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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


 



Randall Miller's
Bottle Shock
Opens Friday, August 8, 2008

Written By: Randall Miller

Starring: Alan Rickman; Chris Pine; Bill Pullman; Rachael Taylor; Freddy Rodriguez; Bradley Whitford; Eliza Dushku; Dennis Farina; and Miguel Sandoval.

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

In these cynical times which find the U.S. plagued by an endless war, a weak dollar, rising unemployment and growing inflation, and some clear divisions between Red states and Blue states, sophisticated movie audiences cannot be blamed for wanting to see crowd-pleasing pictures with an IQ greater than 60. Such an audience uplift movie launches in August of this year, is based on a true incident, and may just be the most nationalistic picture you'll see all year. Bottle Shock does not relate to the out-of-sight prices you'll have to pay for wine but to one of the lesser known celebrations that took place during our country's bicentennial. (The title literally refers to the disturbance that could ruin wine if shipped in airplane cargo sections.) Just one year after the Vietnam War ended to few Americans' satisfaction, the U.S. beat the French in what might at least questionably be called a sport. Bottle Shock also depicts the enjoyable socking-it-to-you of a character that is a virtual caricature of a snob in the style of Maggie Smith's Lady Hester Random in Franco Zeffirelli's Tea With Mussolini.

Sundance-premiered Bottle Shock takes us back to 1976 when a California wine competed with the product of vintners from France, the country considered by oenophiles to have the world's best grapes and the world's most fabulous food. The thought that a Napa Valley vintner could stand up to Frenchwine-makers in France was considered laughable. But the film Bottle Shock shows not only how this happened, but the ways that the great victory might never have taken place at all.

Randall Miller, who wrote and directed the film, focuses his story on a father-son relationship, as well as on the virtues of the domestic grape. He centers his character study on the owner of Chateau Montelena, Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) and his less ambitious son, Bo (Chris Pine). Jim was apparently doing fine as a law partner in a real estate firm when he decided he wanted a real job. With three loans from a bank, he struggled to keep his winery afloat, coming yea close to declaring bankruptcy and crawling back to the law firm with his tail between his legs. Meanwhile Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), far more ambitious than Bo, works for Jim while he dreams of starting his own vineyard.

The competition between the U.S. and France in a sport that requires little more than the ability to twist the wrist and spit expensive spirits into silver containers is launched when Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a British expatriate in Paris who is friendly with Maurice Cantavale (Dennis Farina) and stuck with a failing wine business, decides to promote his career by sponsoring a contest between the two countries. But what's a fictionalized true story without a romance? Enter the hippie-ish, beautiful Sam Fulton (Rachael Taylor) who signs on with Jim's company as an intern while taking an understandable interest in Bo—particularly considering that the long-haired slacker resembles a younger Brad Pitt.

Director Miller helms his story like an urbane thriller pitting people whom the Brit and the French consider "hicks from the sticks" with their Gallic cousins across the pond who know quite a bit more about food and wine—or so they thought. The pace is slow at first. Miller takes time to develop his characters, punctuating the uneasy relationship between the aspiring dad and his lazy son who, when tension builds between them go into a ring with gloves and duke it out, each knocking the other man down several times in round one. Randall Miller, whose funky Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School deals with the search by a recent widower for a dying man's lost love at a school reunion, cuts back on that movie's gooey sentiment in favor of a rousing finale, which may not have the excitement of the recent Tiger Woods victory but allows us to leave in a good mood and without having to pick up our brains at the box office on the way out.

An epilogue notes that the bottle that beat the French is on display "at the Smithsonian Institute" (by which is probably meant the Smithsonian Institution). The entire movie is exquisitely photographed by Michael J. Ozier, whose shots of the vineyard just thirty-seven miles outside San Francisco is enough to motivate some of us to leave our cubicles for good and get our jeans dirty in the countryside. Postscriptum: As though conspiring the keep the under-17 audience away from pictures with soul, the MPAA rated this innocent movie "R" while awarding a PG-13 to the egregiously vulgar mediocrity, The Love Guru.

