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Roberta Grossman's
Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh
Opens January 28, 2009

Written by Sophia Sartain
Starring: Meri Roth; Marcela Nohynkova; and Zdenek Kozakovic

Reviewed by Meg van Huygen

In 1938, a Jewish teenager named Hannah Senesh emigrated from her native Hungary to the British Mandate of Palestine (later to become Israel), informing her upper-class family that she was going to study agriculture on a farm rather than attending a university, citing that “They have enough intellectuals.” Very soon after, Nazi Germany began its invasion of Europe’s Jewish enclaves. After graduating from the Nahalal, Senesh joined a kibbutz, meanwhile keeping up a regular written correspondece for several years with her mother, Catherine, in Budapest, as Hungary refused Germany’s demands for its Jewish citizens. But when the Germans finally reached Hungary in 1943 and communication with her family was cut off, Senesh decided to fight back. She enlisted in the British Army and, in 1944, she and several colleagues parachuted into Yugoslavia on a mission to infiltrate Hungary’s border and rescue its Jews, the only mission of its kind during World War II.

Roberta Grossman’s documentary Blessed Is the Match, named after one of Senesh’s poems, recounts her youth, her high school conversion to Zionism at the brink of war, her subsequent work in Palestine, her poetry and diaries, and finally her death in a Gestapo prison at the age of 22. In addition to somewhat-mawkish reenacted scenes and some cornball orchestration, Grossman’s film comprises extensive photos, letters, archival materials, and interviews with Senesh’s relatives, colleagues, and cellmates to form a pretty legit portrait of a passionate and complex young woman. The documentary opens with the government celebration of Senesh’s funeral in 1950, as her remains were returned to the newly established state of Israel and she was laid to rest with full military honors, six years after her death, and this lays out a compelling template to describe the rest of her life. Suspense is particularly thick after our heroine is captured by the Gestapo and while she’s beaten, interrogated, and imprisoned—she still manages to communicate with other inmates through a window, across a courtyard. Her poetry reveals an endearing, romantic side of Hannah, a girl who had exceptionally close bonds with her mother and brother, who had deep convictions and integrity, who greatly looked forward to falling in love for the first time; in contrast, one surviving colleague confesses that he found her disagreeable, while another calls her intimidating.

Ultimately, the film itself is perfectly serviceable, but it falls slightly short in comparison to the remarkability of its subject. The story is fascinating alone, and the execution isn’t offensive, but all the cinematic parlor tricks employed by the filmmaker take away more grace and credibility than they lend. Israel’s “modern-day Joan of Arc” probably deserves a little better.



 


Laurent Cantet’s
The Class (Entre les murs)
Opens Friday, January 30, 2009

Starring: François Bégaudeau

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at The 46th Annual New York Film Festival

The winner of the Palm d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and France’s official entry into the Oscar race, Laurent Cantet’s engrossing film, The Class, opens the 46th annual New York Film Festival with a heap of accolades already in tow.

With an intense, docu-style narrative and a deliberately claustrophobic setting, Laurent and co-writer and star François Bégaudeau (who also wrote the novel the film is based on) and Robin Campillo, have created a fascinating microcosmic meditation on social justice and how one’s cultural and class background play into how much power that individual is allowed in any given society. In this case the ‘society’ happens to be a classroom.

The Class takes place entirely in a school or on the school premises, but mostly in François’s junior high school class. The movie chronicles one school year in the life of a teacher and his twenty-five students—although many get short-shrift in the screenplay to make way for the louder, more colorful characters.

Bégaudeau plays the autobiographical role of the teacher who seemingly cares a great deal about his students but whose low self-esteem and abundant pride get in the way when it matters most. It’s a sharp and impressive performance with the real/cinema lines blurring in a mesmerizing manner.

As for the student body ensemble: these are not the apathetic, indifferent zombies flooding the screens in recent American films (most notably in Antonio Campos’ irritating Elephant-wannabe, Afterschool, also playing the Festival), these are willful, obstinate, argumentative, intelligent students who challenge everything from the racist manner in which subjects are taught to the rules they are forced to follow in class.

The film features overlapping dialogue and improvised scenes that add to the naturalistic feel. Cantet’s frame is almost always filled with students. I wish he had used more of peripheral kids in the final cut.

What The Class does is ask urgent questions; questions about democracy and the fear of nonconformity. It may be a French film but it resonates intensely here in the good ol’ US of A.



Nikhil Advani 's
Chandi Chowk to China
Opens Friday January 16, 2009


Written By: Rajat Arora, Shridhar Raghavan
Starring: Akshay Kumar; Deepika Padukone; Mithun Chakraborty; Chia Hui Liu; Roger Yuan; Ranvir Shorey; Conan Stevens; Yuk-Ting Lau; Jun Li, Kevin Wu; and Chang En Lu
Warner Bros
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

In life, timing may not be everything but it could mean the difference between making a killing on Wall Street and going under, or coming from behind in a 15-round a heavyweight bout to land that one lucky punch leading to a knockout, or being Jay Leno versus performing stints in a Wyoming comedy club. If Nikhil Advani's Chandni Chowk to China had been released before Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the feature might garner more attention than it deserves simply for the novelty of combining martial arts with spectacular special effects. As the picture stands, though, it is a first—merging kung fu with Bollywood while being released by a major U.S. distributor. That novelty may have been responsible for landing some print from the New York Times on January 14 extolling the talent of India's greatest male heartthrob, Akshay Kumar, an actor pretty much unknown in these parts, but apparently the Brad Pitt of India.

