thriller, The Sixth Sense, where Haley Joel Osment's performance towers over that of anyone in The Happening, we stood disappointed with the New-Age nonsense The Signs, the overly detailed The Lady in the Water, and now The Happening.

Rated R. 88 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



T. Sean Shannon's
Harold
Opens July 11, 2008

Written By: T. Sean Shannon, Greg Fields

Starring: Spencer Breslin; Nikki Blonsky; Ally Sheedy; Cuba Gooding, Jr.; Fred Willard; Chris Parnell; Rachel Dratch; and Colin Quinn.

City Lights Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Grade: B

While America is the land of tolerance, it's not much fun being different, especially in the 'burbs. Adults may pretend to notice nothing unusual about people who are not like them or who do not resemble the norm, but in high school and junior high, kids are not afraid to speak their minds. In T. Sean Shannon's Harold, a 13-year-old kid has male pattern baldness. Somehow he was able to fit in quite well in his community until he moved to another suburb where all hell breaks loose. All this makes for a quirky, satisfactory, low-budget comedy, thankfully without a phony sentimental ending. No, the kid's physical condition is not diagnosed leaving him with a huge head of hair—not even of the green variety. While Harold is no Ferris Bueller's Day Off (it's much too low-key for that), it deserves a respectable audience and is targeted to the junior set, while adults should have no trouble digging the movie as well.

The title character, played by 16-year-old Spencer Breslin (The Happening) and who looks a lot better with his natural mop of hair than he does after the producers shaved his head, is the new kid in town. When his mom, Maureen (Ally Sheedy) gets a job promotion, moving to a new town with a reluctant Harold but with his optimistic, pretty sister Shelly (Stella Maeve), his troubles mount geometrically. The school bully and his clique play pranks of the pie-throwing nature, the coach (Chris Parnell) makes sure Harold is in the middle of a dodge-ball game, leaving Harold to be pursued mainly by the family's horny, middle-aged neighbor. Harold is well-liked, though, by the school janitor, Cromer (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who becomes an adviser and father-figure to the boy, and by the overweight classmate, Rhonda Baxter (Nikki Blonsky—who starred exquisitely in "Hairspray" not long ago).

If Harold follows a predictable trajectory, the side characters make for particular fun, especially the always hilarious Fred Willard in the all-too-small role of Harold's internist. Writer-director T. Sean Shannon keeps moves the cast at a rapid pace, all filmed by Christopher Lavasseur in the tony New York suburb of Great Neck, Long Island.

Rated PG--13. 105 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 


Guillermo del Toro's
Hellboy 2: The Golden Army
Opens Friday July 11, 2008

Cast: Ron Perlman: Selma Blair; Jeffrey Tambor; Doug Jones; Luke Goss; John Alexander; Luke Goss; John Hurt; and Anna Walton.

Written By: Guillermo del Toro, story by Mike Mignola, Guillermo del Toro
Universal Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

Who's to say that Pan's Labyrinth is an art film while Hellboy II: The Golden Army is mere comic-book fantasy for the younger set? Surely not Guillermo del Toro, credited for directing both, using the kind of imagination that most of us are said to lose by the time we're fourteen years of age. Pan's Labyrinth gets its "art" label partly because of its original title, "El labyrinto del fauno," but largely because it's anchored by an actual historical event, the Spanish Civil War, whereby in the fascist Spain of 1944, the bookish young stepdaughter of a sadistic army officer escapes into an eerie but captivating fantasy world. Let's say, then that Hellboy II may be (hopefully) not set during any realistic period, though its Manhattan location brings to mind Al Pacino's character, Lt. Col. Frank Slade's comment in Scent of a Woman, calling New York "freak show central." Where else can people who look like Hellboy, aka Red (Ron Perlman), a literally flaming woman, Liz (Selma Blair), and a goggled, green, something from the depth of the ocean, Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) appear on the streets without regular human beings looking twice?

If you skipped the original Hellboy in 2004, also the work of del Toro, you won't be at much disadvantage. Just remember that a demon, raised from infancy after being conjured by and rescued from the Nazis, grows up to become a defender against the forces of darkness. Remember also that this is an adaptation of Mike Mignola's comic books, or illustrated novels if you prefer snob appeal, and judge the movie not for its story (it's no War and Peace) but for its intricate visual details. In the general mayhem that takes up the major part of the film, you won't get much character development outside of the love between the title character and Liz (who is pregnant but keeps that detail hidden), but the picture is about good versus evil—and there's not much negotiating going on between the two forces.

Consider the Mexican director's imagination as without limit, especially since he is obviously given quite a budget for letting his creative side take off. In the story, Hellboy has allied himself with Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) who is with the secret organization based in Trenton, New Jersey known as the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. The organization is not unlike our own Homeland Security department except that it deals with supernatural enemies. What causes the latest problem with the forces of darkness? A truce between human beings and an underworld group has been broken by Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), intent on raising a Golden Army of giant warriors to lay claim to the Earth. Hellboy is determined to fight the bad guys with his fists, while the prince has the jump on him, literally, with his ability to turn eight somersaults in seven seconds and flip a sword or spear around his arm with more class and pomp than the captain of the Trenton High School cheerleaders. Princess Nuada (Anna Walton) serves as the prince's sister, a traitor to the cause as she sides with the human beings. She hides the third part of the prince's crown—which of course is recovered by his highness in time to awaken the ferocious golden army. This leads to the climactic battle in Northern Ireland, of all places: Red vs. Prince, with the army agreeing to follow the command of the winner.

Special effects are paramount, including hundred of cockroach-like creatures that devour a lot more than your Sunday picnic and are not the nice guys as represented in Wall-E; a gorilla with antlers, an aquatic creature with the green head and goggles, and some faceless hordes from the titled golden army. The proceedings are filmed by Guillermo Navarro, whose camera takes in some occasional wisecracking by Hellboy (nothing worth mentioning here unless you find a drunken rendition of Barry Maniolow's "Can't Smile Without You" by Hellboy and his pal Abe). If anyone doubts that movies are the visual medium par excellence, this picture will serve to convince.

Rated PG-13. 113 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 

Louis Leterrier's
The Incredible Hulk
Opens Friday June 13, 2008

Starring: Edward Norton; Liv Tyler; Tim Roth; and William Hurt.

Reviewed by Adam Ritter

Help the Green One

It's been five years since that angry, just-the-other-side-of-irradiated…"hulk" last rampaged across movie screens, and not surprisingly, he's still mad as hell.

The Hulk's previous movie incarnation, though cleverly crafted and visually creative, angled for melodrama as fans were craving excitement. The disappointing box office seemed to SMASH hopes of an encore, but give Marvel credit for knowing there's plenty of green left in this franchise.

While NOT an origin story or technically a sequel (all the principals have been replaced with able and eager performers), this chapter more or less continues the Hulk's perpetual storyline, unencumbered by details of the first film.

Doctor Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) still pines for Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) and still races to control that raging spirit dwelling within. Can he find the cure before the relentless Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt, amazing as always) turns his curse into the military's next super weapon?

This of course, is the MacGuffin at the heart of all Hulk stories. What we really want to see is that startling metamorphosis that occurs when evildoers make Bruce Banner angry. You see, most people wouldn't like him when he's angry.

Thank goodness the brilliant doctor has not found a way to channel his fury into anything creative, like painting or writing or as we do at my house, by drinking.

Thus it's pretty straight forward mythology at play here. Some World War Hulk action would have been a delicious twist, but as you might expect, studio law demands Marvel exhaust all of the traditional material first.

Fans of the comic will therefore recognize the Hulk's menacing nemesis, The Abomination (and allusions to The Leader) as he tramples across the screen, though audiences' tolerance for computer generated MMA style fighting may be pushed to its limit, assuming there is one.

(Let me digress to mention that colorful metaphors are the bane of superhero movie reviews, since many of them actually seem to reference another comic character; e.g. Bane, Venom, Rampage, Mammoth, Juggernaut, Shrinkage…wait, strike the last one.)

Of course the recurring homage to past Hulk representations will not go unnoticed here and does not require a degree in comic geekdom to appreciate.

Although this Hulk is superior to its moody predecessor, more suspense certainly would have resulted in greater emotional payoffs. Bruce Banner never seems to struggle making the right decision, so the audience is not asked to invest anything in the outcome.

And even though special effects have clearly evolved far beyond green body paint, they are sometimes a heavy-handed alternative to some much needed humanity.

So while The Incredible Hulk writes a check his green ass definitely covers (that is if his fingers were nimble enough to manipulate a pen), he does not quite satisfy on the same level as Marvel's other summer blockbuster Iron Man, whose success the studio was naturally anxious to exploit.

Was it really necessary however, to rob fans of EVERY secret by actually incorporating Hulk's cameos into the trailer? Coming attractions used to entice, but now we are pummeled over the head by gamma-dosed ad blitzes.

It would be a surprise to be surprised in a movie these days.

Perhaps the only strategy to evade movie spoilers in this super-conducting information age is media abstinence….A complete commercial and print ad blackout (and ducking that Chatty Cathy friend of yours) up until the moment you set foot in the theater, like that collision avoidance system we engage after having TiVo'd the game.

These revelations not withstanding, if he smashes, you will come; so Go Green this summer puny humans, otherwise wait for the stealth of the Knight.

For more information about The Incredible Hulk, log onto the website.




Steven Spielberg’s
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Opens Thursday, May 22, 2008

Starring: Harrison Ford; Cate Blanchett; Karen Allen; and Shia LaBeouf.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

After almost two decades, Indiana Jones is back and, I am stunned to report, he’s in better shape than ever. As a matter of fact, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (a bloody mouthful) is the best Indy yet! And I do not say that lightly.

I recently revisited the trilogy on DVD. The major revelation for me was how my least favorite, Temple of Doom, has now become my favorite; it’s certainly the strangest, but also the most original. Raiders of the Lost Ark, the most revered, seemed like a prologue (a damned good one).

After so many years and so many nixed scripts, David Koepp (with story credit going to series conceivers: George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson) manages a smart, clever and exciting screenplay filled with the expected as well as a good dose of the unexpected. In particular, the explanation of the origins of the crystal skulls is pretty creative and thought-provoking stuff.

It’s 1957, twenty years after Last Crusade, and the Cold War is at freezing temperature, the atomic age has arrived and UFO’s are the latest craze. Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” plays over the opening credits to perfectly ground us in a particular place and time.

Professor Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, not looking his age at all) has found himself the subject of governmental suspicion and is forced to take a leave from his University post. Here the filmmakers smartly capture the paranoia of the time where everyone’s patriotism can be called into doubt regardless of your past heroism and proven loyalty (hmmm…resonates pretty sharply today…)

Enter, Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), a young, hair-obsessed rebel riding a motorcycle who could be a hybrid (mutt, get it!) of James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and Sal Mineo. Mutt desperately needs Indy’s help.

