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Tribeca Film Festival Reviews
April 22 - May 3, 2009


Opposite Photo:
Rachael Roberts and Josh McLane
Photo Credit: Evan Sung






Stephan Elliott’s
Easy Virtue
2009 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Stephan Elliott, the imaginative director of the 1994 cult classic The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert has been absent from the helmer’s seat for too long. He decided to retire from films after the 2000 studio experience Eye of the Beholder (guess a Hollywood movie will do that to a guy) and then proceeded to ski off a cliff and break his back, neck and legs (guess…nah, too easy!)

The good news is that he is fully recovered in every sense and has made a wickedly refreshing and splendid new film of Noel Coward’s 1924 play.

Coward was only twenty-three when he wrote Easy Virtue and there has only been one screen adaptation—by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928--a silent version meaning all the wonderful and witty repartee’ became moot on the big screen.

Elliott has adapted the play quite marvelously with Sheridan Jobbins keeping true to Coward’s spirit but giving the film a modern feel. He’s even taken a few contemporary songs and, anachronistically, rerecorded them to evoke the 1920s. Like Baz Lurhmann, Elliott is an edgy and original showman who likes to take risks with his images and his soundtrack. Here they pay off smashingly.

Easy Virtue is the story of the end of an era—and in Coward’s mind, good riddance to it! The target: the upper class British landowners with their Victorian judgmental morals and surface smiles holding steadfastly to their traditions while raising a generation of children who could not wait to hop into the burgeoning jazz age where a more egocentric notion of living was beginning to dominate.

The Whittaker family embodies this dichotomy to perfection.

The matriarch, played brilliantly by Kristin Scott Thomas, is a woman desperate to hold onto to her family and their values—as well as the land that has been her family for seven generations. In the hands of a lesser actress this could have easily been a villainous campy bitch that we laughed at and hated. The genius of Scott Thomas’ performance is that we actually sympathize with her and sometimes, actually root for her—something Coward may not have intended but the nuance works so well.

Colin Firth masterfully portrays Mr. Whittaker, a man whose soul died during the war and, consequently, has--in Firth’s words--“gone slightly feral.” The actor has a particularly poignant scene where he describes his war experience.

Their only son, John (played nicely by Ben Barnes who, in another era, could have been a matinee idol with the likes of Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn) has returned home and brought with him his new, and completely inappropriately free-spirited American wife, played by the gorgeous Jessica Biel. Let the verbal sparks begin!

Biel is problematic. A Winslet or Blanchett (with perfect American accents) could have brought the strong sense-of-self necessary to pull off this difficult and challenging role. And to Biel’s credit she does succeed occasionally--especially in her endscene. But she is out of her depth with the likes of Firth and Scott Thomas.

Easy Virtue is a hilarious and satiric comment on a particularly fascinating time that resonates today. The production values are first rate and Elliott’s frenetic and bedazzling directorial style will enchant and envelop you.

Paola Mendoza & Gloria La Morte’s
Entre Nos
2009 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

I went into Paola Mendoza & Gloria La Morte’s Entre Nos without reading any press notes and knowing nothing about the film—except that it was in Spanish. And I am so happy I did! So read no further and simply see this gem with sleeper potential written all over it.

Okay, you didn’t listen to me!

Entre Nos is based on the true travails of Mendoza’s mother, a Colombian woman who emigrated to the U.S. with her two children, joining her husband, so they could have the proverbial ‘better life’ in America. Their world, however, turns into a harrowing nightmare when, after only two weeks in the land of opportunity, the husband decides to abandon his family, leaving them with a few dollars and an apartment that has three months rent due.

What follows is an absorbing tale of survival as Mariana does what she must to hold her family together and, ultimately, triumph.

As portrayed by Mendoza, Mariana is a strong and resilient woman fueled by her own grit and determination. It’s an extraordinary performance, made even more impressive by the fact that she’s basically playing her own mother in a film she has co-written and co-directed and dedicated to her mom. Not being privy to that knowledge I was able to truly appreciate the actress instead of being bogged down with the triple-duty facts.