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


 


Julian Jarrold's
Brideshead Revisted
Opens July 25, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Julian Jarrold's
Brideshead Revisted
Opens July 25, 2008

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

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

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

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

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

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

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

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

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


 



Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight

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

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

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

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

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

Heavy? Sure. And thank God for that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight

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


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

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

Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.”



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


 



Benoir Magimel and Ludivine Sagnier in A Girl Cut in Two

Claude Chabrol's
A Girl Cut in Two (La fille coupee en deux)
Opens August 15, 2008


Written By: Claude Chabrol, Cecile Maistre

Starring: Ludivine Sagnier; Benoit Magimel; Francois Berleand; Mathilda May; Caroline Sihol; and Marie Bunel.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Claude Chabrol’s new film, A Girl Cut in Two (La fille coupee en deux), is a very French film based on an American story. Girl retells the story of the “Trial of the Century” – the 1906 murder of architect Stanford White by wealthy socialite Henry K. Thaw. Thaw had married a beautiful showgirl named Evelyn Nesbitt, who had formerly been White’s mistress. Overcome by jealousy of the older man’s supposed sexual prowess, Thaw shot White at a fete in the White-designed Madison Square Garden. Thaw was charged with first degree murder, but the jury decided he was insane. This story has been retold many times, most famously in author E. L. Doctorow 1975 novel, Ragtime.

French beauty Ludivine Sagnier (of Swimming Pool fame) plays the Evelyn Nesbitt part in A Girl Cut in Two, Gabrielle Aurore Deneige, the weather girl of a Parisian news station. Gabrielle meets two men simultaneously, famous author Charles Saint-Denis (played by François Berléand) and wealthy dilettante Paul André Claude Gaudens (played by Benoît Magimel). Rather counter-intuitively, Gabrielle falls madly in love with the older happily-married Saint-Denis. She is quite nonplussed by the wealthy, attractive, younger and borderline-crazy Paul.

Gabrielle and St. Denis begin a passionate love affair, one where he introduces her to the dark side of sex, the world of decadent sex acts and clubs. There is one much talked about scene where Gabrielle crawls to St. Denis while she is adorned only with huge peacock feathers that are supposedly stuck in her rear. But decadency aside, St. Denis soon hungers for something different and rejects the now desolate Gabrielle.

Gabrielle then does the besotted Paul a big favor and marries him, much to the disapproval of his mother, the haughty Geneviève Gaudens (played by Caroline Silhol). But as in the Nesbitt/White/Thaw triangle, the husband is never able to forget the image of his now wife in the arms of his rival, and he repeatedly forces her to confess her past indiscretions, fueling his hatred of St. Denis. And this hatred leads to death, just like it did in the original story.

All the performances in the film are first rate. The film is also very beautiful, beautifully shot and beautifully cast. The film is a talker like most French films. People analyze their emotions in depth. Class issues are plumbed; Paul’s jealous rage is fueled in part by his belief that a wealthy young man like himself should never have the problem of attracting and keeping a beautiful wife in the first place. And then there is the world of the intelligentsia versus the world of the bourgeois. All in all, A Girl Cut in Two is very French – sophisticated and urbane. If you have never watched French films, Girl would be a perfect place to start. You will never understand quite why the French find us so unrefined until you have a chance to visit their jaded and sophisticated world.

Good job!



 



Ludivine Sagnier and Francois Berleand in A Girl Cut in Two

Claude Chabrol's
A Girl Cut in Two (La fille coupee en deux)
Opens August 15, 2008


Written By: Claude Chabrol, Cecile Maistre

Starring: Ludivine Sagnier; Benoit Magimel; Francois Berleand; Mathilda May; Caroline Sihol; and Marie Bunel.

