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Claude Legault and Martin Dubreuil in 7 Days (Les 7 jours du talion)

Daniel Grou's
7 Days (Les 7 jours du talion)
Opens January 22, 2010 at Sundance


IFC Films/ Sundance Selects
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Written By: Patrick Senécal, from his novel
Starring: Rémy Girard; Claude Legault; Fanny Mallette; Martin Dubreiul; Rose-Marie Coalier; Pascale Delhaes; and Pascal Anctil


There’s a present day epidemic; young women are being murdered —in the movies. In Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, 14-year-old Susie Salmon played by Saoirse Ronan is raped and murdered near her home. The dead girl is intent on killing the murderer, whose death would release her from the clouds and gain her entrance to heaven. In Pierre Morel’s Taken, Bryan Mills, played by Liam Neeson, suffers the murder of his daughter. His response? “I know who you are. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not lok for you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.” Martin Campbell’s Edge of Darkness finds Thomas Craven in pursuit of the shotgun slayer of his 24-year-old daughter. Forget the law. Justice is too slow. These survivors want revenge. Whether or not we, the theatergoers, believe that they are doing the right thing by taking the law into their own hands, tales of retaliation have a way of riveting us to our seats.

7 Days, or Les 7 jours du talion as it is known in its native Quebec, is such a film. It’s the closest thing to torture porn the movie industry has produced in recent times. Bruno Hamel (Claude Legault), the principal character in Daniel Grou’s film is a kind, gentle doctor. His personality undergoes some change when the body of his 8-year-old daughter, Jasmine (Rose-Marie Coallier), is disco red. The killer, Anthony Lemaire (Martin Dubreuil), has been arrested, thanks to a DNA match from his semen and he stands to go to jail for 15-25 years. But that’s not enough of a punishment for the doc.

At least half the film deals with the reaction at home. The doc’s wife, Sylvie (Fanny Mallette), grieves, but is determined to wipe the event from her mind, while the leading police detective, Hervé Mercure (Rémy Girard), is determined to bring the killer to justice the legal way. Going the legal route is no fun for the audience, though, so the other half of the picture shows a silent Dr. Hamel, who has managed to get the killer kidnapped from a police van, torturing his daugher's muderer in a deserted cottage by a lake with the intention of making him suffer for seven days. Afterwards, he plans to kill him .

Claude Legault turns in an impressive role, of a respected, calm surgeon who literally goes insane with grief. The torture he slowly and methodically inflicts on his victim, who at first denies the crime and later seems to brag about it perhaps to hasten his own death, is graphic. Curare, a drug that paralyzes the motor sense while leaving the victim conscious, is put to delightful use, while scalpels, ropes, chains, cuffs and the like allow the doctor to do as he wishes with the moaning, yelling, cursing sex predator—played quite well by Martin Dubreuil. The doctor's pledge, “Prinum non nocere” (first do no harm)?, has certainly slipped Dr. Hamel’s mind.

7 Days, is filmed by Bernard Couture in black-and-white with a sickly-green patina. It opened January 22, 2010 as Sundance Festival midnight show. If you liked any of the Saw series, The Devil’s Rejects, Wolf Creek, or even The Passion of the Christ, you’ll dig this picture.

Unrated. 110 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




James Cameron's
Avatar
Opens December 19, 2009


Starring: Sam Worthington; Zoe Saldana; Sigourney Weaver; Michelle Rodriguez; and , Giovanni Ribisi

20th Century Fox
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Wonder not why James Cameron, known the free world over for his Terminator series, Titanic, Aliens and Rambo II, chose the name Pandora for the location of his new film. The film opens a Pandora’s box of questions regarding situations that are not 4.4 light years from the Earth during the middle of the 22nd century, but issues here on our own planet at the current time. Potential viewers cannot be blamed for asking themselves the likes of these queries: If I root for the blue people against my own fellow Westerners in the final battle, does that mean I have to oppose the American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Will I ever again be content to go to the Sundance Festival to see movies that feature wholly human relations, like a romance between two people who look more or less like me? Where can I recycle my TV with its puny 60-inch screen? Will the studio earn back its $400 million cost on opening day, or will it have to wait for the entire weekend? Will I be able to sit still in the theater for just under three hours without having to go to the bathroom?

Avatar is actually nothing new to people who have seen the likes of 2012, Spiderman, and for that matter whatever you’ll find on Jim Cameron’s resume. But it does take computer graphics to a new level, situating live actors with some ferocious people of a different color and animals that could treat Leo and even Godzilla as though they were between-meal snacks. The color is vivid, brilliant; the action races the hearts of the folks in the audience; the pace is so fast although with appropriate breaks that the 166 minutes—or just 150 if you don’t stay for the end-credits—will go by so rapidly that when the title Avatar comes up after the final scene, you’ll say, “What, already—or is this a mid-film intermission?” Aside from the action, the stuff that kids under the age of thirteen will be concerned with exclusively, Cameron has a political subtext, one which condemns modern imperialism while glorifying the lives of native people who want only to be left in peace regardless of even the good intentions of the great powers.

