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Alfre Woodard and Nicole Beharie
American Violet

Tim Disney's
American Violet
Opens Friday, April 17, 2009

Written By: Bill Haney
Starring: Nicole Beharie; Tim Blake Nelson; Will Patton; Michael O’Keefe; Xzibit; Charles Dutton; and Alfre Woodard

Samuel Goldwyn Films/ Uncommon Productions
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Samuel Goldwyn Films is an independent studio known for releasing arty films that take risks, are adventurous, are different from the mainstream and are for select audiences. American Violet may be an exception to the rule. Violet has a mainstream theme with its heroes and villains and its goal to elicit from the audience heartbreaks, tears, smiles and joy at the victories of the good guys.

American Violet has a simple narrative without reliance on special effects or impressionistic images. Since the film is based on a true story, we are not spoiling audience expectations by relating an outcome that will be welcomed by all people of good spirit and intentions. And the film is blessed by a stunning performance from newcomer Nicole Beharie, who is actually performing in her second film but the first film to bring her remarkable talents to the fore.

While we like to think that our country has come a long way in the fight for racial justice—and it most certainly has—there are pockets of resistance in small towns, particularly in the South. Melody, Texas, the area of all the story’s actions, is a village so rural that not even Google carries a listing. This is a town run not by its mayor but by its district attorney, a racist who has the judges on his side and the police in his pocket. Under his direction, the police repeatedly make raids on projects in the poorest sections of the town, those which are inhabited almost one hundred percent by people of color. And while petty larcenies like shoplifting are prosecuted with some fervor, the principal crime that provides residents for the county jail is the peddling of drugs, particularly crack cocaine. But the case that is covered in American Violet, is certainly one that the D.A. should never have pressed.

Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie), is a single mother of four who is picked up by the police in raid on her housing project, an action that netted some who may well be guilty of drug trafficking, but which also nets Dee on a drug selling charge because of the testimony of a single resident. Though she has done nothing, her mother, Alma (Alfre Woodard), urges her to cop a plea, as does her appointed lawyer, to abort a potential 16-25 year sentence. This proposed plea would require her to plead guilty and get ten years’ probation, but the plea would also brand her a felon and result in her being evicted with her kids from the project. Harassed on one side by the abusive father (Xzibit) of two of her children and on the other by a overzealous D.A., Calvin Beckett (Michael O’Keefe), she weighs the plea offer. She is dissuaded by David Cohen (Tim Blake Nelson) who is sent by the American Civil Liberties Union to persuade Dee to sue the D.A. with the age old sports and war adage that the best defense is a good offense. With the not entirely enthusiastic help of former assistant D.A. Sam Conroy (Will Patton), they call Calvin Beckett into legal chambers during a deposition with the hope of impeaching his credibility.

American Violet boasts solid ensemble performances, including one by Malcolm Barrett in the role of Byron Hill, a lawyer who most of the time is a silent participant to the proceedings, but whose fury is unleashed during the second half of the movie. In a plot twist, some testimony that appears to come out of nowhere, a dues ex machine if you will, enabling Hill to do what everyone in the audience prays he will do. During the movie’s epilogue, we learn that the D.A. in real life has been re-elected, presumably—as implied by the script—because many of the town’s African Americans have police records and are unable to vote while at the same time the whites in the burg just may not be entirely opposed to racist tactics.

Director Disney (A Question of Faith) does not hide his liberal inclinations, now and then showing us some file film of the tainted election of 2000—by which he just might imply that the corruption endemic to the town of Melody, TX can be found in the American justice system at the very highest level.

Rated PG-13. 103 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Aristomenis Tsirbas'
Battle for Terra
Opens Friday, May 1, 2009

Written By: Evan Spiliotopoulos
Starring: Voices of Evan Rachel Wood; Brian Cox; Luke Wilson; James Garner; Chris Evans; Dennis Quaid; Justin Long; Amanda Peet; and Danny Glover

Lionsgate/ Roadside Attractions
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Terra falls into the Star Wars world of sci-fi entertainment; it has interplanetary fury on its animated mind. The technology is amazing. While the characters are anything but people with depth, they’re all paradoxically three-dimensional. This 3-D IMAX production is politically to the left, an indictment of the military guys on Earth, who, having lost their planet in a war involving Mars and another celestial body, are looking for lebensraum somewhere out there in the vast beyond.

The idea is not so far out if you’ve been reading the latest astronomy news, which assures us of what we knew all along: the Earth is not the only planet with conditions amenable to human life. One particular area has just been discovered that has all the requirements of an advanced civilization, but colonizing it would be impractical since it’s forty-one light years away. For astronauts, this would give new meaning to the term “are we there yet?”

The planet Terra is a Shangri-La, unlike our own living space. As created in this film by the pen of Evan Spiliotopoulos and with human voices directed by Aristomenis Tsirbas, Terra is free of war and seems not to require any arduous labor—something like the folks in the over-praised Wall-E who whiled away their time as obese, lazy creatures. But these Terrareans are slim as tadpoles with a resemblance thereto. They like to fly around merrily, which is fine with the government of Elders, so long as they stay away from dangerous areas like what on our planet might be Tehran and Washington. They do respect their elders, strange as this may seem, except for Mala (Evan Rachel Wood) who wonders whether everything her government says is right—at which point her conforming dad sends her into her room for being sassy.

When a number of space ships are sighted, they are assumed to be gods in much the way some of America’s indigenous population reacted to the presence of Europeans centuries back. Too trusting by half. Mala’s dad is kidnapped by the human beings, but nonetheless Mala helps pilot Jim Stanon (Luke Wilson) when he crash-lands his craft—hoping in return that he will get her to her father to arrange for his freedom. A new alliance is formed, human and Terrarean, to protect the planet from the insidious design of earthlings like General Hemmer (Brian Cox) to render the place habitable for people but toxic to the locals.

To the credit of scripter Spiliotopoulos, neither the earthlings nor the Terrareans act like angels. Yet the film, which has superb technical effects enhanced by those pesky glasses that turn everything a couple of shades darker and are particularly annoying if you already wear specs, has no dialogue that would fly over the heads of the tots in the audience while drawing smiles or guffaws from the adults.

Rated R. 90 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 


Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield's
Earth
Opens April 22, 2009

Disneynature
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Written By: Leslie Megahey, Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield
Starring: Voice of James Earl Jones, thousands of animals

It’s a jungle out there—and not only on Wall Street. As President Obama stated on 60 Minutes the other day, some of these executives like the ones at AIG, should get out of their urban zoos (yes, cities are more like zoos than jungles) and take a look at the rest of the world and get some perspective. Perspective is what you get with a vengeance while watching Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield’s breathlessly photographed Earth. Leslie Megahey, Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield’s script is intoned dramatically and sometimes humorously by the great James Earl Jones. This is the kind of film that could make you toss away your $150 digital camera or $800 camcorder and leave photography to the pros. The real pros behind the lenses, Richard Brooks Burton, Mike Holding and Andrew Shillabeer, make this a must-see for nature lovers and Wall Street executives alike.