Newcomers Sebastian Villada Lopez and Laura Montana Cortez give wonderfully naturalistic performances as Mariana’s kids and Lopez has the heartbreaking yet uplifting last line in the film.

There were a few holes that should have been filled--regardless of the real story--if only for narrative cohesion, specifically, giving us a clue as to why the father left. We are only given a small hint at the beginning. The film would have been stronger if his journey was juxtaposed with theirs. Instead, he is simply vilified. But that in no way takes away from the power of this terrific and altogether compelling film.

Steven Soderbergh’s
The Girlfriend Experience
2009 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Steven Soderbergh is one of the few film directors working today who continues to challenge himself and his audience. His films are certainly entertaining but he is an artist first and foremost.

The Girlfriend Experience is a fascinating character study that never judges its players. It does attempt, in non-pretentious fashion, to psychoanalyze them and that’s part of what makes the movie a joy to behold. Soderbergh and his writers, Brian Koppelman and David Levien who wrote the smashingly subversive Ocean’s 13, are concerned with uncovering the delusional behavior of Chelsea and Chris—conscious and otherwise.

The time is pre-election, economic meltdown 2008 and the filmmakers have much fun with these two important elements. Soderbergh’s gift for deft satire and metaphor work brilliantly as he shows us a few days in the life of a self-made “capitalist.”

Chelsea is a “sophisticated” call girl who provides her clients with what they need: sex, someone who will listen to their daily problems and sometimes simply company. She never forgets to ask about the wife and kids and seems forever concerned that her clients are satisfied.

As played by popular porn star Sasha Grey (who is only 21 and has over 80 adult film titles under her belt), Chelsea seems like a strong, willful, cool and intelligent girl—a Bree Daniels for the new millennium (Jane Fonda’s groundbreaking performance in Alan J. Pakula seminal 1971 film Klute.) Yet as Soderbergh’s genius non-linear narrative unfolds/envelops/exposes we realize how insecure, frightened, narcissistic and borderline vapid Chelsea really is.

Chelsea is in a ‘committed’ relationship with Chris (Chris Santos), a sexy and ambitious personal trainer always looking to better himself financially. The relationship, with governing rules, seems to work until Chelsea decides she wants to go away for the weekend with a married screenwriter— seemingly to further her own writing career—something Chris will not stand for.

Santos has great screen appeal and bears a striking resemblance to James Marsden. This is his first feature film.

Soderbergh’s directorial style is deliberately docu-invasive; some of his shots have an intentional webcam-static feel about them forcing the viewer into peeping tom mode. And since he also shot and cut the film (under his typical pseudonyms) he is able to precisely weave Chelsea’s tale in his own masterful way, by stripping away (permission to pun) at the illusions she puts forth.

The performances stay specific to Soderbergh’s style. The two leads deliver bold, mock-realistic, camera-conscious turns.

One of the many themes The Girlfriend Experience tackles is that of criticism and the notion of who is qualified to judge. Soderbergh has been unjustly vilified for some of the edgier choices he’s made in his eclectic 20-year career. In a particularly uncomfortable scene, Chelsea has a meeting with a sleazy, disgusting “critic,” played by a hilarious Glenn Kenny, who labels himself the Erotic Connoisseur. He manages to manipulate her into a freebie and proceeds to tear her sexual performance apart in a scathing online review read over the visual of street singers performing, “Everyone’s a Critic.”

The final scene in the film is powerful in what it has to say about human needs and how simple they can be.

Soderbergh loves the film medium and keeps breaking rules, pushing boundaries and, even, working within accepted genres, but he is always exploring. And let’s thank the cinema gods for that!