Our generation-gapped duo soon find themselves being chased by Soviet spies, led by the cunning, calculating and captivating Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) who is described as “Stalin’s fair-haired girl,” despite her brunette cereal-bowl do. Irina and her gang of Reds are on a mission to realize the new annihilation frontier: psychic warfare.

Before you can say: Roswell, Indy is on the run and lands right in the midst of an atomic testing site. The insane way he survives a nuclear blast is one of the film’s best sequences and the screen tableau of Ford with mushroom cloud is unforgettable.

Soon, it’s off to Peru where Boy-hybrid and our snake-fearing hero become enmeshed in a search for yet another rare and life-changing archaeological find: the Crystal Skull of Akator, a legendary relic that has supernatural powers.

Monkeys, giant ants, Karen Allen and, yes, a large snake get in their way and many terrific CGI effects later, the gang find the “Kingdom”…the city of Gold, which houses the 13 Crystal Skulls leading to quite the climax.

Steven Spielberg has assembled a kick-ass ensemble peppered with a bevy of tremendously talented Brits (redundant?) including: John Hurt; Ray Winstone and Jim Broadbent. Each bring their own unique gifts to their roles.

Chameleon Cate Blanchett, speaking with a strong ‘where-are-moose-and-squirrel Russian accent, is deliciously evil as Irina Spalko, Soviet baddie. Irina is cunning and determined and Blanchett plays her to the hilt, having a villainous field day. And as with all Blanchett interpretations, there is more than just villainy afoot. Her final moments are particularly extraordinary.

It’s a delight to see spunky Karen Allen back as Indy’s great love, Marion Ravenwood. Allen looks fantastic and brings out the sparring-best in Ford. She was sadly missing from Doom and Last Crusade. Kudos to the person who had the good sense to bring her back.

And who knew that Shia LaBeouf was the stuff of matinee idols? I can totally see a Young Indy series taking off based on the charm and dash he displays as Mutt. Whether he’s all leathered-out a la’ Brando in The Wild One or sword fighting with Blanchett while on separate Jeeps (an astounding scene), LaBeouf proves he’s got what it takes to give the Leos in the business a run for their millions.

Now, about Mr. Ford. I must admit: I’m not a fan. Truth to be told, except for Han Solo and a brilliant performance in Peter Weir’s highly underrated, little seen gem, The Mosquito Coast, I’ve never been impressed with his talents. He has played it too safe with his choices as well as his portrayals. So it is with shock and bewilderment that I say his performance in Crystal Skull is not just one of his best, it’s refreshingly self-mocking and, at times, even poignant. The cockiness is still there but has melded into a more pensive and reflective arrogance. If action-adventure performances received Oscar nominations, Ford would be a shoo-in. Come to think of it, The Fugitive, an overrated, overblown Ford starrer, did receive a Best Picture nomination back in 1993, but Ford’s performance (rightly) did not. Perhaps it’s time to justly reward Ford with recognition for going above and beyond what anyone expected and proving he has what it takes.

Tech credits are sensational from the great Janusz Kaminski’s breathtaking camerawork to Mary Zophres’ period-perfect costumes. The rousing John Williams’ score is as defining as it is contagious. And the visuals are mind-blowing. I could have lived without some of the cute creatures created only for merchandising purposes…so unnecessary from Lucas and Spielberg who can collectively buy the world with their monies!

Spielberg is a fascinating study. I happen to think that Munich is his masterpiece. I find his later work more interesting than his earlier films. Genuine love for the medium, a commanding technique, along with a solid handle on characterization permeates most of the second half of his filmography. So even in an action-adventury, thrill-ride like Indiana Jones, we find more attention given to what the characters have to say to one another via dialogue or simple facial expressions. Spielberg is no longer afraid to slow things down a bit to tell a better, more nuanced story.

A small handful of Skull naysayers have been speculating that Spielberg might have been bored directing this follow-up; insinuating passion is not evident in the end result. I would argue the contrary for he is not only reverential to the history of his characters but highly aware of the need to take the saga to a more urgent and timely level. He succeeds masterfully.


Alex Holdridge's
In Search of a Midnight Kiss
IFC First Take

Opens August 1, 2008


Written By: Alex Holdridge
Starring : Scoot McNairy; Sara Simmonds; Brian Matthew McGuire; Katy Luong; Twink Caplan; and Robert Murphy.

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

A recent study by sociologists (who are probably not in their seventies) indicates that people in their eighth decade of life are generally happier than folks who are middle-aged. This might be explained by the possibility that happy people live longer, but who knows? In any case, movies that are popular to the principal audience at Sundance festivals shed a good deal of light about those in the twenties. Given the impact of hormones that make people crazy in adolescence and continue to a large extent in the third decade of people's lives, a twenty-something is likely to be either miserable or deliriously happy, methinks. The movie In Search of a Midnight Kiss, written and directed by Alex Holdrdige, depicts one young couple who appear happy as larks while another twosome are miserable. This concept, which reminds some of a Woody Allen romance such as in Manhattan, is also reminiscent of Richard Linklater's Before Sunset, in which two characters meeting up nine years later as the man passes through Paris on a book tour, spend the day together, talking about their feelings toward each other when they first met.

Filmed in black-and-white Midnight Kiss is cited in the production notes as a love letter to Los Angeles. The parts we see in the downtown area are rarely shown on the screen; for example, there's one building of dramatic architecture that looks like the Sydney Opera House. What's more we see people who actually go from one place to another in the subway, just like us here in New York. The film has several humorous touches and, like many romantic comedies, has a bittersweet ending.

Those of us who believe that young people today do not "date" but simply "hang out" or "hook up" will be surprised, as was I, to note that not only is dating still in fashion, but so are blind dates, just like in the 1950's. The difference is that such meetings are moderated by technology as people put their life stories on Craigslist and other computer venues. Through the magic of the 'net, a little blindness is removed. Vivian (Sara Simmonds), a 27-year-old high-strung woman plays the game even more straight. Before she goes through with a date, she interviews the guys she meets through Craigslist, giving each five minutes in a coffee shop to see whether they click. (This is not so unusual: some matchmaking groups actually set up a similar system of musical chairs whereby a guy gets to talk for five minutes to a gal, then moves on to the next victim.) The man that Vivian decides to spend a few hours with—on New Year's Eve to boot, where you wouldn't expect a good-looking blonde to seek company at the last minute—is Wilson (Scoot McNairy), who despite, or actually because of, his relationship with Jacob (Brian Matthew McGuire), is desperately lonely. He has the hots for Jacob's two-year steady, Min (Katy Luong), in one scene spanking the money to Min's picture on the computer. Most of the film deals with the hours Scoot and Vivian spend together, a challenging time as any blind date would be but one made even more hyper by the chain-smoking, pill-popping woman who talks a touch game but has a secret vulnerability.

Happy or not, you take away the idea that people pushing thirty are pretty immature, awkwardly playing games to avoid closeness, though Wilson, who calls himself a misanthrope, seems to have his head on his shoulders. The language that these young 'uns use regularly, the sorts of words that in the fifties prompted men to say, "Pardon my French," are voiced even more regularly by the woman, at least in this case, making this a story that features romance, comedy, and tenderness, all partly ruined by an over-the-top episode wherein Vivian's ex-boyfriend, Jack (Robert Murphy, who doubles as cinematographer) demands that Vivian return to him lest he burn some items in her flat.

While some moviegoers are likely to find LA prettier in black-and-white than in full color, I'd have to say that b&w is an affected choice that does nothing for the pic. Scoot McNairy stands out here as a geeky, awkward guy who seems clueless about women.

Not Rated. 98 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Jon Favreau's
Iron Man
Opens May 2, 2008

Heavy Boots of Lead

Starring: Robert Downey Jr.; Gwyneth Paltrow; Terrence Howard; and Jeff Bridges.

Reviewed by Adam Ritter

It took forty-five years and a cruel succession of false starts, but Iron Man has made the inevitable crossover from comic books (and later cartoons) to the silver screen.

After heavyweights like Cage and Cruise were considered in the 90's to play the man-who-would-be-Iron, it was at long last Robert Downey Jr. who nabbed the role and for that we are grateful.

Mr. Downey is cast perfectly as billionaire genius inventor Tony Stark, the weapons inventor extraordinaire who has continued the legacy of his deceased father, manufacturing magnate Howard Stark.

Tony cleanly dismisses suggestion of the collateral death toll of his nefarious masterpieces (cluster bombs with repulsor technology as a 'for instance') by espousing the fallacious-but-familiar neocon philosophy that imagines a safer world thanks to the mutually-assured-destruction he provides.

Of course, not one to be easily categorized, Stark counterbalances his conservative side with a compulsive rock star lifestyle that would be the envy of any Hollywood jetsetter.

His only genuine relationships are with faithful assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), buzz-killing Colonel James "Rhody" Rhodes (Terrence Howard in a role that might grow substantially in potential sequels) and Papa Stark's business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) who has evolved into a mentor for Tony.

The origin of Iron Man has been updated from Vietnam to Afghanistan but the movie is mostly true to the core elements of the comic.

As is often the case with lecherous cinematic playboys, circumstances beyond his control cause Tony to reassess his ideas about the value of life and the legacy he intends to leave behind.

Unfortunately, although there are surprises in the movie, it will be difficult to experience them thanks to a monolithic advance media blitz that seems to relish in revealing key elements of the movie to anyone with a cable-connection or newspaper subscription.

Therefore, readers of most reviews and of course fans of the pulp Iron Man will recognize Tony's arch nemesis "Iron Monger" as he blooms to life throughout the course of the film. Their confrontation has a familiar Transformers feel, however the overall experience is not diminished in spite of this.

This movie does not "quite" reach the upper echelon of comic book crossovers, which is certain to include the original Superman, Batman Begins and possibly Spiderman 2. However, Iron Man unquestionably flies far higher than most comic incarnations of past years (Hulk, Fantastic Four, X-Men, etc...).

We have Robert Downey Jr. to thank for this, for it is his performance (ironically "without" the two hundred lbs. of armor), which carries the most weight in the film.

And as for Tony's alter ego, sleek and sound in his CGI crucible, it's difficult to imagine a man encased in iron (though it's actually a gold-titanium alloy, as Tony points out) looking cooler than director Jon Favreau's vision of him, breathed into a brilliant existence here.

There is one substantial diversion from the comic-origin storyline that could be an allusion to more recent developments in Iron Man's "Civil War" life. You can be the judge of this.

Be sure to stick around until the very end of the credits for a minute of bonus material that alludes to an exciting future for Iron Man.



Eric Brevig's
Journey To The Center of the Earth
Opens Friday July 11, 2008

Starring: Brendan Fraser; Josh Hutcherson; Anita Briem; Seth Meyers; Giancarlo Caltabiano; and Garth Gilker.

