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Yair Hochner’s

Opens November 28, 2008

Reviewed at The New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival by Frank J. Avella in June of 2008

I reviewed Antarctica in June as part of "Newfest: The New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival." I attended quite a few screenings and found there to be a refreshing trend in queer cinema: some actual risk taking--especially with films like Tom Gustafson’s enchanting Were the World Mine (now playing in cinemas) and James Bolton’s devastating Dream Boy (still without distribution). Yair Hochner’s Antarctica, though, stood by itself as not simply good queer cinema, but damn good cinema. Upon a second and third viewing, I stand by my initial review (below) and add that the prologue brilliantly sets up the multi-character-intermingling structure of the film in an admirably clever way that I didn’t quite fully realize when I initially saw it—proving my point that this particular movie is best served by multiple viewings. As the year comes to a close, Antarctica remains one of the best films of 2008.

To be blunt, Yair Hochner’s Antarctica is one of the most striking and original films I have seen in a long time. This masterfully directed gem commands your attention from the first hyper-sexually-charged frame to the audacious finale--always challenging the viewer and never wavering into contrivance or formula following.

One of the legion of refreshing things about Antarctica is that it’s bold, daring and quite unique in story and character development as well as filmmaking style. It also effectively manages the difficult feat of genre-blending. Tagged as “the first Israeli queer romantic sexy comedy,” I would have no clue where to place it in the DVD section of your local store—except in the ‘Best of 2008’ section!

Hochner probes the complexities of human emotions and the foibles of feelings in exciting and honest ways. We become privy to how our character’s feelings change and evolve, often in a matter of moments--and yet sometimes years cannot erase hurt and humiliation.

In Hebrew with subtitles, Antarctica follows the physical, spiritual and emotional journeys of a group of gays and lesbians in the non-stop city of Tel Aviv. Reminiscent of the work of genius Robert Altman (Nashville, Short Cuts) and his protégé’ Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Boogie Nights) as well as Michael Winterbottom (the auteur admits to being ‘heavily inspired by Wonderland’), Hochner poetically investigates coincidental convergences and adds a cosmic twist!

The movie opens with an unrelentingly graphic (and hot!) multi-screen visceral and visual assault as it depicts a week or month in the nocturnal life of Boaz (hunky Ofer Regirer), clean-cut businessman by day, one night stand sex-maniac by night, who prides himself on the line: “You know how many guys I bring back here?” One hook-up, in particular, jars him. Danny (Yiftach Mizrahi), a sweet, troubled teen, stops Boaz mid-petting and asks if they should talk first, or have coffee. A while later, Danny shows up at Boaz’ place and asks if he can stay for a while.

The screen reads “3 Years Later,” and the mosaic-like plot kicks into high gear as we meet the wonderful cast of characters. They include: Omer (Tomer Ilan), a shy librarian about to celebrate his thirtieth birthday; Omer’s harried lesbian sister Shirley (Lucy Dubinchik) and her on-again/off again girlfriend (Liat Ekta) who owns the local bar; Omer’s slutty friend Miki (Yuval Raz); who cyberconnects with smoldering journalist Ronen (Guy Zo-Aretz) and best-selling author and past-alien-abductee Matilda Rose (Rivka Neuman), just to name a few!

Via a blind date, Omer meets Danny, who is living with Ronen who is carrying on with Miki. Boaz reenters the picture and wants to reconnect with Danny. And it seems Omer and Ronen may have a connection of their own…

I will not give any more plot away (I’m not certain I could, anyway!), but I will say that the sequence of events prove hilarious, heartbreaking, outrageous and ballsy. Hochner’s terrific script is matched only by his great abilities as director and his magnificent cast. The entire ensemble is to be commended. It is rare that so many talented actors come together and seamlessly weave into one great work. There is one curious bit of casting in the film, but upon much reflection, I can accept it—with reservation.

Tech credits are outstanding across the boards, in particular: Ziv Berkovitch’s gorgeous and mesmerizing photography and the appropriate original songs written and performed by Shirly Solomon.

The title is a metaphor for how much a person, in this frenzied and lunatic day and age, will allow themselves to love; to thaw their own carefully acquired chilliness and simply leave themselves open to it—especially when it also means leaving themselves open to the worst kind of pain. Sex can be a beguiling distraction. It can also turn into a consuming compulsion. Hochner never judges his characters, nor does he manipulate them. He respects them and follows them around for an all-too-brief while.

I certainly hope audiences will not let the fact that this is a foreign film stop them from experiencing such sensational cinema. I have a grand idea: why not use the subtitles as an excuse to see the film a second time!


Wong Kar Wai's
Ashes Of Time Redux
Opens October 10, 2008

Written By: Wong Kar Wai adapted from Louis Cha's novel The Eagle-Shooting Heroes
Starring: Jackie Cheung; Leslie Cheung; Maggie Cheung; Carina Lau; Tony Leung Chiu Wai; Tony Leung Ka Fai; Brigitte Lin; and Charlie Yeong

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

Happiness is a bad memory, they say: for example, if only I can block out the recent 777-point drop in the Dow Industrial Average! Wong Kar Wai's Ashes of Time Redux, re-imagining of his original martial arts drama, is based on the adage about memory, as misery plagues at least one fellow whose memory of a lost love is deadly. Ashes is a picture better noted for style than substance: meaning that legendary Christopher Doyle's cinematography already looks like a nominee for end-year awards. Or maybe it's more accurate and complimentary to say that style IS substance. The plot line, adapted freely from a story by Louis Cha, is nothing to write home about, whether you're scribbling from a seemingly endless strip of China's desert land or from your seat in the cineplex. The best that can be said from my own seat, however is that a) the film is easier to respect than enjoy; and b) Wong's artfully drawn story is targeted to those in the audience who have a fondness for classy martial arts films.

Characters are difficult to follow despite the fact that Ashes is theatrical. Doyle's camera is given to extreme close-ups especially of actors' profiles and the simple mise-en-scenes which involve usually only two people at a time—with some time taken out for groups of bandidos who you'd expect to be defeated by one or two expert swordsmen.

China looks ahead as the world's fastest-growing economy, even sending an astronaut into space, but is known as well to gaze backwards in its long fondness for martial arts tales—as far back as the Ming dynasty of the 14th century. In this martial arts yarn, which celebrates the world of the Wuxia, or martial arts warriors, five seasons are portrayed, the leading thread being Ouyang's (Leslie Cheung) morbid cynicism following the loss of his main squeeze to his brother. Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka Fai) takes the film's first dramatic step by drinking a magical wine that makes the bearer lose his memory. While loss of memory is supposed to lead to happiness, this is not always true as he missed an appointment with the woman of his dreams, Murang (Brigitte Lin). Also of note is that the increasingly sight-challenged swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) has stopped wandering, while Hong Qi (Jackie Cheung) seeks to make his own mark in that career.

But synopsis takes us only so far, as Ashes appears to have a story line to serve principally as rationale for the bold cinematography of Christopher Doyle (Temptress Moon, Psycho [1998], Paranoid Park) and to a lesser extent the choreography of Sammo Hung—who shows his stuff in a couple of swordfights which are—to me—of lesser impact in that the action has the same blurry editing that we find in conventional action-adventure pics.

Ashes is as cynical as Ouyang's in its portrayal of love as the quality most sought after not only in our own century but in China's 14th yet the most difficult to achieve. As a story, to sum up, Ashes is less than involving, its true resonance taking hold in stylistic delineation.

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


Baz Luhrmann’s
Opens Thursday, November 26, 2008

Written By: Baz Luhrmann; Stuart Beattie; Ronald Harwood; and Richard Flanagan
Starring: Hugh Jackman; Nicole Kidman; David Wenham; Bryan Brown; Jack Thompson; and Brandon Walters
Twentieth Century Fox

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

If the producers of Australia were looking for a title as generic as the one they picked, they could have gone with Bigger, Stronger, Faster, though that one is already taken as the title of Chris Bell's droll documentary about steroid use among athletes. Australia is a bigger film than most, clocking in at two and three-quarters hours. It's stronger, when you consider the rough neighborhoods in which the story takes place, with real men punching, spearing, and shooting one another as though they were living in Dodge City or…. Brooklyn. As for faster, there is a long scene that eavesdrops on a crew of half a dozen men, leading 1,500 cattle across a Never, Never land, heading from ranches out in the middle of nowhere to a beef-processing plant in Darwin Downunder.

If this picture is not awards-nominated for Mandy Walker's photography, the Academy and the guilds whose awards precede the Oscars, must employ voting as fixed as the epilogue to America's 2000 Presidential election. Other than cinematography, however, Australia-born Baz Luhrmann—whose Strictly Ballroom, Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge have been called the Red Curtain trilogy because of the director's experimental style—is a conventional family-pleaser. Take that as a positive or otherwise, depending on what you think of epic style and/or comfortably predictable fare. Luhrmann, who had intended to knock out a historical trilogy, beginning with the later-dropped Alexander the Great, makes good in part on his goal with this film.

Australia, the film, might appear to residents of the Downunder the way we here in the U.S. think of Oklahoma, but without the songs. Or it might be considered by film buffs to be a mimicking the style of Gone With the Wind. The picture is an epic; Luhrmann, along with four other writers, makes political points on a broad canvas. He also aptly highlights the performances of three amazing actors: Sydney-born Hugh Jackman; Honolulu-born Nicole Kidman (the daughter of Australian parents); and thirteen-year-old glorious find Brandon Walters, the fella who gives Kidman's character a motive for living fully.

The movie, which set the studio back $130 million, is as much a product placement for the Australia Tourism Board as it is a story of empire-building—both of local ranchers and of a foreign power. During the extended time of the piece, we learn that inhabitants in the year 1939 may be a microcosm of people found today in Alaska, though if you look through the window in Darwin, you are not likely to learn anything about foreign affairs since the nearest major country is a thousand miles away.

Filmed in Queensland and New South Wales, Australia tells the story of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), a fashionably-dressed woman of means who did not know how unhappy she was until she found a real man a long distance from her London home. Hearing rumors that her husband, a rancher in Northwestern Australia, is fooling around, she determines to confront him by traveling via propeller aircraft to Australia, a land that was seen both as a Mecca by restless Brits and with trepidation by convicts who were sent there in the 19th century when the place was a penal colony. She finds her husband but he is no longer able to serve as a stud; he is dead. She then reluctantly hires a drover (someone who drives a herd), played by Hugh Jackman, to beat the country's biggest cattle lord, King Carney (Bryan Brown) in a long distance drive from a faraway ranch to Darwin. The award for this competition is an army contract to provide beef for armed forces preparing to go to war with Japan.

The drover, who lives among the Aborigines speaking their language, is as much an outsider to polite society in his land as Lady Ashley is to Australia. Among the folks is a thirteen-year-old half-white, half-Aboriginal youth, Nullah (Brandon Walters), whose granddad, known as King George (David Gulpilil), has magical powers—as does the boy. King Carney's right-hand man, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), is unspeakably villainous, having abandoned a lad he sired. He (Fletcher) is now plotting against his boss, determined to rid the land of his principal competitor.

The one break that Luhrmann makes with conventional filmmaking is his use of magical realism. The grandfather is often seen posing with one knee bent, his foot bonded to his other leg; he turns up mystically when he is most needed. For his part Nullah, in the picture's most dramatic shot amid a landscape that suggests a mini-Grand Canyon, stops a thundering herd of 1,500 heads of cattle from falling mortally over the cliff.

The romance between the drover and Lady Ashley convinces, as Luhrmann shows the couple initially hostile given their radically different upbringings; their time together in a country, whose culture is the opposite of London's, leads to passion. Lady Ashley's transformation from a society woman to a free spirit is encouraged at least as much by the presence of Nullah, a boy who is charming and whom she would like to adopt in that she is unable to have children of her own. The outbreak of war provides the excitement that can unite not only a people at large but also individual couples. Japanese aircraft bomb Darwin, even landing forces on Australian soil—the action suggesting segments of Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor. (Production notes inform us that the Japanese dropped twice the number of bombs on Darwin that they used on Hawaii's naval base.) Effective as Jackman and Kidman are, major kudos go to non-professional actor Brandon Walters, an adorable Aboriginal allegedly chosen for the role after the studio interviewed one thousand boys. As Nullah he is torn between two cultures, that of the whites represented by the drover, and that of his ethnic roots as symbolized by granddad—who wants to take the boy on the traditional walkabout (nomadic excursions into the bush).

Positives, then, include the ravishing cinematography and strong performances by the three leads. On the other hand the picture is overlong, too conventional, with an outcome predictable even with an hour to go.

Rated PG-13. 165 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Steve Kroschel's
The Beautiful Truth
Opens November 14, 2008

Written By: Steve Kroschel
Starring:: Dr. Stephen Barrett; Dr. Russell Blaylock; Dr. Dean Edell; Dr. Roger Eichmann; Dr. Hal Huggins; Dr. David Kennedy; Dr. John Olney; Dr. Wallace Sampson; Jay Kordich; Garrett Krosche; and Steve Kroschel.
Cinema Libre Studio/ Kroschel Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B+

A battle between two opposing groups has been in progress before the Iraq-Afghanistan War, the Vietnam debacle, the Korean "police action," World War II, and perhaps even as far back as Hippocrates' Greece before the Punic Wars. That is the conflict between regular medicine and alternate methods of treating illness. The most reasonable people in the medical establishment will freely recommend that patients try alternate cures, whether they be fasting, juicing, meditating, acupuncture, chiropractic, hypnotism, Rolfing, and others. The most reasonable people in the alternate community will not be averse to recommending M.D.'s when the situations call for standard medicine. The principal arguments are these: some doctors say that practitioners of alternate medicine are quacks; the non-traditional practitioners will point to the huge profits to be made by the pharmaceutical industry, big agriculture like Conagra and Monsanto, and those white-coated folks with stethoscopes for neckties.

