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Film
What's Up For Today?

New York Cool - Ask Miss Wendy

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

 


Lance Hammer's
Ballast
Opens October 1, 2008


Written By: Lance Hammer
Starring: Michael J. Smith Sr.; Jim Myron Ross; Tarra Riggs; and Johnny McPhail


Alluvial Film Co
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

There are essentially two kinds of movies just as there are two kinds of literature, theater, TV, and radio dramas. The first kind takes us away from our daily troubles into a world of fantasy, violence, noise—all the attributes that have made producers like Jerry Bruckheimer household words among cinephiles. The other kind is gutsier, the reverse of the escapist. That type relies on images from real life, real human beings who do not live like Batman or Tom Cruise but who (especially nowadays with the economy in the tank and Wall Street sucking up savings from Main Street) embody real life. This type is ultimately the more satisfying, giving us insights into the human condition—which many people would as soon skip given their diurnal battles at home and in the workplace.

Ballast is as close a model to this second type as you can get, more indie-ish than most non-mainstream films that show their face at Cannes, Toronto, and especially Sundance. This may relegate Ballast to the festival circuit, as a film with no musical soundtrack other than what may be playing on the radio of its subjects, and with an absence of professional actors and even a script that emerges from the characters themselves. The story is bleak, albeit with an optimistic conclusion, and while Lance Hammer in his first full length feature (his 29-minutes' long Issaquena six years ago chronicles the decay of a Mississippi Delta family), he shows promise as a fellow who writes and directs about that part of Americana that he knows best. As a white director of a movie that stars African-Americans, he gives pause to those who believe that only black directors can successfully interpret the African-American experience.

A film that moves along quietly with only a couple of melodramatic flourishes, Ballast takes us into the Mississippi Delta, which is the modern area of land (the river delta) built up by alluvium deposited by the Mississippi River as it slows down and enters the Gulf of Mexico. Hence the name of the distributing company.

When a neighbor (Johnny McPhail) checks in on Lawrrence (Michael J.Smith, Jr.) , he finds the large black man in a state of depression over the death by a drug overdose of his twin brother, Darius. Attempting suicide, he shoots himself but recovers after a fairly long stay in a hospital. From time to time, Lawrence finds himself at the gunpoint of a 12-year-old nephew, James (JimMyron Ross), whose mother, Marlee (Tarra Riggs) believes that Lawrence is holding money that belongs to his brother. Obviously Marlee and Lawrence are seriously at odds: For his part, James is in trouble with some young drug dealers to whom he owes a hundred dollars. Ballast is the story of the threesome's redemption.

Ballast brings to mind Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, about a man's dissatisfaction with his job in a slaughterhouse, a film that likewise takes us into the lives of poor people that most moviegoers may never meet. At times the dialogue is difficult to understand, given a low pitch and a heavy southern accent. The film's pace and lack of melodrama take away some of the passion that even erudite film-goers seek. Still, for the natural acting, the example that writer-director Hammer sets for moviemaking without background music, its firm roots in American soil, and its authenticity, Ballast should be on the list of serious cinephiles.

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



Stuart Townsend's
Battle In Seattle
Opens September 19, 2008


Written By: Stuart Townsend
Starring: Andre Benjamin; Woody Harrelson; Martin Henderson; Ray Liotta; Connie Nielsen; Michelle Rodriguez; Channing Tatum; and Charlize Theron.

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

Where have all the demonstrations gone? While Battle in Seattle has an epilogue stating that globally, more people have protested the Iraq War than any other issue, the war—unpopular though it be within the United States—has not led to large-scale protest marches. The presumption is that absent a military draft, young people have no fear of being called up to the Middle East. This is what was so surprising about the major demonstrations in Seattle, Washington, in late 1999 against the entire system developed by the WTO, or World Trade Organization. The WTO, which counts in its membership countries representing ninety-five percent of the world's trading countries, seems innocuous enough. Nonetheless, critics have cited the inability of the developing nations to have an equal say in what gets free-traded, while multinational corporations are making hay by undercutting local producers from the poorer nations. Environmental issues also abound, as countries destroy large segments of their forests to meet the demands of international commerce. Another issue is that while Big Pharma, representing the large drug corporations, has promised to make their drugs free or at a cut rate to save lives in areas of the globe that cannot afford them, little has actually been accomplished to implement their plan.

Yes, but, doesn't all this sound abstract, something that college youths would dutifully ask the professors, "Are we responsible for this on the test?" Not to the 10,000 or so protesters who gathered in Seattle in late November-December of 1999 for a peaceful protest that got out of hand when lunatic fringes on the far left began breaking windows of downtown stores for reasons that are obscure to us in our theater seats.

Stuart Townsend wisely made a docu-drama out of the incident, sidelining a classic documentary which would have brought out the usual array of dull talking heads. In fact, to his credit, there are no talking heads in Battle In Seattle, most of which is filmed by Barry Ackroyd in Vancouver, with only the last week of the filming taking place on location in Washington's leading city.

Battle opens with Fernando Villena's rapidly edited introduction to the history of trade organizations from 1947 to 1999—too quickly for allow the concepts to sink into audience minds.

The film is anchored by a charismatic performance from kiwi-born Martin Henderson in the role of Jay, the group's leader. Jay is most concerned that violence not take place, that there be no action that would provoke the police department and result in beatings of demonstrators and mass arrests. As interested as Jay in keeping the demonstration peaceful is the city's Mayor Tobin (Ray Liotta), a worrier whose job evaluation with the voters will depend in part on how he handles the demonstrators. The mayor resists the call of the governor (Tzi Ma), who wants to call out the national guard and set a strict curfew. When anarchist vandalize stores, including one that finds the four-month-pregnant Ella (Charlize Theron) behind the counter, the police respond in full-scale riot gear and tear gas, the police, acting in much the way they did during Vietnam protests with theif inate belief that lousy, privileged, commie students are the ones who riot. One cop in fact causes major damage to Ella's developing pregnancy to the concern of both her and her husband, Dale (Woody Harrelson).

Battle also features a romance between Jay and Lou (Michelle Rodriguez), because some love interest must take place to up the entertainment ante.

It's nice to know that there's still some energy in the protest movement, especially since the issues are, as stated above, would appear to be abstract to the young people in the film who yell "The whole world is watching." Apparently the kids in Seattle knew, or at least they believed (contrary to right-wing dogma) that human beings are the cause of global warning, sweatshop conditions, and the destruction of independent farms in the Third World. No one seems to be demonstrating to meet the opposite sex or to listen to rock music as some did during the Vietnam War.

There are good guys on the other side of the student lines, such as Abassi (Isaach De Bankole), who speaks for an African state, and Dr. Maric (Rade Sherbedzija), who represents Doctors without Borders at the conference and browbeats the members about the African AIDS epidemic. An especially fine performance comes from a veteran campaigner, Django (Andre Benjamin), who does his best to keep up the groups' spirits even when things look especially bad for them in jail. The crew did a fine job merging archival film from the 1999 events with the fictionalized account, making a case that perhaps all documentaries would be improved by the docudrama technique. After all, it's the spirit of the actions that count, not just the facts.

Rated R. 98 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Fernando Meirelles’
Blindness
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



Ridley Scott's
Body of Lies
Opens October 10, 2008



Written By: William Monahan, from David Ignatius's novel
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio; Russell Crowe; Mark Strong; Golshifteh Farahani; and Simon McBurney
Warner Bros
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: C+

The questions you might ask yourself while watching Body of Lies are: 1) What is the Russell Crowe diet? He was asked to gain fifty pounds from his already-heft bulk, and might offer some hints on treating anorectics; 2) Why would Russell Crowe, an A-list actor, be willing to endanger his health and appearance for Ridley Scott when he could presumably name his roles? Other than those, another query might be: What's going on? In reaching for the resonance of Stephen Gaghan's "Syriana," which is about the oil industry and America's role in protecting it, director Scott departs from his usual tense, easily comprehended thrillers like Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster and Gladiator. He succeeds only in making a muddle of his latest offering, throwing in a romance as though it came from another movie—a muddle for audience members who don't speak fluent Arabic like Leonardo DiCaprio's character and need time to sort out who's who among these exotic (to most Americans) names.

Ridley Scott, who seems willing to mute his usual simple stories in favor of convoluted ones in a desire to appear arty, is working with William Monahan's script adapted from David Ignatius's well-received novel of the same name. Thinking, perhaps, that his usual audience might be bored by endless chatter on cell phones, Scott changes the scenery every so often with an explosion or shoot-out every quarter-hour, taking his people from Iraq to Jordan to Syria and to Washington while photographer Alexander Witt captures vast stretches of desert—actually shot in Morocco. Ignatius's novel, considered by some book critics to be one of the best post-9/11 spy thrillers to come out, stresses a plan based on one used by the British against the Nazis in World War 2. While Ignatius would have A-list jihadists believe that some leaders are working with the Americans, Monahan's script focuses on a plan to create a fake organization whose leader gets credited with a terrorist act that allegedly has killed many Americans.