Written By: Michael Weiss; Jennifer Flackett; and Mark Levin.

Warner Bros releasing of a New Line Cinema/ Walden Media production

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

This 3-D feature looks on one level to be a long product placement from the Icelandic Government Department of Tourism. Or not. It all depends on what kind of travel you like. Do you favor looking at the churches and museums of Europe while walking on the historic cobblestone streets? Or are you more for vivid physical action—skydiving, white-water rafting, surfing (not the internet)? If the latter, you might want to visit a place closer to home than the Continent which has traditionally been only a stop-off point for Icelandair on the way to Luxembourg. Iceland has some great paths for hiking and camping: if you go to the right spot you can fall literally miles down to the center of the earth. So say Mr. Verne and director Brevig. But don't worry, you land in deep water which is fine if you hit feet first like the three principals in Eric Brevig's contemporary adaptation of the French sci-fi writer Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth.

With a script by Michael Weiss, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, Brevig takes a reasonable amount of time developing the three characters, a trio who know one another either not at all or only remotely but who bond when facing life-threatening adventures. While Verne may not necessarily have targeted the junior-high crowd for the products of his fertile imagination, Brevig's cinema version would probably be less than successful with a youthful crowd in anything but a 3-D format. The adventure itself is by the numbers, the animals like one dinosaur and an assortment of man-eating fish would be less than frightening in 2-D, while the one-dimensional characters would not likely capture the rapt attention of the little ones in the audience.

But we are talking 3-D and Journey does a creditable job pushing bouncing yo-yo's, shark-like creature with perfect white and sharp teeth, scores of gems, a friendly, phosphorescent bird and the like almost directly into our faces. Brendan Fraser (who was in the audience at today's New York screening to introduce the movie) anchors the story as Trevor Anderson, a geology professor teased by a colleague for being too dull to recruit a decent-size class. His brother, Max, was lost a decade earlier while researching volcanic tubes and Trevor's own job is in jeopardy for lack of funding. All's well that ends well, though, provided that he risks his life in a baptism of fire, an adventure that takes wing when Trevor is visited by Max's 13-year-old son, Sean Anderson (played by Josh Hutcherson, a 15-year-old known as Robin Williams' son in RV and for a starring role in Firehouse Dog). Though he is charged by Sean's mom to babysit for 10 days, without getting permission from his sister-in-law, Trevor embarks with Sean on a trip that traces Max's, using Verne's novel as a guide.

In Iceland (filmed largely in Montreal studios by Chuck Shuman), uncle and nephew join with an old scientist's beautiful daughter, Hannah (Anita Briem), who acts as mountain guide, the three taking to a mountain volcano, paying the hottie 5,000 kroner a day ($64.96). This is money that may never have to be paid given the many ways all three could have perished like Max. Here is one movie in which the quote "a roller coaster ride" would be literal: the most exciting segment finds the trio riding helter-skelter a mining rail line with the speed that Amtrak wishes its so-called premium Acela service could reach. They find spectacular stones in the cavern, are lusted after by hungry, carnivorous plants, they bat giant, flying man-eating fish into right field and left with bats, and run like crazy to escape a huge dinosaur that burrows right through the cave wall that does not quite protect them.

In the end, the materialistic teen discovers that the "boring" geology professor is his ideal father-substitute, the icy blonde thaws, throwing a few modest kisses to Trevor (extreme danger is nature's Viagra), and Trevor funds his department with gems found downunder. Unfortunately, in the absence of a camera, no-one will believe the professor, but we in the audience now realize that Jules Verne was writing not sci-fi but actual fact. This movie tells us so. The production values are stunning, the fast-moving plot is pedestrian, and the kids in the audience will enjoy a nightmare hours later.

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



Catherine Breillat's
The Last Mistress (Une vieille maitresse)
Opens June 27, 2008

Cast: Asia Argento; Michael Lonsdale; Yolande Moreau; Fu-ad Ait Aatou; and Claude Sarraute.

Written By: Catherine Breillat, novel by Jules Barbey D'Aurevilly
IFC Films

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

Catherine Breillat is known for her audaciously sexual films, the closest to pornographic being Romance—about a female teacher sleeping in the same bed as her boyfriend but who, lacking intimacy, begins an affair with the school's headmaster. When the public became aware that she was making a costume drama, The Last Mistress (formerly An Old Mistress), some wags probably could not resist the urge to say "What kind of costume—a birthday suit?" Considered by the writer-director to be her favorite film to date and also perhaps her most accessible to the movie-going public, The Last Mistress is a lushly photographed drama written at about the same time as Pierre Chandelos de Laclos's Les liaisons Dangereuses and based on the scandalous 19th century novel by Jules Barbey D'Aurevilly about a handsome libertine in the Paris of 1835 who cannot forsake his ten-year-old affair despite resolving to do so before he took marriage vows with another. Featuring an exciting debut role by Fu'ad Ait Aatou in the role of a young, strikingly handsome albeit feminine lover, the film is clearly helmed by a the hand of a female regisseur. The story takes place in Paris and the countryside, the latter filmed by Yorgos Arvanitis on the island of Brehas off the northern coast of Bretagne. This can be called a tale with an 18th-century outlook on a 19th' century palette in that France was more sexually broadminded during the age of aristocracy than when it fell under middle class dominance during the reign of citizen-king Louis Phillippe.

The story, replete with heavy doses of passion and its inevitable accompaniment, anguish, centers on a society with plenty of time for gossip and dalliance. It is framed by the chattering Vicomte de Prony (Michael Lonsdale), enjoying a gourmet dinner with the Countess dArtelles (Yolande Moreau), announcing to her that he is going to enjoy breaking the news to Vellini (Asia Argento) that her long-term lover, Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aatou), is soon to marry the beautiful, rich, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). The angelic Hermangarde is chaperoned by her grandmother, Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute). Pretending "no worries," Villeni, the Spanish-born title figure who dressed appropriately like the devil at a costume party, is determined to maintain intimate ties with her long-term lover, one whom gossipers wonder about--as he has been together with the same woman for a whole decade even though unencumbered by marriage. The inquisitive, broad-minded grandmother, a product emotionally of the more liberated 18th century, prods her grandson-to-be to tell her the tale of the ten-year liaison. A sizable flashback follows which hones in on Ryno's meeting with the Spanish woman, married to a much older gentleman, who initially despises him but becomes enamored of his assertiveness to become her lover. The young man is smitten by the passion of this matador's daughter, her manly voice and her individualistic dress which would be more at home in Seville than in Paris.

What appears to emerge thematically is the close tie between passion and violence: in one scene that should bring gasps to some in the audience, a playful Vellini removes a large pin from her hair and quickly runs the blade across her lover's face. He is pleased by the gesture. While the grandmother, now reclining, appears to be taking the story in with pleasure, she is somehow convinced that notwithstanding the Don Juanism of her granddaughter's future husband, he can be trusted to remain solely with her. But can he do so when Vellini, like Glenn Close's Alex Forrest in Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction, refuses to leave him alone and when Marigny is hardly disposed to dumping her? Given the stellar performances of Italian-born Asia Argento and Fu'ad Ait Aattou's, whose chemistry burns in several nude scenes of simulated sex, The Last Mistress would appear headed for solid arthouse box office.

As for universal relevance despite its location squarely in the first half of the 19th century in a country that still used aristocratic titles like comte and countess, don't we all know of the girl who is left behind at the sound of wedding bells but who somehow finds herself a central figure in the mind and body of the newly married man? And are we not today unable to hide from the barrage of gossip and celebrity magazines that deal with who broke up with whom and who emerged triumphant in the game of love? The Last Mistress is a period piece, then, that transcends its time, an entertaining fable about our favorite theme in literature, the theater and the cinema: l'amour.

Not Rated. 114 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Marco Schnabel's
The Love Guru
Opens June 20, 2008

Written By: Mike Myers, Graham Gordy

Starring: Mike Myers; Jessica Alba; Justin Timberlake; Romany Malco; Verne Troyer; Meagan Good; Manu Narayan; John Oliver; Stephen Colbert; Jim Gaffigan; and Ben Kingsley.

Screened at: AMC Lincoln Square, NYC, 6/17/08

Paramount Pictures/ Spyglass Entertainment

Reviewed forNew York Cool by Harvey Karten

Grade: C-

Take a look at this week's New York Times best sellers and you'll find titles like The Secret, Quantum Wellness, Just Who Will You Be? Letters to a Young Sister, The Power of Now, and The Five Love Languages. One would think that by now every bit of advice to readers would be exhausted. What's new under the sun? Vulnerable that we are, we gobble up the latest counsel from Oprah magazine and sex advice from Cosmopolitan as though every new issue does more than reinvent the wheel. Does any of this counseling help? Who knows? Sometimes what seems to be computer-driven print in these books and magazines, filled as they are with gobbledegook like "be here now" is ripe for satire. That's where German-born director Marco Schnabel comes in with his debut feature - The Love Guru, an attempt to parody the self-help industry.The Love Guru is a spoof not of gurus in general—contrary to what some Hindus protesting the movie think—but of people who set themselves up to be gurus, or teachers, but who are phonies interested only in women, fancy cars, and real estate in Monte Carlo, Paris, and New York.

Now, if it's questionable that self-help books really assist anyone to master the difficulties of living, there's no question that The Love Guru is a dud—maybe not so for audience members who are easy to please, who think that summer movies should be exempted from critical appraisal. The film does not work as satire because Mike Myers, who is in virtually every frame, laughing at his own jokes (well, somebody has to laugh at what passes for humor), knocks out wisecracks that are persistently redundant, stupid and coarse. While there's nothing wrong with vulgarity, if you want to have successful sight gags that are down-and-dirty, make sure that Judd Apatow is connected with your production. Clearly Mr. Apatow is not around.

Mike Myers got the idea for the movie via his spiritual quest taken after the loss of his father. He made the rounds of gurus and ashrams, as though nothing in Western psychology and philosophy could match the wisdom of the East, ultimately deciding that the way to emerge from grief is through comedy. Too bad he did not inject much of that into his latest movie.

Flashing back to his days in a guru school headed by the cross-eyed Guru Tugginmypuddha (Ben Kingsley—featured in Gandhi and Schindler's List but on a roll with roles that are far beneath him), we see the man who becomes Guru Pitka (Mike Myers) ascend to second place among American gurus, bested by Deepak Chopra. Pitka knows that to get on the Oprah show, his crowning ambition, he must save the marriage of Toronto Maple Leaf's hockey star, Darren Roanoke (Romany Malco), who has been letting the team and its owner, Jane Bullard (Jessica Alba), down because his wife Prudence Roanoke (Meagan Good) has split and is dating rival L.A. Kings' goalie, Jacque "Le Coq" Grande (Justin Timberlake). That's what serves as plot in a film that's really a series of Saturday Night Live sketches that comes across as almost a Mike Myers vanity project.