So where does Steve Kroschel, who wrote and directed The Beautiful Truth, stand on all of this? The film, which will be released in New York on November 14th, shows that he is no extremist. Still he has his problems with the medical-pharmaceutical-agricultural people, pointing out that they have maliciously suppressed evidence that cancer is curable without, or in combination with, a method that was discovered over sixty years ago and whose principles can be found in a book available at and in better book stores called The Gerson Therapy.

Since nobody reads nowadays, we're fortunate in having the film released by Cinema Libre through which we can painlessly get information about this alleged miracle cure, not only for cancer but for migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, and other degenerative diseases. Photographed by William Bacon III, who does not hesitate to open up the discussion with visits to farms and hospitals, even heading up to Haines, Alaska and over the border to an institution in Tijuana, The Beautiful Truth, which has an unfortunately generic title, is pretty convincing.

Writer-director Kroschel met the family of the controversial Dr. Gerson, spoke with hundreds of people about the system, and encountered the resistance of established medicine which he believes is simply out for profit while at the same time believing that its standard treatments are the best bet for seriously ill people. His principal character is his own teen son, an inquisitive, mature lad named Garrett. Garrett is not the sort of kid who'd vote for the McCain-Palin ticket even though Ms Palin is from his home state. His favorite book from decades back would probably have been Charles Reich's The Greening of America, which for all we know may re-appear on best-seller lists during our environmentally threatened time.

Here are some of the highlights of the film, a work which does not high-pressure anyone into adopting the protocols of Max Gerson, a man who suffered from migraine headaches during his years of medical education (who can blame him?) and was told what doctors today tell frustrated patients: "learn to live with them." He freed himself from migraines by developing a nutritional system, a vegetarian salt-free diet. In other words he turned vegan, a lifestyle indulged in perhaps by one-half of one percent of Americans.

One: A clinical trial of 450 advanced skin TB cases were treated with the Gerson diet, resulting in 446 complete recoveries, or so Gerson says. Gerson then found that bone, lung, kidney and other forms of TB responded to the migraine diet, and as for allergies, high blood pressure, kidney problems and cancer, well…bring 'em on!

Two: If you have mercury amalgam films, get a dentist to pull 'em out and replace them with mercury-free materials. Some dramatic film shows how mercury seeps out of a single amalgam, and keeps seeping and seeping and seeping. It's a wonder that little Joey ever made it to the age of eight with those cavities filled by an ordinary dentist.

Three: Eat organics. More dramatic celluloid showed how a plain-ol' regular apple has an aura, a field of energy around it, but an organic apple had a bigger aura. Sounds like something from The Twilight Zone or Scientology, but the people who set up the experiment don't seem to have anything in common with the Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi.

Four: Big corporations, big scammers. Boo! Down with Monsanto and Conagra, the Mayo Clinic and Big Pharma. They want your money, but their treatments and products will not cure you of serious illnesses, while the Gerson Diet just might.

Five: Don't eat chips or soy sauce. They have MSG. One wonder how so many Chinese lived to eighty-five.

Writer-director Krosche,l who is also, according to press notes an avalanche expert, wildlife expert and twenty-year vet of filming natural history, uses his son Garrett well. What I, a high-school teacher for 32 years, would have given to have a room full of Garretts in each class!

The film does not convince me that my own headaches will be cured by extracting the juice from a stalk of celery, but what the heck, I'll try it. The film made me do it.

Not Rated. 93 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath's
The Betrayal
Opens November 7, 2008

Written By: Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath
Starring: : Thavisouk Phrasavath

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

On the very day of a critics' screening for The Betrayal, newspapers were filled with big-headline stories of complaints by Syria and Iran against the U.S. and coalition forces in the Middle East. Apparently, U.S. helicopters strayed across the Iraq-Syria border chasing the bad guys to kill a few people on Syrian territory, not unlike a similar boo-boo over Pakistan the other week. Secret flights, or at least combat missions kept secret by the CIA and other U.S. agencies, are nothing new for this country. During the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975, the U.S. not only invaded Cambodia, while Nixon kept us ordinary people in the dark, but dropped more bombs on Laos than were dropped by us in all of World War I and World War II. And remember that Laos is a tiny country, and what's more, the U.S. was not even at war with the Laotians! All the action was justified—at least when the secret came out—by the fact that North Vietnamese army units had penetrated that unhappy kingdom. To top it all off, notwithstanding all the firepower, the communist Pathet Lao took over the government anyway. Though the communists still control business there, the U.S. entered into full trade relations in 2005. So what was the fuss all about?

With The Betrayal, is directed in her freshman outing by Ellen Kuras (known more for being behind the camera in productions including Coffee and Cigarettes, Be Kind Rewind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), with a documentary script she wrote with principal subject Thavisouk Phrasavath (who gets a co-directing credit). The film looks at the personal struggle of one Laotian family. There are several betrayals pointed out by Kuras and "Thavi":(A) the U.S. withdrew from Laos leaving the Laotian people at the mercy of the communists; (B) though the United States government gave political asylum to one family that gave important information to the U.S. for air strikes, the family was squeezed into two rooms to house eighteen people; (C) the family patriarch chose not to rejoin his wife in the U.S. and in fact married another woman. Whew!

What happened to the patriarch of the Phrasavath family does remind us of the fate that befell Senator John McCain, who spent five years in the Hanoi Hilton. The man of the family, having supplied information to the U.S. bombers about the locations of North Vietnamese troops was arrested after the communist Pathet Lao took the reins of government and was sent to a so-called re-education camp for twelve years of hard labor. Meanwhile his wife and eight of her ten children escaped from Laos to neighboring Thailand, a firm U.S. ally, stayed for a while in a refugee camp, were granted political asylum in the U.S. and sent to a tenement house on Brooklyn's Flatbush Avenue—the scene of gang wars, with gang members telling the "Chinese" Laotians to go home. The film is narrated principally by young Thavisouk Phrasavath, who now speaks fluent English, and his mother, who apparently knows not a word of Shakespeare's idiom.

The film took twenty-three years to make, the kind of patience that all of us holding Wall Street investments could use today. Instead of focusing on talking heads sitting in chairs and rambling, she includes considerable archival film from the chaotic times in Laos, a look at the mean streets of Brooklyn, decidedly not paved with gold, and at the long-haired Thavi who, with his brothers, got some culture shock when he was warned by police not to look for dinner by fishing in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. The family got welfare and food stamps but never lost their homesickness. We are not privy to what the folks did for a living in Brooklyn, raising enough funds to relocate to the wilds of New Jersey.

As Kuras's pictures travel to the past in Laos, which looks like the sort of place (after the war) that would encourage meditation by monks in ochre robes, we wonder how much it must have pained Ms. Kuras to edit down twenty-three years of film to ninety-six minutes, but what she gives us is an treasure-trove of celluloid.

Not Rated. 96 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Fernando Meirelles’
Opens October 3, 2008

Written By: Don McKellar, based on Jose Saramago's novel
Starring: Julianne Moore; Mark Ruffalo; Alice Braga; Yusuke Iseya; Yoshino Kimura; Don McKellar; Maury Chaykin; Mitchell Nye; Danny Glover; Gael Garcia Gernal.
Miramax Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: C+

Disasters are a natural for the big screen: Earthquakes, fire, nuclear holocausts, tornadoes, dragon-like creatures and spiders—all the elements found in nature that try their darndest to upset us human beings. What makes a good piece of disaster fiction, as opposed to a documentary that might have come from the Discovery Channel or Nature Magazine, is a look at how we cope with these formidable traumas. Do we take them in stride, cooperate with one another in a joint effort to conquer nature's malignant forces, or do we fight one another, an occurrence that would make our natural enemies grin with contempt if they were human?

Fernando Meirelles, who knows quite a bit of the constant battle of people against people (City of God looks at the evil shenanigans of children of Rio's slums) now gives us Blindness, which deals with how we cope when we lack vision—both literally and figuratively. In that area he was preceded by the likes of William Golding's novel, often required reading in high school, Lord of the Flies, a tale of English schoolboys victimized by a plane wreck, let loose on a deserted island without the presence of a single adult. Children hunt children as order deteriorates. OK, these are kids; adults would never turn savage would they? But how about John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, in which the whole world is struck blind suddenly and simultaneously? Individualism, so prized in our own country, becomes a death sentence in Wyndham's vision.

In his film Blindness, Meirelles joins the crew of writers and directors who look into the thin veneer of civilization, a patina that melts away under extreme stress. Without citing the Spanish proverb, "En el pais de los ciegos el tuerto es rey" ("In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king"), Don McKellar, who adapted Nobel-prize-winning author Jose Saramago's novel to the screen, shows us that when an entire city has gone blind for no explicable reason, new communities will be set up to deal with the crisis. Unfortunately, one person or one group will grasp power because of some edge. The most logical leader of a small community of newly-blinded people would be a doctor's wife (Julianne Moore).

For reasons unknown, she is the only individual with continued eyesight. Yet a blind man (Gael Garcia Bernal) assumes authority over the distribution of food in Ward Three (where the film is set). Rather than dish the portions out equitably as he was expected to do, he becomesn corrupted, insisting that only after the women in the wards submitted to the sexual advances of the men would nourishment be apportioned.

Predictably enough, the little society crumbles because of its "lack of vision." Blindness, an worthy allegory which could have used more of a solid story—like Jonathan Swift's Gullivar's Travels, for example, a spoof of the British monarchy with a fascinating story that can be appreciated on its own narrative level—falls short. While the characters are not given names in the movie or the novel, the better to sound like expressionist works such as Elmer Rice's play The Adding Machine, matters work their way in a predictable fashion.

Mark Ruffalo does good work as an ophthalmologist married to the Julianne Moore character, but on the whole the film lacks emotional connection with the audience while merely providing a heady experience.

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

Mark Herman's
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Opens November 7, 2008

Written By: Mark Herman, from John Boyne's novel for young adults
Starring: Asa Butterfield; Jack Scanlon; Amber Beattie; David Thewlis; Vera Farmiga; Rupert Friend; and David Heyman

Miramax Films

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Can there be any fresh approach taken when telling a Holocaust story?
Novelist John Boyne certainly did his best with the fictional work The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which has been adapted into an extraordinary motion picture that will charm and devastate the viewer.

I have not read the novel so my feelings about the work is based solely on the screen treatment, which I found to be refreshing in it’s fable approach and impressively ballsy in the way writer/director Mark Herman treats the ending, which will stay with you long after you exit the theatre.

The simple plot revolves around eight-year old Bruno, the son of a Nazi officer who lives a pretty cushy and sheltered life in Berlin. His father receives a promotion and the family must move to a deserted area near a concentration camp, which his father is in charge of operating. A bored Bruno wanders over to the camp and encounters a young Jewish boy from behind the electrified fence. I will stop here because part of the joy and anguish the viewer will feel is in watching the story unfold as a conflicted Bruno examines his life and family in a much different way than before.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is already a very divisive film; one either buys into the fable-turned-nightmare aspect of the film where life is seen completely through Bruno’s eyes, or one does not. New York Times sage Manohla Dargis has condemned the work, proving once again that unless it’s a messy experimental bore (she just adored the horror that was Last Days), for her, it has no place on the screen.

But if you allow yourself to enter the world being created by Herman and his astute cast, you will be amazed by the power the film has and rewards it provides; chief among them is a raw and honest central performance by Asa Butterfield as young Bruno. In addition, Jack Scanlon proves potent as Shmuel and Vera Farmiga devastates as Bruno’s anguished mother.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is about one boy’s awakening to the evils around him; it’s about destroyed innocence. The film demonstrates, in a clear and concise way, what happens when people give in to horrifically misguided notions of superiority and hatred. These may be simple and obvious themes, but they’re damned important ones.



Mark Herman's
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Opens November 7, 2008

Written By: Mark Herman, from John Boyne's novel for young adults
Starring: Asa Butterfield; Jack Scanlon; Amber Beattie; David Thewlis; Vera Farmiga; Rupert Friend; and David Heyman

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

One of the egregious lies being passed around during the 2008 American presidential campaign is that Barack Obama wants to teach sex education in kindergarten. While the thought is laughable, we wonder what is the appropriate teachable moment for other sensitive aspects of life. For example, when can the Holocaust be taught, particularly since the very young are likely to get nightmares of the last century's most deplorable crime is discussed? John Boyne, whose fictional work The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, adapted for the screen by writer-director Mark Herman, has a way out of this dilemma. Before a nine-year-old would be ready for the most horrific facts, the novelist created an allegorical treatment with thinly-veiled names for the actual events: "Fury" instead of "Fuehrer," for example.

But the film version adapted by director Mark Herman, is more realistic and heartbreaking. Nazi salutes are prominent, swastika flags abound. Our principal attention is directed to the eight-year-old as in the book, a lovely young boy named Bruno, who is played by Asa Butterfield—who allegedly got the role after hundreds of potential stars were interviewed. We come away from the film with its ironically melodramatic ending, easily believing in the principal parts of the drama, though we must suspend disbelief when we see Bruno's Jewish friend Shmeul (Jack Scanlon) spending his days at the barbed wire fence chatting, playing checkers, and eating food smuggled to him by Bruno. We know that historically, children and the elderly did not survive long in the camps, often gassed within hours of their arrival—Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful notwithstanding.

The story has its gripping moments, the plot furthered by crackerjack acting by a largely British cast, filmed by a crew of Hungarians in Budapest, its suburbs, and a set that is said to compete with the splendor of Prague. When Nazi officer (David Thewlis) is promoted, he is moved with his family consisting of his wife (Vera Farmiga), his son Bruno (Asa Butterfield), and his 12-year-old daughter, Gretel (Amber Beattie). Though the father has become the commandant of a concentration camp a mile away from the family's countryside quarters, his wife and children are clueless, thinking at best that it's a work camp where residents are given an assortment of fulfilling activities (as shown in a propaganda film that was captured after the war). Gretel is a true believer in her country's ideology, even entertaining a crush on a Nazi lieutenant (Rupert Friend). Bruno becomes curious when he watches an inmate servant, Pavel (David Hayman) peel potatoes in his "pajamas." Sneaking up to the outskirts of the camp, Bruno discovers a depressed boy his own age and, having no friends of his own, Bruno strikes up an unlikely affiliation with the lad—later sneaking sandwiches to him and even playing checkers across the barbed wire. When Bruno's dad is again ordered to move to a new location, the film turns melodramatic, credibly so, speeding its way to an ironic conclusion.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a striking entry into the subgenre of Holocaust films, bearing the originality of a friendship between two boys literally on opposite sides of a fence. Asa Butterfield, just ten at the time of the filming, has the expressiveness made famous by the wide-eyed, naïve Oskar (David Bennent) in Volker Schlondorff's The Tin Drum. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas would make an idea pair with "The Diary of Anne Frank."