Avatar was 15 years in the making; Cameron began writing the script in 1994 but had the patience to wait until the full capacity of Western technology could do his film justice. Filmed largely in a humongous New Zealand studio, the picture pits the honorable Na’vi clan that lives in a South-American-style forest against the imperialist Marines who have the job of either convincing the natives to move out of their habitat into a remote area or removing them by using twenty-second century mechanized warfare to commit genocide. Pandora is valuable to Earth because it contains a rare mineral that could harness energy when the Earth’s natural resources have been used up.

The Na’vi people are taller, bluer than the earthlings, and they speak their own language (1000 words of which were made up by Cameron’s crew from scratch)—intelligible to us in the audience thanks to bold subtitles that stand out three-dimensionally from the action. But most of the communication is in English, given that some of the Na’vi have learned it from those who colonized a distant area of their moon. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) anchors the proceedings, a Marine now in a wheelchair as a result of a war injury, now called in to replace his twin brother who was killed. He becomes the man of the hour simply by entering a machine that looks exactly like a sun-tanning device, then telepathically controlling the actions of a blue man constructed by the earthlings with Jake’s DNA. (This strategy is not unlike the American practice of using pilot less drones to bomb terrorist areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan.) Jake is at first dismissed as a useless cripple by Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a stereotypical Marine commander who appears to be carved out of granite. But he becomes invaluable when he learns information about the blue people, information that could lead to a successful negotiation and the moving out of the Na’vis.

The plot is simple enough. The visuals are the thing. And my oh my, what sensational sights! Fearsome animals include dragon-like flying monsters, beautiful, strange-looking insects, dog-like creatures that more than once launch attacks on Jake’s avatar, though Jake is rescued time and again by the beautiful Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who, like Pocahontas’s rescue of John Smith, turns up to prevent her people from killing the intruder. Romance follows, but there’s nothing here that could challenge the movie’s PG-13 rating, not even the near-naked bodies that populate the land.

The napalm that the earthlings utilize from air and on land will remind us of the horrors inflicted on the Vietnamese people during the sixties and seventies, while a marmoreal Col. Quaritch stands in for, say the “bomb-‘em-back-to-the-stone-age" General Curtis LeMay of Vietnam War fame. Ultimately it’s Jake who, together with scientist Grace (Sigourney Weaver) "turns coat" to battle with the natives in the mother of all battles, concluding the movie in much the way that fireworks please viewers by saving the major shock and awe until last.

Sam Worthington is far better known in his native England and in Australia than in the U.S., though many have seen him in Terminator 4, maybe a few in Geoffrey Rush’s Macbeth. His smashing performance will show that you don’t need Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise or Arnold Schwarzenegger to keep the box office registers humming.

Rated PG-13. 166 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart

Scott Cooper's
Crazy Heart
Opens December 16, 20009

Written By: Scott Cooper, from Thomas Cobb’s novel
Starring: Jeff Bridges; Maggie Gyllenhaal; Robert Duvall; Tom Bower; Colin Farrell; James Keane; William Marquez; Ryan Bingham; Paul Herman; Rick Dial; and Jack Nation

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

What happens to a star, an alpha male who attracts women like honey to a fly, when he’s just about washed up? Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart is a realistic look at such a man. Adapting Thomas Cobb’s 1987 novel, Cooper sticks close to the page, keeping his principal performer at the age of 57, with all the baggage towed by a guy whose career is now at an impasse. The plot is nothing special, just an ordinary, slow-moving tale with a predictable trajectory, but Fox Searchlight may have green lighted the movie because of the potential awards that Jeff Bridges might be expected to garner. Bridges, a 60-year-old veteran performer whose best role to date has been as the Dude in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (about a man who is mistaken for a millionaire of the same name and pursued by thugs). Bridges shone in Lebowski, benefiting from the stellar screenplay the Coens gave him. Here, he does a bang-up job even with a prosaic script. Bridges delivers a performance which could propel him even into this year’s Oscar race.

Filled with country-cowboy songs that Cooper allows us to hear almost in entirety, Crazy Heart demonstrates the talented Bridges as a singer as well as an actor. This film also has Colin Farrell singing; he charms the movie audience with both a guitar and his well-known magnetism.

In a story of human limitations, Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is down on his luck. Despite his still-good voice, his role in the country-song circuit is restricted to third-rate places including a bowling alley in New Mexico, a state whose blazing sun and wide spaces are captured nicely by photographer Barry Markowitz. Blake is stymied by his alcoholism and chain-smoking, the latter unusual for someone dependent for a living on his voice. When Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a Santa Fe journalist, sets up an interview with him in his motel room, you can sense the chemistry despite the score-and-a-half age difference between them.

Blake has mixed feelings when his agent sets him up in the big time as an opener for country music star Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a man with whom Blake started his career but who had quickly eclipsed the aging crooner. Sporting a scruffy gray beard and a huge head of hair, Blake slowly works his wiles with the young reporter, a woman who in the usual formulaic pattern of movies of this nature would be the man’s redeemer, sobering him up, even getting him to chew gum and throw away the Marlboros. He is making great progress with her until a near-tragedy occurs involving Jean’s four-year-old boy (Jack Nation in his freshman role).