Thematically, though, there is nothing especially new about Earth, though if you are an avid fan of the Discovery Channel, you now get to see a variety of our fellow animals on the big screen. There are two criticisms I have, so to get these out of the way: 1) The film has a droll side but cannot compare to the humor that pervades Luc Jacquet’s La Marche de l’emperour, which benefits from focusing exclusively on penguins; 2) the cameras cut away just as attack animals are about to consume their hunting successes, thereby, perhaps, garnering a “G” rating where a “PG” would otherwise have been mandated.

Taking us from the frozen Arctic to the scorching Kalahari Desert, from the tropical rain forests of New Guinea and back to the Arctic, Fothergill and Linfield dazzle. They no only show us the beauty of one particular bird doing a mating dance that would have seduced me but did not succeed with his date, but focus as well on the search of some aggressive animals for meals. For example, when a polar bear known as “the father” gets out for some Arctic air after hibernating for six months, he’s pretty hungry. He searches for walrus meat, not choosy about getting it grilled, baked, broiled, boiled or fried so long as it’s fresh. He climbs on the back of a big one as the herd back away in cowardly fashion, trying to dislodge her to get at her little one. By not succeeding in what amounts to his final plunge, he rolls over, destined to starve to death. A wolf has better luck with a member of the antelope family, again, a youthful member that gets separated from the pack. While narrator Jones notes that these food critters can outrun lupines, this one must have been the exception. Again the camera turns away rather than showing some blood.

The scenes of big animals (including sharks) chasing food make one think: where is a weak animal better off: in the jungle or in the zoo? Of course zoos afford protection to their guests, but I see things the way the PETA does. Better to live at risk in the natural state where the animals can do what their species implants them to do than to be safe behind bars for life. That’s easy for me to say, though.

Rated G. 99 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Daniel Burman's
Empty Nest (El Nido Vacio)

Opens Friday, April 17, 2009

Written By: Daniel Burman
Starring: Oscar Martinez; Cecila Roth; Arturo Goetz; Ines Efron; Eugenia Capizzano; Jean Pierre Noher; and Ron Richter

Outsider Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Here is what About.com says about Empty Nest Syndrome: “The sad news is that there has been a steady increase in the number of divorces among couples married 30 or more years. Many long-term married couples divorce one another after the kids leave home. They realize too late that their children kept them together. Other couples divorce during the empty nest years because they can't handle the sense of an uncertain future along with being overwhelmed by too much togetherness. The good news is that with good communication and preparation for this phase of your marriage, the empty nest years can be tremendously enjoyable and full of new beginnings.”

Daniel Burman, an Argentine filmmaker who wrote and directs Empty Nest, has his own ideas of what happens when the kids leave the roost. The thirty-five-year old director, whose Family Law is a meditation on how the lead character is both like his father and different from him, may be too young to know what a man in his fifties really goes through when his three children are off living their own lives while he is now alone with his wife. Then again, Empty Nest does not particularly conceal the fact that this is a younger man’s perception of what his own life might be like two decades later.

If you are a parent with kids running about the house, what are your own thoughts on how your existence will change when the young ‘uns are out? Will you be bored stiff attending dinners with people your own age? Will you look into the possibility of leaving your spouse, maybe even becoming the swinger you always wanted to be? There are myriad ways people deal with the relative silence that emerges from a life-changing episode. In Empty Nest, the film's main character, Leonard (Oscar Martinez), a successful playwright living in Buenos Aires with his wife, Martha (Cecilia Roth) and daughter Julia (Ines Efron), retreats into fantasy, while we in the audience may wonder just what scenes are taking place in his fertile imagination (he is a writer, after all), and what is happening in reality.

With considerable hand-held camera work by Hugo Colace and a nice jazz score plus the dramatic use of Ravel’s Bolero, Burman hones in on a 50-something man with writer’s block who can no longer tolerate the noise of his vivacious wife’s many friends and retreats into fantasy. He imagines that his wife, Martha, will go back to a university. He pictures himself with a comely dental surgeon, Violeta (Eugenia Capiozzano). He consults a neuroscientist, Dr. Spivak (Arturo Goetz), concerned that he can no longer separate reality from fantasy. In one stroke of imagination, he follows the young dentist through a shopping mall while Ravel’s Bolero introduces a dancing chorus that seems to have come out of the revival of a Broadway musical. In yet another, he and Martha visit the Israeli home of his daughter, the last to leave the nest, now married to a Spanish-speaking Israeli, Ianib (Ron Richter).

Much of the group talk, held at dinners and parties, creates the ambiance of a French film (an Eric Rohmer, perhaps), causing Empty Nest to drag. But the ensemble, particularly Cecilia Roth in the role of the outgoing spouse, shines and the the topography in the Israeli section is surreal.

Unrated. 92 minutes © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern's
Every Little Step
Opens Friday, April 17, 2009

Starring: Bob Avian; Baayork Lee; Michael Bennett (archive footage); Charlotte d'Amboise; Jacques d'Amboise; Natascia Diaz; Ramon Flowers; Jessica Lee Goldyn; Yuka Takara; Marvin Hamlisch; Megan Larche; J. Elaine Marcos; Donna McKechnie; Meredith Patterson; Yuka Takara; Jason Tam; and Chryssie Whitehead.

What they did for love.

Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line opened at Broadway's Shubert Theatre in 1975 and ran continuously for fifteen years. The show received twelve Tony Awards and still lives today through its road company and multiple community theater and college productions. (See the show's official website.) Bennett had created the original show from a series of recorded interviews that he made in the summer of 1974 with the support of Joseph Papp of the Public Theater. When Bennett first recorded these interviews he did not have a specific goal in mind. He simply recorded multiple stories from Broadway dancers (known as gypsies) about why they had started to dance and what dance meant to them.

It was only later with the collaboration of the dancers and composer Marvin Hamlisch that he decided on the new musical's form, three distinct periods in the life of a dancer as told through the life story of multiple dancers.

The original show opens to great acclaim and became an institution. And knowing what we know now, it is easy to say that this result was inevitable, but no one knew what would happen while the show was being workshopped. Bennett had had as many failures as he had success. But with Chorus Line, the theater gods lined up in the ultimate harmonic convergence. The show was simply magic. Tragically, Michael Bennett died of Aids in 1987 while Chorus Line was still performing on Broadway.

In 2006, the remaining collaborators launched a revival. And this time in the spirit of life imitating art, the entire casting process was filmed by director/producers James D. Stern (Hairspray and Stomp) and Adam Del Deo (The Blair Witch Project). The documentary follows the casting process which began with thousands of dancers lined up around the block and ended with a cast of seventeen. Casting the new productions are Michael Bennett's co-choreographer Bob Lee and Baayork Lee, a choreographer and friend of Michael Bennett's who originated the role of Connie (the dancer who never grew tall) in 1975.