As an example of the reading level of Boynton's children's novel, take a look at an example below of part of the first chapter.

"You'll have to say goodbye to your friends for the time being,' said Mother. 'Although I'm sure you'll see them again in time. And don't interrupt your mother when she's talking, please,' she added, for although this was strange and unpleasant news, there was certainly no need for Bruno to break the rules of politeness which he had been taught.

"'Say goodbye to them?' he asked, staring at her in surprise. 'Say goodbye to them?' he repeated, spluttering out the words as if his mouth was full of biscuits that he'd munched into tiny pieces but not actually swallowed yet. 'Say goodbye to Karl and Daniel and Martin?' he continued, his voice coming dangerously close to shouting, which was not allowed indoors. 'But they're my three best friends for life!

"'Oh, you'll make other friends,' said Mother, waving her hand in the air dismissively, as if the making of a boy's three best friends for life was an easy thing.

"But we had plans," he protested.

Rated PG--13. 96 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve in A Christmas Tale

Arnaud Desplechin's
A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noel)
Opens Friday,November 14, 2008

Written By: Arnaud Desplechin, Emmanuel Bourdieu, inspired by Jacques Ascher and Jean-Pierre Jouet's book La greffe
Starring: Catherine Deneuve; Jean-Paul Roussilon; Anne Consigny; Mathieu Amalric; Melvil Poupaud; and Hippolyte Girardot.

IFC Films
Reviewed forNew York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

We've come a way since all families emulated Leave It To Beaver, but that's one thing you can't blame on the Republican administrations. Family dysfunction is a far more interesting subject for theater and cinema than happy-contented people who remain in love for a lifetime. Nor can we say that there's something in the American Way of Life that causes families to crumble. Look at Arnaud Desplechin's new movie A Christmas Tale, for example. Desplechin, the 48-year-old regisseur known in the U.S principally for Comment je me suis dispute…(Ma vie sexuelle), about one Paul Dedalus who is at a crossroads in his life, needing to make several decisions; should he complete his doctorate, does he want to become a full professor, does he really love his long-standing girlfriend, or should he re-start with one of his other lovers? If that sounds like a high-class soap opera, the same could be said for the Desplechin's current work, known by the French title Un conte de Noel, though Noel is heads taller than the best soap since melodrama is kept to a minimum and used only when applicable. Desplechin is also favored with a stellar cast of performers and some well-chosen dialogue that in one point soars into poetry.

Watching a picture like this one may convince some twenty-year-olds not to get married or, maybe to tie the knot but buy a dog instead of having kids. Dogs love their owners (not Michael Vick, but that's another story). The love of children and spouses is an iffy thing, even if the young ones are brought up according to Spock. It's no wonder that Christmas holidays are anticipated with mixed emotions once you're beyond the age of twelve. Blood is blood, but having neither having similar chromosomes nor choosing your ideal mate guarantees a lifetime of bliss.

A Christmas Tale, like others of the family dysfunction subgenre, brings together people of the same immediate family leading lives of their own outside the patriarchal harem, choosing mates that may or may not get along with the in-laws. The film is overlong at two and one-half hours, but is of special interest in that each of the characters is developed at least to some extent. Contrary to the way some in the family treat others, Desplechin, using Emmanuel Bourdieu's clever script inspired by Jacques Ascher and Jean-Pierre Jouet's book La greffe, has us ultimately sympathizing with even the most scurrilous of the breed. Redemption is at hand.

The action takes place (coincidentally?) in the town of the director's birth, Roubaix, France—just outside the city of Lille which has the nearest hospital. The queen bee of the tribe, Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve), has been diagnosed with terminal leukemia, a disease that she may have passed on to one of her offspring, who died at the age of seven. Hoping to save the lad, though, Junon and her husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussilon) gave birth to a few more, hoping that one of them can prove able to donate bone marrow. Of the children, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) is a playwright who confesses to her dad that she always feels sad; her husband (Hippolyte Girardot), a mathematician, delights the theater audience by calculating with the use of sigma signs on a chalkboard how many more months Junon will live with a transplant or without; Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), Junon's favorite, has two small sons; and most interesting of all, Henri (Mathieu Amalric, who opens as 007's nemesis on the day that this film makes its U.S. debut), has been banished from the family in a deal ironed out by his sister—who has reason to loath him. Henri's outbursts provide the melodramatic moments and comic relief.

The film can best be called a serio-comedy, complete with scenes taken from the bone marrow surgery (ouch) and a look under the microscope of blood cells that allow the hematologist to determine who is a potential donor. Desplechin gives each principal character his or her own story in a separate chapter, then seamlessly merges the shorts into the whole. Well acted by the entire ensemble, A Christmas Tale is given a delightful musical accompaniment particularly by Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" while even one or two American pop songs are heard on the track.

Not Rated. 150 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Isabel Coixet's
Opens Friday, August 8, 2008

Written By: Nicholas Meyer, from Philip Roth's novella "The Dying Animal"
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Clarkson, Deborah Harry, Peter Sarsgaard

Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: A-8

In his four-stanza poem, Sailing to Byzantium—which includes a verse to "a dying animal," also the title of a recent novella by Philip Roth—William Butler Yeats describes both about the journey taken by the speaker's soul around the time of death and the process by which the artist transcends his own mortality. Philip Roth, whose novella forms the basis of film Elegy, is obsessed with age, with mortality, and with the fading of his own passions—all of which come across in this remarkable movie by the Spanish director, Isabel Coixet. Without passing judgment on a man who might be roundly condemned by feminists today, Coixet directs from a screenplay by Nicholas Meyer, one which closely follows the trajectory of Roth's book. Prestige films from literary sources are a rare breed today: Elegy joins such summer-released films as Julian Jarrold's Brideshead Revisited as must-sees on any sophisticated moviegoer's itinerary.

"That is no country for old men…An aged man is but a paltry thing,/ A tattered coat upon a stick, unless/ Soul clap its hands and sing…" So goes some verses from Yeats's poem, and so evolves the character David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), a charismatic professor of literary criticism who uses his prestige at a New York university (one that looks like Columbia though the filming took place in Vancouver) to bed several women three or four decades his junior. He keeps his distance emotionally from the women—something his best friend, squash partner and Pulitzer-prize-winning poet George (Dennis Hopper) urges him to do. Kepesh is floored by the beauty of a Cuban-born student, Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz); he senses that she must be wooed before being won just like women in the 1950's, he correctly notes in discussing America's Puritan heritage on the air. Kepesh is fascinated by her beautiful breasts—which Ms Cruz generously exhibits for us in the audience—so much so that contrary to feminist beliefs today, Consuela lauds him for his attentions therein. "Nobody else loves my body as you do," she states with love in her eyes. While Kepesh sets up a sexual liaison with the young student, he maintains a long-term, commitment-free affair with an older woman, Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), a sophisticated businesswoman in her late forties who believes that she is his only bed partner.

Philip Roth's obsession with age and decline, punctuated by at least one death in the story, evokes the title Elegy, a mournful poem or lament for the dead. As an older man who ponders his age almost daily, he is certain that a youthful charmer will steal his great love away. Jealousy demands that she remain in touch with him regularly. "Stop worrying about growing old," his friend George advises, knowing that his counsel will not be followed, "And think about growing up." (Lots of us men should have such problems with immaturity.)

Aside from its theme of mortality and decline, Elegy concerns itself with the impact on others of pure physical beauty. David, by way of illustration, simply cannot see beyond Consuela's body to understand that this woman wants a man who can offer her a future, and that David would be the one she would choose. David's womanizing has an effect on his son, Kenny Kepesh (Peter Sarsgaard), a doctor who cannot forgive his dad's marital abandonment and therefore remains loyal to his own wife though he has fallen in love with another. In the film's final scene, there has been an about face, one which demonstrates Consuela's spirit to David for the first time.

Jan Claude Larrieu photographs the proceedings in Vancouver, which stands in for New York, heightening director Coixet's emphasis on the pain that complements the human condition as well as its physical pleasures. The music, both in the background and as pieces played by David on the piano, are the antithesis of summer-movie soundtracks—featuring works from Bach's "Adagio from Concerto in D Minor" through Vivaldi's "Vendro Con Mio Diletto" from "Giutino" but not ignoring pop favorites like Al Lerner's "Loneliness Ends with Love." Acting is magnificent all-around with Dennis Hopper supplying much of the humor as the principal's sexual and spiritual adviser, Ben Kingsley's piercing job particularly in a concluding scene that finds him awash in tears, and Penelope Cruz's deft portrayal as a woman of spectacular beauty, charm, and ultimate vulnerability.

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

Damian Harris’
Gardens of the Night
Opens November 7, 2008

Written By: Damian Harris
Starring: Gillian Jacobs; Evan Ross; Ryan Simpkins; Jermaine "Scooter" Smith; Tom Arnold; Kevin Zegers; and John Malkovich

City Lights Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

Prostitution below the legal age may be common in the underdeveloped world—in nations like Thailand—because selling one's young body appears the only way to get by other than by working for a dollar a day in an Adidas factory. But forced prostitution of tykes has got to be about the sleaziest crime one can engage in, one for which even Barack Obama, considered by Republicans to "the most liberal guy in the Senate," supports the death penalty. Such a case is brought to light in Damian Harris's Gardens of the Night, the title of which is taken from a poem, the action opening in a clean, solid middle-class area somewhere on the East Coast.

For the story, writer-director Harris uses a pair of actors to play their participation in the crime at the age of eight, then a separate couple again at seventeen. His point is that not only is pimping out a kid horrendous enough, a complete destruction of their innocence, but a plight in which the abused kids turn into adults with disassociated identities—blank looks on their faces, with no foundation for emotional giving and taking. In the particular scenario that opens the story, the audience cannot help blaming the girl's parents for the abduction since they apparently let their pretty seven-year-old walk to school and return home alone, perhaps thinking that nothing untoward could happen on the clean, probably crime-free streets that form the path from school to residence.

Gardens of the Night features some fine acting particularly by the victim, Leslie, at the age of seven (Ryan Simpkins), a girl who in being coaxed for her performance was not told what the story was really about, but was instead given a spiel about how she is to be a victim of someone who wants a family of his own. Ms. Simpkins, a ten-year-old who had a role in Pride and Glory and is a veteran of TV episodes of Law and Order, performs in the role with the kind of innocence that would allow her character to believe an abductor who gets her into his car by telling her at first that her folks were called away, later using the ploy that her parents no longer want her. Tom Arnold, already cast as a man who has been raping his daughter in Marianna Palka's quirky romance Big Dick, now plays the part of abductor with such empathy for his victim that we in the audience can almost think that what he is doing is not quite as terrible as the media always say. Of course it is, as we find out by checking out Leslie at the age of seventeen, already too old to hold the interest of the child porn crowd.

The story centers on Leslie, who are the age of seven is pulled away from her roots by Alex (Tom Arnold) who, working with an accomplice, Frank (Kevin Zegers), has carefully planned an elaborate yarn for the girl. Alex already holds Donnie (Jermaine "Scooter" Smith), a black kid about Leslie's age, who could easily escape but is convinced that his mother has voluntarily given him up to Alex. Leslie protects herself from the strangeness of the situation by reading fairy-tales about a forest into which young people can escape to feel safe. At midpoint, the action shifts to San Diego nine years later where the two sell their bodies to passersby. Leslie (Gillian Jacbos) and Donnie (Evan Ross), have formed a bond. The now beautiful Leslie is even recruiting younger girls into the trade, though she is given another chance for redemption when she is accepted by Michael (John Malkovich) into a women's shelter pending her release to her parents—whom Leslie believes to be dead.

Gardens of the Night could be called a docudrama, but is filmed by Paula Huidobro in both the dingy world of predators and the middle-class suburbs of Leslie's parents as though it were imaginative fiction. We come away with an understanding of what these victims go through in a movie that answers the question, "Why don't they just run away or call 911?" What happens to Leslie and the one person in her sordid life who cares for her, convinces us that while we may think these people would love to kill their abductors, they instead have absorbed their values. Tom Arnold scores as a bad guy who knows how to play daddy and who, in fact, may genuinely like his corrupt parental role.

Rated R. 108 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



David Koepp's
Ghost Town
Opens Friday September 19, 2008

Written By: David Koepp and John Kamps
Starring: Ricky Gervais; Tea Leoni; Greg Kinnear; Billy Campbell; Kristen Wiig; Dana Ivey; and Aasir Mandvi.

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

Most of the world's religions believe some form of life continues for people after death, whether the reward of 72 virgins is promised or not. In some cases, though, there are conditions. In ancient Greek drama and mythology, Antigone gave up her freedom and her life by burying her dead brother—a task prohibited by the hostile king who is determined not to let the man's soul go a final resting place which can occur only if one is properly buried. Egyptian nobility believed that you can indeed take it with you and they were buried with their servants, pets and household goods.

This idea of an afterlife is prominent in David Koepp's sentimental comedy, Ghost Town. In fact much ado is made in the film about an Egyptian mummy whose cause of death seven thousand years ago is being researched by a noted Egyptologist. In this film, New York City is also more overcrowded than we thought: ghosts roam about with unfinished business and these ghosts are not so keen on a Manhattan existence despite their ability to do without the expense of food, clothing or shelter. Until unfinished biz is taken care of, they cannot go to their ultimate reward. But only one living person is able to see them. He is the only guy who can settle their affairs and give them closure. He sees them because he was dead himself (for seven minutes while undergoing a colonoscopy with general anesthesia), but was brought back to life by a staff of doctors who may have had more than a little practice dealing with an incompetent anesthetist.