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

The title makes it sound as though this filim is about a magician who messes up big time with his female partner. As you can imagine, though, the name is allegorical—but only partly, as you'll note from the final scene which serves as epilogue. In Girl, one of France's most celebrated regisseurs, Claude Chabrol, directs and teams up with co-writer Cecile Maistre to turn out a heavy-handed, talky, but never dull tale of a gullible young French woman who is torn between the demands for affection of the two men in her life. It's no wonder that ménage-a-trois is a term invented by the French, though in this film, the two men in a woman's life do not occupy the latter's bed at the same time. Maybe that's the problem: when the men meet at various posh functions, the hostility can be cut with a magician's buzzsaw. Nothing good can come of this complex situation in a tale populated by an ensemble of extras, all of whom suggest that what Chabrol is up to is the creation of a comedy of manners: a culture war between old money, which is not so old since it represents a fortune inherited by a young, obnoxious man who acknowledges that he is used to getting what he wants; and new money, which comes to a best-selling writer accustomed to rave reviews.

Two of Chabrol's favorite themes are explored: his displeasure with bourgeois values; and the willingness of some to kill as proof of love.

While it may appear easy for a beautiful young woman to accept a proposal of marriage from the scion of a pharmaceutical fortune, or to accept the attentions and affections of a major celebrity, A Girl Cut in Two (La fille coupee en deux in its original title) offers some cautionary counsel. That handsome multi-millionaire may have dangerous traces of schizophrenia. The best-selling author has a wife who has already treats him well, making him highly unlikely to split and run away with the young charmer.

Benoit Magimel performs in the role of Paul Andre Claude Gaudens, a brash, seemingly confident, arrogant lad with a map of blond hair, an eye for the fair sex, and vulnerabilities that are cloaked by his devil-may-care attitude. When he spots Gabrielle-Aurore Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier), it's love at first sight. He virtually proposes on the day he meets her. Gabrielle works as a TV weather-girl on her way up, a weather-girl who looks as though she could still play Tinker-Bell, a role Ms Sagnier once tackled. Complicating the budding romance, novelist Charles Saint-Denis (Francois Berleand), who is twice Gabrielle's age, falls for her as well. The big surprise is that she reciprocates the older man's affections while stringing along the young playboy. The rivalry of the two men, neither likable, for the carnal and emotional attentions of the young maiden, leads to the melodramatic strain that takes over during the final episodes of the film.

A possible motivation for young Paul's nuttiness and feelings of guilt are explained by his snooty mother, Genevieve Gaudens (Caroline Sihol) when a flashback would have been more dramatic. French cinema, in fact, is famous (or notorious) for its emphasis on talk, to the exclusion, sometimes, of bold action. La fille coupee en deux is sometimes suffocating in its verbosity, but that's part of Chabrol's point. If you're a "commoner" with the chance to work your way into a moneyed family, be prepared to suffer endless evenings and weekends in the company of stuffed-shirts who wax poetic about the quality of the served brandy. You're marrying a clan, not must a man. The story is peopled with unlikable, pretentious characters, whose very pretences are illustrated by the worlds of television and books—which are ostensibly and proudly the essences of illusion.

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


 


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

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

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

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

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

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

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

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



Greg Chwerchak's
Greeting From the Shore
Opens Friday, September 12, 2008



Written By: Gabrielle Berberich and Greg Chwerchak
Starring: Kim Shaw; Paul Sorvino; David Fumero; Jay O. Sanders; Andrew Shaifer; AND Lars Arentz-Hansen
Newstyle Releasing/ Hudson Mermaid Productions
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

Forget about the sexual revolution. Things haven't changed at all since the publication of Maureen Daly's middle-school classic of 1942, Seventeenth Summer, about a gal named Angie who locked eyes with the handsomest guy she'd ever seen, and while sailing on her first date with him heard "You look nice with the wind blowing in your hair." As the late Ms. Daly reports, "she felt tingles, prickles, warmth: the tell-tale signs of romance." Or as one reviewer notes, "It's the beginning of an unforgettable summer for Angie, full of wonder, warmth, tears, challenge, and love."

OK maybe not all sixteen-year-olds these days are virginal—just ask one newly-celebrated young woman in Juneau. But make sure you turn off the CNN so that one Jenny Chambers (Kim Shaw) can remain as pure as Alaska's driven snow. In Greetings From the Shore, we witness possibly her first pangs of wonder, warmth, tears, challenge and love. All that was needed was for her to lock eyes with a fellow, Benicio Aceveda (David Fumero), a man surprisingly sensitive for one who spends most of his time at sea with a group of rough-looking characters who smoke like fiends, withdrawing their cigarettes from well-molded biceps.