We follow dancers as they leave their homes to travel to the auditions. We see the life of a young New Jersey dancer as she leaves her mother's home to travel by bus into Manhattan to audition. We also follow the audition process of from the viewpoint of Charlotte d'Amboise, the daughter of famed danced Jacque D'Amboise, who beautifully auditions for the part of the older dancer Cassie, only to not be cast in the end.

One of the funnier parts of the casting process is when the original Connie, Baayork Lee, has so much trouble finding the perfect person to play her part. No one is quite right. But in the end Lee totally falls for her replacement, the plucky young Taiwan-born Yuka Takara

The 2006 Chorus Line opened on October 5, 2006 to wildly appreciative audiences. Watching the documentary is bitter sweet because the 1996 show was forced to close on Aug. 17, 2008 after only 18 previews and 759 regular performances. The cause was undoubtedly the loss of momentum and income from the Broadway stage hands strike of 2007. But according to Playbill.com, the show recouped its investment after only nineteen performance, something that is nothing short of phenomenal.

If you love dance or have every loved a dancer, Every Little Step is must seeing. It is a microscopic look at the heart of dance and dancers, a chance to see just why Broadways' gypsies will give up anything to have the opportunity to just dance.


 


Anna Broinowsky
Forbidden Lies
Opened April 3, 2009

Roxie Releasing
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Written By: Anna Broinowsky
Starring Norma Khouri

In parts of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia—lands with predominantly Muslim populations--if a woman brings shame to the family through allegations of premarital or extramarital sex, or by refusing an arranged marriage, or by attempting to obtain a divorce--her male relatives may feel bound by duty and culture to murder her. This barbaric custom is mostly practiced by poorly educated people in rural areas where tribal influences and family honor are paramount. Often the father or brother or uncle who commits such a murder is either not prosecuted or sent to jail for only a few months, charged with a misdemeanor. Honor killings are alleged to be authorized by the Koran, but educated people insist that is a misinterpretation.

Imagine how it must feel to someone if her best friend is killed for having pre-marital or extra-marital sexual relations or even for talking to a male stranger in the street. When one woman is stabbed to death by her brother and father, using the weapon of choice that symbolizes family honor, her best friend became so infuriated that she risked her own life by writing a best-selling book, Forbidden Love, which was translated into sixteen languages. There is only one problem. The book is a fake. The honor killing never took place and no one by the name of the victim is known in the Amman, Jordan community depicted in the book. And , another problem: the scammer who is obviously intelligent enough to dash off such a book (though it does not contain particularly eloquent prose according to one person interviewed in the documentary), is under investigation for the FBI on a charge of stripping an elderly, demented woman of her life’s savings.

Despite condemnation of the author, who is hated parts of Jordan for demeaning the honor of that nation, Norma Khouri appears as the star of a documentary written and directed by Anna Broinowsky. While she admits that she falsified some information, she states she did this to protect people known in the community. Never mind that the publisher never checked out obvious errors such as Khouri’s claim that the Jordan River flows through Amman, which could be considered by some to be a niggling complaint, but serves to impeach the author’s creditability on the more important issues.

Ms. Khouri, who was born in Jordan but became a Chicago real-estate agent named Norma Bagain Touliopoulos. Married with two children, when her book was first published she passed herself off as a 34-year-old Catholic virgin with a fatwah on her head, i.e. with an Islamic sentence of death similar to that passed against Salman Rushdie years back. Her real crime, according to Jordanian authorities, is one of dishonoring the country with a false report that her best friend, Dalia, was killed by Dalia’s brother and father for dating a Christian man. In her book, she notes that Dalia had opened a unisex hair salon in Amman, though interviews with her neighbors denied that any such parlor existed. Exposed for fraud by Australian journalist Malcolm Knox in July 2004, Norma—who continues to insist that she did indeed have a friend named Dalia killed for dating a Christian—continues to enjoy best-seller status in the Arab world since her book has been reintroduced as fiction.

Now, why didn’t she think of changing its genre in the first place? Even given the deception she has inflicted on a large public, there is much to be said in her favor. She did make the world more aware of the dastardly crime of honor killings. The documentarian is not at all outraged by her falsification, all the better because her neutrality allows her to make a first-rate movie.

Forbidden Lie is an example of what a documentary should look like. It is far from a usual documentary with the endless talking heads. The film is photographed with high production values by Kathryn Milliss and Toby Oliver in Sydney, Chicago and Amman, Jordan. Expert editing by Alison Croft and Vanessa Milton keeps the pace brisk except for the last twenty minutes which could have used some strategic cuts to avoid redundancy.

The cast of twenty-seven includes five actors plus real world characters: Detective Ed Torian who administered a lie detector test; John Toliopoulos, her estranged husband whom she accused of having mafia ties; Majid Bagain, her father whom she had accused of sexually abusing her; and at least one doctor who states that he has no record of Dalia in his files. At the reasonable cost of $1.5 million, Anna Broinowski’s doc has accomplished the task of letting us in the audience judge the veracity of the author, who is passionate throughout the story, insisting that everything in her book is true save for a few changes to protect identities.

For more information:forbiddenlies.com.au

Unrated. 104 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Daniel Adams
The Golden Boys
Opens Friday, April 17, 2009

Roadside Attractions
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Written By: Daniel Adams, book by Joseph C. Lincoln
Starring: David Carradine; Rip Torn; Bruce Dern; and Mariel Hemingway

A trio of crusty, aging, retired sea captains anchor the The Golden Boys, a film/work that could conceivably work for an audience if it were produced as a play on a off-off-Broadway stage or in a nursing home. While Daniel Adams’s movie constitutes a welcome break from the noisy Fast and Furious type films in that its character are dialog-driven, the pace is unnecessarily slow and might find a more welcome place on cable or DVD.

Chatham, as the film was originally called as well as listed on the Internet Movie Database, apparently was given celluloid inspiration from an allegedly best-selling novel by Joseph C. Lincoln. The performances by David Carradine as Captain Zeb, Rip Torn as Captain Jerry, and Bruce Dern as Captain Perez represent stereotypes of confirmed bachelors of a certain age, though for all we know this is the way people acted in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, at the turn of the 20th century.

The shack the men are sharing shows no signs of radios or telephones, so the troika of men amuse themselves now and then by singing some sea shanties. The film's soundtrack is filled with uplifting music with an Irish air.

Zeb, Jerry and Perez are in need of a housekeeper, goodness knows why, and since they did not want to pay for the help, they decided to advertise for a mail-order bride with one of the guys agreeing reluctantly to jump over the broom per a coin toss. Jerry (Rip Torn) loses (or wins) the toss and the local newspaper is perused for ads by women seeking husbands. The woman who subsequently arrives is pert and pretty Martha (Mariel Hemingway), a widow who could be called a feminist at least by the standards of 1905, and who knows what she wants in a man. Whether she wants Jerry just because he won the coin toss is strictly up to her. The plot, however, thickens like the Cape Cod fog when ol’ Captain Zeb (David Carradine) falls in love.