In shaping a comedy around this concept, Koepp manages to provide the sort of entertainment that rejects the conventions of sit-coms. This is not a TV program in which characters have to crack silly jokes every twenty seconds, with punch lines appreciated only by a recorded laugh track. Ghost Town is able to evoke both smiles and tears from its audience,thanks to the talents of British comic, Ricky Gervais, known on our side of the Atlantic from his role as David Brent in the TV series The Office. He makes a delightful Everyman, a dentist whose contact with intimacy is restricted to dealing with people's mouths—an ideal profession for someone who doesn't want to listen to or chat with anyone because he can divert his patients's attention by jamming molds or cotton in their mouths. He can also put them to sleep with a hefty dose of nitrous oxide.

What redeems this character, Bertram Pincus, is a relationship that puts a smile on his face—something that dentists always say they can do for others. A misogynistic fellow in his mid-forties, Bertram "dies" while undergoing an otherwise routine colonoscopy (his "death" is not being the fault of his sprightly doctor (Kristen Wiig)). He is brought back to life and is thereafter able to see a myriad of walking poltergeists, who are not scary in a Halloween way, but scary in how they can constantly interfere with the poor guy's privacy (PRIH visy as he would say). Bertram's life is turned around by the ghost of Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), an adulterer who cannot rest in peace until he can effect a breakup of his widow Gwen's (Tea Leoni) alliance with a lawyer whom he (Frank, the dead ex-husband) says is out for Gwen's money. In return for Frank agreeing to leave him (mostly) in peace, Bertram takes on the task of turning Gwen off to the attorney, but (of course) Bertram falls in love with the woman himself.

Many critics have problems with Capra-esque movies, the feel-good dramas that bring tears of delight to the eyes of audience members. But, I was charmed throughout—first by the yuks arising from his colonoscopy preparation, then by the comic talents of Greg Kinnear as he convincingly works his wiles on the dentist and finally by the closure that satisfies not only Frank, but also satisfies several others ghosts who have have also told Bertram about their needs, needs that must also be addressed before they too can be released to a better place.

Adding to the picture's captivating quality is that it's filmed in New York, largely in Central Park. Ghost Town is a billet-doux to the world's greatest city. But the world's greatest city is also a place where a large proportion of the eight million residents have problems that prevent them from moving to better times right here on earth. The sort of pic that usually pops up around Thanksgiving or Christmas, but it has carved out a nice niche right now in September.

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

Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky

Mike Leigh’s
Opens Friday October 10, 2008

Miramax Films
Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Written by Mike Leigh
Starring: Sally Hawkins; Eddie Marsan; Alexis Zegerman; Sylvestra Le Touzel; Stanley Townsend; and Kate O’Flynn.

Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake) has created another wonderful film world and this time he has left the world of adoption secrets and illegal abortions to enter the world of happiness. And this world of happiness revolves around one unforgettable character Poppy (played by Sally Hawkins), an eternally optimistic London grade school teacher.

Here is a quote from the Happy press release: “In the effervescent new comedy from director Mike Leigh (Vera Drake, Secrets & Lies), Sally Hawkins stars as the unforgettable Poppy, an irrepressibly free-spirited school teacher who brings an infectious laugh and an unsinkable sense of optimism to every situation she encounters as a single woman in London. When Poppy’s commuter bike is stolen, she signs up for driving lessons with Scott (Eddie Marsan), who turns out to be her polar opposite – a fuming, uptight cynic who takes himself extremely seriously. As the tension of their weekly lessons builds, Poppy’s story takes alternately hilarious and serious turns -- careening from flamenco classes to first dates--becoming a touching, truthful and deeply life-affirming exploration of one of the most mysterious and often the most elusive of all human emotions: happiness.”

When we first see Sally, her bike has been stolen. But this loss does not get our heroine down, she uses the lack of a bicycle as an impetus to sign up for driving lessons. Then she goes home where she makes some hysterical masks for take to her school. And life continues to serve up life’s problems to our heroine. She sees a student bullying another student and instead of cracking down on the bully, she investigates to find out what is happening at the child’s home that is making him so aggressive. And by doing so, she meets a really hot social worker. She sees a homeless man under a railroad overpass and she stops to talk to him, showing absolutely no fear.

But it is the driving lessons that really test Sally. Her driving instructor (played by the excellent Eddie Marsan) is that kind of man that would make most sane people hire a new instructor after the first five minutes. But not our heroine, she optimistically assumes that she can win him over and perseveres against all odds. But nothing she does makes a difference with Scott and in the end, Sally has to give up. But even having to quit her lesson does not get her down; she still thinks about what might be best for Scott.

Mike Leigh has made a beautiful film. And it is the type of film that made me want to sit down after I saw it and talk about happiness. Abraham Lincoln is famously quoted as saying that, "Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." Is being happy a talent like an aptitude for math? Are we simply born with our capacity to be happy? There is the age-old question: Why do some people, who have little reason to rejoice, stay basically happy anyway and why do others, who seemingly have every reason to be happy, live their lives with so little happiness? And why is it so much fun to watch a character like Poppy simply be happy?

Sally Hawkins was the winner of the Best Actress Award at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival for Happy-Go-Lucky. Happy-Go-Lucky was also an official selection at the upcoming 2008 Toronto and New York Film Festivals.

Vadim Glowna's
House of the Sleeping Beauties (Das Haus der schlafenden Schonen)
Opens Friday November 14, 2008

Written By: Vadim Glowna from Yasunari Kawabata's novella
Starring: Vadim Glownal; Angela Winkler; Maximilian Schell; Birol Uriel; Mona Glass; Marina Weis; Benjamin Cabuk; and Peter Luppa.
First Run Features
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

Vadim Glowna's film, adapted from a Japanese story, might remind theater-goers of Joseph Kesselring's play, Arsenic and Old Lace, a play about some dotty women who take in lonely old men as boarders with a plan to put them out of their misery; they check in, but they don't check out. An older woman in House of the Sleeping Beauties takes in lonely old men for the night, but they do check out--most of the time. This film is what feminist critics might call a disgusting male fantasy, but those who have more of an appreciation of the psychology of eroticism might appreciate this film even though it lacks the humor of Kesselring's play. But then again Arsenic and Old Lace was certainly devoid of eroticism. So, what do you like: laughs or sex?—not that they are mutually exclusive by any means. Das Haus der schlafenden Schoenen embraces the stereotypical German film style: heavy, ponderous, and lyrical, with nary a smile in its 99 minutes.

The Japanese novella that inspired this film opens with a forty-year-old woman's warning, "You are not to do anything in bad taste. You must not put your finger into her mouth or do anything of that sort."

Madame (Angela Winkler), the woman in Glowna's film version is in her sixties—close to the age of the character of Edmond (writer-director Vadim Glowna).

House of the Sleeping Beauties is lyrical, the equivalent in music of a tone poem and in theater parlance of a chamber piece, albeit one with the frequent symbol of flocks of birds flying away, as though departing from this very life. Edmond is in his late sixties but looks and acts ten years older; he is out of shape with his perpetual blank expression and stuffy wardrobe, walking slowly, ponderously throughout. He is a sad man, lonely and guilt-ridden since the death of his wife and daughter fifteen years earlier in a motor accident that Edmond conjectures was suicide. When Kogi (Maximilian Schell), his best friend, advises him of a house in which guests are allowed to sleep next to naked virgins, Ed's all-ears, with an even added excitement when he learns that the woman are asleep per Madame's injections the entire time and upon awakening would remember nothing of what occurred with the guests.

The thriller motif enters when Edmond discovers a corpse being loaded into a car, but this German celluloid is in no way like the typical American nail-biter. The plot meanders slowly forward, evoking audience curiosity without contributing to an unhealthy rise in blood pressure—though the sight of naked female bodies caressed by an old, chain-smoking lecher might arouse erotic impulses (from most of us men) or disgust (from feminists).

Glowna, who turns in a skillful performance as a man wishing for death, one who cannot even fathom the interest a non-comatose woman like his secretary (Mona Glass) has in him, succeeds in creating a piece that could easily be put on a small stage (absent the constant flights of birds). This film is for lovers of the works of Ingmar Bergman, particularly the Swedish director's film Jungfrukallan with its meditations on life, death, revenge, religion and peace.

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

Philippe Claudel's
I've Loved You So Long
(Il y a longtemps que je t'aime)
Opens Friday: October 24, 2008

Written By: Philippe Claudel

Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas; Elsa Zylberstein; Serge Hazanavicius; Laurent Grevill; Frederic Pierrot; Claire Johnston; Jean-Claude Arnaud

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

In the press notes, writer-director Philippe Claudel—who is a prolific novelist as well as a regisseur—states that in his film "some people will see the story of two sisters trying to become close…others more interested in the theme of incarceration….Some will focus on the rebirth of a woman, while others will watch the life of a family confronted with unspoken, dark secrets." As with many good novels and films, I've Loved You So Long has enough complexity to lead audience members to have multiple interpretations, differences of opinion as to which theme is primary and which are corollary. The film, known in its original French title Il y a longtemps que je t'aime—too generic to be appropriate to an otherwise solid work—is also a platform for the enormous acting talent of Kristin Scott Thomas, whose character, Juliette, is known to be half English and half French and who speaks French fluently with a British accent. Thomas, who delivered a stunning performance in Anthony Minghella's 1996 pic The English Patient, shows all the symptoms of a rebirth: we see her without makeup, in drab clothing, nervously chain-smoking upon her release from a prison in or near the Eastern French city of Nancy.

Juliette, convicted fifteen years previously for the crime of killing her young son, has destroyed a good part of her life and that of her sister, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), who seems outwardly happy in her marriage to Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) but who deep down is has been affected by her sister's crime. She had rarely visited Juliette in prison but continues to love her "so long," later becoming instrumental in helping Juliette shed her silent withdrawal from life.

Like Chris Eska's movie August Evening, I've Loved You Do Long avoids melodrama, though with two exceptions, one outburst coming from Lea in the college course she is teaching in which she accuses Dovstoyevsky, no less, of having no personal knowledge of a real murderer. Otherwise, director Claudel takes us through mundane events,visualizing a ladder for Juliette to climb from her understandable guilt feelings about her deed to a reconciliation with Lea and a readiness to become a fully functioning woman.

Roadblocks are in Juliette's way. One potential employer throws her out upon not because she is an ex-con—he already knows that she was away for fifteen years—but because of her specific crime. Yet another comes to her rescue by a willingness to offer her a three-week trial toward receiving a permanent contract on a new job, something one doubts would be likely here in the United States. Lea's husband Luc is not at all pleased that his wife is allowing Juliette to settle into their quarters—never mind that Luc is keeping his own father, speechless because of a stroke, as a permanent resident. A guest at a dinner party threatens to expose Juliette's crime by baiting her about her silence. Her mother (Claire Johnston) is in a nursing home with Alzheimer's, pushing her daughter away with hostile invectives.

On the other hand, aside from the support of a sister, Juliette receives the attentions of one of Lea's colleagues at the college, Michel (Laurent Grevill), a man who has had his own disappointments years back. Similarly, Juliette's probation officer, Capitaine Faure (Frederic Pierrot), takes her under his wing, a man with his own cross to bear.

While Ms. Zylberstein does a decent job as the supportive sister, she is outclassed by Thomas's subtle performance as a woman who at first looks ready to give up on life but is nursed to emotional health by the good people on her side.

Not Rated. 117 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Hunter Hill & Perry Moore’s
Lake City
Opens Friday, November 21, 2008

Starring: Sissy Spacek; Troy Garity; Rebecca Romijn; Dave Matthews; Drea de Matteo; Colin Ford; and Keith Carradine

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

There are two completely different films being force-cut into one in Lake City, written and directed by Hunter Hill and Perry Moore. The first is a deeply affecting domestic drama about the psychological and spiritual damage a family tragedy has on a mother and a son many years after the fact. The second is a cliché-ridden, badly executed crime thriller about stolen drugs and one-dimensional bad guys. The fact that the former is able to eclipse, if not eradicate, the latter is a tribute to a handful of sharp and absorbing performances that overcome the defects of the screenplay and direction.

The basic plot finds Billy (Troy Garity) on the run with the son of his drug-addict girlfriend. He is forced to return home to his mother (Sissy Spacek) and confront certain demons from the family past.

Spacek, who should have won her second Oscar a few years back for her searing turn in In the Bedroom, delivers a complex raw portrayal of a mother living with the worst kind of guilt. Her Maggie is an atypical survivor who manages to continue her life despite it’s low lows. She’s a ‘steel magnolia’ born more out of sheer will than necessity. It’s the type of dynamic work that could get her that seventh nomination.

As Billy, her troubled but redeemable son, Garity shows great vulnerability and screen charisma. In a heartbreaking confrontation near the end of the film, Spacek and Garity take us to a very real and disturbing place. (I couldn’t help but wonder what he and his mother, Jane Fonda, would have done with the scene or a scene like it—perhaps one day they will work together and we will we find out.)

The film could have used more scenes like the one just mentioned where the writing and direction had a powerful restraint.

Rebecca Romijn impresses as the local law with a deep connection to Billy. Keith Carradine and David Matthews (yes, songster Dave Matthews!) provide brief but sterling support. Drea DeMatteo tears things up in a tiny but potent cameo. And young Colin Ford does excellent work as a boy caught up in a lot of adult mess.

And speaking of mess, the chief problem with Lake City lies in it’s laughable and unnecessary drug plot, with a denoument so ridiculous and amateurishly done it provoked unintentional laughter at the press screening I attended. I have a hope that the directors will go back and rethink/recut the film and reduce the crime crap drastically because what would remain is a moving and incisive film about communication, forgiveness and salvation.

Peter Sollett's
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
Open Friday, October 3, 2008

Written By: Lorene Scafaria, from Rachel Cohn & David Levithan's novel

Starring: Michael Cera; Kat Dennings; Aaron Yoo; Rafi Gavron; Ari Graynor; Alexis Dziena; Zachary Booth; and Jay Baruchel

Reviewed by Bryan Close

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
is a plodding comedy that largely wastes two engaging performances by Michael Cera and Kat Dennings in the title roles.