Leonardo DiCaprio performs in the role of Roger Ferris, a CIA agent who speaks fluent Arabic and who, after being wounded in Iraq, is sent by his superior officer, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) to Jordan. His aim: to ferret out a leading terrorist, putting his body on line while for his part, Hoffman comes across as a pudgy house-husband who is more concerned with getting his young boy to school and doing his laundry as he is for the very life of his macho underling. A cynical humor is evoked as Hoffman phones in dangerous orders while professing his love for his son. Ferris, perhaps motivated by newspaper columnists who believe that Osama Bin Laden is envious of the attention given to other violent groups, creates a scheme to flush out head jihadist, using a local patsy and a geeky computer expert (Simon McBurney) while taking orders from a superior officer whose rich life in suburban Washington should make the audience realize that the men in the field are more to be commended than their high officials back home.

DiCaprio follows up on his macho role in Blood Diamond as a guy who's masochistic enough to almost like being tortured. Contrary to good CIA sense, he hits on a pretty Jordanian nurse of Iranian ethnicity (the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani), even while knowing that Arabic eyes will focus on the couple and that in this part of the world you are not allowed even to shake hands with a woman unless you're married to her. Mark Strong takes on the role of Hani Salaam, chief Jordanian intelligent expert who wears a different suit or jacket each day under the hot Jordanian sun, and who almost destroys the CIA plan when he is lied to.

One final query raised by a fellow critic whose writing I respect and whose political views are considerably to the left of center: What are Americans doing in these Middle Eastern countries, places which according to Ed Hoffman nobody should want to be in and which offer not much of anything? The Europeans, who are closer to the areas of Jordan, Syria, and Iraq, and who are threatened by the militants in this pic, are doing far less to contain the terrorism which, according to the Muslim fundamentalists, are provoking a lust for revenge by some Arabs.

Rated R. 129 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Clark Gregg's
Choke
Opens September 26, 2008



Written By: Clark Gregg, from Chuck Palahniuk's novel
Starring: Sam Rockwell; Anjelica Huston; Kelly Macdonald; William Henke; Clark Gregg; Bijou Phillips; and Gillian Jacobs

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

David Duchovny's admission to an institute for sex addiction makes a movie like Choke seem torn from the headlines (unless you read the NY Times). Sex addiction? Is this something new? Smoking is bad for you, irresponsible drinking and gambling likewise, but what's so bad about sex addition? After all, if a man can get all the action that he professes to have, even if he's forty-eight years old like Duchovny, some would say, "More power to ya." The problem, at least according to Clark Gregg's first feature as a director, is not really THAT much of a dilemma, but sex addiction, like nymphomania (its former name, at least as this applies to women), can prevent guys and gals from working effectively, that is, if they do not work in the sex industry. All women of any age, even nuns—according to Gregg's adaptation from Chuck Palahniuk's novel—are undressed in the minds of addicts. Onanism is repeated, maybe fifteen times a day until, as one character states, you lose the ability to make a fist. Airline rest rooms are locked by addicts for an inordinate amount of time for purposes that afford privacy, but not much romance--which is not very nice when today's aircraft may have no more than four johns for 150 people. In short, the psychological illness may exhaust its bearers, but the illness can make for interesting books and movies.

As for how interesting Gregg's film is, that depends wholly on the mindset of the viewer. Some will smile, others may laugh uncontrollably. Who knows? Some may even walk out while assuring the rest of us, "Hey, I'm no prude, but…"
The best news about Choke is that it stars Sam Rockwell, a funny man who has made a career of hangdog expressions and cynical repartee. Rockwell takes on the role of Victor Mancini, a med-school dropout and con artist who forms parasitic relationships with people by pretending to choke on food to encourage rich people to save and feel sorry enough for him to give him money. He works for a theme park, playing an 18th century Irish indentured servant, to support his mother in a private home for Alzheimer's patients.

An unusual love story and a comedy of manners, Choke delivers episodes of sex that can make male moviegoers wish they had his problem and could find willing partners. He bonds in airline restrooms, in a church, in the men's room of a building. His partners include a woman (Paz de la Huerta) who is also going through the 12 stages toward recovery but scarcely advances past the first. One playing a colonial milkmaid resists his advances while another (Kelly Macdonald), a doctor in his mother's rest home who may be insane, asks for a roll that even Victor considers perverse. In the movie's funniest scenes, a stripper named Cherry Daquiri (Gillian Jacobs) is advised by Victor to take better care of herself since blondes are prone to skin cancer. When Victor returns to the bar days later, he finds that she has dyed her hair.

With a solid supporting role by Brad William Henke as Victor's best friend and fellow sex addict, Choke gives its viewers a look at the eccentric style of novelist Chuck Palahniuk, whose Snuff is about an aging porn queen who intends to make a film showing her having sex with 600 men in one day. Choke is a film considered by a few to be the highlight of the 2008 Sundance Festival. Some will laugh. I smiled.

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


 

Saul Dibb's
The Duchess
Opens Friday, September 19, 2008


Written By: Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen from Amanda Foreman's biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

Starring: Keira Knightley; Ralph Fiennes; Dominic Cooper; Charlotte Rampling; Hayley Atwell; Georgia King; Aidan McArdle; Simon McBurney; and Mercy Fiennes Tiffin.

Paramount Vantage
Reviewed by Allison Ford

To be an aristocratic woman in the 18th century, "You must equip yourself with patience, fortitude, and resignation," Georgiana Spencer's mother advises her in The Duchess. The film, starring Keira Knightley, tells the story of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, a woman ahead of her time, yet completely beholden to its strict and stultifying social rules.

Georgiana of Devonshire was known in her day for being flamboyantly fashionable, intensely political, and true to her passions, and as a result, almost everyone in Britain was in love with her. The Duke is cold and ambivalent, leading one character to remark that "The Duke of Devonshire is the only man in England not in love with his wife." The Duchess has overtly feminist leanings, describing the powerless plight of women in 1780's England. Georgiana was married at 17 to a man she barely knew and whose only desire was for a son and male heir. On her wedding night, as her new husband callously strips off her clothes, we see the corset marks embedded into Georgiana's skin…an apt metaphor for the life of a headstrong woman chafing at society's constraints.

The Duchess does not fall into the usual trap of period films. The characters and the setting demand a certain level of opulence, but the film is stronger than other period dramas, and it doesn't substitute good art direction for a good story. The costumes and set only provide a context in which the story plays out; they're not a character in their own right. However, the film is visually engrossing, with art and set direction that perfectly capture the grandeur and frigidity of a historical turning point.

Much is made in the film of freedom, since the political backdrop of Georgiana's story is the American and French revolutions, as well as the abolitionist movement in England. Georgiana spars with politicians, opining that "One cannot be free in moderation, just as one cannot be dead in moderation," she says. "One is either free, or not free." That idea is one that permeates the movie, making the statement that among all oppressed people, it is women who are ultimately the least free of all. Despite her popularity, Georgiana is not free to marry a man of her own choosing, she is not free to choose her own destiny, and she is not even free to expel her husband's mistress from the house.

Knightley is charming and powerful as the Duchess; girlishly playful, yet with a steely resolve. Ralph Fiennes is remarkable as the Duke of Devonshire, and although his character is the source of many of Georgiana's troubles, the film never resorts to characterizing him a villain. Ultimately, despite his moral depravity and callousness, he, too, is simply a product of his time. Their work together is brilliant and fiery; their obvious physical and stylistic differences reflect just how mismatched the real Duke and Duchess were.

Despite her attempts to follow her passions, Georgiana, too, is still bound by the rules of society and the demands of her position. Throughout the film, she rejects traditional female roles and seeks to create an independent identity for herself. In one transcendent moment, she is given the choice between keeping her lover and keeping her children. For a few glorious and startling minutes, it seems that she will actually choose her lover, Charles Grey, a future prime minister, and hold onto the love she has longed for. However, she eventually retreats back home, destined to live out the rest of her life in confinement. Georgiana chooses motherhood, domesticity, and safety, all for the good of her children. As she says to her husband, "It's my life for theirs."

The Duchess cannot be faulted for telling the story as it happened, but a typical display of female self-abnegation feels particularly empty at the end of a film that glorifies rebellion. Her husband, the Duke, shows signs of wanting a freer existence, as does Georgiana's best friend and rival, Bess Foster. All of the main characters have to leverage themselves to get what they want – Bess whores herself to the duke to regain custody of her children, Georgiana gives up her lover for the sake of hers, the Duke gives up freedom for a life of wealth and privilege, and Charles Grey is forced to give up Georgiana in order to pursue his political career. As an audience, we want better for Georgiana, a feisty and sympathetic heroine, and it is hard to accept her choice to resume her unfulfilling former life. Just when the imprints of the corset were fading, she has cinched it tighter.

The Duchess tells the fascinating story of a remarkable woman, and its greatest achievement may be to make its audience want to read the book on which it was based, Amanda Foreman's Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. The Duchess admirably depicts an intriguing historical figure caught between two worlds, and she elicits our admiration, our jealousy, and ultimately, our pity.


 


Saul Dibb's
The Duchess
Opens Friday, September 19, 2008

 

Written By: Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen from Amanda Foreman's biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

Starring: Keira Knightley; Ralph Fiennes; Dominic Cooper; Charlotte Rampling; Hayley Atwell; Georgia King; Aidan McArdle; Simon McBurney; and Mercy Fiennes Tiffin.