Some subplots are squeezed into the tale, one involving a Bible-thumping John Bartlett (Charles Durning) who burns down a billiard hall and whose granddaughter drops in for a visit while John has fallen seriously ill.

The whole deal could have been inspired by Stanley Donan’s lavish musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, about an Oregon woodman in 1850 who encourages his six sibs to fetch wives once he has landed one. But The Golden Boys, with its sparse production design and not exceptionally vivid curmudgeon-like talk, is quite the opposite of that 1954 movie.

Rating TBA. 97 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 


Sean McGinly's
The Great Buck Howard
Opened March 20, 2009


Written By: Sean McGinly
Starring: John Malkovich; Colin Hanks; Emily Blunt; Ricky Jay; Debra Monk; Griffin Dunne; Adam Scott; Steve Zahn; Martha Stewart; Jon Stewart; and Jay Leno.

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

During these perilous times, it would help to have a mentor—someone who knows the right people, someone who can coach the hapless folks who are "between jobs." The movie field has been well-ploughed with these mentor-mentee relationships. For example, Father Dominic mentors Alex Bernier in Brian Helgeland's The Order; Robert plays mentor to Hal in John Madden's Proof; Diego Rivera counsels Frida Kahlo in Julie Taymor's Frida: and in the TV show Numb3rs, Dr. Larry Fleinhardt is guru to his protégée, Charlie Eppes.

Most films of the sub genre are of a serious nature. Who'd have guessed that Sean McGinly's The Great Buck Howard, which features a mentalist/magician's playing sage to a law-school dropout, would be one of the great comedies of the past few years with John Malkovich turning out arguably the performance of his career? The Great Buck Howard uses wit, sentimentality, and a believable romantic relationship. Here is one Sundance-debuted feature that could draw an audience of both older folks who'd be bowled over by Malkovich, and youths, pulled in by Colin Hanks as a smart, privileged, but confused and vulnerable kid searching for a vocation.

Every bit the same sort of crowd-pleaser that typically stars Will Smith, Buck Howard opens on an unhappy Troy Gable (Colin Hanks), a graduate student whose dad (Tom Hanks) has enough money to allow the young man to drop out of law school during his second year. Even though Troy believes he has a talent for writing, he takes a gig as the road manager for Buck Howard (John Malkovich), a washed-up mentalist/magician who never got the word that his field has been made passé thanks to the wonders of the Internet, Pixar animation, and video games. In fact, Buck attracts only those past the age of fifty who, like him, may not have heard of computers and are still fascinated by the skills of a man who can put eight hundred people to sleep, predict the number a volunteer is thinking of and locate a hidden cash payment for his show as though he were a bomb-squad bloodhound. Troy puts up with the tantrums of Buck who, like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, dreams of making a comeback, hoping to recreate the stir that once allowed him to garner sixty-one appearances on the Johnny Carson show.

Writer-director Sean McGinly, whose Two Days deals with a failed actor determined to put on a final show before committing suicide, and whose script for The Truth About Juliet centers on four friends who are trying to turn their lives around, comes across now with his best work. The film's considerable charm arises from organic performances, a script with terrific comic timing, and a credible production that gives insight into the hopes and dreams of people who may be from different generations, but who all want to be fulfilled, adored, and excited about what they do.

Not Yet Rated. 90 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Paolo Sorrentino's
Il Divo
Opens Friday, April 24, 2009

Written By: Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Toni Servillo; Anna Bonaiuto; Giulio Bosett; Flavio Bucci; Carlo Buccirosso; and Giorgio Colangeli

Music Box Films/ MPI Media Group
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

A recent issue of The New Yorker Magazine included an article about Barack Obama’s calm. The writer’s conclusion is that not only does our president refuse to display anger (a trait for which Senator McCain is notorious), but Obama actually is calm no matter what the pressures. In Paolo Sorrentino’s film Il Divo that there’s a major politician who is not only placid like our president: he’s virtually catatonic. No emotions shown, perhaps none even felt. He’s a fellow not well known outside his native Italy, where he is now ironically a senator for life despite his conviction for Mafia connections for which he received a 24-year sentence (overturned by a higher court). He’s Giulio Andreotti, a man who may never have actually held an Uzi or even a revolver, but who is reputed to have had Mafia ties and acted as a mandator - the guy who arranges for contract killings.

Giulio Andreotti, the man who inspired Il Divo (named The Divine One, though sometimes paradoxically called Beelzebub), once said, “A pensare male si fa peccato, ma quasi sempre ci si azzecca,” or “You sin in thinking bad about people—but often you guess right.” We already know that “U pesci fet d’a testa” (fish starts smelling from the head), but according to the evidence presented by director Sorrentino, there’s nothing that could lead an audience to convict him of anything but, well, catatonia.

Il Divo has already received rave reviews in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Variety’s Jay Weissberg states, “a towering performance…a brave, bold film…wildly inventive…a touchtone for years to come.” What struck me most about Weissberg’s article is the phrase, “chances of international success are relatively small,” indicating that the film many not connect with audiences outside Italy.

I, for one, am outside Italy and the film did not connect with me. Perhaps a wildly imaginative film about President Bush would do the trick like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Maybe Il Divo would connect with a politically observant Italian audience in the same way. This study left me cold, partly because the title character is so reticent, because he looks too much like Boris Karloff, and because Sorrentino chose to restrain the kind of physical action that made Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra so intense. There is some action with automatic weapons and one graphic, slow-motion car explosion, but because we get no idea who is being assassinated, we have no way to root for either the victims, who may have been targeted because of unfriendly journalism or political competition with the long-ruling Christian Democratic Party, or whether we should cheer the killers for wasting rival Mafiosi. There are also a couple of suicides during an investigation of corruption in high places, but we have little idea which people are doing themselves in and exactly for what.

What might be causing the reticence of Andreotti (played by Toni Servillo) are his chronic migraine headaches. The opening scene bodes well for the rest of the almost two-hour picture, featuring Andreotti with an array of acupuncture needles in his head. It’s slowly downhill from there.

While Andreotti became an active politician in 1947 and led seven governments as prime minister, the film covers only the last of his administrations. The prime minister appears with bent ears, not the actor’s usual physiognomy, but one credited to theatrical make-up. His skin is as thick as a crocodile’s. His body language consists in part of playing with his ring and joining his fingers together.

Some scenes that appear surreal and could be merely the prime minister’s imagination include a short staring contest with a beautiful white cat which has one blue eye eye and one brown eye and a stomping, flamenco-like dance that takes place in the leader’s official residence.

If Hollywood Reporter’s Peter Brunette found scenes that “often make you laugh out loud,” I envy the writer, and if Variety’s ovates“ a bewitching combination of humor and bravado,” ditto. The subject cries out for a Michael Moore, who could put this story over with an audience here in the United States.