Here's the pitch: Nick, the charmingly dorky bass player in a mostly gay rock band, is heartbroken after having been dumped by Tris. He obsessively makes CD mixes, which he sends her, she throws away, and poor little rich girl Norah rescues from the garbage, because…. He makes the best mixes ever! Nick and Norah meet cute on the Lower East Side and head out into the night in Nick's beat up yellow Yugo (Get it? It's a beat up yellow Yugo!) to find the secret gig of their favorite band, Where's Fluffy.

Nick gets his bandmates to take home Norah's sloppy drunk friend Caroline (the excellent Ari Graynor), whom they immediately lose. So they all call off the search for Fluffy, and go looking for Caroline. She shouldn't be that hard to find – she's got to be somewhere in Manhattan. Or New Jersey. Or Brooklyn... Meanwhile, Nick deals with his perfectly horrible ex, Tris (it is impossible to believe that either of these two was ever attracted to the other for a second), and Norah deals with her almost-as-horrible sometimes ex, Tal, who is using her – she figures out tonight, after three years – to get access to her rich and famous record producer dad.

The movie is essentially high concept – Some Kind of Wonderful meets After Hours – dressed up to look like a soulful indie. (One nice hat tip to the genre is a no-line cameo by Kevin Corrigan. There was a rule in the 90s that you couldn't make an independent film without putting Kevin Corrigan in it. It was a good rule.)

Peter Sollett's
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
Open Friday, October 3, 2008

Written By: Lorene Scafaria, from Rachel Cohn & David Levithan's novel

Starring: Michael Cera; Kat Dennings; Aaron Yoo; Rafi Gavron; Ari Graynor; Alexis Dziena; Zachary Booth; and Jay Baruchel

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

At first sight, you might conclude that Peter Sollett's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is strictly for the high-school crowd, particularly those who go to prep schools and other private halls of academe. In my thirty-two years of teaching in public high schools I never met kids who talked the way these fellows and gals do—articulate and mature (well their talk is mature if not always their actions). In other words the movie seems directed toward those who like Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, but without all the cynicism. The two principals, the title figures, are fairly uncomplicated and sweet—there's not much Holden Caulfield in them. When you consider that one of them, Norah, has a dad who runs a major recording studio and is destined to attend Brown University right after high-school graduation, you know that they're not students in the Big Apple's typical, public institutions.

On second sight, though, director Sollett, using a screenplay by Lorene Scafaria adapted from Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's novel of the same name (only $7.99 on, our own, older memories are being prodded back to the time we spent one magical night with a person and during the course of a few hours have had a potential relationship morph from vague hostility to outright love. This sounds like something out of the movie playlist that would include Richard Linklater's Before Sunset, a film about two people, Jesse and Celine, who have not seen each other for nine years, rekindling their relationship within a single day.

What is unusual is that none of these high-school seniors take drugs, only one gets drunk habitually, and the only vulgar note is struck by the intoxicated one who barfs into a toilet, then reaches into the water to pick up the phone and the gum that she dropped therein. There's not much of a story in the conventional sense. Instead Nick and Norah is a loosely scripted tale of how music—rather than drugs or extended friendship—leads two people recovering from hurts to feel love, puppyish or otherwise.

As Nick, the now-becoming-ubiquitous 20-year-old Michael Cera (Superbad) is a low-key charmer who is not the most successful Romeo in his school. He is left out of some of the fun because he is always himself. He does not put on acts and appears to accept whatever comes his way with more equanimity than most of his peers. He is hurting from being dumped by Tris (Alexis Dziena), a bimbo who fixes her empty charms back on Nick only because she sees him with another girl, Norah (Kat Dennings, The Forty Year Old Virgin). The only way Norah knows Nick is from the mixes he churns out for Tris, which the latter regularly dumps into the trash only to be picked up by Norah. (Note: a mix is a combination of songs that kids nowadays put together on CDs with a playlist for each delineating what's on the disk—sometimes expressing the feeling that one has for the recipient.)

Nick and Norah do seem made for each other, as Norah has been dating a fellow (Jay Baruchel) who merely uses her to get to her father's influence in the record industry, while Nick is disappointed in love with a woman who tries to seduce him only out of jealousy. During the night in Manhattan, particularly around St. Marks Place in East Village, the two look for Norah's unpleasant, drunk friend, Caroline (Ari Graynor) but more important are determined to find "Where's Fluffy," a band that holds the locations of its concerts secret.

The movie has the ambiance of John Carney's critically applauded Once, in which a busker and an immigrant learn to love each other during a week of making music. As we all know, New York is the world's most exciting city. Yet Tom Richmond's photography around midtown and even in the scruffy East Village makes the Apple look like Paris-on-the-Hudson. The pic leaves one with a good feeling about two 18-year-olds and Nick's unusual friends (all of Nick's band members are gay except him). If you're over the age of fifty, the film may not be your cuppa—unless you have the imagination that takes you back to one night decades ago that you fell in love.

Rated PG-13. 90 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Patrik-Ian Polk's
Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom
Opens Friday, October 24, 2008

A Different Happily Ever After:
Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom

Starring: Darryl Stephens; Jenson Atwood; Jason Steed; Gary Leroi Gray; Christian Vincent; and Rodney Chester.

Reviewed by William S. Gooch

It is often said that the only constant in life is change and that change does not come without struggle. In Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom gay African American couples take a long, hard look at what it takes to maintain a relationship and if that struggle is worth the effort. Creator Patrik-Ian Polk uses the ‘Pandora Box’ of gay marriage as a jumping-off point to discuss a plethora of issues relevant to gay and straight couples. Polk brilliantly demonstrates in this feature film that same sex couples have the same issues around trust, monogamy, career, and friendship as heterosexual couples. And that what is most important at the end of the day is having knowledge of self and staying true to one’s convictions.

In Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom, Noah (Darryl Stephens) and Wade (Jenson Atwood) travel with their friends to Wade’s parents’ summer home in Martha’s Vineyard to have a private marriage ceremony. Noah’s friends doubt the viability of Wade and Noah’s union while grappling with their own relationship issues. Things get complicated when Baby Gat (Jason Steed)—a British hip-hop artist who has a jones for Noah—shows up unexpectedly. Polk also cleverly inserts a trickster character (Brandon, played by Gary Leroi Gray) in the film. (The trickster character—a remnant of medieval dramas as well as West African folk tales—tests and pushes the main characters of a story or play to some universal truth.) True to form, Brandon creates drama between the couples causing them to re-evaluate their commitment. As the grain of sand in the oyster, Brandon also confronts issues and asks questions that the others are not quite brave enough to ask.

As Noah, Darryl Stephens brings the inimitable wit and charm that made his character popular on the Logo series Noah’s Arc. In Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom we see a mature Noah not saddled with the indecisive bad choices of the Noah from the series. And the lovemaking scenes between Noah and Wade are probably the most tenderly romantic scenes in the history of gay filmmaking.

Jenson Atwood has also added more layers to the character of Wade. This is a more confident Wade, who though still having trust issues with Noah is willing to stay the course. Polk employs dialogue that shows Wade’s vulnerability and maturity in a way that did not completely come across in the series.

Other standouts in the cast are Christian Vincent (Ricky) and Rodney Chester (Alex). Polk positions Alex as the well-meaning drama queen who is on the verge of an amphetamine-induced nervous breakdown. And Polk opens up Ricky more to feelings of uncertainty and longing.

Although gay marriage is the premise for Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom, Polk uses gay marriage as a proscenium to frame much larger issues that we all struggle with. Never politicizing the issue, Polk unapologetically presents the possibility that gay men of color can love each, commit to each other, and create their happily ever after.

Jeanne Moreau and Hippolyte Girardot in Amos Gitai's
One Day You'll Understand (Plus tard)

Amos Gitai's
One Day You'll Understand (Plus tard)
Opens October 31, 2008

Written By: Marie Jose Sanselme, Amos Gitai, story by Dan Franck, Jerome Clement based on Jerome Clement's book

Starring: Jeanne Moreau; Hippolyte Girardot; Emmanuelle Devos;and Dominique Blanc

Kino International

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Grade: C

Faded colors, an irritating, repetitious clarinet theme on the soundtrack, and generally inert performances add up to a movie lacking cinematic appeal. Amos Gitai's One Day You'll Understand would look better on the stage of a small theater or on cable TV than on the big screen. Not that Gitai is anything but well-meaning. The Haifa-born, 58-year-old Israeli filmmaker, whose helicopter was shot down by a Syrian missile during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, is perhaps best noted for his fictional film Kippur, which is based on that incident. The occurrence led Gitai to quit architecture as a profession and become a filmmaker. That film, which evokes the grueling chaos of war, does not prepare us for the inertia that surrounds Plus tard.

Spoken in French with English subtitles, One Day You'll Understand, whose title sets us up for a large secret that an aging character finally reveals, ultimately disappoints in that the "secret" is hardly earth-shaking. Jeanne Moreau takes a principal role as Rivka, who delays explaining to her Catholic-raised son Victor Bastien (Hippolyte Girardot) the mysteries surrounding a declaration of Aryan status by Rivka's now deceased husband during France's Vichy regime of the early 1940's. Gitai's shift to the 1980's broadcast of high-ranking Nazi Klaus Barbie's trial in France for wartime atrocities jogs Victor's memories and curiosity. Victor, his wife Francoise (Emmanuelle Devos) and two teen children travel to a village where Rivka's parents hid out without success from the Nazi puppet government. (A long tracking shot shows the man and woman dancing gracefully in better times.)

Much of the time we in the audience must watch Victor, who appears clinically depressed even when sharing an evening meal with his mom. Rivka does all she can to deflect Victor's probing about his family ancestry.

Moreau is a consummate performer bogged down with a languorous script. The interminable dialogue, for which French films are famous, combines with some of the most annoying clarinet music on the soundtrack, to yield a film that could make us yearn for the old Gitai, particularly for a new look at his grueling Kippur.

Not Rated. 94 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Marc Forster's
Quantum of Solace

Opens Friday November 14, 2008

Written By: Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis

Starring: Daniel Craig; Olga Kurylenko; Mathieu Amalric; Judi Dench; Giancarlo Giannini; Gemma Arterton; and Jeffrey Wright

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

James Bond has a split personality, the first character an urbane, sophisticated fellow who can beat the speed of any Starbucks barista in making cappuccino and who likes his martinis shaken, not stirred; the second one, a cold Robocop type of fellow with enough charm to wow the women but likely to drink Folger's freeze-dried coffee with half-and-half and sugar and take his alcohol as straight Scotch.

Gaze at the posters made for the 1963 From Russia With Love and you'll find Bond, played by Sean Connery, with a smile on his face, a simple gun in his hand, and a couple of women discreetly in the background. Now check out the poster for Quantum of Solace and you'll locate a blue-eyed, no-nonsense agent with a machine gun in his palm, looking as though he has to go to the men's room but is ashamed to tell his squeeze. You can tell whether a person is over 40 or under that age by asking which Bond is preferred. The older people will opt for Sean Connery's characterization, the younger, for Daniel Craig's. I'll vote with the older crowd.

It would be nice to say at the very least that Marc Forster's Quantum of Solace is a victory of style over substance. However there's little of either on display, despite an array of locations from Siena, Italy, to Colon, Panama that stands in for the capital of Haiti. To keep up with political correctness, there have not been any bimbos in recent Bond vehicles: the beautiful Olga Kurylenko, who comes from Ukraine, no exception. But heck, can't be have a few double entendres, some more skin within PG-13 limitations, a Bond who is vulnerable enough to be captured and almost killed? How about a villain made believable by stroking a white cat while addressing "Mr. Bond"? There is, however, a convoluted story that occasionally peeks out from the car chases, the boat chases, the horses on exhibit in Siena, the jumping from roof to roof while smashing glass ceilings without harm to life and limb. Can we have a bad guy whose eyes blink even once rather than a short, scrawny Mathieu Amalric, slumming here after his great performance last year in The Divine Bell and the Butterfly, where ironically he does nothing BUT blink in the role of a paralyzed magazine executive?

Daniel Craig, who will hopefully dazzle us in the upcoming movie Defiance, about a group of Jews during the 1940s who fought back against the Nazis, is forgettable in Quantum, a tale that finds Bond immersed in conflict with both his boss, M (Judi Dench, once again trying to rein in her favorite agent for killing the wrong people) and with Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), aptly named as he comes off as an ecological hero but who instead compels Medrano (Joaquin Cosio) to cede him his country's desert land in return for financing his coup with a trunk full of Euros. (We hear something about Greene's desire to control the region's water, not oil, but blink once and you'll miss the reason.)

There's nothing here that we don't find in scores, nay, hundreds of action-adventure pics. Three scripters could not make the plot less cloudy—Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade)—but maybe producer Barbara Broccoli could get more sense and subsequent audience interest if instead she hired the writers for Jay Leno's Tonight Show. Even the occasional subtitles for some spoken Italian, Spanish and Creole and the occasional appearance of the great stage actor, Jeffrey Wright, in the role of a CIA agent who might be in cahoots with the thugs, cannot hide the fact that Quantum of Solace simply does not raise the pulse, provide irony or wit, or deliver the goods that Bond conveyed at an increasingly distant time in the past.

Rated PG-13. 106 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Jonathan Demme's
Rachel Getting Married
Opens Friday, September 3, 2008

Starring: Anne Hathaway; Rosemarie DeWitt; Mather Zickel; Bill Irwin;
Anna Deavere Smith; Anisa George; Emma Tunde Adebimpe; and Debra Winger

Reviewed by Allison Ford

Anne Hathaway is great in Rachel Getting Married. It's just too bad that her character doesn't inhabit a better movie.

Hathaway is raw, awkward, and confrontational as Kym, a recovering addict who returns home to attend her older sister's wedding. Her presence stirs up long-suppressed emotions and family tragedy, all in the midst of a joyous wedding weekend in which Kym feels out of place and disconnected.