The gags, verbal and sight, are anything but witty unless you're amused by sophomoric acronyms like Pitka's advice to Be Loving & Open With My Emotions (get it?); with bathroom-humor names like Ben Kingsley's Tugginmypudha, and the name of Pitka Indian fishing village, Harenmahkeester. The sight yuks including two elephants coupling in the hockey stadium, a fight between two aspiring guru teams in India with mops soaked with urine, and a chastity belt that Tugginmypuddha attached to twelve-year-old Pitka which he must wear until he learns to love himself (like Mike Myers, obviously). The midget gags feature, of course, Verne Troyer as Toronto Maple Leaf's Coach Cherkov (get it?), but admittedly there's a cute scene of Cherkov's office which is custom made for him and which leads people of average height to find their heads plunging through the ceiling.

Stephen Colbert does some amusing stuff as Jay Kell,one of the two announcers, who together with his partner Trent Lueders,(Jim Gaffigan) try with moderate success to replicate the far better camaraderie between the broadcasters in Christopher Guest"s Best in Show. One can say about this movie is that it's slightly better than Austin Powers as Goldmember. Movie buffs know this is damning The Love Guru with faint praise.

Rated PG-13. 88 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters
in Mamma Mia!

Phillyida Lloyd’s
Mamma Mia!
Opens Friday, July 18, 2008

Starring: Meryl Streep; Pierce Brosnan; Colin Firth; Stellan Skarsgard; Julie Walters; Dominic Cooper; Amanda Seyfried; and Christine Baranski.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

I had the dubious distinction of attending one of the very first performances of Mamma Mia! on Broadway in October of 2001. I’ve always enjoyed the music of ABBA and Chess (written by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, the men of ABBA) is one of my favorite musicals, however I did not like the show! I actually wanted to leave after intermission; something I never do! The book was facile and weak making the show seem like nothing but fluff with swell songs. Of course, regardless of my opinion, Mamma Mia! became a worldwide phenomenon. Since it’s unveiling in London in 1999, the show that boasts audiences “dancing in the aisles” (they really do!) has opened in over one-hundred-and-seventy major cities and is proven box office gold nearly everywhere it is staged!

I still stand by my intense dislike of the show. So when Meryl Streep signed to do the film, I thought…is she on crack? Then I saw the trailer and was convinced she was on crack. Anyone who reads my work knows how much I adore La Streep, but even she can make a mistake (anyone ever see She-Devil? Okay, she was good, but c’mon!)

I am not surprised and very pleased to report that Meryl continues to prove she can do no wrong as Mamma Mia! is an absolutely delightful motion picture; a throwback to the old beach movies with a touch of cheesy 80’s technodazzle and a dash of the 60’s Brit rocker flix.

Now, it isn’t Singin’ in the Rain, Cabaret or All That Jazz (my favorite musical), but it ain’t Can’t Stop the Music, The Producers or the horrific Phantom of the Opera either.

The plot is carbon copied from a terrific 60’s film starring Gina Lollobrigida titled Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell. Meryl plays former gal-group lead singer, Donna, who gave everything up twenty years ago to raise her daughter away from her own disapproving mother, on a remote Greek island. Now, twenty, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) rummages through her mom’s diary to try and discover who her real father is and finds three candidates (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard). She decides to invite all three to her wedding to the hot and hunky Sky (Dominic Cooper). Along for the ride are Donna’s two former back-up singers/best friends (the fabulous Julie Walters and Christine Baranski).

Streep gets to tap into her zany/silly self but there is always more to her comedy than surface hijinks. And she allows herself to glam-down so Donna is a believable working mother who will stop at nothing to protect her daughter. The shot of her face watching Sophie walk away after “Slipping Through My Fingers” is a remarkable testament to her acting. In one brief moment the entire mother/daughter relationship is revealed. She must let go, no matter how painful it is.

Seyfried, so good on HBO’s Big Love, and Cooper, so good in The History Boys on stage and screen, provide delicious eye-candy but also happen to be wonderful actors. Baranski and, especially Walters, steal every scene they are in. It’s a delight to see older women in starring roles! About fucking time, Hollywood!

A few major musical highlights include: Baranski’s dynamic rendition of “Does Your Mother Know” directed towards a sex-crazed guy half her age; Walters’ hilarious seduction of Skarsgard with “Take a Chance on Me;” Streep and company belting the title tune and the insanely staged “Dancing Queen” which becomes a feminist anthem parade. At the numbers end the all-media audience burst into applause. How rare is that?

But the best moment is Streep’s sensational tour de force vocal of “The Winner Takes It All” where the constantly gyrating camera stops for five minutes and allows magnificent Meryl to reach deep down into her guts and unearth all the pain she’s been feeling since Brosnan left her. It’s a towering moment and could bring her a fifteenth Oscar nomination (although word is the film version of Doubt will do that). She will certainly get Golden Globe love!

Mamma Mia! is a cheeky kaleidoscope of loony merriment boasting gorgeous locales, dizzying camerawork and a curious gay sensibility--even though most of it’s creative team are women. Director Phillyida Lloyd doesn’t break any new ground, nor does the flimsy script—although it’s far superior to the stage book. And some of the musical numbers should have been cut and replaced with real dialogue scenes--specifically “When All is Said and Done” which Brosnan cannot quite do justice to.

Yet, when all is said and done, Mamma Mia! will provide audiences with a welcome non-action treat this summer. Chances are they might decide to dance in the aisles. I know if I knew how to dance, I would have led the crowd!

For more information about the film, log onto the website.




Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried in Mamma Mia!

Phillyida Lloyd’s
Mamma Mia!
Opens Friday, July 18, 2008

Written By: Catherine Johnson; Songs by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus.

Starring: Meryl Streep; Pierce Brosnan; Colin Firth; Stellan Skarsgard; Julie Walters; Dominic Cooper; Amanda Seyfried; and Christine Baranski.

Universal Pictures

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

People of "a certain age," which is to say the mature adults who are expected to be this movie's prime audience, would do well to go into the theater not expecting the brilliant tunes and thematic depth of Rodgers and Hammerstein (South Pacific as a case in point) or the remarkable wit and biting satirical thrusts of Lerner and Loewe (My Fair Lady, for example), or complex, atonal gems buy Stephen Sondheim (Sunday in the Park With George). There are only two or three songs that will remain with most of us the morning after. Nonetheless the stage show has had twenty productions, nine currently running, with an estimated 17,000 people seeing Mamma Mia! every night in various parts of the world.
What accounts for the popularity? For one (not necessarily a compliment), there's its simplicity. The dialogue borders on the banal, the music lacks variety. For these reasons some critics have denigrated the work as "fit for tourists," but then again, there's nothing wrong with seeing the world through the eyes of a tourist, as one young man in the show explains to his bride-to-be.

Thanks to the magic of cinema, the stage production has been greatly expanded, the first thing noticeable being Haris Zambarloukos's lensing on a remote Greek island, which looks out on pure blue water, a sun-streaked sky, both giving birth to inhabitants with lobster-red skin. If this is not an unintentional product placement for the Greek National Tourist Office, what is? Some have called Mamma Mia! a chick flick since none of director Phyllida Lloyd's leading men come close to carrying the story when compared to the principal cast of women.

Each time a well-known actor like Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth or Stellan Skarsgard is given a few introductory notes from an invisible orchestra, the audience might sit on the edge of their seats wondering whether these remarkable performers can even carry a tune. The best one can say about the fellas is that they are good sports for being willing to expose their vocal chords for critical judgment. One of them, in fact, exposes a bit more while making breakfast. The real surprise is Meryl Streep, the star of the show, who can sing—although not quite up to the level that would prompt a job offer from Andrew Lloyd Webber.

No matter: this is a summer treat, an uncomplicated feel-good song-fest that has the actors obviously enjoying themselves immensely, even while figuring that some of us will think their vocalizing is campy rather than serious.

The women seem to be on speed while the guys are the usual, relatively calm selves that men tend to be. The movie is all about exuberance, female exuberance in particular, the uncomplicated story an excuse to squeeze in twenty songs—of which the best known are "Mamma Mia!," "Dancing Queen," and "Super Trouper."

The concept is this (and one must forget there is such a thing as DNA, even though the action takes place in 1999): Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a twenty-year-old who has known no life except that on a tight little Greek isle, discovers in her mother's diary that twenty-one years ago her mom slept with three males, one of whom must be Sophie's dad. Determined to find out who, she secretly invites all three, using her mother's name—Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Harry (Colin Firth) and Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) to her upcoming wedding to Sky (Dominic Cooper). She does not tell her mother about this as Donna (Meryl Streep), who owns a falling-apart hotel, has no intention of seeing them again. Surprisingly they all show up, none hiding a potential paternity, each competing to "give away" the bride the following day. Adding to the frenzied preparations, Donna's best friends, the brash Rosie (Julie Walters) and the wealthy divorcee Tanya (Christine Baranski), cavort about, making no secret that they are hunting guys of their own, whether for a couple of days or for a lifetime.

The action is fast-moving, the women seeming to believe that this is their last weekend on the Earth and they're determined to make the most of it, or as the inebriated Agnes Gooch would say in Mame, "Live, Live Live!" Meryl Streep again demonstrates that she is perhaps America's greatest living actress, a multi-talented woman who can play a tragic title figure in Sophie's Choice, a metallurgy worker at risk of being murdered by her corporate bosses in Silkwood, and now a singing, dancing, emoting ball of fire in Mamma Mia! Have fun!

Rated PG-13. 103 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online.


 


Tadanobu Asano and Khulan Chuluun in Mongol
Photo Credit Alexander Zabrin

Sergei Bodrov's
Mongol
Opens Friday, June 6, 2008
Landmark's Sunshine Cinema
143 East Houston Street, New York
Lincoln Plaza Cinemas
Broadway Between 62nd and 63rd
Mongolian With English Subtitles

Starring: Tadanobu Asano; Khulan Chuluunl; and Honglei Sun.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

When the Iron Curtain came down, a massive change in perception accompanied the change in decor. Everything that was old was new again: western culture, democracy, the Russian monarchy and Genghis Khan!!!

Genghis Khan! Yes Genghis Khan!

Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov does not like stereotypes and the story of Genghis Kahn appealed to him. Both Russian and European history books tell the story of Kahn with the same venom used to talk about the rise and fall of Adolph Hitler. In fact, it was against the law to even speak the name of Genghis Khan in the Soviet satellite state of Mongolia. But as Budrov explained, history is written by the victors and the Mongols were eventually conquered and sent back to Mongolia. And the Mongolians were not historians.

Bodrov's film Mongol tells the story of the early years of Kahn's life based on a poem that survived from the 12th Century (Bodrov is seriously considering filming a trilogy similar to Lord of the Rings). Mongol follows Kahn from the age of ten when the young Temudgin (the future Genghis Khan played by Tadanobu Asano) first meets the love his life, Borte (played by Khulan Chuluun).