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

When you see an advert for the latest British period film, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re in for should you choose to shell out your ten clams. Odds are good that, at some point, a symbolically potent handkerchief will be dropped in slow motion and a woman in a cape will be standing alone in a desolate landscape, staring stoically ahead and contemplating the tragedy of her existence.

To some extent, this all holds true for The Duchess, Saul Dibb’s biopic of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, adapted from Amanda Foreman’s biography. All the traditional elements are here: heaving bosoms, tightly laced corsets (much credit is due to costume designer Michael O’Connor and the hair and makeup department for creating some of the most deliciously flamboyant dresses, wiggery and hattery ever to grace the screen).There’s also the common themes of the repressive consequences of aristocratic obligation, the oppression of women, and the British stiff-upper-lip standby of sacrificing love for the abstract notions of honor, duty, and children who are barely seen and even less frequently heard.

At this point you’re probably thinking, haven’t I’ve seen this one already, only with Emma Thompson? But with The Duchess, Dibb has managed to skillfully subvert and the conventions of the costume drama and breathe new life into a traditionally staid and stuffy genre.

He’s got the rather incredible real-life story of Georgiana of Devonshire working in his favor: When your heroine was a notorious gambler and fashion plate who endured her brute of a husband and his live-in mistress by engaging in electioneering, bedding a future prime minister and bearing an illegitimate child, you’re pretty safely out of the stuffy, fiddling with teacups territory of many British period pieces.

And as portrayed by Keira Knightley, Georgiana is brought gloriously, vivaciously to life. An actor who occasionally comes across as staid or wan, Knightely here gives free reign to the mishevious spark viewers saw hints of in Bend it Like Beckham and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. To watch the barely restrained glee on her face whilst delivering a quip, or even lasciviously grabbing a goblet of wine or throwing the dice is a thrilling, infectious delight. She also achieves the necessary balance of melodramatic pathos and nuanced emotion in the contrived moments of personal conflict and struggle that the long, slightly overblown script throws her way.

But much of the credit belongs to Dibb, who gives us a fresh look at life in 18th century England and some innovative new ideas about how a period piece can be made. He heightens the stereotypes of the genre for comedic effect, giving us husband and wife sitting at opposite ends of impossibly long tables, standoffs in absurdly cavernous hallways, and farcical country idylls with guns and dogs. But he’s also smart enough to know that life back then wasn’t all unmussed skirts and serene teas. He gets our hands dirty with the political mudslinging, the behind closed doors sexual antics, the bawdy theater, and the truth behind just what a pain all those corsets and wigs were. There’s a hilarious and horrifying scene where Knightley experiences a wardrobe malfunction (the specifics are too fantastic to divulge) that will make any Regency fetishists reconsider their next Halloween costume.

Georgiana was also a close friend of playwright Richard Sheridan (Aidan McArdle) and influential Whig party politician Charles Fox (Simon McBurney), and when Dibb shows us the three of them conspiratorially gossiping like a gaggle of sexy, impossibly witty fishwives, it’s an absolute treat. This is real life; these are people we like and want to meet.

Dibb also uses film techniques more commonly associated with more modern stories, which further help liven up the movie. The use of titles, quick cuts, wickedly funny shot—reverse shot sequences and extreme flash forwards make The Duchess shockingly entertaining. They also keep the long story moving at a refreshingly fast clip; although it does lag a bit in the film’s final tragic act.

The rest of the cast provides excellent support for Knightley’s star turn. Ralph Fiennes is wonderfully disturbing as Georgiana’s baddie philandering husband. His abominable cruelty and complete lack of charm or sensitivity is accompanied by such a blasé, twisted sense of humor that it’s difficult not to love the mean old bastard. Hayley Atwell, so impressive in Brideshead Revisited, turns in another layered and nuanced performance as Bess, the Duke’s mistress and Georgiana’s closest friend. Playing Georgiana’s lover, Dominic Cooper (Mamma Mia) makes a most excellent piece of 18th century beefcake. His rugged, almost common good looks provide a sexy foil to Knightley’s refined features, and he imbues the role with the kind of fiery idealistic political passion that you easily believe could moisten aristocratic pantaloons.

If, like this reviewer, you were raised on a diet of Merchant Ivory films, The Duchess will provide you with an extra special pleasure. If, on the other hand, the thought of this kind of movie wants to make you run in the direction of the nearest Michael Bay feature, give The Duchess a try anyway. You might find that bosom of yours can be made to heave after all.

 



Saul Dibb's
The Duchess
Opens Friday, September 19, 2008


Written By: Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen from Amanda Foreman's biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

Starring: Keira Knightley; Ralph Fiennes; Dominic Cooper; Charlotte Rampling; Hayley Atwell; Georgia King; Aidan McArdle; Simon McBurney; and Mercy Fiennes Tiffin.

Paramount Vantage
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

British monarchs would not exactly have sung Kumbaya during their reigns. Some were murderous, beginning when Alfred the Great secured Wessex and took domination over western Mercia. Our own country fought King George III for independence. On the other hand, some titled, powerful men were content to make love, not war, incidents that would be recorded by the press or whatever served as the gossip lines before printing. Prince Charles' dalliance during his marriage to Princess Diana is hardly unique: just part and parcel of the customs of the nobility, which is not altogether surprising when you consider that marriages were commonly arranged between people who may not even have met. Such was the case involving the title character of Saul Dibb's The Duchess, adapted by three scripters from Amanda Foreman's biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. The biopic is filmed by Gyula Pados sumptuously displaying the real estate and costumes that graced the court of the Duke of Devonshire—a man who'd probably not blink an eye (if he were alive now) when witnessing the butchery at work on Wall Street. Dibb considers politics only in the conversations of the politically astute, but does not actually display the revolutionary events occurring outside the limited circles in which the duke and duchess traveled.

Fair enough: Director Dibb focuses on sexual politics rather than the kind we in the U.S. are now inundated with on TV and in the press; affairs of the bed rather than those of state. A costume drama in the best sense of the word, The Duchess is anchored by a spot-on performance by the lovely Keira Knightley (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice), whose character, if alive in America today, would doubtless be a Democrat drinking Chablis and dabbing brie on her biscuits.

In 1774, Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling) sets up a wedding between her sixteen-year-old daughter Georgiana Spencer, and the fabulously wealthy and powerful William Cavendish, a.k.a. the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). Though Georgiana considers the duke to be cold to the point of constipation, others may not have thought so, given his liaisons. He is surprisingly unimpressed by his new wife's beauty and brains, a woman he considers of little use until she can produce a male heir. When G, as her husband calls her, develops a friendship with Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell), she learns about the birds and the bees from her new best friend, but not just in theory. Her new enjoyment of her body encourages Georgiana to seek a liaison of love, finding great possibility in handsome, politically progressive Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), who urges her to give up her current partner and elope with him. This would not be a bad idea at all, considering that G's best friend has betrayed her with the duke, but who wants to run away and abandon her children?

While the film is as gorgeous as its leading lady, who changes costumes almost as many times as did Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries, Dibb appears so afraid of turning the festivities into soap opera that he plays down the emotions, allowing only a single outburst from the duke upon hearing some thoughts of independence from the mind of his wife. This kind of feminism, by the way, is not a fairly recent American invention, beginning, in fact, in ancient Greece as displayed in the texts of such dramas as Medea and Lysistrata.) Nor is the American Revolution worth more than a quick mention though it began two years after the nuptials of the duke and duchess. Dibb is intent on keeping The Duchess within the realm of costume drama, putting great attention on Georgiana's three-foot-high wig, a hair style that would make you change your seat if you were sitting behind her at the cinema. Not only is the story told in a political vacuum: more important, we are not privy to the sources of G's great appeal among the people. By contrast, now in the age of media, we can easily understand Princess Diana's popularity as we watch videos of her trips around the world and of her service to the less fortunate.

Nonetheless, at a time that more movies are being shown that were filmed with hand-held cameras and a lack of respect for the quality of the pictures, it's a pleasure to feast our eyes on a production whose technical effects are excellent. And mercifully, there are no car chases.

Rated PG-13. 111 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 



Isabel Coixet's
Elegy
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



Jason Todd Ipson's
Everybody Wants to be Italian
Opens September 5, 2008


Written By: Jason Todd Ipson

Starring: Jay Jablonski; Cerina Vincent; John Kapelos; John Enos; Richard Libertini; Marisa Petroro; Dan Cortese; and Penny Marshall.

Roadside Attractions
Reviewed for CompuServe by Harvey Karten
Grade: C+

Says she, a veterinarian, to a prospective boyfriend: "So do you like animals?"
Replies he, the owner of a prosperous Boston establishment: "Sure. I have a fish store."

This repartee is one of the few gems in an otherwise recycled comedy that may be trying to cash in on the unusual box office success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The 27-year-old proprietor, Jake (Jay Jablonski) is courting Marisa (Cerina Vincent), a woman he believes to be Italian. Advised by the sales help in the shop that no Italian woman would consider a man who is of another ethnic background, Jake, who is of Polish stock, agrees to the pretense. However the movie does not really spend much energy on the prevarication, but centers on a young man who is caught between the love he still feels for Isabella (Marisa Petroro), a woman who dumped him eight years ago and who is now married with three kids, and his feeling for Marisa, who is the more eligible prospect at age thirty-three.