Director Jonathan Demme's (Silence of the Lambs) vision for the film was that it should evoke "the most beautiful home movie ever made." It is shot on location, and the grainy, hand-held camerawork follows the actors as they improvise and stage scenes with little rehearsal or preparation. While purporting to offer a more authentic and natural way to make films, the problem with this organic, unrehearsed style is that it is all too easy to lose any sense of plot or dramatic tension. The scenes meander along, sometimes becoming interesting, but often not. There's just not much that propels the film forward. The cast, which includes not only Hathaway but also screen legend Debra Winger, does their best to insert some urgency into scenes where meaningful glances and snarky insults substitute for a plot, but many moments just hang suspended in time, with nothing to anchor them to the story. Demme's idea of creating an intimate home movie is admirable, but he forgets that most people don't particularly enjoy watching other people's home movies.

The wedding itself is a mélange of multiculturalism and politically correctness. Demme uses real friends and family as extras in order to create the illusion of a shared emotional experience. At first it seems that Demme is making a statement by juxtaposing the harshness of Kym with the saccharine ridiculousness of an interracial couple from Connecticut getting married in a Hindi ceremony surrounded by Brazilian dancers and new-age chanters, but as the film progresses, it becomes obvious that he's serious. The extras quickly grow wearisome as they give long-winded congratulatory speeches, dance to world music, and engage in various other displays of kumbaya togetherness. The film was more interesting when Kym was a dysfunctional fish out of water amidst the lovefest. Once she joins in, the film loses much of its edge. Extended sequences of dancing and singing are interminable. If this is what Kym had to put up with her whole life, we begin to understand why she used so many drugs.

Demme doesn't use any soundtrack for the film, but rather prominently features real musicians as wedding performers. There are always random violinists, sitar players, and ululating singers lounging about in every scene, providing a sort of live soundtrack, but they often take over, distracting the audience from the emotional urgency of the film. The music is nice enough, but it's difficult to see where it fits in with the story. At times, it seems like the whole point of Rachel Getting Married is just to showcase the director's musician friends.

The dynamic of Kym and her family is stilted and difficult, and their history includes a momentous tragedy. The film would have been more interesting had it focused on the 'I –love-you-I-hate-you' relationships between Kym, her sister, her mother, and her father, who can't seem to make up their mind how they feel about each other. Those complicated relationships are the truest things in the movie; people's feelings that change from moment to moment. But trying to find some resolution between them, especially when Kym asks "Did I give up my right to any amount of love?" would have proved to be more satisfying. As it is, Kym's many attempts at atonement and reconciliation go ignored, especially by her sanctimonious sister. The film's few tense moments aren't worked out; they're immediately abandoned for more belly-dancing.

Admirably, the film isn't afraid of creating unlikable characters, and there are plenty to choose from. The problem, though, isn't that the characters are flawed and difficult – the problem is that it's hard to care. It's hard to muster up any amount of sympathy for anyone, save Kym, an interesting, tempestuous, and human character. Anne Hathaway is a fine actress who's obviously not afraid of getting messy. Her nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of a woman struggling to get by deserves a far better story than the rambling, haphazard "home movie" she is forced to exist within

Larry Charles'
Opens October 3, 2008

Written By: Bill Maher
Starring: Steve Burg; Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda; Bill Maher; Andrew Newberg.

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

There may be no atheists in foxholes, but you could hardly say that Bill Maher, one of the America's most celebrated stand-up comedians, is bogged down in such uncomfortable and fearful surroundings. Maher lets it all hang loose and makes fun of some of the people he interviews in Religulous (a combination of "religion" and "ridiculous"), but generally he laughs at them after he has left them and is looking at the film stock in the comfort of the editing room.

Maher, born of a Roman Catholic father and Jewish mother, did not know until his teens about his mom's religious background. Brought up Catholic, at some point in his life he became a doubter.

Maher both scripted and took a starring role in Religulous. Under the direction of Borat director Larry Charles, he comes off sometimes as an atheist and other times as an agnostic. In the concluding moments, for example, he berates those who "know" what is going to happen to us after we die, stating that he, Maher, doesn't know and others do not have higher mental processes than he—which would tag him as an agnostic, or one who "doesn't know." But mostly throughout the film he laughs at so-called miracles that are reported to him by his many subjects, ridiculing the idea of a talking snake or a man who lived for three days inside a whale.

Religulous puts Maher in Michael Moore country, as a documentarian who does not take himself with dead seriousness except when he expresses fears about nuclear annihilation. This makes for grand entertainment without loss of enlightenment, though one might cavil that his frequently interrupting his subjects shows him to be intolerant of people he looks upon as religious nuts. Detractors could say that perhaps he is not such a great interviewer, but a sensible reason is that he wanted to keep the film moving at a rapid clip. While the documentary does not cohere as well as almost everything that Michael Moore put his stamp on—it will come off to some viewers as a series of Saturday Night Live skits— Religulous is a lot of fun, with several laugh-out-loud moments. One moment which is more embarrassing (to me) than comical takes place in Orlando, Florida, where a religious theme park draws tourist with digital cameras who photograph Christ's march with a huge cross to Calvary.

Interviewing a diverse group from assorted parts of the world—Mormons in Salt Lake, Muslims in Jerusalem, Jews in Monsey, New York, Catholics in the Vatican, Protestants in Amsterdam—Maher puts together a collage of individuals, the great majority of whom are devout, some going so far as to accept and even embrace the idea that Jesus will return as The Second Coming, even knowing the place of arrival (Megiddo, Israel). While Maher obviously has little use for religious piety, he is rightfully afraid of those who are martyrs to their faith—citing the 9/11 catastrophe, an array of suicide bombings, a fatwa, or death-threat against Salman Rushdie for writing an critique of the Prophet Mohammed.

Maher is certain that Jesus was not a Jewish carpenter, as some auto bumper stickers suggest. "A Jewish carpenter," quips Maher? "Jews HIRE carpenters."

Most amusing is director Larry Charles's use of a collection of archival films to punctuate Maher's points - some are edited clips of religious films going back to the silent era which last two seconds, others, not much longer, are examples of hilarious kitsch. For the most part Maher acts in a friendly manner, coaxing stumbling responses from some who put themselves into foxholes of their own choosing. Among the most arrogant (but in a comical way) is Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, a preacher with a following of 100,000, who claims that he is the second coming of Christ. Senator Mark Pryor of Alabama, an evangelical, took away Maher's punch line when he said that admission to a senate seat does not require an I.Q. test. Pryor believes—and hopes for—the end of this world (aside: some pundits think the end of the world will arrive if the House of Representative does not pass the Bush bailout bill). And this suicidal legislator is a Democrat. What must Republicans think?

The movie is framed by Maher's stance in Megiddo, which will purportedly be the center of Armageddon at the end of the world. In the final couple of minutes, Bill Maher becomes serious (miracles do happen after all) warning non-believers, at least in America where they form sixteen percent of the population, to stand up and be heard. Be my guest: not everyone can afford a bodyguard as Maher can.

Rated R. 101 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Darren Lynn Bousman’s
Repo! The Genetic Opera
Opens November 7, 2008

Written By: Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich
Starring: Anthony Stewart Head; Alexa Vega; Paul Sorvino; Terrance Zdunich; Bill Moseley; Nivek Ogre; Paris Hilton; and Sarah Brightman.

Lionsgate/ Twisted Pictures

Reviewed by William S. Gooch

Rocky Horror for the XX Generation

When I was a junior in college a bunch of friends dragged me to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Being sober and out of costume, The Rocky Horror Picture Show didn’t excite or make me laugh. I only enjoyed seeing my inebriated friends have a good time mimicking Frankenfurter and Magenta. Only later when I loosed up and began to understand camp did I truly appreciate Rocky Horror for the enduring cult classic it is.

An appreciation for camp, slasher movies, and theatre of the absurd is a prerequisite for stomaching Repo: The Genetic Opera. Starring Paul Sorvino, Sarah Brighton, Alexa Vega, Anthony Stewart-Head, and Paris Hilton, Repo: The Genetic Opera weaves a tale of betrayal, family dysfunction, and organ repossession. Yea, you heard me right the first time, organ repossession!!

Set in the not so distant future, an epidemic of organ failure causes people to buy organ transplants on credit. If monthly payments are missed, transplants are repossessed by an entrails-gutting Repo Man. Only a Chicago slaughterhouse or a down home hog killing has more gore and chopped carcasses than the organ repossession scenes.

As the aging CEO of GeneCo, the biotech firm that offers organ transplants, Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino) is conflicted about who should inherit GeneCo. Should he leave GeneCo to his roid-raged, carnivore sons (Ogre and Lavi), or his plastic surgery-addicted, sexpot of a daughter, Amber Sweet (Paris Hilton)? Also, Nathan (Anthony Stewart-Head), a surgeon for GeneCo, is conflicted by his desire to control his sickly teenage daughter (Alexa Vega) and his love for the vision-impaired chanteuse Blind Mag (Sarah Brighton).

Repo: The Genetic Opera’s score is a cross between 80s rocker groups Wendy Williams and the Plasmatics and Quiet Riot and the rock opera Tommy, with a sprinkling of melodies one might find in Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar or Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Most of the songs are forgettable; only “Chormaggio,” beautifully sung by Sarah Brighton, is worth noting.

One would think that this type of vehicle would give Paul Sorvino an opportunity to show off his fine, classically trained voice. Unfortunately, Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich’s monotone, workaday score doesn’t do much to highlight Sorvino’s fine instrument. As Amber Sweet, Paris Hilton gives an appropriately self-absorbed, vapid performance. Sarah Brightman is the one bright light in this film. Her clarion voice rises above the weak score, and she brings arch and conviction to her portrayal of Blind Mag.

Repo: The Genetic Opera may become a cult classic like its proverbial predecessor, Rocky Horror. It has all the right ingredients; an incredulous storyline; a few memorable songs, and campy performances. Imagine, late night showings with folks dressed up like the Repo Man!! Entirely possible.


Sarah Brightman in Repo! The Genetic Opera

Darren Lynn Bousman’s
Repo! The Genetic Opera
Opens November 7, 2008

Written By: Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich
Starring: Anthony Stewart Head; Alexa Vega; Paul Sorvino; Terrance Zdunich; Bill Moseley; Nivek Ogre; Paris Hilton; and Sarah Brightman.

Lionsgate/ Twisted Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: C

Fans of Broadway musicals tired of the same ol', the revivals, the saccharine romantic music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, may be curious about Repo! The Genetic Opera, which almost ironically, has a part for Webber favorite and former squeeze, Sarah Brightman. This is an opera all right—though the term may scare away the principal audience of midnight, cultish classics like The Rocky Horror Show. The sounds are as dissonant as you can get, perhaps even able to irritate the ears of the father of atonal Broadway musicals, Stephen Sondheim.

Repo!, which evokes the dark production style of Tim Burton, famed for such notable works as Beetlejuice, Batman Forever, and Edward Scissorhands, has the misfortune of being pitched at a high level throughout—no time for a breather, a quiet moment. Nor are the gory details prolonged for a sufficient time to get the audience either nauseated or bent over with ironic laughter. Fans of Hostel and Hostel II may find it insufficiently gory particularly since the entire picture is shot without the benefit of bright lights or with individuals for whom one might feel pity.

The drama takes place in the year 2050. one involving the macabre duties of a company called GeneCo, which is profiting from an epidemic of human organ failures. GeneCo for a price will furnish a sick individual with what is needed, whether that be a kidney, a heart, a small or large intestine, a concept may remind one of the need of three characters in the G-rated The Wizard of Oz.

Darren Lynn Bousman, equipped for the project from his background as director of Saw II, III and IV, helms scripters Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich's opera based on their stage play in L.A. The company sounds like just what the doctor ordered, except that when a patient defaults on payments (apparently none of the health plans adopted during the administration of America's forty-fourth president covers transplants), a repo man is sent to foreclose: to cut open the individual in default and reclaim the organ. A second string involves the guilt feeling of a scientist cum repo man, Nathan (Anthony Stewart Head), who believes he is to blame for his wife's death and subsequent illness of his daughter, Shilo (Alexa Vega—who looks grown up after her duties years ago in Spy Kids). At the head of GeneCo is the smirking Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino) who gives the order to repossess organs to the repo man, aided by his psychotic sons Luigi (Bill Moseley) and Pavi (Nivek Ogre).

Alexa Vega turns in a convincing performance as the one of the few innocents in the story, a seventeen-year-old eager to learn the cause of her mother's death, while Sarah Brightman almost conveys the resonance of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals in her portrayal of one Blind Mag. Paris Hilton does OK in a thankfully limited role.

The entire movie seems to have been acted out while director Bousman was taking a nap, not an easy thing to do given the riotous nature of the jarring music. For a classier choice, rent or buy the DVD of Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which has the disciplined script of John Logan and the superb sounds of Stephen Sondheim, still the stage composer par excellence in the U.S. today. Then again the whole project is apparently a spoof of the horror genre, as though to say, "What's there to criticize? We're deliberately sending up the form!"

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


Gina Prince-Bythewood
The Secret Lives of Bees
Opens October 17, 2008

Written By: Gina Prince-Bythewood, from Sue Monk Kidd's novel
Cast: Queen Latifah: Dakota Fanning; Jennifer Hudson; Alicia Keys; and Sophie Okonedo

Fox Searchlight
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

Some people are still surprised that teenagers and pre-teens show signs of depression—though Prozac and other mood-changing drugs are being prescribed for them at record numbers. Psychologists say that the root of much depression is feelings of guilt, a situation that the lead character in Gina Prince-Bythewood's The Secret Life of Bees is undergoing. She may have good reason to feel guilty since she accidentally shot her mother dead at the age of four and is being brought up by a single father who is physically abusive as he had demonstrated when his wife was packing up to run away for good.

Ms. Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) directs her film at a relaxed pace, in tune with life in South Carolina during the 1960s, with a few bursts of violence outside the home deal from white crackers' beating up a young woman on her way to register to vote and with other white racists' roughing up a young black man for sitting in a movie theater with a white teenage girl.