Darko Lungulov’s
Here & There

2009 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Eerily reminiscent of last year’s indie hit, The Visitor, Darko Lungulov’s sweet and evocative film Here & There, centers on Robert, a likeable yet misanthropic loner played by the perfectly brittle David Thornton, who is being tossed out of his apartment and forced to stay with a very bitchy Cyndi Lauper. While moving out of his place, he strikes up an unlikely business relationship with the mover, Branko (an excellent Branislav Trifunovic), who seems to have the solution to Robert’s financial woes.

Robert agrees to fly to Serbia and marry Branko’s girlfriend so she can attain a “fiancé visa” so they can live together in America. But Robert's life permanently changes when he meets and falls in love with Branko’s lovely mother, Olga (Mirjana Karanovic, the film’s heart). The movie crosscuts the back and forth (here and there) of Branko’s difficulties in the U.S. with Robert and Olga’s atypical courtship in Serbia.

What would normally be seen as predictable material is transformed into a fascinating character study by writer/director Lungulov and the actors take it to an even greater level of originality.

Lauper’s character is only seen briefly at the beginning of the film which is a shame because she’s makes an indelible impression. We do get to hear her sing the terrific title song as the end credits roll.

Armando Iannucci’s
In the Loop
2009 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Not since Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog, in 1997, has a motion picture brilliantly captured the true redundancy of political satire. In the Loop, a bold, abrasive new comedy courtesy of the UK, cleverly sends up the maneuverings and machinations of the leaders of the two most powerful nations on the planet (or the two nations that think they have the most power anyway…)

The film grew out of the BBC series The Thick of It and is deftly written by director Armando Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche, with additional dialogue by Ian Martin.

Iannucci masterfully combines what is side-splittingly funny with jaw-dropping, cynical truths.

The lunatic narrative (which warrants repeat viewings to totally appreciate and savor) explodes when Britain’s Secretary of State for International Development, Simon Foster (a perfectly befuddled and dundercloddish Tom Hollander), has the audacity to suggest that war in the Middle East is “unforeseeable.” This tears the lid off a can of political worms that slithers crazy and pisses many folks in the warmongering government off. Foster attempts to backpeddle and spin his gaffe at a press conference declaring, “Britain must be ready to climb the mountains of conflict.” Gleefully, the Americans enter the picture and the Strangelovian plot festers and kicks into zany gear.

The acting is sensational with a cast of seasoned pros that complement one another. James Gandolfini is particularly hilarious as an off-kilter US General. But the film belongs to Peter Capaldi. As spin-doctor extraordinaire, Malcolm Tucker, Capaldi gives a relentlessly furious performance so enjoyable it should be criminal! His nasty and searing line deliveries are some of the funniest movie moments I have seen in eons. Someone get this guy a gold statue…or his own HBO show!

Midway through the film, a debate ensues about increasing the number of troops. Gandolfini’s burly General argues the need for the escalation explaining: “At the end of the war, you need some troops left or it looks like you’ve lost.” How do you argue with that kind of frighteningly illogical logic?



Donald Petrie’s
My Life in Ruins

2009 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Fresh on the heels of the painfully unfunny Matthew McConaughey debacle Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, comes Nia Vardalos’ long-awaited follow-up to the forgettable Connie and Carla (2004)—which was her sophomore effort after the somewhat overrated smash My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2003).

McConaughey seemed so bent (no pun intended) on proving just how heterosexual he is in Ghosts that he forgot to read the horrific script.

Vardalos penned the first two screenplays but with My Life in Ruins, should have either forced her own rewrite…or simply passed.

As a screen actress Vardalos is appealing enough. She’s quite winning and can easily charm the viewer, even with her new Hollywood makeover. The problem is the movie is loaded with cheap jokes, clichés galore, a predictable narrative and one-dimensional characters. The only thing the film has going for it, besides Vardalos, is the gorgeous Greek settings— although the photography in Mamma Mia! captured Greece more magnificently.

The paint-by-numbers plot has Georgia (Vardalos) working for a travel agency (shades of Greek Wedding) as a tour guide and being forced to deal with every conceivable stereotype tourist. There’s a hot Greek bus driver named Poupi Kaka (yes, these are the type of jokes) who has it for the oblivious Georgia, the wise Jewish widow (an annoying Richard Dreyfuss) and a host of other characters you wouldn’t ever want to be stuck anywhere with. Of course, by the film’s end, everyone loves everyone and have all learned valuable life lessons from one another. Gag!