Soon afterwards, Termudgin loses his father and becomes a fugitive, running and hiding from Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov), the warrior who takes over his father's tribe. Mongolia was a cruel and beautiful land and young Termudgin is forced to live a life where truly, "Only the strong survive." And survive he does, fighting Targutai and then fighting the tribe of his "blood brother," Jamukha (Honglei Sun). And with each fight, he becomes stronger and attracts more and more followers until he finally unites the Mongolian nation. And the rest of history, even if it is history only told by the historians of the eventually victorious Russians and the Europeans. And eventually took centuries because the Genghis Khan's descendents rose up to conquer all of Russia and Eastern Europe.

Mongol is an epic film. The scenes set in the Mongolian plains are simply stunning. The costumes are luxurious (Karin Lohr, SFK)and the interiors of the tents are richly appointed (Dashi Namdakov). The fight scenes are simply spectacular (credit to stun choregraphers Zhaidarbek Kunguzhinov and Jung Doo Hong). The film is also blessed with a great soundtrack with contributions by Finnish composer Tuomas Kantelinen and by Altan Urag, an eight-person Mongolian folk-rock band.

But the real beauty of the film is the love story between two strong characters, Termudgin and the love of his life, Borte. For Termudgin may have been a brutal warlord, but when he fell in love with Borte at the age of ten, he fell in love for life.

Mongol also benefits from a talented and charismatic cast. Tadanobu Asano is quietly noble as the young Genghis Kahn. Khulan Chuluun plays Borte as a worthy partner and advisor to Khan. And Japanese actor Honglei Sun gives a powerful performance as Termudgin's friend/enemy, Jamukha.

Mongol was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2008. It (not Borat) was the entry from Kazakhstan.

 



Jarek Kupsc's
The Reflecting Pool
Opens Friday July 11, 2008 at Pioneer Theater, NYC

Cast: Jarek Kupsc; Joseph Culp; Lisa Black; Alex Hyde-White; and Philippe Denham.

Written By: Jarek Kupsc

Baltazar Works

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

Just when Americans are at peace over the JFK assassination; i.e., no-one is taking up arms against the [Chief Justice] Warren Commission report that states that the former President was killed by a lone assassin—along comes a few individuals who believe that our own U.S. government was partly responsible for the attacks on New York's Twin Towers and on the Pentagon. Writer-director Jarek Kupac, in the role of Russian-born American journalist Alex Prokop, and producer Joseph Culp playing the part of Paul Cooper, a man who lost his daughter on the American Airlines plane that crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2002, form their own little conspiracy. Their aim is to suggest (without marshalling enough evidence to convince a jury or even necessarily their film audience) that the CIA, the FBI, NORAD, and high-level figures in the administration, were largely at fault for not preventing the attacks that killed 3,000 people. In a sense, their beliefs are akin to those who still believe that President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew—and even provoked—the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in order to get the U.S. out of a long economic Depression. Presumably, high-level administrators were looking for an excuse in 2002 to get to war against particular nations in the Middle East, taking aim against Al Queda, the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, and (though the performers do not come right out with it) to ensure the unobstructed flow of oil into our country.

While the acting is heavy-handed at times, particularly seen when Jack Mahoney (Alex Hyde-White), a conservative TV commentator perhaps modeled after Rush Limbaugh, trashes Alex Prokop for his left-wing report, Paul Cooper, for heading a class action lawsuit against specific members of the administration, and Lisa Georgia McGuire (Lisa Black) for publishing an article purportedly exposing the government for a massive cover-up.

Discussing the "perfect" symmetrical collapse of the Twin Towers and Building 7, they take aim on that last edifice. A firefighter relates his eyewitness memories of that building's collapse even though there was "no fireball" from on high but rather some explosions on the floor below. Whether by coincidence or design, the Port Authority had shut off the power in the buildings for several days before the attack, thereby knocking out security camrers, while the scrap metal, which could potentially be used as evidence, was allegedly sold to China for use in—who knows? Coca-Cola cans? Larry Silverstein, owner of the buildings, received a fortune in insurance money as it was determined that the two towers' destruction was the product of two separate terrorist attacks. In addition, no one except a handful of government officials saw the Pentagon tapes, the man who piloted a plane expertly into just the right corner of the Pentagon building was reportedly a poor pilot who "would not be trusted flying a kite."

As a Russian-born American, journalist Prokop cites the Katyn forest massacre in which Soviet troops at the start of World War 2 murdered scores of Polish officers, blaming the assassinations on the Germans: the truth came out only fifty years later with the downfall of Communism. He's not surprised, therefore, that the U.S. will continue to withhold evidence that the government agencies were aware of an imminent attack and did nothing to stop it. Notably, Air Force planes in a field near the Pentagon could have taken off immediately on hearing about the Twin Towers' demise with the aim of stopping the terrorists from plowing into the Pentagon.

I for one am not convinced by this evidence, perhaps because the acting is so heavy-handed or because we do not actually see copies of testimony from eyewitnesses. The way government officials like a major at the Pentagon walk away in a huff is overly melodramatic. Then again this is a docu-drama, not a straight documentary—a genre that does usually do a better job at creating excitement than a talking-heads film. Whether you believe or not, clearly, The Reflecting Pool is worth reflection.

Not Rated. 105 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 



Michael Patrick King's
Sex and the City: The Movie

Opens Friday, May 30, 2008



Starring: Sarah Jessica Parker; Kim Cattrall; Kristen Davis; Cynthia Nixon; Chris Noth; and Jennifer Hudson.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella


Prediction: most heterosexual male critics are not going to like this film; most women, homosexuals and heteroflexible males are going to love this film. Why? Because, like the groundbreaking HBO series, the pic is about women--all about women. All types of women. And it turns the tables on men.

Key moment: Samantha (the delicious Kim Cattrall) is ogling her hot surfer neighbor while eating guacamole. She gets to treat men the way they’ve been treating women for centuries.

Jealous, guys? Of course you are.
Threatened, guys, Just a little bit. Admit it.

But how refreshing to have a series (and now a film) where women take center stage and men show up in supporting roles. Pity some of the women still need to be defined by men (notably the new character played by Jennifer Hudson, but I am getting ahead of myself…)

Is Sex and the City a chick flick? Hell, yes! But after a legion of crappy teen-boy oriented action flicks, thank Christ we get something different! Even if it’s not really different at all. Not from the sitcom anyway.

Lovers of the series will be in girly-heaven, but folks not as familiar with the show, will still find things to love about it, if they allow themselves.

For those living on Uranus: Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) is a very successful writer of columns, books, articles, etc. She is BFF with three very different, very unique NYC gals: sex-crazed Samantha Jones; too-sweet Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) and brittle Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon). The four women have spent over a decade looking for love, sex, success, trendy shopping, romance and magic in the most enchanting place in the world—New York City! (Anyone dare to disagree with me on that one?)

As the film opens, Carrie is now forty and about to marry the infamous love of her life, Mr. Big (Chris Noth). BTW, the character is finally given a name in the film. Four years have gone by and: Carrie is still lovestruck; Samantha’s gotten seemingly softer; Miranda’s a bit harder and Charlotte is, well, more Charlotte!

En route to the altar, Carrie is jilted by Big—although the circumstances surrounding the way it exactly happens is muddled at best. The point is that series creator and writer/director of the film, the gifted Michael Patrick King, needed to break the two up—regardless of how questionable the plot point might be (my date had never seen an episode of the original series and enjoyed the movie but, tellingly, did not buy Big’s cold feet).

So Carrie is now depressed. Samantha is going through what most MEN go through after a long time with one person; she’s getting itchy and antsy and basically misses indiscriminate sex. Miranda has tossed Steve out for cheating on her once in their almost-completely sex-less relationship. (I found that plot contrivance annoying since it makes Miranda such an unforgiving bitch—yet it leads to such a fantastic late scene involving the Brooklyn Bridge—enough said!) Finally, Charlotte, after adopting a Chinese baby, has miraculously become pregnant herself.

The film, like the show, is more a series of vignettes than a cohesive narrative, try as the writer’s may, but it works magnificently because the terrific one-liners are there as well as the amazing NYC locales and the oddball but fascinating costumes (and shoes, let’s not forget the shoes). But it works, most especially, because of the quartet of ladies onscreen.

Whether there was any onset cat-fighting or jealousies, you would never know it from watching these truly talented gals “exist” in the best roles they will probably ever play. Career-defining portrayals.

Davis is hilarious as ever. Her moment of confrontation with Big is a keeper but it’s a certain scene in Mexico that will have you holding your sides in pain. Nixon’s nuances are all there. I just wish King hadn’t hardened her so. Cattrall can make a cat food commercial sexy and she does her best in the first half where poor Samantha is stuck in a rut. Thank God the film does her character justice in the end—even though we never really see her do what she does best. (A quick ogling to Gilles Marini who plays Samantha’s hot object of lust…gangway boys and girls and look out for a close up of the perfect ass!)

The one male allowed to do more than have a nice scene (or nice butt shot) is the terrific Chris Noth, bringing more to Big than the role as written.

Finally and foremost, Sarah Jessica Parker has never displayed more versatility and vulnerability. This gal gets better with age and does fabulous work here. I commend her for allowing herself to look her age when necessary.

At almost two and a half hours, Sex and the City, never feels long, although subplot involving Carrie’s new assistant (Hudson) felt superfluous and detrimental to positive role models for women. Yet on further reflection, the character does fit nicely into the Sex and the City scenario— a world where women have choices. They may have what they want: on their terms; at any age. And what better message to send--even if it still may be a fairy tale. (Can anyone argue that Hillary has been treated fairly?)

Yes, the film could have been more psychologically penetrating, less predictable, more naughty and less cliché’. But we’ll save those expectations and sexpectations for the sequel.

For more information, log onto: http://www.sexandthecitymovie.com/

 

 



Adam McKay's
Step Brothers
Opens Friday, July 25, 2008



Written By: Adam McKay; Will Ferrell; Story by Will Ferrell; Adam McKay; and John C. Reilly.

Starring: Will Ferrell; John C. Reilly; Adam Scott; Mary Steenburgen; Kathryn Hahn; Andrea Savage; and Richard Jenkins.


Columbia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B-

Within the American mainstream culture, it's considered immature to live with your parents once you're finished with school and out in the labor market. As with all other members of the animal kingdom, it's time to go when it's time to go. Nowadays, however, the economy being what it is, some young adults may have even graduated from college and, jobless after fifty interviews, have been forced either to move back with their folks or continue to live as they always have. Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell) and Dale Doback (John C. Reilly) are stuck with a similar but different story. Entering their fifth decade of life, they are both slackers who have been employed at minimum-wage jobs off and on and think nothing of remaining in the only homes they've known. Though their parents are mature, stable people—Brennan's mom, Nancy (Mary Steenbuirgen) is some sort of executive and Dale's dad, Robert (Richard Jenkins) is a doctor—the arrangement has hardly been onerous for any of the four. Sparks fly, however, when Robert and Nancy marry, both setting up lives within Robert's domicile. While stepchildren have always been caricatured as kids who are hostile to adults they consider interlopers, the situation is slightly different in this case. The two adult children are like are like oil and water: they not only do not mix but actually hate each other, particularly when Dale has to share his small room with a total stranger.