Greetings, which was filmed by Mike Mickens on Barnegat Island on the Jersey shore which is dubbed with the name Lavallette. The foul-looking ocean water and a beach that looks like Coney Island in December makes me happy I was able to spend a summer on Mykonos instead. But who cares about topography when love is in the air? With a story that could find a place quite comfortably on cable, first time feature film director Greg Chwerchak lucks out by casting a radiant beauty in the role of the aforementioned seventeen-year-old.

Still grieving the recent death of her father—who (are you ready for this?) had to quit his studies at Columbia with just three credits to go because he had to support his family—Jenny is way short of money to enter that same Ivy-league institution. Her summer's job teaching English to mostly Russian bus-men at the island's yacht club and waiting tables will hardly give her the balance of $30,000 that she needs to make up for her first year's stingy financial aid. As the dog days recede, we fervently hope that writers Gabrielle Berberich and Greg Chwerchak will not leave her in the lurch attending (ugh) a public college in her own state like Rutgers. But how will they manage this? She doesn't look as though she'd sell her bod, hungry for funds though she may be. Watch the picture and find out, a film that featured Jay O. Sanders as the leading villain, club owner Commodore Callaghan, a high-rolling gambler not averse to throwing major insults to Catch Turner (Paul Sorvino), who is both divorced and estranged from his son. "Stick to losing your wife," advises the commodore when Catch is eager to join a high-rolling poker table. And that's when Callaghan is nice.

The story, however familiar and predictable, does not wear out its welcome during its 116 minutes thanks in large part to Kim Shaw, who in her lead role is bound to make many a fogey watching her in action wish that he were tall, dark and handsome—and a few decades younger. As for the "R" rating that the MPAA in its wisdom gave despite the almost complete absence of violence, chalk that up to a single word used several times, one which nobody below the age of seventeen has ever heard or should be encouraged to pick up.

Kim Shaw has done a few TV episodes, had a small role in the film version of Sex and the City, and won "Best Actress" for Greetings at the Wild Rose Independent Film Festival.

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



Andrew Fleming's
Hamlet 2
Opens August 22, 2008


Written By: Pam Brady and Andrew Fleming
Starring: Steve Coogan; Catherine Keener; David Arquette; Marshall Bell; Melonie Diaz; Joseph Julian Soria; Skylar Astin; and Phoebe Strole.

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

In New York City, a prospective teacher must take twelve credits, more or less, in the college Education department —courses that are universally thought to be not only bores but a waste of time. Real teachers get their inspiration from the movies. In Richard LaGravenese's Freedom Writers, Erin Gruwell takes on the toughest kids in town by having them write their own stories, a technique that somehow leads all of her students to attend college. In Liz Friedlander's Take the Lead, Pierre Dulaine motivates rough high-schoolers by teaching them to dance Latin, culminating in their participating in a major dance competition that combines ballroom with street. Then again, some educators get their students to care about the subject by being just plain nuts, as did Herbert Gower, playing an escapee from a mental institution who gets to sub for a day in Arthur Hiller's Teachers.

Andrew Fleming's Hamlet 2 pays no homage to stable, sane teachers like the real-life Erin Gruwell. In the movie he co-wrote with Pam Brady, he holds the view (if one may generalize) that the wackier the teacher, the more chance of a connection with so-called street-wise students. After all, anybody can teach an honors program. How to reach the reluctant? No better actor could have been chosen for the role of drama teacher Dana Marschz than Steve Coogan, a forty-two year old Manchester-born comic whose most celebrated movie is arguably 24 Hour Party People. The party he appears to be throwing throughout the entire 92 minutes of "Hamlet 2" is not one of unmixed joy for his character, as his connubial happiness is not shared by his wife, Brie (Catherine Keener)--who regularly accuses him, with justification, of shooting blanks. He has fights with the principal of the Tucson, Arizona school (filmed in Albuquerque), he battles his love for a nip o' the craythur, he must deal with a rambunctious bunch of Latino street kids.