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the formerly married reporter with her lovely blue eyes wide open, in much the way her character, Jean, enters an affiliation with a fellow who has been through four marriages and who has not seen his own child since the boy was four. Unquestionably this is Jeff Bridges’s movie, one with an ample supply of delightful singing and more than respectable ensemble acting.

Rated R. 111 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




The Spierig Brothers’s
Daybreakers
Opens Friday, January 8, 2010

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by The Spierig Brothers.
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Claudia Karvan, Michael Dorman & Sam Neill.

What’s the cinema world coming to when January releases are actually good?

The Spierig Brothers’ Daybreakers is actually better than good, turning the vampire story on its ass and introducing some exciting and fresh elements into the ubiquitous and pervasive genre.

For me, True Blood has raised the vamp-bar so high, no brooding teen WB show or soapy, angst-filled “saga” can even come close to the genius of the Alan Ball show. And when something attacks the public in popularity the way the undead have in the last few years, the rip-offs, knock-offs and general vamp-crap just keeps hitting every medium until we are blood-soaked, so to speak.

Daybreakers proves there is still life in the genre (do what you want with the pun). It’s a refreshing and inventive film with actual three-dimensional characters that are NOT teens and are allowed journeys. It also has a compelling narrative. And it contains good performances.

It’s 2019 and a mysterious calamity has transformed the majority of the worlds citizens into vampires making the few humans left hunted species—if caught they’re farmed for the vamp population—who are on the verge of running out of blood.

Ethan Hawke broods magnificently as Edward Dalton, a hematologist who is trying to find a blood substitute to stop the catastrophe. Edward is soon tossed into a frenzy when he encounters a gaggle of humans and discovers one of them might hold the key to a cure.

Along the slaughterous way we are introduced to “Subsiders,” mutations who are scary, evil and desperate. (and fun to watch!) And there is gore galore!

Hawke leads a crackerjack ensemble. Willem Dafoe is a delight as “Elvis.” Australian star Claudia Karvan is captivating and needs to get more work here in the states. Ditto Michael Dorman, who has leading man potential.

Daybreakers has a slick and stylized look about it. All tech credits rock—especially the photography and production design. The film brought to mind District 9, another audacious film. Who said they’re not writing original scripts anymore.

Besides containing clever and cutting dialogue, Daybreakers indirectly blasts the pharmaceutical companies that have potential treatments and cures but would rather allow greed to rule the day. The film also draws parallels with the various and heinous forms of genocide that have gone on and are still going on in our world.

I have never been a splatter fan but Daybreakers is so much more than that. It’s a smart and savvy spin on an old (and increasingly tired) subject.


 

 



Lily Cole in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Terry Gilliam's
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Opens Friday, December 25, 2009



Written By: Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown
Starring: Heath Ledger; Christopher Plummer; Tom Waits; Lily Cole; Andrew Garfield; Verne Troyer; Johnny Depp; Colin Farrell and Jude Law.

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Dr. Parnassus is not the only one who ever sold his soul to the devil. That negotiation has been a popular one all over the world from the time that Satan first approached Eve. According to lore, Satan has no power over human beings unless we do evil: Victims of these pacts have included Faust, who sold out for youth and for the hand of Marguerite and who is either condemned or saved depending upon the production, and Joe Hardy of Damn Yankees, who also wanted youth but only so he could return to his days as a baseball slugger to help the Washington Senators. In Imaginarium, director and co-writer Terry Gilliam has his title character, Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), sell his soul in return for immortality. But the devil will get his due: he will claim the doctor’s daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole) on her sixteenth birthday.

There will be various interpretations of this diabolical bargain. Mine is this: Dr. Parnassus has a simple marionette show in London. He is an old man, probably demented, given to fantasies—which are perhaps the one plus that senility offers its victims. He transports himself, through the marionette show, to a world of vivid imagination. He is a man perturbed by the deterioration of communication (emails now replace the eloquent writing of past centuries) and he wants to show the crowd the magic that imagination can bring.

However it could take another pact with the devil to convert this into a really good movie. As it stands, Imaginarium looks like part wet dream, part nightmare, turning the production into a rambling show of expensive CGI without a center—again, just like a dream. A narrative even with the cogency of a Monty Python skit is strangely missing from the film. This lack of coherence is puzzling considering that Terry Gilliam's, The Fisher King, dealt effectively and fancifully with the story of a former professor who is traumatized by the murder of his wife.