And if all that wasn’t bad enough, the homophobic portrait of Greek gays is as sad as it is offensive.

Poorly directed by Donald Petrie from an abysmal script by Mike Reiss, My Life in Ruins is a film in shambles.

Go see Star Trek instead.

Kirby Dick’s
2009 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Kirby Dick tackled the ridiculous and prehistoric motion picture rating’s board in his compelling documentary, This Film is Not Yet Rated. Now he’s focused on closeted gay politicians in the smart and incisive new film Outrage.

Don’t let the air of self-importance and the “brilliantly orchestrated conspiracy” pronouncement scare you. Dick does a damn good job or making a case for outing these latent politicos since they are doing damage to “out” gays by voting against every pro-gay piece of legislation.

The film opens with former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey discussing the difficulty of being true to who you are when you’re in public office and ends with the remarkable Harvey Milk asking every gay person to come out. In between, Dick constructs a fascinating and thought-provoking patchwork of the toll the closet takes on many a public figure as well as the tremendous hypocrisy involved in remaining in the closet and needing to prove you are not gay by going to the extreme of harming them.

The film features now notorious bathroom granddaddy, Senator Larry Craig, and his constant denials as well as his proclamations of homosexuality as a sin—with his wife staunchly by his side (“Is she insane?” an interviewee wonders).

Among the many prominent talking heads weighing in are fun-loving Rep. Barney Frank, activist Michelangelo Signorile, playwrights Tony Kushner and Larry Kramer and blogger Michael Rogers, who has made it his mission to out conservative gay political figures.

The power of Outrage becomes feverishly obvious when it chronicles the saga of Florida governor and 2012 Republican presidential hopeful Charlie Crist. His pathetic, yet dangerous story seems to parallel that of certain Hollywood actors—with the notable difference that he’s voted against all gay issues his entire career (including gays being allowed to adopt as well as hate crime legislation), and thus helps deny gays their rights.

One of the most important points that Dick makes is that the mainstream media does not bother to probe these stories, they actually help in covering them up (again mirroring Hollywood and the media) which makes them complicit in homophobia.

Outrage is a timely and significant work. Here’s hoping the media as well as everyday citizens take notice.

Carlos Cuaron’s
Rudo y Cursi
2009 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Rudo y Cursi is a deceptive little film.

I was excited to see it because the writer/director, Carlos Cuaron, co-wrote the screenplay for the extraordinary Y Tu Mama Tambien which starred Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna. But midway through Rudo, I began to question some of the more obvious and cliché choices being made by the cast and director as well as some of the plot contrivances.

When it ended, however, I realized how clever the film actually is. Rudo y Cursi is an unapologetic, satiric and nasty little parable about two brothers who find themselves in competition with one another--bringing out the worst in both.

Luna and Bernal play Beto and Tato Verdusco. They work on a banana plantation and play soccer in their spare time, earning the nicknames “tough” and “corny” (Rudo y Cursi). Beto’s dream is to be a professional soccer player while Tato wants to be a famous singer (leading to some of the most hilarious moments in the film). Tato is chosen by a soccer scout to go to Mexico City (via a misunderstanding with his brother) which makes Beto feel betrayed. Tato achieves success and soon Beto is also playing soccer professionally. The brothers become rivals and must work through the mess that fame has brought them.

In his first directorial feature, Cuaron proves he knows exactly what he’s doing, working within accepted filmic norms to tell his tale of the dangers of success and how jealousy can destroy.

Rudo is the personification of envy and dissatisfaction. When he finally gets what he wants, he is driven to gamble it all away.

Cursi’s downfall is brought about because he buys into the superficiality success can bring: material possessions and a hot TV starlet who can give a shit about him but loves what he stands for and how much he’s worth.