Unrated. 117 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online





John Crowley's
Is Anybody There?
Opens Friday, April 17, 2009


Written By: Peter Harness
Starring: Michael Caine; Anne-Marie Duff; Bill Millner; David Morrissey; Rosemary Harris; Elizabeth Spriggs; Leslie Phillips; Peter Vaughan; and Linzey Cocker

Big Beach Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Is Anybody There? is one of those films you go to not so much because of its slight story, but rather to watch a master performer in action—much as you’d attend yet another rendition of the laughably melodramatic Carmen, not for the plot but to hear/see Placido Domingo. This story deals with one of those friendships you can imagine only in the movies or in the fiction section of your favorite library or book seller. Thanks to two fine jobs by actors whose ages in real life are about six decades apart (Sir Michael Caine is now 76), the friendship is as credible as that between Caine and Julie Walters in Educating Rita. In both cases, the mentor learns as much as he teaches: this time we’d guess that the older fellow gets a second chance at finding something to live for while at the same time the young boy gains further insight into the lives of the elderly.

Bill Millner, fresh from his featured role in Son of Rambow (two boys from different backgrounds team up to make a film inspired by First Blood), takes on the roll of Edward, a ten-year-old who has the fortune (or misfortune) of being surrounded by men and women in their seventies and eighties who have taken up residence in the going-to-seed home of his middle-aged parents (David Morrissey and Anne-Marie Duff), who manage a residence for retired seniors. He sees so much death that he takes on a belief in the supernatural, in one case planting a microphone under the bed of a newly departed woman in search of the sounds she makes on her way to the great beyond. His favorite tenant is Clarence (Sir Michael Caine), once a fairly mediocre magician, whose dementia is progressing, and who boards in the home “temporarily.” At first gruff with the lad, the scrofulous Clarence gets his fifteen minutes of elder-fame when performing a magic show. In no time, Clarance bonds with the child, teaching him card tricks and revealing remorse about the way he treated the wife who left him and is now dead.

All this takes place amid the background of what passes for conversation among the residents, with particular focus on the deteriorating marriage of Edwards parents. Edward records his dad’s coming-on to 18-year-old housekeeper (Linzey Cocker) and plays the recording for the “amusement” of his folks. A principal comic moment finds one codger, the victim of a flubbed magic trick with a toy guillotine. Another shows Clarence’s declining motor skills are graphically and metaphorically illustrated by his driving across the double line with his creaky truck, evoking the angry, anxious horns of other motorists.

Caine expertly shows his character’s decline into dementia, from initial confusion to the end of the film with its final trip into senility. One would expect young Bill Millner to be awed by the older actor’s resume but Millner comes across professionally as the child prodigy, a loner who is rejected by his peers because of his obsession with death.

Rated PG-13. 94 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Hiam Abbass and Tarik Kopty
Lemon Tree (Shajarat limon/ Etz halimon)

Eran Riklis's
Lemon Tree (Shajarat limon/ Etz halimon)
Opens Friday, April 17, 2009

Written By: Saha Araf, Eran Riklis
Starring: Hiam Abbass; Ali Suliman; Rona Lipaz-Michael; Doron Tavory; Tarik Copty; and Amos Lavie

IFC Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Some people think that lemons grow in the supermarket. If they did, the two principal political dilemmas expounded in Eran Riklis’s Lemon Tree (which he co-wrote with Saha Araf), would not exist. But if lemons did grow in supermarkets, we’d be deprived of an exquisitely acted film, one which gains strength because Hiam Abbass as an aggrieved woman beautifully underplays her part. The film reproaches Israeli politics, yet it apparently sailed through its government’s censorship. Can you imagine any other country in the Middle East that would allow a film that directly lashes out at its government to see the light of day (or the dark of a theater)? Iran is a potential answer, but filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami know how to veil their roasts by sneaking subversion into simple stories.

A smashing performance by Hiam Abbass as Salma Zidane anchors the show. Abbass plays a lonely widow whose 50-year-old estate of lemon trees in the West Bank right on the Israeli border is threatened by the occupation’s insistence that the trees be cut down The Israeli Secret Service believes they could serve as hiding places for terrorists intent on doing damage to the new home of Israeli Defense Minister Israel Navon (Doron Tavory) and his wife, Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael). Once you get past the obvious absurdity that Israel would move a top cabinet official immediately adjacent to the West Bank border town of Zur HaSharon instead of installing him centrally in Jerusalem, you can appreciate the story, not only for its political dimension but for what Riklis in the production notes state is his principal goal: to hone in on the spiritual isolation of two women literally on opposite sides of the fence. Forty-five-year-old Salma’s husband died long before his time and her son lives and works in the U.S.. Mira Navon, the counterpart whose daughter goes to school in Georgetown, is a politician’s wife who gets increasingly disgusted by her husband’s politics, dismayed by his long absences, and dejected by his hinted-at womanizing. Salma, who has been brought up by Tarik (Abu Hussam), the man who has worked the lemon groves for fifty years, rebels against the order to cut down her trees. She hires a Palestinian lawyer, Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman), and takes her case to a military tribunal and ultimately to Israel’s Supreme Court in Jerusalem.

This is the kind of story that could place its emphasis on the final determination of the lemon trees, as though it were a John Grisham potboiler. Instead, Riklis focuses on the romantic feelings that Salma and Ziad develop toward each other, it is a film that is not afraid to show a man’s physical attraction to an older woman. Ziad and Salma are far apart, however, in their backgrounds: he studied law in Russia and has a knowledge of Arabic, Hebrew, English and Russian while she speaks only the language of her own people. Ziad takes the case, however hopeless he finds it to be. Meanwhile across the border fence, Mira (shades of Hillary!) is appalled by her husband’s philandering, so much so that she risks damaging his career by speaking freely to a journalist (Smadar Yaaron) in defense of the Palestinian’s grove. Talk about tree-hugging!

Except for Mira, the Israelis are depicted as goons or incompetents, noting that the guard who is posted over the grove, Private Quickie (so-called because he was the slowest soldier in basic training) falls asleep at his post while preparing for an exam that would lead him to a career after his discharge. While Quickie’s attitude is mined for some humor, much is made by Riklis of a picture on Salma’s wall of her late husband glaring down on everyone, most noticeably when Salma’s attorney is invited to spend the night since a curfew prevents him from returning home.

Director Riklis, best known by cinephiles for The Syrian Bride (a Druze woman in Golan is engaged to marry a Damascus TV comedian) has easily maintained momentum in his career with this film which is engaging largely because of the stellar performance of Hiam Abbass its heroine.

The production is professionally filmed by Rainer Klausmann. The film is in Arabic and Hebrew, with English subtitles.