Female centered and likely to be called by some a chick flick, Bees follows an exodus from home of fourteen-year-old Lily (Dakota Fanning) after one more beating from her dad (Paul Bettany). With caretaker Rosaleen Daise (Jennifer Hudson) in tow, she discovers that the manufacturer of bottles of honey lives nearby. Upon introducing themselves, Lily and Rosaleen are warmly welcomed into a "Pepto-Bismol pink" house run by August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and her sisters—cellist June (Alicia Keyes) and a neurotically sensitive May (Sophie Okonedo). As Lily helps out with the bee hives, she responds to the love that has grown among the sisters and her, particularly from the counseling of the strong-willed August—who maintains that bees, like every other living thing, need love.

Adding richness to the plot are the relationship of Lily with a young black man and that of another, marriage-minded fellow with the most independent sister of the Boatwright clan. The Secret Life of Bees is as honey-sweet as Sue Monk Kidd's novel, but not cloying. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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

Danny Boyle's
Slumdog Millionaire
Opens Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Written By: Simon Beaufoy from Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A
Co-directed by Loveleen Tandan
Starring: Dev Patel; Freida Pinto; Madhur Mittal; Anil Kapoor; and Irrfan Khan

Fox Searchlight/ Warner Bros.
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: A-

Slumdog Millionaire gives us a vivid view of a country that tourists rarely see—a kaleidoscopic view of residents who live in slums the likes of which you'd not find in the poorest areas of the U.S.. The film's cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantell, aptly captures the movement and boundless energy in India's largest city, Mumbai. The result is a tension-filled, one that combines the genres of gangster movie, comedy, and romance.

Trainspotting director Danny Boyle has created a rag-to-riches tale, an epic story of a family's upward social movement. Charles Dickens surely must smile in his grave as he follows Slumdog's rich screenplay, which Simon Beaufoy adapted from Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A.

The story centers on an orphaned, uneducated waiter from Mumbai, who appears on the TV show "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" and is thrown into jail for allegedly knowing the questions in advance. Briefly put: Jamal (Dev Patel) appears on a popular TV quiz show and is asked questions that could net him up to twenty million rupees. He corectly answers such queries as "Who is the third member of Dumas' The Three Musketeers and 'Whose face is on the U.S. one hundred dollar bill?.' The moderator, Prem (Anil Kapoor), refuses to believe that an uneducated guy could know the answers and reports him to the police.

In flashbacks Jamal shows us in the audience that there is a basis for his knowledge, that book learning is not everything. Here are some of his experiences…After the child Jamal and his brother Salim lose their mother in a Hindu-Muslim riot, they, together with seven-year-old Latika (Rubina Ali), join up with a Fagin-like character who runs a school for petty criminals. The school's head is greedy and vicious enough to blind one beggar, as this would bring in double the money. Latika stays on, but Salim and Jamal run away. In exile, Jamal gains enough experiences to answer the questions on the show, but money aside, we also learn that Jamal carries a torch for his childhood sweetheart, Latika—who pops up in the move later as a beautiful young adult (Freida Pinto). Jamal is determined to find her and whisk her off into the sunset.

Wildly comedic parts are few but worth waiting for. In one scene, scores of youngsters run to a helicopter to see a noted actor, but Jamal, locked inside the outhouse by his pals, escapes by holding his nose, diving straight into the sewage, and escaping through an opening in the ground. His arrival to the actor's side clears the crowd.. In the funniest scene, Salim and Jamal become impromptu guides outside the Taj Mahal, giving tourists their own version of the background.

Filming in a city with nineteen million residents must have been a nightmare. We also wonder how the film crew got permission to clear Victoria Station to film a rousing dance during the end credits.

With its mostly non-professional actors, Slumdog Milliionaire will likely be nominated in recognition of its vivid cinematography, its grueling study of torture by police who believe Jamal is cheating, and the cruelty of adults who stop at nothing to exploit child labor—even gouging out the eyes of one unfortunate tyke. English is spoken almost throughout, but when the dialogue includes a few words of Marathi, the subtitles appear mercifully around the middle of the screen rather than at the bottom.

Rated R. 120 Minutes. © Harvey Karten Member, NY Film Critics Online


Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michelle Williams
and Tom Noonan in Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York

Charile Kaufman’s
Synecdoche, New York
Opens October 24, 2008

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman; Catherine Keener; Samantha Morton; Emily Watson; Michelle Williams; Tom Noonan; Jennifer Jason Leigh; and Diane Weist

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Spawned from the effusively imaginative mind of scripter Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York is not a movie for all tastes but for those filmgoers who appreciate an auteur’s original screen vision, this one’s a must. And a must. And a must. I suggest three viewings to begin to appreciate the work.

Kaufman received Oscar nominations for the brilliantly beguiling Being John Malkovich and the absorbing Adaptation, both directed by Spike Jonze. He won the Academy Award for the dazzling and frenetic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry. With Spike Jonze unavailable to direct, Kaufman decided to make his feature debut, with wildly mixed to successful results.

Shockingly, Synecdoche, New York begins with an almost conventional Act One. Hypochondriac Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman who does enigmatic like no one else) is a theatre director working on a radical version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman—radical, that is, for regional theatre. He lives with his cranky and restless artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener, who makes an indelible impression even though she disappears from the film way too early) and their four-year old daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein). Adele leaves Caden to pursue her passion in Germany and that propels him on a fascinating, self-reflexive artistic journey that takes him the rest of his life and beyond to figure out.

Act Two of Caden’s life involves his obsession with missing Adele, his romance with box office manager, Hazel (a fantastic Samantha Morton) and his remarriage to his leading lady (Michelle Williams). In the seemingly never-ending Act Three, Caden receives a prestigious grant and buys/rents a Hindenburgian size space to stage a work about his life. The play takes on mega-proportions, in every sense, as he begins to cast the characters in his life, who soon become characters in his life and he must then cast characters for the characters…the painting within the painting within the painting within…getting a headache yet? A marvelous headache.

In Caden’s attempt to create a pure theatre piece he falls into an artistic and psychological abyss that he never quite recovers from and this is where the film bogs down a bit.

To pour on more plot at this point would be to ruin the many psycho-cinematic joys and mind-boggling frustrations that are to be experienced and mentally tax myself in the process. And to give too many of my own interpretations would be to deprive the audience member of bringing their own analysis to this deeply personal yet cleverly universal thesis on life, love, death, depression, disease, obsession and madness. Suffice to say, for me the film questions our constant craving for meaning in everything that occurs in our lives. It’s about life imitating art and art imitating life funneled through Kaufman’s cuckoo glass-half-empty outlook. So much for my ceasing with the analysis.

Tonal shifts abound and the results are odd but sometimes incredibly poignant as in a scene between the older, dying Olive and Caden. The segment is incredibly bizarre, completely ridiculous and, yet, overwhelmingly touching. He also fucks with time in a very engaging way.

Kaufman loves to sprinkle the work with many a lunatic touch that gives the film a dream-like feel. My favorite was Hazel’s house being perpetually on fire. No explanation was given and it was sheer cinematic bliss. I wanted more of these eccentric but affecting touches.

The entire ensemble work perfectly together with Morton doing some of her most impressive work as Hazel and Emily Watson proving hilarious as the actress portraying Hazel.

Kaufman is like a depressed Federico Fellini or Woody Allen on hallucinogens. Sometimes he can be too clever for our own good (yes, OUR own good), but his cinematic insanity is always fascinating and pure and in Synecdoche, New York he leaves the viewer baffled yet exhilarated and wanting more.

Note: ‘Synecdoche’ (sih-NECK-doh-key) is a term that can mean a part used for the whole or a whole that stands for a part.


Nacho Vigalondo's
Time Crimes (Los Cronocrimenes)
Opens December 5, 2008

Written By: Nacho Vigalondo
Starring: Karra Elejalde; Candela Fernandez; Barbara Goenaga; Nacho Vigalondo; and Juan Inciarte

Magnet Releasing
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

The public finds time travel fascinating at least since Jules Verne's 20,000 League Under the Sea which predicted the later invention of the submarine. Writers of such sci-fi is are not simply telling imaginative stories: they may be making points about the state of the world in their own time while prognosticating the sort of future that will emerge, given current conditions, e.g. George Orwell's "1984. H.G. Wells' The Time Machine introduced primary school students to the world of the future in a book written with appropriate short sentences. Nacho Vigalondo's movie Timecrimes, or Cronocrimenes as it is known in its native Spain, introduces some horror in the sci-fi, but this just might be the only film of the genre that is so modest that the time traveler does not go more than a few hours into the past. By doing this, the adventurer can actually look at himself, as the 50-ish Hector (Karra Elejalde) does, with a journey that affords him even more time to feel regrets. If only he had not been peering into the woods that surrounded his spacious house in Northern Spain, as doing this allowed him to spot a comely young woman (Barbara Goenaga) taking off her clothes inexplicably. Keeping his sightiing a secret from his wife Clara (Candela Fernandez), he ambles on into the forest, which results in an identity crisis that finds him ready to commit suicide—or rather to kill two other people named Hector who look surprisingly like him.

Timecrimes virtually announces itself as a B picture with its bare-bones budget but with the ambition of titillating the audience into wondering not only what comes next, but what came before. When Hector is stabbed by a man whose head is wrapped completely inside a bandage, he escapes to a building that he somehow had never seen before, a lab in which a young, bearded scientist (Nacho Vigalondo, the writer-director) directs him to hide inside a tub filled with white liquid—somehow forgetting to tell the shlubby fellow that this is a time machine.

Timecrimes succeeds more as an intellectual exercise than the source of chills and thrills, as we in the audience try to calculate how the twists will turn out, how the movie will avoid the predictability of a guy who is reliving his own experiences from an hour or so ago and which we have all seen as well. It's allegedly slated for an American remake, which will predictably ruin it by adding heft and emphasizing the gore. The piece is well-acted except by the writer-director, Mr. Vigalondo, who is so awkward that he fails to develop chemistry with his guinea pig. Stellar editing by Jose Luis Romeu elicits the identity crisis, supported by the occasional, fright-inducing music of Eugenio Mira.

In Spanish with English subtitles.

Rated R. 89 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Oliver Stone's
Opens October 17, 2008

Written By: Stanley Weiser
Starring: Josh Brolin; Elizabeth Banks; James Cromwell; Ellen Burstyn; Thandie Newton; Jeffrey Wright; Scott Glenn; and Ioan Gruffud


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Less than three weeks remain before America will vote for the 44th President of the United States. It’s certainly the most important election in my lifetime. The last eight years have been defined by the red states decision to welcome a good ol’ boy into the White House: George W. Bush.

Controversial filmmaker Oliver Stone has decided to break even more ground by making the first film attempting to analyze an American president, while he is still in office. And while W. does delve into the psyche of Bush, it asks much deeper and vital questions—many of which can be glossed over by a surface analysis of the film.

For those looking for a salacious, scathing and obvious lambasting of Dubya, you will be disappointed. Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser are more concerned with subtlety (a striking change for Stone) and nuance. Many heated events, like the 2000 election, are barely touched on (see Recount for a docu-style recreation of that fiasco), and although we glimpse Kerry once in the film, the 2004 election goes virtually unmentioned as well.

W. attempts to probe the man, his flaws and how he came to be President. The film focuses (a bit too much) on Bush’s need for his father’s love and acceptance (a Stone film staple). We are privy to his resentment of Bush, Sr.’s feeling bad about brother Jeb’s gubernatorial loss on the day of Bush, Jr.’s victory. We are given moments that shape his character, moments that will ultimately reflect on his eventual chosen administration: Bush the frat boy; Bush the born-again Christian who hears the ‘calling’ to be President and Bush taking charge of details involving his father’s campaign (the idea of making Massachusetts murderer Willie Horton a household name--which many believe cost Dukakis the 1988 election--is attributed to Bush Jr.).

A good deal of time is devoted to Bush and his keystone cops advisors making life and death decisions about Iraq. It could be viewed as nastily satiric if it wasn’t so close to truth.

Stone theorizes that Bush’s inner circle have been the real decision makers these past eight years, a notion even the dumbest of the dumb can concur with. In a key scene where he and his cronies debate what to call North Korea, Iraq and Iran, we can see how terms like “axis of evil” came to be.

W. can rightly be called a laugh-out-loud comedy. The central character is a blundering oaf with mild aspirations that turn rabid. The film is very funny whether it’s Bush’s mispronunciations (‘Guantanamera’ instead of ‘Guantanamo’ and his using ‘misunderestimated’) or his own statements:

“ Rums, you know I don’t do nuance, it’s just not my thing.”

“Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice and…and you can’t get fooled again…”

And while the film is hilarious, it is also a dense, keen and, ironically, nuanced portrait of the man.

Josh Brolin is to be applauded for creating a character when an impersonation would have superficially sufficed. Brolin allows us to see the sincerity and earnestness of the man and how he truly tries his best. We glimpse the Freudian hurt, the petulance that gives way to ambition. His W isn’t evil. He isn’t smart enough to be evil. He isn’t stupid either, simply mediocre. It’s an amazing performance and reason enough to see the film.

The supporting performance sometimes do come off as impersonations and Saturday Night Live has raised the bar recently with Tina Fey’s brilliant and lacerating embodiment of Sarah Palin as well as Amy Poehler’s genius take on Hillary Clinton. Still, most of the actors are to be commended, especially Thandie Newton’s hilarious, scene-stealing Condoleeza Rice and Richard Dreyfuss’s terrifying and bone-chilling Dick Cheney.

Elizabeth Banks and Ellen Burstyn as Laura and Barbara Bush, respectively, have more of a difficult time since their characters aren’t given much dimension.

Stone’s use of certain patriotic songs (“Battle Hymn of the Republic, “The Yellow Rose of Texas) as well as country ditties (“Mamma Don’t Le Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys”) is extremely effective—if sometimes grating. Phedon Papamichael’s camerawork is less frenetic than Stone’s work usually demands but impressive nonetheless.