While more gag set-ups drop like lead than not, the picture on the whole is a great deal of fun—if you don't insist on the joke-a-minute that laugh tracks interrupt religiously on TV sitcoms.

Director Fleming introduces us briefly to the character of Dana Marschz, a guy with the unpronounceable name, with clips from two commercials, one of which is a cute take-off on a herpes medication. When he has no more luck in Hollywood than Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, he winds up teaching drama in a Tucson High School, first to two kids, Rand (Skylar Astin) and Christian Epiphany (Phoebe Strole), then to a boatload when other arts programs are cancelled. It takes him time to catch the gag of the class wise guy Octavio (Joseph Julian Soria), who, when asked to introduce himself comes out with "My name is Heywood Jablome." When principal Rocker (Marshall Bell), who resembles a drill instructor more than a school head, informs Marschz that the drama program will be shut down for good at the end of the term, Marschz must convince the school board otherwise by dazzling the anticipated audience with a play.

Hamlet 2 resembles Shakespeare like Rush Limbaugh doubles for Al Sharpton. The controversial drama finds the kids, newly charged with a love for the stage, singing "Rock Me Jesus" while Hamlet, resuscitated via a time machine, forgives his father. (I thought it was his uncle that had to be forgiven, but no matter.)

Side character steal scenes when they can, particularly a hilarious appearance by Amy Poehler as ACLU attorney Cricket Feldstein, who makes a case that closing down the show before it gets off the ground violates the First Amendment. Elisabeth Shue, by contrast, comes across stiff playing Elisabeth Shue, who, burned out by Hollywood, now works as a nurse. David Arquette says practically nothing as a boarder that the cash-starved Marshzes take in. The school play, which features songs that are a mix of Sondheim and Webber, is a keeper, but Steve Coogan anchors the production, a fellow whose very appearance can evoke audience laughter. Hamlet 2, using the ten million dollar indie production's time machine, could solicit no small number of laughs from the Bard himself.

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


 


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

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

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

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten
Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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




Jiri Menzel's
I Served the King of England
(Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále)
Opens August 29, 2008

Written By: Jiri Menzel from the novel by Bohumil Hrabal
Starring: Ivan Barnev; Oldrich Kaiser; Julia Jentsch; Martin Huba; Marian Labuda; Milan Lasica; Josef Abrham; Jiri Labus; Jaromir Dulava; Zuzana Fialova; and Pavel Novy.

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

Two-score years of 20th Century Czechoslovak history are exploited for full entertainment value in an exhilarating film that the Czech Republic has tapped as its entry for the 2008 Academy Awards. Anchored by a stunning performance by Ivan Barnev as Jan Dite, a short, blond, naïve fellow with dreams of rising from hotel waiter to millionaire, I Served the King, a title taken from a quote by the maitre d' of Prague's most exclusive hotel, is an enthralling story. It is suffused with cinematographer Jaromir Sofr's arresting variety of visual styles, including the techniques of silent film and surrealism, and Ales Brezina's musical soundtrack serves as background to a story that with some imagination could serve as an elaborate ballet.

Writer-director Jiri Menzel, whose techniques were influenced by the films of Charlie Chaplin, Rene Clair, and Jean Renoir, is fortunate in adapting Bohumil Hrabal's novel to the screen, as Hrabal cleverly uses the life of a fictional Czech everyman to cast a cynical, humorous, satiric look at his country from the years 1920 through about 1960—a nation alternately ruled by the Nazis and Communists, powers that had a profound effect on Mr. Dite for short-term pleasures, but ultimately a life brought short by political events.

The film, known in its subtitled Czech as Obsluhoval jsem anglickeho krale, has been influenced by the 1960's New Wave, a school known for dark and absurd humor which for the Czechs like directors Milos Forman, Vera Chytilova, Ivan Passer and others dealt with the love-confusion of young people and the absence of morality in Czechoslovak society. The movement ended after the 1968 Soviet clampdown in the so-called Prague spring liberalization, leading many directors to flee the country while others, like Jiri Menzel, faced censorship of their works.