If you believe a veterinarian would hook up with a fishmonger, you have a fertile imagination and could conceivably go for the story. However, there is no comparison between Everybody Wants To Be Italian and another film about an unlikely couple, Knocked Up. You can always suspend disbelief, especially if you're dealing with a comedy. But Italian comes up far short of Judd Apatow's picture in the laughs department, principally because Jason Todd Ipson's tale is dated, recycled, and repetitive. The trajectory followed is more or less this: the principal character continues to court his old sweetheart while headed into a new relationship with a more eligible woman. The principal character goes back to the fish store after each date or meeting with this new person, and is advised by the people on his staff on how to deal with her and with women in general. Principal character goes on another date with Marisa, then returns to the store to get the same advice: déjà vu all over again.

Some of the conversation that would make anyone of a certain age think that this movie was made in the repressed 1950's includes the counsel of Marisa's older neighbor who tells the 33-year-old that the way to a woman's heart is through her stomach. "Papa" (Richard Libertini), comes out with the opinion that you've got to make a woman feel special. Would you believe that two of the other salt-of-the-earth clerks in the fish store are going to night school—one studying psychology, which allows him to tell Jake what Freud would say in each situation, while the other is taking up English literature which he proves by using words like "metaphor" and "simile?" Or that Jake would tell his prospective girlfriend that she is not a doctor, but rather a veterinarian, and not allow her to order in a restaurant, instead giving the waiter the choices for both of them?

As the story runs in circles—dates followed by counseling sessions in the fish store—you couldn't be blamed for thinking that this looks like a TV serial, something like Frazier or Cheers, but at the same time a far cry from the quality of those shows.

Rated R. 105 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Irena Salina's
Flow
Opens September 12
, 2008

Written by Irena Salina
Starring: Peter Gleick; Maude Barlow; Ashok Gadgil; Erik D. Olson; William E. Marks; Wenonah Hauter; Shri Rajendra Singh; Jim Schultz; and others.
Oscilloscope Laboratories
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

If you're in the mood for a fight, go right up to a resident of New Orleans and tell him, "What the world needs now is lots of water."

Strange thing about H20. Seventy percent of the world is water, and there are shortages of clean aqua and one billion of our neighbors in poor countries do not have access. The reason is in part that only one half of one percent of the world's blue gold is drinkable. So when you look at the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian oceans, just remember Samuel Taylor Coleridge's quote through the mouth of the ancient mariner, "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink." We all know about the oil crisis: the premium prices we pay here in the U.S. and the exorbitant fees that the Europeans have to shell out at the pump. But according to Irena Salina, who directs the documentary Flow, the increasing power that multinational corporations have has resulted in a diminishing supply of clean water mostly in poverty-stricken areas in countries like Lesotho, Bolivia, South Africa and India—which countries are featured for a large proportion of the doc—and that ultimately not only will we in the wealthy U.S. face a shortage, but some of us right now are taking showers that allow all sorts of gunk to slither through our pores. Forget about Freddy Krueger: this picture is scarier. Here's yet another film on the political left, one that blames, oh, not the United States as such, but multinational corporations like Coca-Cola—which is draining water from South America for processing the black sludge.

Flow opens with a quote from WH Auden, who said, "All that we are not stares back at what we are." Ooops, wrong quote. Auden said, "Thousands have lived without love; none without water." True enough, though the film does not state that we human beings can live for perhaps two months without love, but for maybe four days without food or water. When you're practically dying of thirst, you're going to pay more for a liter of water than for a carful of oil.

But I digress. The talking heads in Flow are easy to take because director Salina does not have them sitting in a chair talking to some faceless interviewer—though let's not sell interrogators short: they can always ask interesting questions like, "Sarah Palin, can you tell us why you do not own a passport?"

Some of the shots are visceral, most particularly one of some water in a Bolivian stream that feeds into Lake Titicaca (our favorite name back in Middle School), which runs red, not blue or clear, thanks to the action at the nearby slaughterhouse. One of the world's most sacred spots catches the interest of photographer Pablo de Selva, who shares lenses with the director: that spot is the Ganges River, whose holy liquid is dropped into the mouths of newborns and when someone dies, their ashes are floated out in the river to assure passage to a better life later on.

Corporations wear the black hats in Flow. Thanks to the big multinationals, water—which we repeatedly hear from the speakers should be the free property of all--is gobbled out not only by Coke but by manufacturers of bottled water, eighteen brands of which are owned by Nestles. Interesting, isn't it, that there is only one person in the United States in charge of regulating the industry to try to catch the one-third of bottled brands containing arsenic, and maybe some old lace? Go to http://www.nrdc.org/water/drinking/bw/bwinx.asp to find out what you didn't want to know about the bottles you imbibe. (If arsenic does not get you, you might get hit from some of the 116,000 human-made chemicals finding their way into the public water systems which maybe thirty percent of bottled water brands do not filter out.)

There's a shortage of humor in the doc, which all the more punctuates the relief of a quick Penn and Teller skit wherein folks in a fancy restaurant pay seven bucks for a bottle of tap water with a fancy French name (that means "tap water") and who insist that it tastes much better than the stuff they wash their cars with.

Each of us owns our own body, including the seventy percent that is water. Unfortunately you won't find people making $1 a day in India or Bolivia or South Africa and scores of other countries who can afford to pay three days' wages for a liter of Poland Spring. Is everything hopeless? Maybe not. Socially conscious people are waging war against the greedy, in one case filing a suit to enjoin Coca Coca from draining the water in Michigan. After the district judge handed down an injunction, Coke appealed and won the right to continue the drainage while the appeal slogged its way through the judicial system. Finally, the company got a slap on the wrist from the Michigan Supreme Court, which allows Coca-Cola to use "a reasonable amount" of Michigan's water for the gunk that it makes.

If you have a double-feature movie in your area, such as we had in the 1940s and 1950s, see this pic together with Stuart Townsend's Battle in Seattle, which deals with the rigorous demonstrations in Washington States' leading city in 1999 against the World Trade Organization, a group which the protesters consider nothing but an arm of (you guessed it) the multinational corporations.

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



Udi Aloni's
Forgiveness (Mechilot)
Opens September 12, 2008



Written By: Udi Aloni
Starring: Itay Tiran; Clara Khoury; Mori Moshonov; Makram Khoury; Tamara Mansour; Ruba Bial; and Michael Same
International Film Circuit
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: C+

Someone said that happiness is best achieved by those with money, love, and a short memory. A short memory is just what David (Itay Tiran) needs. A handsome lad in his twenties, he should be enjoying life to the fullest. He's not really short of love and a decent standard of living, but his memory has given him a life-threatening psychosis that nudges him into thoughts of suicide. Conceptually, Udi Aloni's film has much going for it: here is an original take with a theme that references the Holocaust, but Aloni has written and directed such a hodge-podge of realism, hallucinations, and recent history that Forgiveness, whose dialogue is mostly English with a modicum of Hebrew, Yiddish and Arabic, charges head-on into pretentiousness.

Anyone familiar with the idea of Jewish guilt ("Some day you'll be sorry for what you did to your mother") can easily understand the plight faced by David, a Jewish guy from New York who is not a slacker as much as someone who is drifting along without a clear goal. His father (Michael Sarne), a Holocaust survivor, had originally settled in Israel before emigrating to the U.S., giving David an excuse to make aliyah, or to leave the U.S. for the Middle East, and sign up for the army. Accidentally killing a Palestinian girl during a moment of great tension, he becomes emotionally paralyzed and is dispatched to a psychiatric hospital filled with Holocaust survivors like Muselmann (Moni Moshonov)—who has much to teach the more rational among us.

Since the hospital was built on land that saw the massacre in 1948 of a hundred Arab villagers by Israeli militias, the institution encourages inmates to dig for remains of the Palestinian bodies. The unusual therapy is designed to bring the patients back to the real world. Given a drug that flushes out bad memories, he leaves for New York again, he hooks up with Lila (Clara Khoury), a Palestinian singer, and is dumped when he stupidly reveals that he was an Israeli soldier.

As with Indian movies, there are occasional flashes of music, some high-stepping better than others. Ultimately David might have been brought back to the routines of life had he kept his mouth shut. Forgiveness, or Michilot in Hebrew, is too disjointed to exploit its originality sufficiently.

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




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

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

Reviewed by Bryan Close

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


DreamWorks
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
Happy-Go-Lucky
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.



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




Neil LaBute's
Lakeview Terrace

Opens Friday, September 19, 2008

 

Written By: David Loughery; Howard Korder; from David Loughery's story

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson; Patrick Wilson; Kerry Washington; Regine Nehy; Jaishon Fisher; Jay Hernandez; Keith Loneker; Robert Dahey; Bitsie Tulloch; Ho-Jung; and Mel Rodriguez

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

I've resided in apartment houses all my life, though suburbanites have often told me of the pleasures of more spacious living. After seeing Lakeview Terrace, there's no way I'll take their counsel. Good fences make good neighbors, as Robert Frost states in his poem "Mending Wall," to which I'll add "Steel doors make even better ones." You can shut your apartment door and not be bothered, especially since your neighbors may never have even seen you.