Here, strictly in the old man’s mind (again, my interpretation), a white-bearded, tired and raggedy Doctor Parnassus, now thousands of years old based on the pact with Satan in the guise of Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), drags around a wagon, a trick mirror serving as a partition. When a character goes through the reflecting door, or is pushed through, she is transported like Alice in Wonderland to a playground, a beautiful vista that might remind one of the heaven imagined by Susie Salmon in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones. Nightmarish views exist as well, such as the presence of Tony (Heath Ledger), dangling from a hangman’s rope who, after being saved, does a poor job of ad-libbing, using “you-know” so many times you’d think he was considering a run for U.S. Senator from New York. The stage is inhabited by the old man’s daughter, Valentina, and by a midget, Percy (the ubiquitous Verne Troyer), and also by a heavily made-up Anton (Andrew Garfield), who in one point is changed into one of the little people.

The rambling activities that follow, actions that consist largely of clowning around, pratfalls, image-changes, become enough to drive even imaginative people in the audience to wonder, “What’s up? Is there any plot, or is this picture merely visually arresting (when not cheesy) but evoking no particular narrative?” The character of Tony is inhabited not only by Heath Ledger, who died during the production, but also by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, who look almost embarrassed at what they are going through—or is that simply my projection?

If any guild gives awards for make-up, Ailbhe Lemass, Sarah Monzani, Patty York and Krista Young deserve mention. Maybe there should even be an award for costume designer Monique Prodhomme. The film itself, unfortunately, is full of sound, fury, and kaleidoscopic CGI, signifying (fill in the blank).

Rated PG-13. 122 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 



Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in Invictus

Clint Eastwood's
Invictus
Opens December 11, 2009

Written By: Anthony Peckham, based on John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy”
Starring: Morgan Freeman; Matt Damon; Tony Kgoroge; Julian Lewis Jones; Adjoa Andoh; Patrick Mofokeng; Matt Stern; and Leleti Khumalo

Warner Bros
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If you read John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy, you will realize that the title has a double meaning. One deals with the competition of South Africa’s rugby team in its thrust toward the World Cup in 1995. The other relates to the unusual fact that when South Africa’s rugby team played England, the majority of South Africans in the audience cheered for England! This would be like seeing New York flying the flags at half staff when the New York Yankees won the World Series. Like most of the story, one which is visually and impressively rendered on film directed by septuagenarian Clint Eastwood, there is considerable symbolism in the hostile gesture by the audience for the home team. Rugby is a sport that came to South Africa during Britain’s long rule over that territory, a sport that has been called “a hooligans’ game played by gentlemen,” the gentlemen being whites primarily of the British persuasion. As Eastwood photographed the segments of the game, we here in the U.S. can see similarities with football but also with soccer. The big difference is that rugby players spend their time on the field slamming into one another without protective gear. This is probably the roughest sport any of us have seen, even more grueling than boxing. Even eight-year-olds in the audience for this PG-13 movie who understand nothing of the country’s politics or who think that South Africa is located in Greenland will appreciate their night out at least for that.

The movie is overlong and is thoroughly conventional, with an arc that can be predicted by 100% of theater audiences who might prefer to see a game with which they are familiar, like soccer or football. Nonetheless there is much going for the excursion to Johannesburg’s Ellis Stadium, which Eastwood’s CGI team populates with over 60,000 wildly cheering spectators and an array of flags that makes the place look like the U.N.

The movie is imagined by scripter Anthony Peckham who adapts Carlin’s book and is based on an actual event that makes Mandela come out like saint. Nelson Mandela, who had spent 27 years in a Jo’berg jail for his activities with the pro-liberation African National Congress which had held numerous strikes and bombings against the white policy of apartheid (strict segregation of the races), had the opportunity when elected the first black president of his republic to drive the entire white population out of the country. However, noting that the whites had much to offer South Africa in addition to still controlling the police and the military, he is determined to keep them where they are while preventing a brewing civil war from erupting. To do this he used sports, specifically rugby, an unusual choice given that the almost all-white team drew boos from the black audience who rooted for the other side. As played winningly by Morgan Freeman, with a credible physical resemblance to Mandela, the nation’s first black president determines to kill two birds with one ball, showing the white population (only about ten percent of the population) that he fully supports the rugby team while encouraging the blacks to cheer them on. When the team, after a disastrous game with England, begins to pick up steam—not really believable given their desperate condition—and has a chance to win the World Cup when South Africa hosted the game in 1995, the entire country came around. Civil War: averted.

Matt Damon, slimmed down after being beefed up for The Informant!, turns out a realistic performance as the captain of the team, feeding them the usual rah-rah pep talks. What really inspires the crew, however, is Nelson Mandela’s personal contact with the young men. The president learns the name of each member, going out to the field amid feverish audience cheers, greeting the players by name and wishing all good luck. From then on, bring on the championship New Zealand team, one led by a 270-pound Maori who is given the ball on almost every play, the Kiwis all but certain that he will mow down the opponents.