Unrated. 106 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 



Derick Martini's
Lymelife
Opens April 8, 2009

Directed by: Derick Martini
Written By: Derick Martini, Steven Martini
Cast: Alex Baldwin, Rory Culkin, Emma Roberts, Jill Hennessy, Timothy Hutton, Cynthia Nixon, Kieran Culkin, Logan Huffman

Screen Media Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If you’re a city dude like me and sometimes become envious of people living in the sticks with their huge kitchens, big dishwashers, nine bathrooms and the sight of deer grazing nearby, you can fulfill your desire to feel better by seeing films that deal with the anxieties and dilemmas of suburbanites like Sam Mendes’s classic American Beauty and Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. Ang Lee’s film was set in the world of drinking and casual sex in leafy Connecticut, a place where lives were spinning out of control; Mendes' Beauty tells the story of a depressed father who becomes infatuated with her daughter’s best friend. Family dysfunction is not exactly a rare topic with filmmakers, who sometimes makes one wonder whether having kids or getting married is worth the trouble.

Lymelife is not terribly different from what we’ve come to expect from the milieu of rustic dissonance, but Derick Martini and Steven Martini’s caustic script for the film and some really impressive performances help Lymelife to stand out. The action takes place in the late seventies, allowing us in the audience to become aware of the period only through one character’s imminent deployment to the Falklands and a TV announcement about Iranian hostage-taking.

In scripters Derick Martini and Steven Martini’s current film, the story is centered on an an older brother who helps his younger brother and the lives of both a materially successful couple who have no emotional bonds and another married couple who have neither material nor emotional grounding.

Lead character, Charlie (Timothy Hutton), who may have Lyme disease or some other ailment that convinces him not to seek work, is in worse shape than his workaholic neighbor Mickey (Alec Baldwin). Both Charlie and Mickey have tense relationships with their wives, Melissa (Cynthia Nixon) and Brenda (Jill Hennessy) respectively. Brenda is fed up with her husband’s philandering with Melissa who works in his real estate office, while Melissa feels justified in “bonding” with Mickey since she considers her own husband a slacker. Film highlights include a fierce monologue by Brenda, who punctuates her hatred for her husband, mirrored by a less volatile tirade by Melissa who is fed up with being the family’s only breadwinner.

The real heart of the story is the relationship between next-door neighbors Adrianna (Emma Robert), the sixteen-year-old daughter of Charlie and Melissa, and the infatuated fifteen-year-old Scott. Change is the story’s spine: a marriage made in heaven between ambitious Mickey and passionate Brenda cools dramatically; older brother Jim (Kieran Culkin) departs for the front in the Falklands War; Melissa refusal to put up with her husband’s drugged, psychological absence.

Behind the lens, Frank Godwin catches some extreme close-ups, one of a young deer with a trusting eye, wandering about the land. Upward mobility is, of course, de rigueur on these suburban estates: Brenda’s upbringing was in Queens: one wonders whether she’d have done better marrying someone more attuned to city living. The film’s best performance is from Rory Culkin, who anchors the movie whether impersonating Hans Solo of Star Wars in front of a mirror or reacting with violence to his high school’s leading bully.

Rated R. 95 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Jody Hill's
Observe and Report
Opens Friday, April 10, 2009



Written By: Jody Hill
Starring: Seth Rogen; Ray Liotta; Michael Pena; Anna Faris; Dan Bakkedahl; Jesse Plemons; John Yuan; Matthew Yuan; Celia Weston; Collette Wolfe; and Aziz Ansari.

Warner Bros
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

We have never seen Seth Rogen like this before. The 27-year-old Vancouver-born actor noted in an interview with Rotten Tomatoes that one of his favorite films is Goodfellas, giving us a hint of what’s to come in his latest work. Knocked Up was one of the great comedies of its year thanks to Rogen’s performance, but it did little to push the comic envelope, given the way vulgarity has been in style on the big screen. Observe and Report, on the other hand, finds Rogen as an overweight schlub, still able to crack up the house with his off-the-wall expressions and in-your-face manner. But as written and directed by Jody Hill, this picture is a genre-buster that finds sudden outbreaks of violence, both comical and otherwise.

This is not your grandmother’s dark comedy unless she waded in the mud at Woodstock. Observe is filled with the f-word, full-frontal male nudity, lots of sex, alcoholism, a sadistic cop, a jewel thief and a boss who makes fun of a wheelchair-bound worker.

Rogen does not look any better than he did in Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Superbad, Knocked Up and Pineapple Express. He looks best in a modified afro given his weight: with his hair cropped short, he face looks awfully long. Nor is he funnier than he has ever been before.

The film is set in Albuquerque with the action taking place in a mall and in Rogen's character's mother's home.

Rogen performs in the role of Ronnie Barnhardt, the head security cop at the Forest Ridge mall. Ronnie takes his job awfully seriously; he is unbalanced, has delusions of grandeur and gives orders to his assistants (twins John Yuan and Matthew Yuan) and Dennis (Michael Pena) as though he were a drill instructor readying marines for Falluja. He persistently comes on to Brandi, a cosmetic salesclerk (Anna Faris), dotes on his alcoholic mother (Celia Weston), and nurses a huge grudge against another salesman, whom he calls Saddam Hussein (Aziz Ansari). When Rogen's character is unable to catch a pervert who is flashing customers in the parking lot, the mall manager calls in Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), whom Ronnie instantly dislikes for intruding in his territory. In fact, Ronnie, a small time rent-a-cop, has nursed dreams of joining the police force. He had almost made it until he delivered a hilarious response to the department’s psychological tester.

Just as we in the audience think we’re getting yet another Seth Rogen vehicle, boom: less than a half-hour into the story, Detective Harrison drives Ronnie into a high-crime area where the rent-a-cop shows he may have the makings of a real police officer. If only he knew how to answer that psychologist.

It helps a great deal that Rogen is backed up by a terrific performance from Anna Faris, whose portrayal as an uninhibited, alcohol-and-drugs imbibing bimbo marks her as one of the great comedians of our time. Celia Weston gives a great performance as Ronnie's Mom, delivering confidence-building talks to her son that are guided by some notion of what she thinks mothers are supposed to say.

Cinematographer Tim Orr is behind the lens; he knocks out clear images of the abandoned Winrock Mall in Albuquerque in a film that will divide audiences into the camp of those who delight in its unpredictability and those who prefer to see Rogen in pure comedy.

Rated R. 86 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

 



Christophe Barratier's
Paris 36
Opens Friday April 3, 2009

Written and directed by Christophe Barratier:
Starring: Gerard Jugnot; Clovis Cornillac; Kad Merad; Nora Arnezeder; Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu; Pierre Richard; Maxence Perrin
Released by: Sony Pictures Classics

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

When a studio does a recreation of showbiz from a previous decade—think of trying to put across Busby Berkeley in Gold Diggers of 1935 now, for example—you’d expect the production to be a spoof, maybe cynical, certainly ironic or perhaps even hip like Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. That may be what you’d imagine, but that’s not what you get from Christophe Barratier, the writer and director of Paris 36 (Faubourg 36 in the original French title). And that’s all to the good, because this is a wonderful show, full of songs, romance and melodrama, even some national politics, all fused into a spectacular look at the City of Lights as it was seventy-three years ago. Well, not all of Paris, but just the most interesting segment, a meta-theatrical gaze at the culture and customs of one theater. The story of this theater, the Chasonia, is told by an aging fellow who has been arrested by the gendarmes for murder and who unfolds his tale of woe and joy to a fascinated police inspector. Film-maker Barratier, whose first film Les Choristes deals with a new teacher at a strict boarding school who uses music to reach his students, is in his element.