Neil LaBute makes a case against suburbia, at least if what he dramatizes in Lakeview Terrace is truth writ small. LaBute's sense of irony is on exhibit as he extends the basic theme of his 1997 film In the Company of Men—in which two yuppies make a pact to date the same woman and to dump her just for their own perverse satisfaction. Domination is the key. This time he utilizes David Loughery and Howard Korder's script about an officer with the L.A.P.D., Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson) who loves to dominate others: his resentful 15-year-old daughter Celia (Regine Nehy), his son Marcus (Jaishon Fisher), one low-life he catches and delivers enough blows to break three of his ribs, and especially his new neighbors, Chris Mattson (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Lisa (Kerry Washington). Chris is white; Lisa is black. Abel, himself a black man, is not exactly a racist: he chats amiably with an Asian neighbor and attends parties with mixed company. But for reasons that become clear two-thirds into the movie, he cannot tolerate mixed couples. He will do whatever he can to harass them, to get them to move out—by flashing a powerful light into their bedroom, playing music at full volume at three in the morning, slashing their tires.

LaBute film is wholly absorbing until we're transported into predictable, intense melodrama at the conclusion. Abel is no thick-headed bruiser but rather a guy intelligent enough to play with his neighbors, using his sense of humor (apparently lacking in the bland Chris) by criticizing the white man's Berkeley education ("You don't know the answer? You would, if you had gone to Stanford."), putting down Chris's plea "Why can't we just get along?" and ridiculing the poor man's view that as a cop, Abel is too aggressive. "Next time you're in trouble, be sure to call a nice cop," responds Abel, which is reminiscent of yahoo bumper stickers in the early seventies, "Next time you're in trouble, call a hippie." For most of their tense relationship, Chris and Abel speak almost civilly to each other. This is no cheap tale playing on caricature. It's hard to believe that LaBute is not the scripter, as this is right up his alley.

In fact some episodes could almost have come from Saturday Night Live, principally the long, loud, bachelor party hosted by Abel to harass his neighbors. The neighborhood—filmed in the L.A.-suburban enclave of Walnut, California—is considered upper middle class: one wonders how Abel, a cop raising two kids on his own, can afford the mortgage and taxes. What matters to us in the audience, however, is sitting in on a movie that's part cop story, part sociological study—a look into current racial politics that finds Chris exhausted not only by his chief critic in the next house but as well by his father-in-law, Ron Glass (Harold Perreau), a well-dressed professional man who asks whether Chris intends to raise a family with his daughter.

The film is based on a recent case of a black L.A.P.D. officer accused of harassing mixed-racial couples. Lakeview Terrace is a nice place to visit for two hours, but I'll stay right here. The movie is that convincing.

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




David Mackenzie's
Mister Foe
Opens September 5, 2008



Written By: Ed Whitmore; and David Mackenzie, from the novel by Peter Jinks
Starring: Jamie Bell; Sophia Myles; Ciaran Hinds; Jamie Sives; Maurice Roeves; Ewen Bremmer; and Claire Forlani.
Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B+

Before its release in the U.S. Mister Foe carried the name Hallam Foe. One can imagine the film on a double bill with American Teen,after Magnolia Pictures would change the name once more to Scottish Teen. The title teen, Hallam Foe, would be just as mixed up as any hormone-driven, red-blooded American, but there is much about him that sets him into a more mature category. He has no friends his own age, as his dad notes as well. He also sounds intelligent and articulate and does not once pick up a cell phone or a BlackBerry or have an iPod glued to his ear. Mister Foe has the good fortune to star Brit Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, Nicholas Nickleby) in the title role, in real life a twenty-two year old who had the enormous good fortune (again in real life) of having once dated Evan Rachel Wood.

Mister Foe also has the good fortune of being filmed in Scotland in which all but one actor (Ewen Bremmer in the role of a co-worker at the concierge desk of an Edinburgh hotel) speak English that can be understood without titles by an American audience. While its central theme—the animosity of a man about to turn eighteen for his "wicked" stepmother—director David Mackenzie, using a script he co-wrote with Ed Whitmore, gives the story an original edge while photographer Giles Nuttgens illuminates the passing scene appropriately to signify dreariness, despondency and in some cases optimism and joy.

Hallam, who takes up the hobby of being a Peeping Tom after the suspicious death by drowning of his mother, moves a few meters from the home inhabited by his dad, Julius (Ciaran Hinds) and stepmother Verity (Claire Forlani). Unlike overgrown American kids, though, he doesn't set up a cot in the garage but instead sleeps and peeps in a tree-house built by his father, using high-power binoculars to spy on other kids making out in the grass but especially on his Glaswegian folks next door. He will soon pursue his craft in Edinburgh. (Where would this movie be if everyone used shades or venetian blinds?) Moving to Edinburgh, penniless, he obsesses on Kate (Sophia Myles), the director of human relations in a posh hotel, where he works first as a dishwasher, then as a porter, all the while confused because she closely resembles his mother. Climbing on rooftops, he observes Kate's affair with a married man, Alasdair (Jamie Sives). Like other Peeping Toms, Hallam is one creepy guy but Kate, who becomes more to Hallam than just an employer, confesses that she likes creepy guys.

Mister Foe is secondarily a mystery, a Hitchcokian one at that (think of the drowning in Rebecca which also illustrates a man's obsession with his former wife). First, though, it's a look at an impressionable eighteen-year-old whose fantasy life takes over but at the same time allows him to become a sexual magnet for his cute, young employer, yet another refutation of the maxim about leaving the workplace in the workplace and the home in a separate category. (The actual expression is more vulgar.) The movie is all about Jamie Bell, though, a lad who convincingly and winningly provides a peep for all of us into the mind of perhaps no small number of adolescents on the cusp of adulthood.

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



Godfrey Cheshire
Moving Midway
Opens Friday, September 12, 2008

Written by Godfrey Cheshire
Starring: : Godfrey Cheshire, Elizabeth Cheshire, Robert Hinton, Charles Hinton Silver, Dena Williams Silver, Abraham Lincoln Hinton, Al Hinton

First Run Features

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Godfrey Cheshire proves that he is one of the few exceptions to the rule that those who criticize films cannot do any better than the people they censure.

John Simon, one of the most acerbic critics in the business, was asked this in an interview: "Mr. Simon: you pan at least three-quarters of what you see. What makes you think you can do any better?" He replied, "I admit that I cannot do any better. A critic has more in common with a plumber than with a film director." Potty jokes aside, Simon would probably agree that a sports announcer who makes disparaging remarks about a player's pitching should not be expected to get out on the mound and show him how to throw a ball. Godfrey Cheshire, formerly a film critic for the New York Press and one of the best writers in the business, could probably fix a leak in the sink of the plantation that is a prominent character in his freshman movie, Moving Midway. He proves that he can direct as well as he can criticize.

Cheshire left the staff of the alternative newspaper New York Press for reasons that are unknown to all but the writer and his circle. Cheshire lives in New York and is a first cousin to North Carolina resident Charles Hinton Silver, owner of the family's ancestral home, Midway Plantation. Chashire learns that Charlie and his wife Dena, dismayed by the vehicular traffic, strip malls and housing development surrounding their land, have decided not simply to move to a more bucolic area but to take their 160-year-old home with them. Cheshire could scarcely believe his ears. Intending to visit the Raleigh area with a digital camera, he instead is talked into making a full-scale documentary movie that would have much greater significance than a video for the Silvers' neighbors and friends.

Cheshire's film exposes the plantations of the American South, as depicted in Gone With the Wind, as myth rather than reality. Few actual antebellum plantations were as stately as the one illuminated by producer David O. Selznick in the 1939 classic movie. What's even more significant and of particular relevance to this year's Democratic Party campaign, is that Charlie Hinton Silver discovers that his all-white ancestry is a much a myth as the aforementioned palatial plantation. Charlie discovers that his ancestral roots include African "blood" as well as at least one fellow of the Hebrew persuasion. As William Faulkner once said, "The past is not dead: it is not even past."

To Midway, Charlie invites New York University African Studies professor Robert Hinton, a man who is obviously of mixed race and who traces his own background to the Hinton family slaves. Also invited to Midway are Brooklyn middle-school teacher, Al Hinton, and his 96-year-old grandfather, Abraham Lincoln Hinton. These African-Americans are related to the film-maker, though the latter evokes the image of English aristocracy with his stately bearing and bell-clear narration.

The film never degenerates into a talking-heads bore. Much celluloid is given over to the actual move of the house form the time that levers, chains, and steel rods are inserted here and there to the tentative first few meters of the truck transporting the house. The unusual move, according to some of Charlie's family, friends and neighbors, must prove disturbing to the ghostly presence of former resident "Miss Mary." Some use is made of clips of films that arose from the legends of the Old South, such as Gone With the Wind and D.W. Griffith's monumental but racist masterpiece, Birth of a Nation.