Menzel, whose 1967 Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains (Ostre sledovane vlaky) adapted Bohumil Hrabal's story of a young man who follows his father's footsteps and joins the railway company, where he learns the job and has his first affair, here explores themes of money, sex, power and greed. The now-aging Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser), having been just freed from almost fifteen years in a Prague prison per Communist persecution of "millionaire-exploiters," has been sent to the Sudetenland where, following World War 2, the Germans have been expelled. The buildings are now is in ruins, though Dite fixes up a cabin while he looks back on his life, particularly his memories of women, wealthy hotel guests, and a short-lived financial success. Jan Dite's name is not an arbitrary one, but one that in English means "John Child"—in other words an immature fellow and to a large extent an Everyman. During the 1920s' Dite (now played by the Bulgarian-born Ivan Barnev) had only one ambition—to sell frankfurters to passengers on the trains. We watch in silent-film mode as he winds up keeping a passenger's large bill, as the train pulls out to quickly for Dite to make change.

Fate takes Dite away from the train station, into posh Prague hotels where he serves as waiter par excellence, literally dancing around the tables as he dishes out steins of Pilsner and an array of restaurant courses. He admires the maitre d', to whose position he aspires, though he would not likely attain the class of a man who can speak Korean, German, French, Czech and who knows what other languages to the international guests. He has affairs with some beautiful hookers whose clients are mostly the capitalist guests, though he falls for a Nazi ideologue, Liza (Julia Jentsch), who insists on staring at a large portrait of Hitler as she and Dite make love. When the Nazis exit and the Communists take their place, Dite is no longer the naïve opportunist—having been ground down, but still smiling, by the vicissitudes of life.

While the story itself is a keeper and Ivan Barnev a natural for playing a Candide-like character, the miracle of the film lies largely in writer-director Jiri Menzel's dare-one-say choreography, a man whose thematic vision is nicely realized by Jaromir Sofr's lensing. The most darkly humorous incidents revolve around the Nazi plan to gather Germany's most beautiful women in a eugenics program, women who await sperm-test results of "Aryan" men before they pair off and enter separate rooms of the hotel for breeding. The film is replete with voice-overs, too many particularly in the opening segment, but embracing the strongest point that "A person becomes human almost against his own will." Too bad it takes so many decades for a child to become a man, or as the Pennsylvania Dutch like to say, "We get old too soon and too late schmart."

Rated R. 118 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


 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried in Mamma Mia!

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

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

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

Universal Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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


 

David Gordon Green's
Pineapple Express
Opens August 6, 2008


Written By: Seth Rogen; Evan Goldberg; Story by Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg.

Starring: James Franco; Seth Rogen; Craig Robinson; James Remar; Gary Cole; Rosie Perez; Danny McBride; Kevin Corrigan; Craig Robinson; Amber Heard; Ed Begley Jr.; Nora Dunn; and Bobby Lee.

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

The general movie-going public generally knows about celebrity actors like Brad Pitt and famous directors like Steven Spielberg, but are rarely acquainted with scriptwriters and producers. Judd Apatow is an exception. As with Jerry Bruckheimer, who is better-known than the directors he uses, movie buffs generally identify pictures produced by Apatow as being Apatow pictures, putting directors like David Gordon Green in a separate, less holy category. Apatow may not have been the first to vulgarize movies (I say that in a positive way) but nowadays he is extolled for producing such hilarious works as Superbad, Knocked Up, Walk Hard, The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Anchorman. While Anchorman and Talladega Nights were comparatively mediocre thanks in part to the unfunny performances of Steve Carrell and Will Ferrell respectively, Superbad and Knocked Up rate as instant classics.

With Pineapple Express, though, the Apatow fraternity, trying to get a little help from his friends, has generated a comparative puff piece . The movie's principal feature is its Woodstock ambience. Enough weed is smoked by the two stoners to make those of us old enough to know that the sixties are back right now in the midst of all the panic and fear of economic recession and mortgage foreclosures. James Franco is appealing enough in the role of drug-dealer Saul Silver, a laid-back guy whose principal concern is that he has many customers but no real friends, until he meets and goes through life-challenging events with Dale Denton (Seth Rogen), a patron who is becoming his best buddy. But the hackneyed action—car chases, idiotic bandits, a high-school senior with a family that curses like the best of the younger set—coupled with insipid, non-sequitur dialogue that goes on seemingly without end for the movie's nearly two-hour stretch—derails this express shortly after its opening half-hour.