This is the sort of story that runs through the sitcom formula: the battling stepbrothers eventually learning how much they have in common, the Hallmark syndrome taking effect as sentiment trumps comedy toward the conclusion. Step Brothers depends on the talents of Will Ferrell, part of the small circle of comic stars whose very appearance on the screen evokes laughter—and John C. Reilly, whose most engaging performance was in the role of Dewey Cox in last year's Walk Hard, which spoofs rock music while showing how a singer overcomes adversity to become a star.

Director Adam McKay notwithstanding, Step Brothers has all the markings of producer Judd Apatow's imagination, in much the way that a movie directed by Ridley Scott like Black Hawk Down shows the impact of producer Jerry Bruckheimer. With enough vulgarity in the form of bathroom humor and sexual situations to give this film an "R" rating (while the over-the-top sadism of The Dark Knight could not provoke the MPAA into anything but a PG-13), Step Brothers relies on physical humor at the expense of wit. But that's OK. The problem is that some of the setups are just plain embarrassing. An audience cannot be blamed for feeling that it's laughing at the goings-on of autistic children who happen to be thirty-nine and forty years of age. By contrast, Judd Apatow's productions of Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story, Knocked Up, and Superbad may be populated by animal-house characters but they have us laughing WITH them. Where those three films seem tightly scripted, Step Brothers relies too much on hit-or-miss improvisation.

One scene that's all too short has the brothers looking for work after their respective parents lay down the law. They go as a team in tuxedos while seeking a job cleaning bathrooms. One interviewer (a cameo from Seth Rogen, who would have been a welcome addition as a fleshed-out side character) congratulates the duo in the monkey suits for "irony." But for most of the one hundred minutes of screen time, the character to watch is Richard Jenkins, whose stunning accomplishment anchoring The Visitor should have forever cast him out of his typical jobs as strictly side-show. As his understanding and acceptance of his boy's immaturity turn to rage and to an ultimatum he should have utilized fifteen years earlier, he trumps both Reilly and Ferrell in the comic department. Step Brothers is not a step up for either of the two prinicpals. Ferrell was at his peak in 2003 as Buddy in Jon Favreau's far wittier Elf. This film is passable: just slightly more amusing than Semi Pro and Talladega Nights.

Rated R. 100 minutes. © Harvey Karten Member, New York Film Critics Online


Joshua Michael Stern's
Swing Vote
Opens August 1, 2008

Written By: Joshua Michael Stern and Jason Richman.

Starring: Kevin Costner; Madeline Carroll; Paula Patton; Kelsey Grammer; Dennis Hopper; Nathan Lane; and Stanley Tucci.

Touchstone Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: C

At first sight this movie looks like a reinvention of Garson Kanin's 1939 film The Great Man Votes, in which Gregory Vance, a widower with two children, is a former scholar who has turned from book-to-bottle. He works as a night-watchman and his children, who know him for what he is and what he isn't, are his only admirers. Then, it is discovered that he is the only registered voter in a key precinct, leading politicians from both parties to arrive in droves bearing inducements. What he does about this situation, and the relatives who want to take his children away from him, make up the story.

Then again, the film's inspiration may have come from the Shirley Temple vehicle, Little Miss Marker, about a bookie played by Adolphe Menjou and a New York gambling colony that Ms. Temple's character reforms—or, more recently, Paper Moon, Peter Bogdanovich's 1973 film starring real-life father-daughter couple Ryan O'Neal and Tatum O'Neal in the Depression-set 1930s, featuring a foul-talking nine-year-old with no moral scruples who bails out her dad several times.

Swing Vote, however, does not come up in quality to any of these past offerings. While it provides a breakout performance for Madeline Carroll, a twelve-year-old known principally for roles in TV episodes and commercials, its sentimentality is sticky and its principal performer, Kevin Costner, is for almost all of the movie's two-hour time one-note, unsympathetic, a fellow so self-absorbed (or, rather, absorbed in his compulsive beer-swilling) that he does not know who is running for President of the United States. So far as issues are concerned, he thinks that pro-life means "Sure, isn't everybody?" Director and co-writer Joshua Michael Stern displays residents in small-town Texaco, New Mexico, as caricatures with a particularly embarrassing portrayal of gays in the most egregiously cartoonish way.

One wonders how nine-year-old Molly Johnson (Madeline Carroll) turned out so self-reliant and smart, yet so dedicated to her drunken, mostly unemployed father, Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner). Maybe the thought of moving in with her emotionally disturbed mother, Larissa (Mare Winningham) or being sent out to a foster home leaves her with the unenviable choice. Ernest "Bud" Johnson plods through the movie with a three-day growth of stubble and a can of beer that sometimes looks surgically implanted in his palm. He drinks and sleeps his way through election day while his daughter sneaks into the election booth (which is totally empty except for one sleeping official), signing her dad's name on the register. In the midst of casting her father's vote, however, the electricity is cut as the polls close, leaving both candidates in a dead-heat, state-wide. Thinking that Bud was unlawfully deprived of the ballot, officials give him ten days to decide which candidate he favors, after which time he will enter the voting booth deciding who will be "the Leader of the Free World."

As you can imagine, both candidates lobby the guy day after day. The current President, Republican Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer), and his opponent, Democratic Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper), find out by hook or crook what the guy's hobbies are and where he might stand on issues—as though Bud even knows what an issue is. When President Boone thinks that Bud is in favor of gay marriage (not necessarily), he changes his stance and announces his new, flip-flop in favor of the policy. Believing (wrongly) that Bud is anti-choice, the Democratic candidate puts out a commercial that is the one witty piece in this humdrum picture, graphically illustrating his brand-new policy.

As the production notes state, the film is only secondarily about politics. In fact, the ways that director Stern satirizes presidential campaigns—specifically the tendency of candidates to pander to their base while reversing course whenever the supporters seem hesitant—is old-hat. Politicians do not always come through on their promises (duh!). The principal thrust of Swing Vote, then is the parent-child relationship, punctuating the the little girl's role as caretaker of her inebriated, ignorant dad, serving as well to allow his redemption. In the first instance, since each candidate plays up to Bud's positions, or what they perceive them to be, what difference would it make whom he votes for? In the second instance, Mr. Costner and Ms. Carroll offer the audience no bon mots to illuminate their personal qualities in an entertaining way.

The film is populated with side characters played with no great charm by Nathan Lane and Stanley Tucci as presidential advisers and Paula Patton as a newscaster who helps to redeem the central persona.

Rated PG-13. 119 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Charles Oliver's
Take
Open Friday July 18, 2008


Written By: Charles Oliver

Starring: Minnie Driver; Jeremy Renner; Bobby Coleman; Adam Rodriguez; David Denman; and Emily Harrison.

Crux Entertainment

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

Take is part gangster story, part sociological study of two individuals from the unskilled working class, and part propaganda piece for a theory called Restorative Justice. It's also the sort of film that an ambitious editor must love, given the number of flashbacks and fast-forwards, a device that seems to be coming quite popular by directors who must think that straight narratives are uncool. Despite the dizzy and sometimes confusing use of that technique, some top acting by Minnie Driver and Jeremy Renner gives Take an identity that sets it apart from the typical tale of crime, revenge, punishment and redemption.

Directed by freshman Charles Oliver, a former marketing consultant who changed careers to devote full time to writing, Take centers on two people leading hardscrabble lives. One, Ana Nichols (Minnie Driver), has shifted from maid service in a motel to applying for a job in a factory to putting in for supermarket employment. She has a tense marriage with her husband, Marty (David Denman), a teacher who seems unable to relate to Ana or to their eight-year-old, hyperactive boy, Jesse (Bobby Coleman). The other principal charater, Saul Gregor (Jeremy Renner), works for a failing mini-storage company and engages in petty thievery by selling some goods that are stored there until he gets fired. Since Saul owes $2,000 to the mob, which is now demanding almost immediately payment, he robs a supermarket, kidnapping Jesse who is there with his mom and who winds up dead. Apprehended and sentenced to death, Saul awaits a visit on his final day from the victim's mother, who had previously prayed that the killer suffer every day of his life but is now considering a change of heart.

The production notes indicate that director Oliver is fascinated by the idea of strangers, about how we make judgments of people by watching them for seconds, observing their clothes, their carriage, their expressions. In the case of this film, two strangers living day-by-day in dead-end, low paying jobs, meeting ominously to take part in an event that would affect them for the rest of their lives.

Ana and Saul are two characters facing hardships not unlike those impinging on many of us, their lack of education causing them to be beaten down by society. For her part Ana cannot fight a decision by her son's school principal (Francesca P. Roberts) to push the child out of his regular elementary school into a special education program in another institution, a fate that would presumably have a serious, negative impact on young Jesse. Since Ana has no money, she cannot opt for a private school that might solve the problems of a hyperactive child. For his part, Saul appears unable to imagine himself living the good life in America, bogged down by gambling debts and unable legitimately to raise even the $2,000 that many more fortunate people would consider pocket change.

Ultimately, though we've seen stories like this before, director Oliver's visual and editing styles create enough novelty to evoke audience attention. Ms. Driver manages an American accent flawlessly, while Mr. Renner, best known for his title role in the movie Dahmer —about a man who turned his perverted fantasies in horrible reality—portrays someone sentenced to death for a crime he had no intention of committing. Mr. Oliver would like viewers to look further into Restorative Justice http://restorativejustice.org, which considers crime to be an act of wrongdoing against an individual rather than the state, and seeks to correct perpetrators by engaging them with their victims—who may find it in their hearts to forgive.

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


 

 



Helen Hunt and Colin Firth in
Then She Found Me

Helen Hunt's
Then She Found Me
Opens Friday May 9th



Starring: Helen Hunt; Colin Firth; Bette Midler; and Matthew Broderick.

Reviewed by Alejandra Serret

Helen Hunt makes her directorial debut this month with Then She Found Me, a beautifully made film on the intricacies of relationships, adapted from the book of the same title. Hunt also stars in the film, alongside Colin Firth, Bette Midler, and Matthew Broderick. She plays April Epner, a forty-something elementary school teacher who longs for a child but is on the brink of divorce from her husband and colleague, Ben (played by Matthew Broderick). The film opens with their wedding day—a quaint celebration peppered with wonderful sarcasm (mostly from April’s adoptive mother Trudy, deftly played by Lynn Cohen).