The title "Moving Midway," serves not only a literal function but that of a trope, as it can be taken to mean that we Americans are midway between centuries of slavery and a perfect reconciliation of the races. The documentary is weighty where it must be, light-hearted in much of its presentation, of historical import, and thoroughly entertaining.

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


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 Amazon.com), 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




John Erick Dowdle's
Quarantine
Opens October 10, 2008


Written By: John Erick Dowdle, Drew Dowdle from film "REC" by Jaume Balaguero, Luiso A. Berdejo, Paco Plaza

Starring: Jennifer Carpenter; Jay Hernandez; Columbus Short; Greg Germann; Steve Harris; Dania Ramirez; Rade Sherbedgia; Johnathon Schaech

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: D

The year 2008 may finish with Quarantine as its worst nightmare—and that's not meant in the favorable sense. Useless, banal, derivative, unscary—these are some of the adjectives that can describe what is essentially a zombie film featuring human beings turned into undead, attacking others because misery loves company. Given the state of horror movies today, the bar is not exactly high for churning out something that winds up as a bottom-feeder. Long gone are the days of class films of the genre, with the most prominent being Rupert Julian's The Phantom of the Opera, that 1925 silent about a vengeful composer (Lon Chaney) who lives under the Paris Opera House and kidnaps his singing protégée. Deservedly, Phantom formed the template for five successors plus an achingly romantic Broadway play filled with Andrew Lloyd Webber's glorious music. By contrast, Quarantine is merely a low-budget attempt to cash in on the box office success of cheesy depictions of blood and gore with oodles of sequel possibilities.

In the imagination of writer-director John Erick Dowdle who uses a script he co-wrote with Drew Dowdle—which in turn is merely an adaptation of the slightly better Spanish movie Rec, which shockingly required three scripters—a young, excitable TV journalist, Angela (Jennifer Carpenter) takes her cameraman Scott (Steve Harris) and her TV viewers on a third-grade style trip to the local firehouse. Introduced around by handsome fire fighter Jake (Jay Hernandez), Angela eagerly checks out the locker room, finds out the a pole can be used for G-rated movie moves, and is cheered by a large chorus of hungry men chowing down with fierce camaraderie.

Then the fire bells goes off and the men and the journalists are quickly in hot pursuit. There's no fire, but since the department takes care of emergency medical needs, the company has been called upon when screams are heard in a dilapidated L.A. apartment house. Apparently rabies symptoms have broken out. An old hag, er, elderly woman, blood oozing from head to toe, attacks the crew, successfully beginning an epidemic of rabies which takes just minutes rather than weeks to form symptoms. An all-out zombie-fest turns just about everyone into a psychopathic biter, notwithstanding a well-placed bullet or two from the gun of police officer. The mise-en-scene is explained studiously by Lawrence (Greg Germann), a vet on call who wishes he remained as a cow-doc on the dairy farm.

If you've ever ridden in one of those silly Luna-Park rides in Coney Island or elsewhere, the one that has the cars spinning wildly in a circle with the aim of giving the public their money's worth by making them throw up, there's no further need to leave your theater seat. Imitating the camerawork of "The Blair Witch Project," photographer Ken Seng allies himself with editor Elliot Greenberg to produce a nauseating, vertiginous, mess of a film that shows practically nothing of a violent nature except the sound and blurred look of humanity turning rabid. Does anyone not realize that a nice, slow, bloody death such as that portrayed so exquisitely by Eli Roth in Hostel 2, is every bit scarier, more credible, more horrific than this infection of a movie?

Rated R. 86 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'
Religulous
Opens October 3, 2008

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

Lionsgate
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




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


 

 


Claude Miller's
A Secret
Opens September 5, 2008



Written By: Claude Miller and Natalie Carter, from Philippe Grimbert's novel Un Secret.

Starring: Cecile de France; Patrick Bruel; Ludivine Sagnier; Julie Depardieu; Mathieu Amalric; Nathalie Boutefeu; Yves Jacques; Yves Verhoeven; Sam Garbarski; Orlando Nicolette; Valentin Vigourt; and Quentin Dubus.

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

William Faulkner once said, "The past is not dead: it is not even past." While middle-school kids studying the Holocaust today doubtless consider the topic ancient history, what took place during the early 1940's still affects the lives of some who live today. In France, if we're to go by Claude Miller and Natalie Carter's adaptation of Philippe Grimbert's autobiographical novel, the tragic events that occurred during the German occupation of that country are a heavy burden on one particular family. A Secret, which more than most films conveys the presence of history on our own time, requires some work by the audience in sorting out the chronology as director Miller, utilizing Veronique Lange's proficient editing, takes us hither and thither across the periods 1936-1942; 1955-1962; and 1985. One could argue that the editing is on the hyperkinetic side, but what emerges by the conclusion of the story is an impressive account of a Jewish family crushed not only by a Nazi deportation of two of its members to Auschwitz, but by a post-marital affair whose reverberations are connected to the cataclysm.

Miller, a sixty-six year old regisseur who at one point served as a master teacher of film at Columbia University, City College and the School of Visual Arts in New York, anchors the film with an arresting performance from Patrick Bruel as Maxime, whose troubled life may have caused his a seven-year-old boy, Francois (Valentin Vigourt) to speak with an imaginary brother, whom he conjures up with he discovers a stuffed dog in the bedroom that does not belong to him. An anemic Francois at age seven has ironically athletic parents: his mother Tania (Cecile de France) is a champion swimmer while his dad, Maxime (Patrick Bruel), is most at home in the gym. A disappointment to his father, Francois is most comfortable with Louise (Julie Depardieu), a masseuse, who tells the boy a shocking story of how his parents got together—and it's not by any conventional, or meet-cute meeting. He discovers as well that he indeed had a half-brother, Simon (Orlando Nicoletti). born to Maxime and his dad's first wife, Hannah (Ludivine Sagnier). The father made two major mistakes in his life: one is casting an erotic glance at Tania during his own marriage ceremony to Hannah; the other is assuming that he is French above all; that Hitler's rise to power will mean nothing to the family. The episodes taking place in 1985, shown in black-and-white with Mathieu Amalric in the role of middle-aged Francois who is looking for his missing father, serve as the hub for flashbacks exploring the years that had most affected his life.

With expert lensing from Gerard de Battista, who casts his cameras across the lush French countryside, A Secret thematically belongs with the long list of Holocaust films, though the events of those catastrophic years remain in the background in order to front an intimate family drama. Particularly impressive is the chemistry between Patrick Bruel and Cecile de France, the latter conspicuously attired for the 1940's period by costume designer Jacqueline Bouchard. In watching the most dramatic moment of the film, audience members familiar with Greek theater will recall one of literature's most vindictive mothers, Medea, a woman created by tragedian Euripides. If not, then Alan J. Pakula's Sophie's Choice would provide the necessary bearing: In fact the film could as well be entitled Hannah's Choice.

Given its crackerjack performances and fine evocation of period, Miller's film has already been a popular offering in Paris and should not long remain a secret from sophisticated moviegoers when it opens in the States.

Not Rated. 110 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


 


Takashi Miike's
Sukiyaki Western Django
Opens Friday, August 29, 2008
Landmark Sunshine Ciname in New York

Starring: Quentin Tarantino; Hideaki Ito; Masanobu Ando; Koichi Sato; Kaori Momoi; Yusuke Iseya; Minamoto no Yoshitsune; Renji Ishibashi; and Yoshino Kimura.

Reviewed by Allison Ford

If foreign filmmakers are going to attempt to reinvent American cultural traditions, we could do a lot worse than to have ourselves reimagined by the Japanese.

In the 1960's, it was Italian directors that famously made films which told the story of American cowboys, gunslingers, cops and robbers – the so-called "spaghetti westerns." Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly were visions of America as a land of quick-draw contests and blood feuds, populated with outlaws and bandits ready to jump into the fray at a moment's notice.

Sergio Corbucci's Django was a seminal spaghetti western that inspired scores of imitators and devotees in America and abroad, and several of today's most prominent auteurs still reference the film in their current work. It features a scene where a character's ear is cut off, a graphic scene which Quentin Tarantino lovingly cribbed in Reservoir Dogs, and the main character carries a machine gun in a coffin, a feature that Roert Rodriguez adapted for El Mariachi. Django has become a cult classic among cineastes, and Japanese director Takashi Miike has sought to create his own adaptation of the film in Sukiyaki Western Django.

Set in a fictionalized version of the Old West, this "sukiyaki western" tells the story of an enigmatic lone gunman who drifts into a desert town ripped apart by the violence of two warring clans, each of whom seek a legendary buried treasure. The story is loosely based on Corbucci's film, but Miike sets his during the Genpei clan wars of the 12th century. The setting is at once distinctly American and distinctly Japanese, both modern and ancient, blending both cultures into a curious juxtaposition. Tumbleweeds blow past abandoned Shinto temples, the rival gangs hang out in saloons, drinking firewater in front of scrims painted with cherry blossoms, and the town whore wears a kimono over her garter belt. It's inextricably tied to the stories of the Old West, but the film also transcends any particular time and place, taking on the aura of a time-honored fable.