The film opens on an interrogating detective (Eric Prat) who looks over the unimpressive-looking Pigoil (Gerard Jugnot), remarking that he “does not look like a killer,” Pigoil spends a couple of hours relating the motive for his crime while we in the audience are treated to a full-color, visual presentation of his experience.

Strong hints abound that war is to come to France in three years as one fascist group, named SOC, puts down strikes at the behest of company bosses. One such labor struggle is lead by Milou (Clovis Cornillac)—who brags that he had fought with the Red Army in Russia.

The incubus of the story of Paris 36 takes place when the story’s villain Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) gives the company of the Chansonia Music Hall just a few hours on New Year’s Eve to come up with the rent or face foreclosure.

We look in on some of the characters who will cross one another’s paths. Pigoil, who has spent his entire career with the Chansonia; Pigoil dotes on his son Jojo (Maxence Perrin), a prodigious accordion player who will be soon be claimed by Pigoil’s philandering wife, Viviane (Elisabeth Vitali). Just outside the theater, Milou (Clovis Cornillac) rouses the rabble to strike while the bosses call out fascist thugs to put down the insurrections. Other cast members who want only to make steady pay during the hard economic times of 1936 include Jacky (Kad Merad), who does mediocre imitations of frogs and ducks while sucking up to the fascists. Another fascinating character is the heart-broken Monsieur TSF (Pierre Richard), has spent twenty years inside his apartment, refusing to go out (doesn’t he get toothaches? What about a vet for his dog?), but will emerge triumphant near the end of the film. The most luminous character is Douce (Nora Arnezderer), a pretty young woman hoping for an acting career with the theater, who will fall in love with Milou, though the thuggish, well-dressed Galapiat lusts after her as well. (In the production notes, Barratier states that he liked the idea of having an unknown actress perform in the role of an unknown actress—a decision that turns out spot-out thanks to Ms. Arnezeder’s magnetic job as both a singer and flirt.)

Set designer Jean Rabasse, noting that Paris no longer has any remains that could be used for this recreation, set up shop twenty-five miles outside of Prague to recreate Paris in the 1930's. Ninety percent of the film takes place there, the remaining ten percent in Paris. All is filmed by Tom Stern, who captures the flavor of a showbiz, Depression-era Paris style. Frank Thomas and Reinhardt Wagner’s lyrics and score respectively leave us in the movie audience as upbeat as we were when the Dow exceeded 14,000 back in ’07.

Rated PG-13. 120 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Alex Rivera's
Sleep Dealer
Opens Friday, April 17, 2009

Written By: Alex Rivera and David Riker
Starring: Luis Fernando Pena; Leonor Varaela; Jacob Vegas; and Tenoch Huerta

Maya Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

One of the principal conventions of intelligent, mature science fiction movies is that the productions should not simply relate an imaginative tale of the future, but should also satirize aspects of our present-day society. Michael Anderson’s 1976 film Logan’s Run is an excellent example of such a story. In Logan's Run , the characters have formed an idyllic society in the twenty-third century with one drawback - life must end at the age of thirty. In that way youthful energy and good looks will serve the civilization because everyone is recycled (read: euthanized) when they approach their fourth decade. Teens and tweens today sometimes ask me whether I’d want to live to be a hundred, to which I reply, “Don’t ask me: ask the guy who’s 99.” Logan’s Run skewers this fear of old age.

However it’s not enough for a sci-fi film to be satirical. The story must be absorbing, exciting the emotions as well as the intellect, and this is where Sleep Dealer (which appears to have been made with an inadequate budget by first-time feature director Alex Rivera), challenges only what’s above the neck. Rivera, who wrote the script with David Riker, does follow the aforementioned convention of satirazation with a vengeance. He takes apart several features of our current world: globalism; denial of water to the underdeveloped world; hostility to immigrants; closing of borders; the boredom of labor; the absorption with electronics such as I-Pods, Blackberrys and the like which disconnect people from their actual environments. If only Rivera had enough dough to create subplots, complexity, and special f/x that do not look like video games, he’d have a terrific film that would excite the audience below the spectators’ necks instead of simply above.

Rivera hones in on a Mexican from a tiny village of Santa Ana del Rio in much the way that Carlos Cuaron focused on Beto and Tato in a similar pueblo in Rudo y Cursi. The main character Memo (Luis Fernando Pena), unlike his dad who is fond of life in the sticks despite its desiccated ambience, is young enough to dream of moving to the big city to work in a technological field, away from the dreariness and poor prospects of farming. He hops the bus to Tijuana, which houses an bevy of Mexican workers who are literally plugged in to a vast American-owned internet-style workplace - their nervous system following orders to move robots across the border to construct buildings. He meets Luz (Leonor Varela), an aspiring writer, who connects (via nodes plugged into her arms) to the internet to sell stories to potential buyers.

Tragically, an American drone, or pilot-less plane, destroys Memo’s house, killing his dad, because the American organization had noted that someone within was eavesdropping on executive conversations and must therefore be an “Aqua-terrorist.” Luz had been hired to involve Memo in a relationship to get the man’s full measure. When she tells a story about a man whose house was destroyed with its resident killed, she catches the interest of the Americans across the border who carried out orders to bomb the house.

Sleep Dealer will inevitably have its champions, those who will cite the intelligence of its premises, its slowly-building story-line, and its f/x. The film grew out of a project at the Directors Lab at Sundance Institute and looks like an embryonic experiment that will encourage even its detractors to follow director Rivera’s promising career.

Rated PG-13. 90 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Jamie Foxx in The Soloist

Joe Wright's
The Soloist
Opens Friday, April 24, 2009

Written By: Susannah Grant, from Steve Lopez’s book
Starring: Jamie Foxx; Robert Downey Jr.; Catherine Keener; and Lisa Gay Hamilton
DreamWorks Pictures/ Universal Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Sometimes relationships between people, whether business or social, can be difficult. Professional advice-givers caution us to find others with whom we have interests in common. That sounds sensible enough, and for the most part—if you think about people you hang out with—we usually pick others who are most like us in age, ethnicity, hobbies and careers. So just imagine the challenges faced by the two characters in The Soloist, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) and Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), who establish a fragile connection despite serious differences in their styles of living.

In the real-life story, Ayers, a cellist with enormous God-given talent, drops out of Juilliard because of the voices he hears in his head. Ayers has been homeless; he is afflicted with schizophrenia as are many of his friends. Lopez is a successful columnist with the Los Angeles Times, who is celebrated for his touching prose and his ability to get into the lives of others and make those lives of interest to the paper’s readers. Ayers is African-American; Lopez is white. The Soloist stays true to the actual events of the Ayers-Lopez relationship, a relationship which was recently explored on the TV show 60 Minutes. The filmmakers make a few concessions for dramatic purposes, but these a minor. For instance, Ayers’ two sisters are melded into one composite character, but that’s no biggie.