As quickly as the film opens to an optimistic setting, it goes sour for April Epner: Ben leaves her, her adoptive mother passes away, and her birth mother seeks her out. In the midst of this chaos, she meets Frank Harte (Colin Firth), the single parent, of one of her students. The easygoing, romantic and lovely bond that they form becomes challenged by April’s desire to be a mother, her convoluted relationship with her husband/ex husband, her reunion with her birth mother Bernice Graves (Bette Midler), and Frank’s distrust of women.

Then She Found Me tells the convoluted and often beautiful story of relationships. It explores the intricacies of varying types—how two people connect, how they fall in and out of love, whether between siblings, parents and their children, or spouses. Hunt keeps the film simple as the director—she keeps it honest. It is the perfect juxtaposition to the complicated story line. There is a very organic feeling to the film—as though watching friends or family muscle their way through life and the obstacles that complicate and enrich it. Hunt took part in every aspect of this film. She wrote the beautiful script along with Alice Arlen and Victor Levin. Then She Found Me is a smart, funny film—a true gem.



Peter Askin's
Trumbo
Opens Friday, June 27, 2008

Starring: Joan Allen; Brian Dennehy; Michael Douglas; Paul Giamatti; Nathan Lane; Josh Lucas; Liam Neeson; David Strathairn; and Donald Sutherland. With interviews with Kirk Douglas and Dustin Hoffman.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Periodically our nation goes out on a collective bender. Something happens and we get scared and some "strong" man exploits our fear and we go mad and do abominable things like: President Franklin Roosevelt fanning the fear of the "yellow peril" by incarcerating United States citizens of Japanese origin during World War II; or (in the fifties) Senator Joseph McCarthy exploiting our fears by telling us that there was a Communist under every bed and then holding Congressional hearings to find them; or more recently, President George W. Bush exploiting our fear of Al Queda with a regime of torture and secret prisons. And after everything is over, we wonder - how could that have happened? What made a nation that was founded with such extraordinary ideas about the rights of man (and woman too, we hope) stoop to such a despicable level. And our children read about the "bender" in their neatly synopsized history books and think, "Oh, that was the past; it will never happen again." Hmm.

Playwright Christopher Trumbo had such a "national bender" story to tell - it was about his father, the writer Dalton Trumbo, and what happened to him in the fifties when he was ostracized by Hollywood for refusing to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee whether he had ever been a Communist and most importantly for refusing to "name names" by telling the Committee who was also a Communist. The supposed motivation of the HUAC was to weed out Communist sympathizers from Hollywood so they could not subtly twist our national psyche by their "left leaning" words. The motivation of the Hollywood establishment was appeasement.

Christopher wrote a play about his father's life, Trumbo, which played off Broadway from 2003-2004. The play told the story of Trumbo's life through Trumbo's letters, long wonderful letters in which Trumbo told his friends and business acquaintances the "diary" of his life. And the play (with its letters) has now been turned in a documentary-style film.

Here is a quote from the press release for the film. "Dalton Trumbo was one of Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriters in the 1940s, penning films such as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Kitty Foyle (for which he received an Academy Award nomination). In 1947 he was called before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and, after defiantly refusing to discuss his political affiliations, was thrown into prison as one of the infamous “Hollywood Ten.” Upon his release in 1950, he moved with his family to Mexico, where he continued to write screenplays – including Roman Holiday and The Brave One – under various pseudonyms. When his script for the latter won an Academy Award for Best Story, the Oscar went suggestively unclaimed. Finally, in 1960, he was given full screen credit for his work on Exodus and Spartacus, thereby ending his professional exile."

The film tells the story of what Dalton and the other members of the Hollywood Ten did, how they refused to state whether they had ever been member of the Communist Party and how they also refused to give the names of other members of the Communist Party (many had flirted with Communism in the 30's when Russia was our ally against the Nazis, but gave up their memberships after World War II). And for refusing to testify, they were ostracized and their children were ostracized. And this ostracizing went on for almost ten years. For after Dalton Trumbo was released from prison, his real punishment was imposed by the Hollywood establishment, who refused to let him work under his own name until finally in the early sixties, Otto Preminger insisted on hiring him and giving him screen writing credit for Exodus. Kirk Douglas also insisted on hiring him for the film, Spartacus, which has the famous scene where the slaves are told that their lives will be spared if they produce the slave called Spartacus and rather than "name names," they all stand up and proudly declare, "I am Spartacus."

The film tells a serious story, but it is also fun because Trumbo's letters were fun, outrageous and passionate. And the actors do them justice; Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Paul Giamatti, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, and Donald Sutherland bring Dalton to life through his own words - his letters. And newly minted dirty-man-around-town Nathan Lane (see Lane's foul-mouthed turn in David Mamet's November) brings down the "movie house" when he reads a letter Trumbo wrote to his son about the joys of masturbation.

Our 1950's Hollywood 10 bender was a bender about the fear of words, and this fear of words was exploited by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee. And these were and are our words, words that are protected by our own Constitution in our own First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

 



Tom McCarthy’s
The Visitor
Opens in Select Theaters Friday April 11th 2008

Starring: Richard Jenkins; Haaz Sleiman; Danai Jekesai Gurira; Hiam Abbass; Marian Seldes; Maggie Moore; Michael Cumpsty; and Bill McHenry.

Reviewed by Alejandra Serret

The Visitor, directed by Tom McCarthy, tells the story of a lonely, discontent, middle-aged widower whose life is transformed by a weekend trip to New York City. Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under and There’s Something About Mary) plays Walter Vale, a respected professor, who takes little pleasure in the class he teaches. He is a familiar character, weighted by boredom, but disinterested in change. He fumbles through an awkward piano lesson showing an interest in music, yet gives up when his performance is less than stellar. And so, his life, rambles on at the same, even pace, until he is asked to present a paper at an economic conference in New York City. The weekend trip to his apartment (which has for many months, maybe even years, gone without a visit) changes his life, along with the lives of others.

Walter Vale begrudgingly travels to New York City, from his home in Connecticut to participate in a three day conference at NYU. When he arrives at the apartment he has owned for twenty years, he finds Zainab (Danai Gurira) submerged in his tub. Her screams alert Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), her boyfriend, who angrily pushes Walter against the wall. But Tarek and Zainab learn quickly that they are in fact intruders and the victims of a real estate scam. As illegal immigrants, Tarek, a Syrian man and Zainab, from Senegal, have few options. Softened by their plight Walter asks them to stay, while they look for another place to live. Over the next few days, their awkward attempt at conversation burgeons into a friendship that is found and forged through music.

Tarek, a talented drummer, eases Walter into playing the African drum. Walter’s uptight disposition begins to unravel, revealing a man willing to learn new things, a man eager to play in drum circles and visit jazz clubs. What starts off as a film focused on the possibility of unlikely friendships, morphs into another, when Tarek is arrested for a trivial, imagined, offense. Tarek is held in a detention center in Queens with several hundred other illegal immigrants.

And this is where McCarthy stumbles. Walter devotes himself to helping Tarek regain his freedom and from it, forms yet another “unexpected” relationship with Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass). While they grieve Tarek’s tumultuous situation, they find comfort in one another. The scenario is believeable (anything is believable if done in the right way) but it doesn’t translate through Mouna, Walter, and Tarek. McCarthy is overeager in his attempt to transform these characters and to make a statement from their disastrous predicament. He falters in character development. Yes, I understand that bonds can be made quickly, but I didn’t believe theirs. So Tarek and Walter play in a drum circle and share a meal. But I don’t believe Walter’s reasons for doing it. And then McCarthy falters further with Mouna. Okay, mother comes to rescue her child and forms a friendship with the man who is helping him to regain his freedom. But a romantic connection—really?

After Tarek’s incarceration The Visitor’s core begins to crumble. If you’re going to build a film on the unlikely relationships of its characters, you have to make the viewers believe in the possibility of them. And I didn’t. The characters themselves need to be rich, whether it’s in their indifference, passion, monotony. McCarthy made a bold attempt with The Visitor, a film with an important message at its core, but it did little to inspire.



Jonathan Levine's
The Wackness
Opens July 3, 2008

Written By: Jonathan Levine

Cast: Ben Kingsley; Josh Peck; Olivia Thirlby; Famke Janssen; Mary-Kate Olsen; Jane Adams; and Method Man.

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Grade: B

Did you ever go to an ophthalmologist who does not wear corrective lenses? If not, there's a good reason. People become interested in professions because of some personal contact with their accoutrements. (We won't try to discuss why some enter the field of proctology.) The same applies to psychiatrists and psychoanalysts. How do people decide that they want to go into that field? The likely reason is that they have emotional problems themselves, have dug into the causes, seeking other psychoanalysts to work out their problems while trying to help others. If there's one shrink who fits that bill to an extreme, that would be Dr. Squires (Sir Ben Kingsley), one of the two principals in Jonathan Levine's The Wackness (which means "the worst"). As played against type by the great Sir Ben Kingsley, Jeff Squires does not quite steal the show, given a magnetic performance by Josh Peck in the role of a likable high-school graduate whose problems is that he has not yet sown his wild oats (this is a family publication, but you know what we mean). As his shrink—an immature fellow who takes his payments from Josh in weed, not cash—advises, "You don't need medication: you need to (fill in the blank).

The Wackness, which won the audience award and a standing ovation when it was presented at a Sundance festival, is the kind of off-beat, adolescent-angst story similar to Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko, with Josh Peck substituting for Jake Gyllenhaal. The difference is that Peck's character, Luke Shapiro, does not envision bunny rabbits but lithe women with whom he would like to end his painful virginity. Such a liberated prize comes in the form of Dr. Squires' stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), who takes an assertive role in setting up a relationship with Luke, introduces him to the joys of lovemaking, but is not at her age interested in forming deep relationships. The story is set in 1994, its New York pothead community concerned that Mayor Giuliani is taking away some of the joys that hip New Yorkers have cherished. To cover his dope-dealing tracks, Luke zips around areas like Central Park with a wagon that purportedly sells ices but which actually holds the ganja he acquires from Percy (Method Man).

Writer-director Levine introduces us to a typical cause of teenage angst and its opposite side, sexual abandon, in looking at the parents of Stephanie and Luke. Stephanie's dad lights up a hooka at the end of each session with Luke, while his wife (Famke Janssen), is fed up with her man's puerility. On Luke's side, dad (David Wohl) is so deeply in debt to the disgust of his wife (Talia Balsam) that eviction from their Upper East Side digs is on the horizon.