Miike shot the film in English, an important and meaningful choice. Specifically, it's American English, full of colloquialisms and idioms that sound strangely foreign when spoken by a Japanese actor. The violence is also distinctly American. The characters duke it out with revolvers and a Gatlin gun, although Miike's sense of the purpose of such violence is never lost. Each bullet and each blow are deliberate and choreographed; an unexpected interpretation of the randomness of gun battles. Surprisingly, the gore so prevalent in his films Audition and Ichi the Killer is absent from this film.

As much as Sukiyaki Western Django is a new hybrid species of film, it is also a product of Miike's influences from the spaghetti westerns of the 1960's. Film buffs will recognize shots that reference classics such as Once Upon a Time In the West, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and A Fistful of Dollars. Miike wears his influences with pride, and his blatant cribbing is an homage to his heroes, not just artless mimicry. Even filmgoers unfamiliar with westerns will recognize iconic sequences such as the hero jumping onto a running horse from a second story window, and the machine gun carried in a coffin; a device that has also been copied by Robert Rodriguez in El Mariachi.

Sukiyaki Western Django is imaginative and compelling, but it's not without its flaws. Despite the inspired choice to shoot the film in English, many of the actors struggle with the dialogue. Although the plot is not terribly complicated, the varying degrees of proficiency demand close attention from the viewer. It is fairly obvious that the actors have little sense of the words they're speaking, and demonstrate feeble understanding of American axioms such as "a day late and a dollar short." Actress Kaori Momoi steals scenes as a gun-toting grandmother with a hidden past, but her back story, told in flashbacks, seems not only hastily cobbled together, but ultimately out of place. Her character, Ruriko, is one of the most entertaining of the film, yet she would be more at home in a 70's B-movie.

Fans of Westerns and modern Japanese cinema will find much in Sukiyaki Western Django to get excited about. The small in-jokes delivered in the dialogue, the camera work, and in a cameo by Quentin Tarantino will satisfy knowing filmgoers. Although the film is enjoyable on its own merits, Miike is really seeking an audience that understands his many homages and reverential touches. Its success, though, lies in the incredible visual artistry of the production and its pedigree as a wildly inventive adaptation of a classic by one of cinema's modern masters. Miike's "sukiyaki western" is a fascinating reinterpretation of an old standby, and a beautiful, violent, and mournful ride.




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.

Yikes!



Alan Ball's
Towelhead
Opens September 12, 2008



Written By: Alan Ball
Starring: Aaron Eckhart; Toni Collette; Maria Bello; Peter Macdissi; Summer Bishil; and Eugene Jones
Warner Independent Pictures/ Red Envelope
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B+

A recent poll indicates that 47% of American high school girls have sex before they graduate. (What's startling is that 53% have not, but they're presumably lying.) Why are these numbers much larger than they were in the 1950's? Could be that our society has become increasingly hyper-sexualized, what with the no-holds-barred episodes on cable, at the megaplex, the huge posters in big cities that pander to the "sex sells" idea, the increasing options for birth control, the sixties rebellion, maybe more. Or could it be that girls were ashamed to admit to serious action during the fifties while now virginity is not in style, except with a few who take pledges, then break them, as 80% of those who make chastity pledges do.

Anyone who fell asleep like Rip Van Winkle in 1950 and woke up to Towelhead would be stunned at the casual declarations of its thirteen-year-old female character, Jasira (played by nineteen-year-old Summer Bishil). On the other hand, Mr. Van Winkle would not be at all surprised by the girl's innocence: she may not have even known about the birds and bees as she partakes of sexual congress with males thinking that what she is doing is no different from trying on clothes at the Gap.

Given that Towelhead is penned by Alan Ball, who wrote the stunning American Beauty, you'd not be surprised that Ball, in his debut in the director's chair, is no friend of suburbia with its blandness countered by the scandals that go in inside the spacious rooms of the large houses buffered by the neatly-manicured lawns. Sending up the 'burbs is old hat by now, so Mr. Ball has taken on other dimensions to poke fun at "isms" including racism, super-patriotism, anti-Arab attitudes, martinet parents, bimbos, absentee moms, bratty kids, and horny adults who go after under-age children. Yep—seems that Towelhead is all over the place, but Ball knows how to fit his themes in seamlessly, weaving a charming, dark, funny, thoroughly entertaining parody of Americana. What's more he has quite the cast of performers, who include Pasadena-born Summer Bishil of American and East-Indian parents, now just past twenty years of age, an attractive woman educated largely in Bahrain. A veteran of several TV episodes, Bishil has a knockout of a film debut as a pubescent girl who seems to have received no sex-ed but, having discovered the wonders of O, is not pushing any guys away.

When Jasira is ousted by her mom, Gail (Maria Bello), from her Syracuse, New York house to her dad's place in Houston, she is enlightened by the two horny guys, including the married adult, Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart), who for reasons that have little to do directly with baby-sitting, employs her as a baby sister for his 10-year-old brat—who calls her a towelhead, camel jockey and worse. After Mr. Vuoso has his fun, she indulges her newfound, albeit premature, liberation, with a classmate, Thomas (Eugene Jones), but is warned by her dad to stay away from him because "No-one will respect you." (Thomas is black.) Befriended by Melina (Toni Collette), another neighbor and the only normal person in the vicinity, Jasira gains a sexual education, but this time on the theoretical side.

Filled with some bold, off-putting (to some) images of menstrual blood, the film posits Jasira's Lebanese-born, California-dwelling, NASA-employed dad, Rifat (Peter Macdissi), responding to the red stuff as though he has just seen it from Carrie. While Rifat has more than one dimension, in some cases contradictory, he has a strict code of morality but as a Lebanese Christian he prays that Bush Sr. will "take out" Saddam Hussein. (The picture is set just before, during and after Desert Storm of the 1980's.

Towelhead is filled with humor of the dark kind (the best kind, unless you go for duds like Pineapple Express), the film serving as a warning even to us Brooklynites: don't even think of moving. The weirdos who live in the apartment ten feet away are still more normal than just about anyone who lives in suburbia.

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



Jeffrey Nachmanoff's
Traitor
Opens Wednesday August 27, 2008

Written By: Jeffrey Nachmanoff; Story by Steve Martin and Jeffrey Nachmanoff.
Starromg: Don Cheadle; Guy Pearce; Said Taghmaoui; Neal McDonough; Aly Khan; Archie Panjab; Raad Rawi; Hassam Ghancy; Mozhan Marno; Adeel Akhtar; and Jeff Daniels.

Overture Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: C+

How far should an undercover agent go to infiltrate the bad guys? Ask yourself: if you were working for the FBI, the CIA, Homeland Security or any U.S. counter-terrorist group with the aim of discovering the identity of terrorist cells, would you be prepared to sacrifice innocent lives in order to avoid blowing your cover? This is the dilemma facing Samir Horn (Don Cheadle), born in Sudan and consequently fluent in Arabic, who served as an American operative but now appears to have turned traitor. The bad guys believe he is one of them. They know him as an expert in explosive weaponry, ordering him to blow up sites in several countries to show us in the West that we must remain perpetually in fear. To the film's credit, the other side does get to propagate a belief that might make Americans uncomfortable. "They accuse us of destroying innocent lives," says one, "But they have used their weapons to kill many innocents on our own side."

Don Cheadle, an actor associated with liberal causes who has done much to alert Americans to the ongoing genocide in Darfur, appears to choose his roles carefully. Note, for example, his presence in such complex films as Hotel Rwanda and Crash. This time around, while he anchors a film dealing with international politics, his vehicle comes across by writer-director Jeffrey Nachamanoff as conventional as a TV series. While Traitor seeks to emulate the intellectual gamesmanship in Syriana, not even a worthy performance by Mr. Cheadle can rescue the picture from formulaic movie-making.

Like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's magnificent Babel, Traitor is set in several countries, with director Nachmanoff blessed with the terrific camera work of J. Michael Muro whose steadicom accented such classics as Titanic, Crash, and L.A. Confidential. The outskirts of Marrakesh, Morocco as well as the more urban scenes in Nova Scotia, Washington, Marseilles and Toronto add luster to the story, one which never really captures an audience that should have been on the edge of their seats.

Samir, an expert with explosives who served as an American special operative, appears to have gone over to the other side. When Yemeni forces overpower a terrorist group, Samir is thrown in jail where he links up with one of the few other educated prisoners, Omar (Said Taghmaoui). Since Samir is a U.S. citizen, FBI operatives Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Marx Archer (Neal McDonough) are on his case as Samir becomes implicated in bombings on Spain's Costa del Sol and the U.S. consulate in Nice, France. Having succeeded in these tasks, Samir moves up the ranks while he is chased by Clayton and Archer as though they were Victor Hugo's Javert running after Jean Valjean. While Samir is careful in meeting only one mysterious American—Carter (Jeff Daniels)—he becomes the man of the month in an extensive plot to blow up several targets in the U.S. simultaneously. How to avoid this without giving up his cover is the question that will have the audience guessing.