Bernal, always the more likeable of the two, is a delight—especially when he is singing (badly!) It would have been nice to see Luna play the sweetie for a change and have Bernal take on the role of the scumbag but they work well together regardless.

Rudo y Cursi is one of the few films I have seen that show just how mean and fickle sports fans can be—especially soccer fans. It’s an enjoyable pic that has some incisive things to say. I was especially thrilled with how and where the brothers end up.

Larry David in Woody Allen's Whatever Works

Woody Allen's
Whatever Works
2009 Tribeca Film Festival

Written by: Woody Allen
Starring: Larry David; Rachel Evan Wood; Patricia Clarkson; Ed Begley, Jr.; Jessica Hect; and Carolyn McCormick.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Woody Allen has returned (briefly?) from his sojourn abroad where he produced the Oscar winning Vicky Cristina Barcelona (arguably one of his finest films), the charming English sisters - March Point and Scoop and the less-charming-but-still good English crime film Cassandra's Dream. Allen has returned to the world of Manhattan Jewish angst he so beautifully memorialized in films such as Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Allen has obviously determined that he is too old to star in a romantic comedy and has picked a younger man to play his normal role - Larry David. Yes, Larry David.

The film opens with Larry David's character Boris (a once famous physicist, now a complaining has been) jumping from the window of his then wife Jessica's (Carolyn McCormick) apartment. And no, they did not have a fight. All the conflicts in this film are pretty much held inside Boris's head.

Boris and Jessica split up and Boris moves down town into one of those apartments that look down-at-the-mouth to non-New Yorkers but epitomize the loft-of-your-dreams to most Manhattanites. There, one night, he finds a waif, Melody (played by Evan Rachel Wood), on his doorstep. Melody is fleeing a stagnant life in Baptist Mississippi (who wouldn't?). Boris reluctantly lets her into his apartment and from there into his life. And like sand in an oyster, Melody becomes both a spiritual and comedic stimulus for Boris's life.

And with Melody comes change. Boris becomes slightly more pleasant and his adorable prodigy Melody starts sprouting the angst drive pap she has learned from her mentor. More change arrives/ occurs when Melody's mother Marietta (played by Patricia Clarkson) and her father John (played by Ed Begley Jr.) arrive on Boris's doorstep. Marietta and John have been searching for their wayward daughter and when Melody informs them that she is married to Boris (yes, yes, this is what happens) and will not leave, they stay.

The next part of the film is a poem about the magic of Manhattan, an island which can and has changed the lives of so many immigrants whether from Bosnia or Mississippi. Freed from the fundamentalist Christianity of the rural South, Marietta and Boris quickly join the world of New York City bohemia. Marietta in particular, makes some bizarrely funny life style choices.

Whatever Works is one of Allen's good films, not one of the great ones. He is revisiting the world of Manhattan and Annie Hall, but to lesser effect. Much of this lesser effect is due to the ham-fisted, one-tone acting style of Larry David. David does not ruin the film, he just seems to have wondered onto the stage from the Curb Your Enthusiasm set next door. Wood and Clarkson, however, give beautifully tuned performances as a mother and daughter who have pulled up their Southern roots and transplanted their lives in the city of dreams. Allen has a gift for getting amazing performance from women, much of which is probably due to the fact that he also writes incredible roles for the women in his films.

The real star of this film is Manhattan , as it is in all of Allen's New York based films. Whatever's Manhattan is a city of endless possibilities, where a beautiful waif can arrive on bitter old man's doorstep, where a southern matriarch can become a star of the Manhattan art scene, where good old boys can become happier and gayer than before, where a chance meeting in a coffee shop can result in love and where a man can jump out of a window (again) and land in an entire new world on top of a brand new love (Helena, played by Jessica Hecht).

The Whatever Works in the title means seize the day, find your happiness where you can and in the paraphrased words of Larry David's character,"Life is incredibly random and almost everything depends upon luck."

Whatever Works was the opening night selection of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.










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