Joe Wright helms the story penned by Susannah Grant from reporter Steve Lopez’s book. Wright is best known to cinephiles for his direction of Atonement, the story of a 13-year-old who accuses her older sister’s lover of a crime he did not commit. He now evokes stunning, Oscar-worthy performances from Foxx and Downey, who play off each other as though they’ve been acquainted for life. Filmed by Seamus McGarvey in Cleveland and Los Angeles, The Soloist depicts a powerful contrast between the well-to-do and successful and the down-and-outers of L.A.’s skid row. To this day 90,000 homeless hang out in Los Angeles. The supposedly enjoy one another’s company despite the occasional attack which, in the movie, leaves one person bloodied and possibly dead. No production designer is really needed to dramatize a scene that could have come out of Maxim Gorki’s The Lower Depths.

The journalist and the cellist meet when Lopez, thinking about how to meet the deadline for his next feature story, runs into Ayers who is playing a two-stringed violin on one of L.A.’s mean streets. Impressed by the artistry of this strangely-attired fellow who stands on the street with a cart full of junk possessions, he patiently seeks a connection. Lopez finds particular poignancy in the cognitive dissonance between the man’s condition and his talent. He envisions a series of features, pitches his ideas to a journalist-editor who is also his ex-wife, Mary Weston (Catherine Keener), while persistently meeting with his new friend in the utopian quest to stabilize him and restore him to the greatness he deserves.

What the film expresses most of all, however, is that the reporter is himself changed. While Lopez sees himself as a gifted writer, he envies Ayers’ passion for music, a passion he claims he never himself enjoyed. To demonstrate Ayers’ passion, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra playing inside Disney Stadium delivers a powerful rendition of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, while the screen fills up with colors, mimicking the effects that Ayers’ favorite composer has on him. In fact the soundtrack is given over now and then to the glorious music of Bach and Beethoven, whether chamber works like a Bach's Suite for Cello or the momentous Ninth Symphony of Ludwig Van B.

Actual homeless people signed on to be in the film, some dancing with one another as though they were actually happier than some of the city’s elite business people, who must get up early each morning, don uncomfortable suits, and meet the obligations of their companies. No wonder Ayers resisted the free apartment offered to him by Lamp, an organization that services L.A.’s neediest.

Side roles that stand out are those of Lisa Gay Hamilton as Ayers’ sister, a woman who had no idea where her brother was living until hearing about the newspaper articles; Justin Martin as the eleven-year-old Nathaniel, who appears in one of the picture’s many flashbacks; and Catherine Keener as the editor who encourages Lopez to take full responsibility for Ayers’ development. Director Wright happily avoids sentimentalizing the story. We’re not about to leave the theater thinking that Lopez came close to his dream of wiping out his friend’s schizophrenia. But we do exit with the understanding that “impossible” is not a word that puts off the best of us, those who persist in good deeds realizing that they may achieve important life changes even more than those who are vulnerable.

Rated PG-13. 117 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Helen Mirren, Rachel McAdams and Russell Crowe
State of Play

Kevin Macdonald's
State of Play
Opens Friday, April 17, 2009


Written By: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy
Starring: Russell Crowe; Ben Affleck; Rachel McAdams; Robin Wright Penn; Jason Bateman; Helen Mirren; and Jeff Daniels


Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

A former British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” While statistics have little to do with Kevin Macdonald’s State of Play aside from the fact that three murders are clocked in by the story’s three writers (Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray), untruths make their way across the screen faster than you can say “politician” or “corporation.”

State of Play is an adaptation from a smashing BBC miniseries that was blessed with a terrific cast that included David Morrissey, Kelly Macdonald and Bill Nighy. The Scottish-born director Kevin Macdonald, known here mostly for The Last King of Scotland (the reign of Uganda’s brutal leader Idi Amin during the 1970s as seen through the eyes of his personal physician), broadens the characters for an audience not limited to BBC’s elite viewers. By necessity he pares down the subplots to fit the story into a couple of hours rather than the six hours allotted by BBC. The result, despite this use of stereotypical situations such as the thrilling chase in an underground parking lot and some verbal clichés by the principals, is that the movie is as much an intellectual puzzle as it is an emotional thriller, with considerably more talk than action. Some audience members motivated to go to the theater because they are fans of Russell Crowe may enjoy his role as a fat, going-to-seed reporter with long hair that he washes once a month whether he needs to or not. But a second viewing may be needed to uncoil the twists and knots that are part and parcel of this political thriller.

Like many films about corruption in high places, State of Play leans decidedly to the left, taking aim at Bush-era privatization of war—the role of large companies, like Halliburton in Iraq, sponsoring mercenary foot soldiers to supplement the regular armed services GI’s. In the screen writers’ view, Iraq and Afghanistan are like a “Muslim terror gold rush” to these super-capitalists, people who send men and women to die so CEO's can enjoy their yachts and villas in safer corners of the world.

The BBC miniseries dealt with a large oil company determined to put down protests of environmental abuses. State of Play, updating the 1999 series tells the story of Pointcorps’ (a Halliburton-like company) attempts to turn away congressional watchdog meddling in their moneymaking ventures. As a back story, Pointcorps hires Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer) and pays her $26,000 a month to seduce and spy on Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who is digging into the alleged corporate abuses. When Sonia is run down by a train in the D.C. metro, folks believe the death to be a suicide, perhaps linked to a falling out with her lover.

A scruffy journalist, Cal McAffey (Russell Crowe) believes the death to be murder and, together with a young research assistant for the Washington Globe, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), seeks to connect the dots even if the investigation implicates the politician, who was once his best friend in college. Could this distinguished member of the House of the Representatives who is married to Anne Collins (Robin Wright Penn) be involved in the murder of his girlfriend? Can the powers that be in the Pointcorps corporation be more directly involved given their natural hostility to someone they consider a double agent who may have turned coat when she fell in love with the legislator? Or was the death of Sonia Baker either an accident or suicide after all?

The movie begins with an intensity of physical action involving the chase and gunning down of an African-American and a pizza delivery man who seem anything but people related to political shenanigans. From there, Macdonald tones down the plot, creating an intellectual exercise that will lead the journalists to a story that can put new life into a newspaper that has been bought out by a strictly profit-seeking managerial group that wants blood.

The acting is fine across the board, albeit bereft of anything resembling Oscar performances. Russell Crowe makes sure that we know him to be a slob not only by his appearance but by his casual tossing away of food wrappers on the floor of his cubicle and the impossible stacks of paper that frame his ample body. Rachel McAdams is the perky Lois Lane, a cub reporter who may be out of her league but determined to prove herself, while Ben Affleck turns in a credible show as a man who seems incorruptible when questioning a corporate bigwig about a company’s war profiteering, but is anything but invulnerable when seemingly frightened by the sudden death of his girlfriend.

Production values are ace.

Rated R. 117 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 

 


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