This is Morgan Freeman’s movie. We learn something about the president’s character, even more than we might have absorbed from years of reading the papers and watching CNN. He has a quiet demeanor, chats with the staff as though all are on an equal plane, asking members of the security team—which he deliberately integrates half white, half black, about their families. The eight members of the his personal guard stand in for the entire country. Wary of one another at first, they learn to feel genuine affection as a working group, a welcome change considering that the black head of the guards virtually stormed into Mandela’s office to ask why he assigned people who may well have taken part in brutal punishments against the blacks. It’s a wonder that after spending a third of his life in a tiny cell, Mandela has lost all desire for vengeance. His African National Congress still receives a large majority of the vote, and while South Africa has serious problems—Jo’Berg is the most crime-ridden city on the continent, poverty with its accompanying shanties still exist, unemployment is high—this one man was been able to avert civil war and a breakup of a country whose citizens speak English, Africaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Basotho, Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, Swazi and Ndebele. Yet even two years previous to the game, Mandela had already won the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize. Check out the movie and you’ll appreciate why.

Rated PG-13 134 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in It's Complicated

Nancy Meyers's
It's Complicated
Opens December 25, 2009

Written By: Nancy Meyers
Starring: John Krasinski; Meryl Streep; Alec Baldwin; Steve Martin; Hunter Parrish;and Rita Wilson

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

A better title but one that might not be favored by writer-director Nancy Meyers would be “It’s Old-Hat.” This cliché-ridden, overlong romantic comedy with its haute bourgeois personalities appears to have much in common with some of Woody Allen’s works, given the financially successful albeit neurotic people on display, though this time there are no nerds. Meyers’ output, which mirrors the themes found here, includes her remake of Father of the Bride, the story of George, an ordinary, middle-class man whose 21 year-old daughter has decided to marry a man from an upper-class family. In Father, the main character thinks that life without his daughter would not be worth living. George is a man who has to grow up, a theme repeated in Myer's latest movie.

Meyers’-type rom-coms, though they revolve around families rather than young lovers, are called chick flicks, and I suppose It’s Complicated fits into that category. Since the three principals in the romantic triangle are middle-aged, the audience for this film is not likely to be 20-somethings who might spend half their movie viewing time staring at their iPhones and whose thumbs-down action probably has more to do with texting than with evaluating the quality of the movies. Meryl Streep, for example, is sixty years old, believe it or not, and contrary to the Hollywood formula she is wooed by a younger guy (Alec Baldwin is fifty-one, though his rotund figure makes him look older).

This conventional romance could have connected the dots well enough by shaving twenty to thirty minutes. The plot, which finds two men competing for the affection of a woman, is padded by silly scenes of middle-aged friends of Jane (Meryl Streep), women played by Mary Kay Place and Rita Wilson, who giggle and jump up and down like schoolgirls when they hear that Jane is having (gasp) an affair! For her part, Jane does quite a bit of giggling, not only when she takes a few tokes on some weed or when she sips Tanqueray, champagne and red wine, but when she is in the presence of her ex-husband, Jake (Alec Baldwin)—the laughs standing in for what should have been Preston-Sturges style wit and irony.

The main thread of the story finds Jake, whose 19-year-long marriage to Jane ended ten years previously as a result of his adultery, chasing after his ex-wife—not an unusual occurrence with people in real life. As he is about to cheat on his current, much younger spouse, Agness (Lake Bell), we know that this guy is never going to be a stay-at-home fellow. At the same time, Jane is courted by her architect, Adam (Steve Martin), a man with whom she has little chemistry and who appears stiffly embarrassed to be in the same picture. Jane’s daughters, like her best friends, serve principally to look wide-eyed at many of the things their mom tells them about her new romance.

The characters are all successful people. Jake is a lawyer who zips up to Jane’s fabulous Santa Barbara home and to her upscale restaurant in a Porsche; Adam is a successful architect; and Jane’s restaurant is a popular one. None of these people appear to have to work many hours, given all the leisure they have to deal with friends and families. This is the kind of movie that people may want to see particularly in these times of recession, as was true during the 1930’s when nobody felt like watching or reading The Grapes of Wrath. But for those seeking just a modicum of originality, It’s Complicated is not the film, as it simply shows older people acting like adolescents.

Rated R. 119 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Anand Tucker’s
Leap Year
Opens Friday, January 8, 2010


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by Deborah Kaplan, Harry Elfont.
Starring: Amy Adams; Matthew Goode; Adam Scott; and John Lithgow.

Leap Year is a surprisingly lovely way to kick off 2010. No, it’s not Avatar, The Hurt Locker or even Julie and Julia. But it’s a pleasant chick-flick that entertains and romances it’s audience by giving them a pretty good love story starring two very enchanting creatures.

The smile began within the first few seconds of celluloid flicker as Amy Adams walked across the screen. How do you not smile? How do you not root for her? How do you not love her? I want to see her play a serial killer who dismembers babies. Bet I’ll still root for her and love her. Damn babies had it coming for crying! But I digress…

Seriously, she is the Audrey Hepburn of our time; a charming, captivating and adorable actress who can actually act. So, Leap Year was off to grand start just by showing her walking. That’s all it took to hook, so to speak.

Ah, but a few frames later we are introduced to Matthew Goode, a sexy and winning actor who’s shown great promise in Match Point, The Lookout, Brideshead Revisited and A Single Man. Smoldering, I believe is the best adjective to describe him.