Petra Komer films a New York of fourteen years ago, even getting in a shot of the Twin Towers, but for some reason the photography indoors is unduly dark. This is true not only in Dr. Squires' office, where low lighting sets an ambiance, but in the headquarters of the Jamaican-American dope seller and in the apartment of pothead Eleanor (Jane Adams). Lighting aside, the soundtrack is loaded with the tunes of the time, including Nas's "The World is Yours," Raekwon and Ghostface Killah's "Heaven and Hell," The Notorious Mr. B.I.G.'s "The What," and R. Kelly's "Bump and Grind." The picture is anchored by a top performance by 22-year-old Josh Peck ("Spun," "Mean Creek"), who resembles a young James Stewart who plays the role as an open-mouthed stoner. The picture should connect with a youthful, hip audience today.

Rated R. 93 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Mary-Kate Olsen and Ben Kingsley
The Wackness

Jonathan Levine's
The Wackness
2008 Tribeca Film Festival
April 23 - May 4, 2008

Cast: Ben Kingsley; Josh Peck; Olivia Thirlby; Famke Janssen; Mary-Kate Olsen; Jane Adams; and Method Man.

Reviewed by Noelle Ashley

Sometimes a shrink saves his patient's life. Sometimes it's the other way around.

One of the more celebrated movies screened at the Tribeca Film Festival is The Wackness, a term referring to "the glass half empty."

Set in New York City in the hot, sticky months of 1994, it is a moving and witty story of a humorous therapist (Ben Kingsley) who needs even more help than the patient.

Drugs in a doctor's office are usually doled out by the psychiatrist, not a troubled teen. Now meet Luke (Josh Peck), who pays for doctor visits with the currency of weed. Luke, a likable 18-year-old from a dysfunctional family, forms a unique bond with Dr. Squires. Although their ages could make them father and son, their friendship resembles more of a brotherhood.

The two males stray even farther from the typical doctor-patient relationship as they set out on a quest for sex, drugs and money. Dealing drugs is Luke's source of income the summer before college. It's also one way to meet girls.

Union (Mary-Kate Olsen) is a luminous blonde who hangs out in Central Park and past-their-prime bars where she can make fun of "creepy old people." Dr. Squires takes a liking to her, for a few minutes at least. Luke, however, can only think about one girl: Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), his first love. She is an 18-year-old brunette who speaks in the language of slang and smokes cigarettes while her family fights. Yelling parents is a steady backdrop in both their lives, but Stephanie and Luke escape their problems one chemistry-filled weekend on Fire Island.

Ironically, Stephanie is Dr. Squires' daughter -- or step-daughter, as Luke reminds him.

The plot builds as a coming-of-age, character-driven picture that captures the spirit and the music of city kids in the '90s. The language of teenagers weaves into the dialogue, which flows to the beat of the soundtrack i.e., A Tribe Called Quest, Notorious B.I.G., Method Man, Raekwon and The Wu-Tang Clan. The audience is brought back to '94 as the characters talk about Mayor Giuliani cracking down on crime in New York. It was a time of pagers, before cell phones and laptops became ubiquitous, and a time when M.D.s still hesitated before prescribing medication for depression. In fact, Luke has to beg and plead and finally says, "Just give me the happy pills." Although he never gets his hands on legal drugs, he has plenty of the other kind, and he shares it all with Dr. Squires, who takes enough over-the-counter pills for both of them. These kind of character flaws elicited laughs from the audience.

The theme of youth emanates around the innocence of Luke. Despite his drug dealing, he is just like any other kid trying to figure out life and love.

After the film, the audience is left with the image on the movie's poster: Luke walking around with marijuana tucked away in its hiding place as he and Dr. Squires wheel around an ice cart. As the movie's tagline reads, "Sometimes it's right to do the wrong things."

Written and directed by Jonathan Levine, The Wackness is the winner of the Sundance Film Festival 2008 Audience Award (Dramatic). Its nomination for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize shows that this film could be more than a cult hit. Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics, The Wackness comes out in cinemas July 3, 2008.


 

Timor Bekmambetov’s
Wanted
Opens Friday, June 27, 2008

Starring: James McAvoy; Morgan Freeman; Angelina Jolie; and Terence Stamp.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

An action film starring Scottish thesp James McAvoy (so amazing in Atonement) and a sinewy, heavily tatto’d Angelia Jolie, based on comic books and directed by a Russian. Hmmm. For me, that’s not exactly a draw. I will admit I have a built in problem with the action/adventure genre, or I should say, what it’s become: a cartoonish, ultra-violent, sense-bombardment computer game! I do admire the two leads, though, so I had a few miniscule hopes…

Well, I am shocked and delighted to report, Wanted (crappy title notwithstanding)--along with Iron Man--is the most exciting, insanely-entertaining film of the summer so far. The flick grabs a hold of you from the get go and never lets go, not for a millisecond.

This is the U.S. debut of celebrated Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Day Watch) who is comfortable enough with the genre that he appropriates from some of the best American films (I’ll let you decide what you’ve seen before), while imploding and exploding it at his whim—but always to great filmic effect. Bullets slow down; back up through the body they’ve already penetrated, and zoom back to where they were first fired. Our protagonist is beaten to near death, only to find himself in a rejuvenation tub, fully healed in a few hours. But the dazzling effects are just the icing on a wild cakeride.

The basic plot surrounds Wesley Gibson (McAvoy) who is stuck in a dead-end job, has a cheating girlfriend, a betrayer best friend and a general sucky life. That is until Fox (Jolie) and her gang of assassins explodes their way into his life and takes it over. The group, led by Sloane (Morgan Freeman, having a blast), are members of a thousand year old gang known as the Fraternity and Gibson’s absent father was a member. He has just been killed and his son is being initiated…initially against his will.

Smartly scripted by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan, Wanted has the requisite non-stop action, pulse-pounding thrill sequences and stunning chases (in particular, a dazzler scene involving Jolie shooting up a storm while upside down over the front end of a car), but the film also puts forth some fascinating and thought-provoking ideas involving trust, faith, loyalty and the nature of courage. Imagine: actual ideas in an action film?!

In some of the more harrowing sequences, Wesley is brutalized as part of his indoctrination. The moments seem never-ending. I don’t recall a film protagonist suffering so onscreen in such a sadistic manner. Not since Fight Club, anyway.

McAvoy is a revelation, so appealing yet so believable once he’s become an assassin himself. Is there anything this young actor cannot do? Jolie speaks less than Clint Eastwood in one of his spaghetti westerns, but is a potent presence. And there’s nothing cooler than watching her handle firepower! Her Fox is Mrs. Smith after a few too many lifefucks.

Wanted boasts terrifically eye-popping visuals as well as extraordinary camerawork by Mitchell Amundsen. Danny Elfman’s score is appropriately bombastic. And the film soars, in large part, thanks to the editing wizardry of David Brenner (an Oliver Stone man!)

Wesley’s narration crackles and moves the film along nicely. Near the beginning he ponders why his father vanished when he was an infant, spewing the following in the third person: “I wonder if his father looked into his baby blues and thought, Did I just father the most insignificant asshole of the Twentieth Century?” It’s self-deprecating, hilarious lines like that that separate Wesley from most of the cocky and annoying protags out there and make us really want to follow him around for two hours.




Dennis Dugan's
You Don't Mess With the Zohan
Opens June 6, 2008

Written By: Adam Sandler; Judd Apatow; and Robert Smigel.

Starring: Adam Sandler; Rob Schneider; Emmanuelle Chriqui; Nick Swardson; John Turturro; Mariah Carey; Henry Winkler; Talia Shire; Sayed Badreya; Lainie Kazan; Shelley Berman; Alexander R. Luria; Alec Mapa; and Danny Abeckaser.

Columbia Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Grade: B

When you knock out a movie as crude and vulgar as You Don't Mess with the Zohan, you'd better have an A-1 entertainer in the leading role. Not a problem. Adam Sandler, perfect for the role and perhaps one of our country's top five comic actors, sheds the nebbish/mentally-disturbed demeanor he was saddled with as borderline psychotic Charlie Fineman in Reign Over Men and bench-warming nerd Bobby Boucher Jr. in Waterboy to emerge as a combination Spiderman and Israeli James Bond, helped quite a bit by Judd Apatow's writing talent (you'll guess which scenes came from his pen) and from Adam Sandler's fertile imagination. Directed by Dennis Dugan as though the helmer told the crew to take off in all zany directions and stepped aside, Zohan goes for the belly laughs while squeezing in sentiment in both a romantic attachment of the superhero and a political fantasy: "See, Arabs and Israelis can all get along in the same neighborhood as long as they're thousands of miles away from the Middle East."

The forty-one year old Brooklyn-born Sandler plays an expert Israeli commando, one who can catch his enemies' bullets in his nose, cut enemy machine guns to pieces with some karate chops, catch rocks thrown at him by children, using them to sculpt little animals to the delight of the tikes. What's more he can leap tall buildings in a single bound, crash through glass windows without suffering from as much as a shard, and douse major fires using the spicy Arabic dip known as hummus instead of water. As an unlikely hairdresser in a New York City salon, he draws older women by the scores not only by the "silky smooth" styles he creates for them, but more important by the joys he offers them in the back room after creating each coiffure.

Zohan Dviri (Adam Sandler) has apparently spent the first half of his life in Israel, praised for his incomparable performances as an invincible commando. Fed up with endless fighting, he dreams of becoming a hair stylist in the U.S. When apparently killed by an Arab fighter, Phantom (John Turturro) in the waters bordering a Tel Aviv beach, he fakes his death, smuggles himself aboard a New York bound plane by hiding inside a dog kennel, talks Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui) the owner of a salon, into letting him style women's hair, and sets up residence in the home of Michael (Nick Swardson) and Michael's horny mom, Gail (Lainie Kazan). Processing women of a certain age in more ways than one, he becomes as popular as Warren Beatty's George Roundy in Hal Ashby's Shampoo, but his joy is marred, as he is sought not only by Salim (Bob Schneider), a Palestinian cabdriver in New York whose goat he stole back in Israel, and Phantom, who has flown to the Big Apple to finish the job he thought he accomplished in Tel Aviv.

Zohan has everything but the kitchen sink, including a plot by a corporate bigwig to set Palestinians and Israelis against one another in order to take over their small stores and develop a neighborhood-busting mall. Production notes state that several Arab Americans who were hired by the studio were quite reluctant to participate in a film with actual Israelis, and no wonder: in the best line of the picture, a humiliating one to be sure, the Israeli-Americans try to convince the Arab-Americans with whom they share their neighborhood that "We have a hard time here: people dislike us too." "Why so?" counters the Arab. "Because we look like you," responds the Israeli.

You don't have to be a fan of Happy Madison's Adam Sandler to go for the movie. It's enough that you like the sort of tasteless humor associated with Judd Apatow, whose hand was in Knocked Up, Superbad and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Adam Sandler's Israeli accent is on the heavy side, making some of his dialogue difficult to understand, but who cares? If a scattering of nudity, a number of tasteless jokes, a few ethnic, lifestyle and ageist stereotypes are your thing, you've come to the right place.

Rated PG-13. 114 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

 


 

 

 

 

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