What promises to be a Knocked-Up-Superbad-style relationship between Dale Denton, a twenty-five-year old court process server, and a young woman seven years his junior, soon degenerates into an almost formless story of male bonding, the ties among disparate people firmed up after the young men are chased by a drug kingpin who knows that one of them had witnessed a murder.

Pineapple Express is quite a departure for director David Gordon Green, whose George Washington —about how preteens in a small North Carolina town react to a terrible accident—wooed the arthouse crowd with its startling imagery and naturalistic performances. Though Tim Orr's lens casts a wide net across the big screen at the multiplex, pedestrian panoramas take the place of dreamy cinematography.

As Dale Denton, Seth Rogen serves subpoenas on an array of people, using disguises to wend his way into their confidence while at night he courts Angie (Amber Heard), a cute high-school kid who will doubtless forget about him when she enters college. He buys ultra-strong marijuana from dealer Saul Silver (James Franco), who uses the money, so he says, to keep his "bubby" (grandmother) in a nursing home. Saul, eager to make just one friend out of a customer, is led by Dale into the business of murderous drug dealers because Dale had witnessed a murder of a rival drug lord and company, whose perps track him down by the weed he dropped at the crime scene. Ted Jones (Gary Cole), together with accomplices Budlofsky (Kevin Corrigan), Matheson (Craig Robinson) and corrupt police officer Carol (Rosie Perez) are determined to kill Dale and anyone with whom he has been in contact, Saul's pal Red (Danny McBride) crosses over into the criminal conspiracy, though Dale hopes to win him back to the cause of the good guys. Throughout the chase, Dale has time to meet his sweetheart's parents (Ed Begley Jr. and Nora Dunn), who try desperately to evoke laughs from the audience by their own vulgar vocabulary.

Director Green might do well (albeit not financially) to go back to his métier making indie films while the Apatow team would do well to concentrate on satirical romance and leave the crime genre to Quentin Tarantino.

Reviewed for New York Cool 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


 



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

Opens Friday, May 30, 2008



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

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 



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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

Reviewed by Adam Ritter

Like Fergie Meets Jesus

Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell) and Dale Doback (John C. Reilly) are middle-aged layabouts who never quite got around to moving out of their parents' homes.

They've kept busy watching television, masturbating, playing drums and doing all of the things that, as far as I'm concerned, transform a normal weekend into a great one.

Their simple worlds are about to be rocked however, because Brennan's mom (Mary Steenburgen looking a little on the tan side) and Dale's dad (Richard Jenkins) have fallen in love. The couple's resultant marriage makes step-brothers (and instant adversaries) of the film's stars.

Of course, the premise is irrelevant; the main function of the plot is to reunite Mr. Ferrell with his Talladega Nights co-star, Mr. Reilly (and writer / director Adam McKay) and just see what happens. Subtlety, as always, is not the trio's strong suit.

The measure by which you will judge this film entertaining is a simple one; if you can watch any Will Ferrell performance with a straight face, this is probably not your fare of choice. However if the opposite is true, then you will find yourself laughing (not hard but) often as both characters find creative ways to articulate and demonstrate their loathing for one another.

To reveal more of the plot would serve only to diminish its humor.

There isn't much here to think too deeply about and if you're the stickler who likes to point out that a movie scenario "would never happen", you may be more aggravated than amused.

Be aware though that the movie is not as family-friendly as some of the trailers (and the demographic in my theater) might insinuate.

 



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.



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.



Jonathan Levine's
The Wackness
Opens July 3, 2008

Written By: Jonathan Levine

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

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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




Mary-Kate Olsen and Ben Kingsley
The Wackness

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

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

Reviewed by Noelle Ashley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

 

 

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