Quick plot summary: Adams plays Anna, a woman in a four-year relationship with Jeremy (a deliberately bland Adam Scott). He must go to Ireland on business. She grows tired of waiting for a marriage proposal and takes it upon herself to follow an Irish tradition of asking a man to marry her on February 29th of a leap year. As luck, via contrived script shifts, would have it, a bad storm forces her into the presence of Declan (Goode) who agrees to take her to Dublin.

The fact that we know how this story is going to turn out makes no never mind. The joy is in the watching; watching Adams and Goode spar, take to the road and--surprise—fall in love! Along the gloriously Hollywood way, she converses with a few cows, slides away from a castle into mud and vomits on Goode’s shoes. Very romantic. No, really. Trust me.

I do have one major complaint: as I watched the credits roll, still smiling, I realized that this was another tinseltown saga of how the working class man is better than the educated professional. First off, the lesser-schooled gent is always hotter and the smart guy is always ethically and/or morally challenged. This goes way back to the early days of the studio system. Thinking about the sad state of a country where many of its people can actually admire absolute idiots like Sarah Palin, this oft-filmed cliché really bothered me. I felt a frown forming.

But then I thought of Amy Adams. And smiled again.



Geralyn Pezanoski's
Mine
Opened January 15, 2010
Cinema Village, NYC


Written By: Erin Essenmacher and Geralyn Pezanoski
Starring: Geralyn Pezanoski; Jessie Pullins; Gloria Richardson; Dogs include J.J., Murphy Brown

Film Movement
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


Within its brief eighty-one minute run, Mine mines issues pertaining to the law, class, culture, natural disasters, geography, and pet lore. Yet somehow, because of its languid pace, its laid-back guitar soundtrack and its matter-of-fact storytelling in which even despairing owners of missing dogs tell their stories almost as though disconnected, Mine does not become a three-hanky movie. Maybe that’s all to its credit: we have enough Hallmark-style pics out there, the latest being the heavily marketed CBS Films’ Extraordinary Measures. What we do come away with after watching Mine, is a look at how much dogs, and to some extent cats, mean everything to some of their owners and virtually nothing to others, the rich and poor lining up in both categories of humankind.

In the wake of Katrina, the New Orleans hurricane which ranks as one of our country’s most destructive natural disasters—so serious that half of the families who were evacuated in 2005 have not returned to the Big Easy - dogs and cats became separated from their human families largely because evacuation teams would not allow them to leave with their owners. Four-legged family members were left behind, terrified; their cries for their people unanswered, their wagging tails unseen.

Director Geralyn Pezanoski concentrates her film on the stories of a few despairing pet owners who made frantic efforts to retrieve their pets. Mine tracks the first attempts at rescue made by volunteer teams which descended on New Orleans. They broke into homes, many of which had been almost completely destroyed with nothing remaining to show that this area was a kitchen, that one a living room. One rescue pair held down an air conditioner to allow a participant to squeeze his way through a window. Others burrowed under the soil to retrieve dogs and cats that were reluctant to come out of their heretofore hiding places. As Pezanoski trained her digital video camera week after week on the unfolding drama, she caught owners and foster families, humane society employees and lawyers, each giving a spiel about his or her role in the tragedy of the lost pets.

The stand-out person was eighty-something Malvin Cavalier, a jes’ folks type of individual whose mixed maltese disappeared, winding up outside the U.S. with a woman who took the dog in. An elderly retired nurse was separated from her true love, a black Labrador retriever named Murphy Brown, a loss that had her searching the ‘net endlessly to find the one out of thousands of labs that would answer to the name Murphy. One fellow, who repeatedly stated “I just can’t understand…” wonders why the person who took in his dog simply refused to return it, which thereupon led Ms. Pezanoski to consider the ethical question: why should a dog, owned by a poor New Orleans resident who had not taken care of having it altered or giving it proper veterinary care, be returned when the pooch could have a much better life with a middle-class family somewhere else in the country? A clear case can be made for allowing foster families to keep pit bulls, already heavily scarred from fights organized by their low-life owners. And if said pooches had bonded with the new foster families and stayed with them for three years or more, would the rights of the foster family trump those of the original owners?

Some results are noted. Malvin Cavalier’s dog was returned. Another owner was told by a foster parent that he would return the dog, but then disappeared. The retired nurse died. Some New Orleans residents stated in their wills that upon their demise, the dogs should be sent back to the foster families.

Doubtless some viewers and critics will say that given the enormity of the disaster, too much attention is being paid to canines and felines, thereby, perhaps, trivializing the monumentally tragic events. However there is room in our society to allow for concerns about the welfare or animals. Not every do-gooder must concentrate on the plights of human beings, people who have lost far more than their dogs and who may never return to the city of their birth. Ultimately, Mine is an informative documentary which is well worth seeing.