Among the insights given to us is one that shows the Islamic fanatics as an outwardly calm group loyal to one another to the extent that they would be risk their lives to free their comrades from prison. Said Taghmaoui does a credible job as Samir's best friend, willing in at least one incident to put his own life on the line to vouch for the man when suspicions are raised. Guy Pearce also convinces in the role of an FBI operative who makes Samir's capture his principal goal, given the way he considers the man to have betrayed his country. Cheadle takes the role of a character who is less saintly than he was as Hotel Rwanda's Paul Rusesabagina, the man who tries to save everyone in that beleaguered country, but Traitor lacks the kind of suspense and emotional pull that an effective thriller demands.

Rated PG-13. 112 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson in Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Woody Allen's
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Opens August 15, 2008

Written By: Woody Allen
Starring: Javier Bardem; Patricia Clarkson; Penelope Cruz; Kevin Dunn; Rebecca Hall; Scarlett Johansson; and Chris Messina.

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

We all know people like the ones Woody Allen focuses on in his wonderfully scenic, exuberantly romantic Vicky Cristina Barcelona. From my small circle of friends and former associates, the woman most similar to one of the leading characters is married to a rich, successful doctor. She never had a need to work and raised a couple of kids who turned out just fine. Yet, she confided in me, there was another man she thinks she should have married, a guy more passionate, more imaginative than this physician, one who did not spend all his time talking shop (he is an artist of some sort) and who'd do things on the spur of the moment rather than meticulously plan vacations and the like as though he were making suggestions to a worshipping patient.

This woman I know shares a common bond with Vicky (Rebecca Hall), the first third of the title of Woody Allen's movie. All three are characters: Vicky; Cristina, who is played by 23-year-old Scarlett Johansson, and the sensuous city of Barcelona, on Spain's Eastern seaboard. People are complex—which is why divorce is so common since you'll always find some ingredient missing in a marriage—yet Allen sets up Vicky as the stable one, the woman about to be married to Doug (Chris Messina), a successful lawyer who is determined to buy a house in New York's Westchester County and talks shop, golf and electronics. Her best friend Cristina is perpetually unsatisfied, a passionate creature who is unlikely to last in marriage to anyone. Both women are beautiful: both go to Barcelona to unwind and to give Vicky the materials she needs for her Master's thesis on Catalonian culture. Neither expects what develops, which is an intense sexual relationship with Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a strikingly handsome and successful artist, who believes that "life is short, dull and full of pain," so why not take pleasure where it's offered? His come-on to the two women is anything but indirect as he invites them fly with him in his private plane to Oviedo for a weekend of food, wine, sightseeing and making love.

The adventurous Cristina does not hesitate. Vicky thinks no way. Of course they go, they both wind up in Juan Antonio's bed albeit at different time, and both meet the Don Juan's tempestuous ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz). Juan Antonio force Vicky to reconsider her upcoming marriage to the bourgeois, stable lawyer back home by helping her see what her life will become if she marries Doug. Vicky also notes the dull but surface stability of her married friends Mark (Kevin Dunn) and Judy (Patricia Clarkson). Judy is cheating on Mark with a business associate.

By the film's conclusion, you may wonder which of the two young American women will have the happier life. My money is on Vicky. Bourgeois stability may be dull for the most part—talking with your upscale friends about whom to hire for your decorator, whether your 60-inch plasma TV will go better on the wall or on furniture, and what college you should put money away for long before your kids turn eighteen. We watch how Maria Elena comes close to committing suicide despite her ravishing good looks and her talent with the piano and photography, a woman who "can't get no satisfaction." We wonder what will happen to Juan Antonio when his two American tourists go home and his ex-wife winds up in an institution: will he be content jumping from affair to short relationships until he no longer projects his youthful charisma?

Expect fine acting all around. The dependable Scarlett Johansson, who has appeared in Woody Allen films Match Point and Scoop, is beautiful almost beyond words. Allen newcomer, Rebecca Hall , whose resume includes Christopher Nolan's The Prestige and Tom Vaughn's Starter for Ten, has previously been mostly known for her work on the stage, such as in her father, Peter Hall's, production of As You Like It and Galileo's Daughter.

Javier Aguirresaroabe's camerawork is nothing less than a free commercial for Barcelona tourism, a city that brags not only of a sparkling business center but also of the winding, cobble-stone streets that beckon millions of tourist annually—to say nothing of Gaudi's church, a leading, unfinished attraction that is a metaphor for the concept that romance is romance only until it has been completed. (Another way of putting this is that romantic poetry would not exist if every potential writer were completed and happy with his or her partner.)

On the one hand, so-called mainstream film-makers are turning out more complex product with dark humor—like Dark Knight, which has enough complexity and mayhem for critics to warn parents not to take their children. On the other hand, some film-makers known for their arty output, are taking a chance at commercialism, e.g. Mike Leigh (Vera Drake, Secrets and Lies) has just released Happy-Go-Lucky, a frothy fair without a spoonful of darkness. Woody Allen's film for the year 2008 is his most commercial entry in years, meant as a compliment for this remarkable bit of celluloid. Even the soundtrack is to die for, featuring some snippets of Spanish guitar from the repertory of Isaac Albeniz, and Giulia Tellarini, Maik Alemany, Alejandro Mazzoni and Jens Neumaier's intriguing, oft-repeated song, "Barcelona." Mr. Allen, who had tanked with serious fare like the Ingmar Bergmanesqe Shadows and Fog and who has failed to get anything like near-unanimous positive reviews from the critics, now gives us Vicky Cristina Barcelona, filmed in Spain's busiest and most cosmopolitan city. What would Mr. Allen let us see as a sequel: a movie entitled Juan Antonio Maria Elena Sevilla, or perhaps Doug Vicky Bedford Hills?

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



Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Woody Allen's
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Opens August 15, 2008

Written By: Woody Allen
Starring: Javier Bardem; Patricia Clarkson; Penelope Cruz; Kevin Dunn; Rebecca Hall; Scarlett Johansson; and Chris Messina. Narrated by Christopher Evan Welch

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams


Woody Allen has helmed his best film in years; his Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a gorgeous Valentine to life, love, youth and the city of Barcelona. The film’s cinematography (Javier Aguirresarobe) is so breathtaking that Barcelona’s champagne- infused air and light seem to radiate from the screen.

The film is also incredibly sexy; Woody may be seventy-two years old but he has not forgotten the siren’s lure and with this film has left the guilt-infused sexuality of his earlier films to give us an anything-goes frolic.

The Vicky in the story is played by English actress Rebecca Hall. Vicky is an upper middle class American girl who is engaged to Doug, a wealthy financier played by Chris Messina. Vicky travels to Barcelona for the summer to complete her thesis on Catalan Culture (a telling choice for a supposedly straight young lady). Vicky invites her best friend, the free-spirited Cristina (played by Scarlett Johansson) to join her and to stay with her at the home of some old family friends – Mark and Judy Nash (played by Kevin Dunn and Patricia Clarkson).

The die is cast when they meet painter Juan Antonio (played by Javier Bardem). The girls eye him at an art gallery opening and when they later see him at a restaurant, he propositions both of them in one of the funniest come-ons I have ever heard.

Juan Antonio wants the girls to fly away for a weekend in Oviedo where they will partake in food, wine, sightseeing and group sex. Vicky is less than impressed, but Cristina jumps at the chance so off they all go - the game-for-anything Juan Antonio and Cristina accompanied by the supposedly more prudish Vicky.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but everyone has a good time in Olviedo except for Cristina who is stricken by a mild case of food poisoning (it is always best to not drink the water). The merry three-some then returns to Barcelona where Vicky continues with her studies and wedding plans and the now recovered Cristina begins her love affair with Juan Antonio.

But all is not well; Vicky is now filled with doubts, questioning her choice to marry a good, stable (and wealthy --- Hello!) man. Cristina has barely settled in with Juan Antonio when his crazy ex-wife, the painter Maria Elena (played by Penelope Cruz) comes to live with them while she recovers from a suicide attempt.

For a while it seems like the chaos will work. Vicky squashes her doubts and marries Doug and Cristina decides that she likes both Juan Antonio and Maria Elena (the famous kissing scene). But catharsis is needed and it arrives with a decided bang.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an incredibly funny movie, containing some of the most hysterical scenes I have ever seen in a Woody Allen movie. Penelope Cruz is hilarious; her scenes with Javier Bardem are classic Woody Allen, right up there with Judy Davis’s telephone scene in Husbands and Wives. Bardem and Cruz scenes are so explosive that the beauteous Scarlett Johansson is reduced to playing their straight man, a part she does perform with aplomb.

A lot has been written about the film’s three well known stars: Scarlett Johansson; Javier Bardem; and Penelope Cruz. Not as much has been written about Rebecca Hall, who is the heart of the film. Hall is an incredible actress, just as beautiful as Johansson and Cruz and quietly funny to boot. She is utterly hysterical in the Juan Antonio pick-up scene.

Also of note is Patricia Clarkson; Clarkson does a fine job playing one of the film’s catalysts. But does Clarkson ever deliver a bad performance?

And last but not least, the city of Barcelona has never looked so beautiful. It will be impossible to watch this film without becoming mad-for-Gaudi.

Bravo to Woody Allen for creating his best film in years. Manhattan is back and it is Barcelona.



Oliver Stone's
W.
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

Lionsgate

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
W.
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

Lionsgate
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


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

 

 

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