Stone, I am certain, will be slammed for his lack of a heavy-hand. How dare he not damn the bastard? How dare he actually ask the audience to sympathize with the man--to try and understand him?

But those who feel this way are blind to the larger picture that Stone is trying to paint: the American dream turned ass over tit.

Early in the film Karl Rove (Toby Jones) announces that the election will be decided by “who Joe-voter wants to sit down and have a beer with.” And that’s exactly what happened. The voters decided that a C-student should run the country. They chose a good-hearted man who was painfully unqualified to rule the greatest country in the world and then decided to blame him for his blunders.

Stone may be too clever for his own good here, in a different kind of way than he was with JFK (still one of the best films of the last thirty years). He’s chosen a quieter route; instead of slamming his audience into submission and capitulation, he’s asking them to take responsibility for their role in the mess we find ourselves in.

W. is a reminder of how our country has fallen down a destructive and mind-boggling rabbit hole. And the only people to blame for the nightmare, for the mess created by W, are the American voters.

What will we do come November? Will we decide that our next leaders must be intelligent beings who can actually foster change or will we choose a couple of self-labeled mavericks who rant and rave about change but really represent more of the same and who scream about patriotism but have trouble spelling the word?

A fascinating footnote: Forty-three years ago, both Oliver Stone and George W. Bush enrolled at Yale University. One dropped out to fight in Vietnam and then become a filmmaker. The other avoided military duty and became President of the United States.

Oliver Stone's
Opens October 17, 2008

Written By: Stanley Weiser
Starring: Josh Brolin; Elizabeth Banks; James Cromwell; Ellen Burstyn; Thandie Newton; Jeffrey Wright; Scott Glenn; and Ioan Gruffud

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

If you want one-sided polemical screeds in your political documentaries, you can't go wrong by viewing anything by Michael Moore. We go to the megaplex expecting the same from other left-liberal and conservative filmmakers, but you won't get Michael Moore in Oliver Stone. Stone, politically on the left, nonetheless gave us a fair reading on Nixon in 1995, perhaps judging that the viewers would form their impressions from actual speeches and activities of that disgraced chief executive. W. is similarly fragmented , though with not the same huge number of principal players as Stone's other biopic, yet he does not use a single member of the Nixon cast in his analysis of our current leader. In portraying Bush 43, he uses actors who try to emulate the real folks in appearance, but Stone is not as concerned with physical verisimilitude as he is with the spine of his work: a psychoanalytic portrait of George W. Bush which attempts to locate the character of the man and, in doing so, might provide us with the rationale of his decisions.

The most significant comment in the over two hours' length of W. is a paraphrase by Bush's dad of the John Greenleaf Whittier's quote, "Of all sad words of tongue or pen/ the saddest are these: It might have been.'" If George W. Bush had it all to do over again, would he have favored the same policies he endorsed during the past seven-plus years? There is no evidence that he'd change anything. After all when at a press conference a journalist asked him for what he considered his two greatest failures and got the answer, "John, that's a tough one," and proceeded to hem and haw before moving on to ignoring the next query. Not the slightest hesitation about the failed policies in Iraq and Afghanistan and the refusal to send in the government regulators until it was too late—and during his last few months in office.

There is a central problem in Oliver Stone's movie. Using Stanley Weiser's script and many exact quotes from Bush (the film came with footnotes which can be accessed on the film's promotional website), we in the audience get quite a bit of psychobabble about W.'s frustration with his dad's favoritism toward brother Jeb Bush, giving him the motivation to do one better. But we do not connect his far-right ideology with any of this. True enough, his being born-again would put him in the camp of the pro-lifers. But why the adamant stance in favor of free markets vs. government intervention (until just recently) coupled with the passion to make the Middle East, nay the world, in America's image?

There is, nonetheless, quite a bit to admire in a picture that can easily be followed by those who keep up with political events and, of course, more difficult to sort out for those who have toyed with their Playstations night and day. Josh Brolin takes on the title role of George W. Bush, an actor who had knocked out a job in another political movie In the Valley of Elah. (Political movies have not fared too well at the box office, so the forty-year-old, ruggedly handsome Brolin might be recognized more for his performances in Grindhouse and in No Country for Old Men.) In virtually every frame Brolin—now with the president's gray hair in the early days of our century, now with the black hair as a pledge for the Deek fraternity at Yale University—contrasts his early days as a drunk, a car crasher, a party animal, with his current role with a base of evangelists and teetotalers.

We are made privy from the beginning with Bush's seeking advice of his top advisors—Secretary of State Condi Rice (Thandie Newton), V-P Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), Republican strategist Karl Rove (Toby Jones), and Secretary of Defense Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright). As an example of the influence of others, the term "axis of evil" was not originated by the president but was chosen by him after some alternate titles were thrown out. Phedon Papamichael's cameras then move back to 1966 as Bush is going through a rough pledging ritual at his college fraternity, whose idea of a good time is pouring hard liquor into the mouths of pledges with a funnel as if the brothers are force-feeding geese for pate. His chemistry with his future wife, Laura (Elizabeth Banks) is palpable from the start, but the most meaty dialogue is between Bush and his dad, George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell). The forty-first president is ashamed of his boy's wild youthful antics, his arrest for drunkenness, his walking off jobs such as one he held with an oil rig. When George decides to run for Texas governor, his mom, Barbara Bush (Ellen Burstyn), recoils: "You must be joking!"

With some time given to the influence of Reverend Earle Hudd (Stacy Keach), who helps George make the transition from fraternity boy to born-again Christian, George Bush builds a base of support which helps him to launch his presidential ambition.

Stone and his scripter, Weiser, do not take us into the campaigns, as they are concerned principally with a pop-psychoanalysis of the man. This makes for a highly entertaining, albeit skimming-the-surface docudrama with strong performances not only by Brolin but especially by James Cromwell as the Connecticut Yankee to his son's more down-home Texas culture. There is particular merit as well to Richard Dreyfuss's portrayal of Dick Cheney, a Machiavellian politician like Karl Rove who is even more gung-ho for seizing continued access to oil routes around the Straits of Hormuz and who—as we could likely predict—would not be offended if we went to war with Iran. The film was shot principally in Shreveport, Louisiana, a tale that could have reached for more poetry and surrealism such as scenes of our president's playing a metaphoric centerfield in a Texas baseball stadium.

Rated PG-13. 129 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Tom Gustafson’s
Were the World Mine
Opens Friday, November 21, 2008

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

An absolutely enchanting addition to the sorely-lacking gay teen musical genre (you could argue HSM fits that one--yikes!), Tom Gustavson’s Were the World Mine blends Shakespeare with a dash of Disney and comes up with an endearing and delightful new indie that examines teen acceptance and desire with that certain gay twist.

The film’s plot is reminiscent of the off-Broadway musical Zanna Don’t, which opened a few years ago. Cute, shy Timothy (terrific newcomer Tanner Cohen) escapes the everyday bullying world of high school by lapsing into musical daydreams. He lives with his apprehensively accepting mother (Judy McLane) and has a mad crush on the star Rugby player, Jonathon (adorable and hunky Nathaniel David Becker). Timothy is soon cast as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by the wonderfully odd Ms. Tebbit (the wonderfully odd Wendy Robie) and takes it upon himself to create his own potion and turn the town into same-sex addicts.

Were the World Mine features (too few) terrific songs written by Jessica Fogle, Cory James Krueckeberg (who co-wrote the screenplay with Gustavson) and some adapted from Shakespeare.

The cast is collectively winning with Cohen and Becker making an irresistible duo. WTWM is sometimes silly, but what good fantasy musical isn’t. It’s also refreshing to see a film about young gay love made with so much heart.

Barry Levinson's
What Just Happened
Opens October 3, 2008

Written By: Art Linson, from his book "What Just Happened: Bitter Hollywood Tales From the Front Line"

Starring: Robert De Niro; Catherine Keener; Sean Penn; John Turturro; Robin Wright Penn; Stanley Tucci; Kristen Stewart; Michael Wincott; and Bruce Willis

Magnolia Pictures/ 2929 Productions
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

After I reviewed a film giving it the Rotten Tomatoes quote, "Pore Judd is Daid" (taken from a song in Oklahoma), a fanboy responded, "Judd Apatow is only the producer," ending his critique with a pejorative to take the place of my name. I replied that a producer often has more power in what goes into a movie than the director, citing both Judd Apatow (Superbad, Knocked Up) and Jerry Bruckheimer (Pearl Harbor, Black Hawk Down). While Barry Levinson is the director of What Just Happened,we might wonder how the influence got divided in that movie: whether the big guy is Mr. Levinson, whose satire Wag the Dog proved a critical and box office success, or Robert De Niro, who is listed as one of the four producers, or perhaps even Magnolia Pictures, which picked up the pic at Sundance.

We won't know the answer, but we do know how the power is divided in the production of Fiercely, a movie within this film. While some might assume that Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott), the fictional director of Fiercely,has the final word, this might be true of the director's cut which could come out months later as a DVD, but for most of What Just Happened, he has been turned into a supplicant, begging Ben (Robert De Niro) the producer, and the studio head as well, Lou Tarnow (Catherine Keener). A film that has one major twist near the conclusion, What Just Happened is a parody of the frantic, competitive Hollywood scene, the sort of satire already done best in Robert Altman's The Player, about a paranoid movie exec threatened by a screenwriter, and not so well in Russell Rosue's The Oscar, about those competing for Academy Awards.

No question: given the way the movie industry has been treated, this Magnolia Pictures entry will evoke the feeling of déjà-vu. Its bite is not particularly sharp, but given the array of A-list talent and some intermittent doses of humor, the picture goes down easy. We come away concluding that director, producer and studio head tussle for key elements in a movie while cutthroat agents might turn up anywhere, including at a funeral, to steal clients from others in the profession.

Ben, winningly played with restraint by Robert De Niro, acts as a conciliator, comforting Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott), a prima donna director who lives for art and not for money, insisting that a particularly cruel ending to his new movie Fiercely must be kept in. Since studio head Lou Tarnow (Catherine Keener) wants to soften the edges, she comes into direct confrontation with the director, while Ben serves to calm the director down in deference to the real boss. At the same time, Ben looks forward to a new film production starring Bruce Willis, and must try to get that actor to shave his ugly beard—which Willis refuses to do, insisting that it is part of his artistic integrity and identity. Ben, who is paying out $30,000 a month alimony and child support to his second wife, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), still has feelings for her and she for him after a year and one-half of divorce, which pushes them to visit a therapist each week who—in the film's most comic moments—tries to get them "to enjoy living apart so much that they will never want to be together again."

The title is not only virtually irrelevant: it does not even get a quote from any of the performers in the story. Surely a name like The Players carries more heft, just as it pushes the envelope farther than What Just Happened. Stanley Tucci turns in al wryly comic role as Scott Solomon, an agent who comes into conflict with Ben, while Sean Penn is featured in a performance of Fiercely—an actioner that finds him getting shot numerous times. All in all, a pleasant day at the movies if hardly on the cutting edge.

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

Kevin Smith's
Zack amd Miri Make a Porno
Opens Friday, November 8, 2008

Written By: Kevin Smith
Starring: Seth Rogen; Elizabeth Banks; Craig Robinson; and Jason Mewes

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

Back in our own Victorian 1950's, few girls would have sex with their dates, maybe not even with their steady boyfriends. If they did, it was not customary for women to boast of the achievement. Their mothers told them repeatedly, "Boys won't buy the cow if the milk is free" Singles believed that there were two kinds of women: those who play around, and those whom men want to marry. The logic is that if you "give away" your body, the guy to whom you "gave" it would not consider you marriage material.

Nowadays maxims like these are turned on their heads. Current theory is that people first become friends, then romantic partners, then have sex, and that final step evokes a desire for marriage. If you don't believe that, see Kevin Smith's Zack and Miri Make a Porno, about two people who are just friends, actually roommates, who would not consider themselves future marriage partners as that would ruin what they have together. When the two finally have six, bingo! The rules change. They realize at that point that they might have been in love all along. The romantic conclusion of the movie finds the guy proposing when his girl is sitting on the toilet. That may not be like dinner with champagne at New York's Per Se restaurant, but for them it's the ideal romantic touch.

Written and directed by Kevin Smith, whose Clerks and Mallrats would not be mistaken for Merchant-Ivory productions, Zack and Miri puts together a truly funny man, Seth Rogen, and a button-cute Elizabeth Banks as his roommate. As the title characters respectively, they live together platonically but their relationship is being tested by their empty pockets. Baristasas are not paid like barristers, so the Starbucks-type coffee pourers (with their lights and water turned off and eviction threatened), figured there is money to be made in porn: that citizens of Red states turn to it as much as those of us in the Blues, and that the most respected CEO staying at top hotels around the country will doubtless pay a little extra to watch porn on TV with the babes they pick up at the bar.

Assembling a crew with coffee server Delaney (Craig Robinson) as producer, Lester (Jason Mewes) as a performer, and a bevy of bubble-type bimbos in the cast, they start shooting until the shack they rented from a scammer is torn down forcing them to use the coffee shop as studio. Much of the action is not unlike what you might expect in pornos (or so I'm told), but the whole point of the movie-making is to uncover the buried romantic feelings that Zack has for his roommate, Miri.

The movie barely ekes out an "R" rating (with the emphasis on bare), the "F" word is treated as though the actors get a dollar every time they use it, and most important, the new connection that the principals have with each other for mere titillation by the audience points the way to their true feelings. Seth Rogen, again with an Afro-style cut and beard, shows himself to be one of the funniest men in the movies today, the guy who may not be Brad Pitt but who wins the affection of hotties (in the audience as well) because he makes them laugh. Elizabeth shows a depth of acting as a highly attractive woman who can play Laura Bush as well as Miri Linky. As for those critics who say that the movie is "filthy," hey—sex between consenting adults is not "filthy." Getting splashed with poop as we see in many a movie today, is. Learn the difference. As for critics who say that the two halves of the movie do not mesh, that you cannot spin a romantic story out of a sophomoric comedy, the whole point of "Zack and Miri" is that you certainly can.

Rated R. 101 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



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