Unrated. 81 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Cinema Village (1 mi)
22 East 12th Street
New York, NY 10003 (212) 924-3363


Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's
The Most Dangerous Man in America
Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

Opens Friday, January 29, 2010


Written By: Judith Ehrlich; Michael Chandler; Lawrence Lerew; and Rick Goldsmith, based on “Secrets” and “Papers on the War” by Daniel Ellsberg

Starring: Daniel Ellsberg; Patricia Ellsberg; Tony Russo; Howard Zinn; Hedrick Smith; and John Dean

First Run Features
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

In a key segment of this gut-punching, superbly edited documentary, we hear that Daniel Ellsberg’s defense team made sure that few if any middle-aged people would serve on the Ellsberg trial jury. The reason? Many, probably most of these folks had probably ignored the call of principles in order to advance their careers. Ellsberg was not of that sort. He gave up his career and friends, although not family, by blowing the whistle on a set of lies that successive presidential administrations had been telling the people. (The government lies? What a surprise!)

Stop people on the street and ask them this: Suppose you found out that a high government official, trusted by officials as high as the President and given security clearance, stole top secret documents from a confidential file. He then sent those documents to the press, particularly the country’s most influential newspaper, the New York Times, papers that he would never have had access to had he not be given security clearance. What would you think of the fellow? Doubtless the majority of people on the street would tell you that such a guy is a traitor, a deceiver, a snake, someone who took advantage of his privileged position to trash the very administration that appointed him.

Hmmm. One wonders whether those who see this documentary would agree that Daniel Ellsberg should have been jailed, particularly since the high-level papers he released affected not only his own country but an enemy nation with which the U.S. was involved in a major war.

The story is this: Ellsberg, who had military credentials as a former first lieutenant in the U.S. Marines where he spent the happiest years of his life, was a brilliant man, a Ph.D. who had a position in the U.S. administration as a war planner. While presidents from Eisenhower to Kennedy, from Johnson to Nixon, repeatedly told the American people that the Vietnam War was, first, one for which U.S. involvement would be limited to an advisory capacity. Later Presidents Johnson and Nixon lied about the illegal bombing of Cambodia and Laos and covered up the atrocities being committed by our own side (of course the other side was at least as guilty, but we’re supposed to be above that sort of thing.)

Let me cite a parallel, imaginative situation. Let’s say you are ardently pro-Israel, a high official of that country’s government with access to confidential documents. You discover a paper indicating that the Prime Minister and his cabinet have no intention whatever of giving Palestinians an independent state ever, though the government repeatedly blames the other side for the lack of progress. Would you be a hero or a traitor for turning a shekel?

Hey! It’s to the enormous credit of this film that such questions can be evoked in the audience!

So when you watch this picture, think of that overriding question. Meanwhile Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, who direct this wonderful doc, make clear their view that Ellsberg is a hero, even though Henry Kissinger dubbed him “the most dangerous man in America.” During the early seventies while the Vietnam was hot and heavy with over half a million American soldiers in that godforsaken country, Ellsberg stole secret documents that indicated a cover-up of atrocities with wildly overoptimistic statements about American progress. He Xeroxed 7000 pages—and remember that Xerography was in an infant stage in the early seventies—delivered the docs to the NYTimes which printed the report until the newspaper was enjoined by the court. The papers were delivered to one paper after another, one step ahead of injunctions, until the whole country knew that the war was lost. Nixon, who compulsively and self-destructively taped all his conversations in the oval office, let loose with obscenities about both Dr. Ellsberg and the New York Times—and Vietnam as well—all this information leading to humorous segments of the film.

In addition to the talking heads that include his wife Patricia and son Robert, journalist Tom Oliphant, historian Howard Zinn, Washington bureau chief for the NY Times Max Frankel and Republic Congressman Pete McCloskey, considerable time is spent on archival films, including graphic detail on the saturation bombing of that small country, the atrocities on the ground, a few funny animations when archival work was not available. We’re told in the epilogue that two million Vietnamese and fifty-eight thousand Americans were killed in this unnecessary war.

So why is this film, seemingly dated with facts know by everyone middle-aged and above, shown now? Obvious parallels with the Iraq War exist. ‘nuff said. Good show.

Unrated. 93 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Penelope Cruz in Nine

Rob Marshall's
Nine
Opens Friday, December 25, 2009


Written by Anthony Minghella and Michael Tolkin, based on the Broadway hit Nine

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis; Marion Cotillard; Nicole Kidman; Penelope Cruz; Judi Dench; Sophia Loren; Kate Hudson; and Stacy Ferguson (Fergie).

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Nine is a "wedding cake" of a film that will entice viewers and make them ravenous to "Be Italian." The story begins in an empty Rome film studio. The protagonist, Guido (played by Daniel Day Lewis), is inside the dark sound stage imagining glorious scenes for a film for which he has been unable to write even the first page of the script. This non-scripted filming is to begin immediately, costumes are being designed, actors are arriving, there is a press conference and our beleaguered writer/director is overwhelmed by writer's block and unable to create his ninth film.

So instead of slogging through, Guido escapes. He runs to a resort where, he is unfaithful to his beautiful wife Luisa (played by Marion Cotillard), cavorting with his lusty/busty mistress Carla (played by Penelope Cruz). He simultaneously dallies with an American fashion journalist, Stephanie (played by Kate Hudson). He even finds time to reminisce about his first object of lust, a buxom whore played by Fergie. When he is finally forced to return to Rome (his wife has discovered his dalliance), and his star and muse Claudia (played by Nicole Kidman), confronts him about his lack of script, there is no real confrontation - they take a romantic walk through the streets or Rome . This walk that Guido and Claudia take through the streets of Rome is one of the most beautiful scenes in the film. In the words of Guido's wife Luisa, Guido is only an appetite.

But while Guido is being non-productive and irresponsible, his imagination is soaring, visualizing stunning musical production numbers starring all the women in his life. Kate Hudson is a go-go dancer, clad in gold hot pants. Fergie and a cast of seemingly hundreds dance on a sound stage, covered in sand. Nicole Kidman and Judi Dench each perform dazzling Broadway style numbers. His life Luisa is a dancer at a sailor's bar. Director Rob Marshall (of Chicago fame) handles these flights of fancy in a seamless manner - one moment we are in "reality" and the next we soar away with Guido's desire.

The film is blessed with a stellar cast of actors beginning with the incomparable Sophia Loren. Daniel Day Lewis recreates the sexual animal he played in the 1988 classic, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Penelope Cruz plays a voraciously sexual woman, a role that should catapult her to Award Heaven. Marion Cotillard is simply delightful as is Nicole Kidman. And who knew about Fergie? All of the actors need to start prepping their Oscar acceptance speeches; they will all be there.


 

 


Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in A Single Man

Tom Ford's
A Single Man
Opens December 11, 2009


Written By: Tom Ford, David Scearce, from Christopher Isherwood’s novel
Cast: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult, Matthew Goode, Jon Kortajarena, Paulette Lamori, Ryan Simpkins, Ginnifer Goodwin

The Weinstein Company
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Did Alfred Lord Tennyson know whereof he spoke when he said:
“I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all."

Now that’s debatable. Tennyson wrote “In Memoriam” in 1850, but things may have changed. Anyone who has experienced the loss of a significant other, a great love—whether through death or marital separation or divorce—goes through the kind of hell described by Dante, and Dante's seventh layer at that. A Single Man looks into the issue of grief and finds not necessarily in favor of Tennyson. Good for Tom Ford, who wrote the film as well as directed it, adapting his script from Christopher Isherwood’s novel which told the story of a life on a single day in October 1962. Almost buried in the details of a lost love is the timing of the story, which takes place when the world almost went up in smoke because the Russians insisted on sneaking missiles into Cuba. This scenario might have scared the principal character, George (Colin Firth), if he were not depressed by a more apocalyptic crisis: Jim (Matthew Goode), his lover for the past sixteen years, was killed instantly in a car accident, leaving George with little desire to live. When George loads his revolver, we’re reminded of Chekhov’s statement that “if you see a gun in Act One, it will go off in Act Three.” We’ll leave the reader in suspense: see the movie and you’ll find out if Chekhov rings true.

A Single Man is photographed with great style by Eduard Grau under writer-director Ford’s supervision. Grau uses desaturated colors when George is feeling down and deep color when he reminisces about his Great Love. Among the vivid, and most compelling stylistic touches are two males swimming nude in the waters by a Los Angeles beach, a slow-motion look at George as he takes his Mercedes to work and waves at the all-American couple living next door, extreme close-ups of eyes as when George meets the stare of another with whom he may share his gay lifestyle. Even his old flame and present-day adviser, Charley (Julianne Moore), is shown brushing her eyelashes as though she were sitting right on the laps of audience members. There is considerable substance as well as style, courtesy of Colin Firth’s characterization of a 52-year-old English college professor at a small but leafy Los Angeles college. Now, burdened with his loneliness, he wonders whether he is even reaching his students. Only one 19-year-old in the class, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), has connected, and strongly, enough to stalk the professor into a dangerous, possible relationship crossing the boundaries of teacher-student ethics. It helps the credibility to state that Colin Firth looks ten years younger than his professed professorial age.

Scenes include George’s quick encounter with Carlos (Jon Kortajerena), a street hustler originally from Madrid, who is up for a quickie, and an especially strong scene with Charley, who has invited him for dinner, dolling herself up in the hopes of a seduction and a revival of her relationship with George. Two lonely souls pass each other in the night offering the chance for a new life, but even here George seems more interested in a night at the beach and a trip back to his lavish home with young Kenny, whose skinny-dip into the Pacific is remembered by novelist Isherwood thus: "He washes away thought, speech, mood, desire, whole selves, entire lifetimes, again and again he returns, becoming always cleaner, freer, less."

Yes, there are things that a novel can do better than a movie. Here in the cinema, we lose the chance to use our book-reading imagination, but gain in so many other ways given this somber, yet riveting visual gaze at the bottomless pit of loneliness.

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


 


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