The title comes from the name of a market in Old Delhi, a ramshackle place that Sarah Palin might call the real India, as opposed to its adjoining capital of New Delhi, a relatively sterile place that houses the country's parliament building. Filmed by Himman Dhamija in India, China, and Thailand with a mixture of musical genres to accompany Pony Verma's choreography, Chandhi Chowk is a pot pourri of romance, high-flying stunts, some decent, if overdone special effects, family sentimentality and dance. The primary focus is on Akshay Kumar's character, Sidhu, who morphs from a nerdy-looking vegetable chopper in Old Delhi to a Tyrone-Power-style swashbuckler, the change occurring unlike that of the biblical Samson by shaving the facial hair that gives him the appearance of Inspector Clouseau.

The plot turns on the belief of a pair of Chinese visitors to Delhi that Sidhu is a reincarnation of a war hero, just the sort needed to rid the tourists' village of Hojo (Gordon Liu), a powerful smuggler who controls the village not only via his collection of bodyguards but through his own strength backed up by a bowler that he uses as a boomerang to decapitate his enemies. Sidhu, who often recalls his dad's advice to "believe in yourself," relies instead on a potato which bears the image of the great Indian god Ganesh. He attracts the attention of two beautiful women in China, Sakhi and Meow Meow (both played by Deepika Padukone), who inspire him to make the herculean effort of believing in himself—as Sidhu frequently falls back on a puppyish dependence on the kindness of strangers as he simply cannot believe he is anything more than a latkes maker.

If the United States could harness the energy on display in Chandhni Chowk, we could shuck our reliance on oil from Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. More than energy is required, however, to compel audience interest. A genuine story rather than an unoriginal hodge-podge of stunts would help, though attention must be to an array of smartly-played side roles such as those of Sidhu's translator, Chopstick (Ranvir Shorey) and especially the evil Hojo (Gordon Liu) who meets his match thanks to Sidhu's vigorous round of training, courtesy of martial arts master, Chiang (Roger Yuan). Believe in yourself, sure: but make sure you devote long stretches of time honing your craft—as did Sidhu.

Rated PG-13. 140 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 

 

Doris Dorrie's
Cherry Blossoms (Kirschbluten - Hanami)
Opens Friday January 16, 2009


Written By: Doris Dorrie
Starring: Elmar Wepper; Hannelore Elsner; Aya Irizuki; Maximilian Bruckner; and Nadja Uhl.

Strand Releasing
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

In this remarkably poignant and painterly drama, an elderly man, Rudi Angermeier (Elmar Wepper) tells his caring wife Trudi (Hannelore Elsner), that people always say that we should lead our lives as though each day could be ourr last. Not so, in Rudi's opinion, for this fellow, accustomed to taking the same train to work each day, eating the same lunch, coming home in a contented manner to his wife, is doing what he believes everyone else would choose to do. Living by routines is the most pleasant way to spend our days, he opines, though his wife—whom he will truly understand only after her death—has long harbored the desire to go with him to Japan, particularly to gaze upon Mt. Fuji, and to apply white make-up to her face and indulge in Butoh dancing. Butoh, which becomes a principal trope in the story, encompasses a range of activities and techniques for dance—one that involves grotesque and playful imagery and is performed in white-body makeup with slow, hyper-controlled motion. In Cherry Blossoms, it is also a way to communicate with the dead. (Hal Hartley opened the Tokyo segment of his movie Flirt with such a performance.)

Cherry Blossoms is hardly the sort of work that would capture the interest of anyone who insists that films should be hyper-kinetic. Doris Dorrie, known principally for her Erleuchtung Garantiert (two very different brothers get together for a temporary stay in a Japanese Zen monastery and learn that the journey is within) and Der Fischer und seine Frau (two German veterinarians travel to Japan, look for fish to buy and sell, and fall in love with the same woman), ventures into quiet comedy as well in her current work; she uses resonant imagery to highlight her belief in life's transience. Even the title of the film, which calls attention to the cherry blossoms that sprout in Japan in March, grow quickly to full bloom, and then disappear, encourages us in the audience to remember that our existence here is fleeting.

Dorrie gains her inspiration from the works of Yajujiro Ozu, whose philosophy can be summed up in four words: "Contemplation calms anxious activity." Dorrie, in Cherry Blossoms, has her audience see a man who though lacking the adventurous spirit of his wife, becomes enlightened after her death by traveling to Japan to engage in activities that would have pleased her.

Self-described country bumpkin Rudi is persuaded by his wife Trudi to travel with her to Japan to visit their son, Karl (Maximillian Bruckner), after she learns from two doctors that her husband is terminally ill. Stopping off in Berlin to visit their other grown children Karolin (Birgit Minichmayr) and Klaus (Felix Eitner), they sense correctly that they are intruding in their offsprings' busy lives. During the visit, Trudi dies in her sleep leaving her grief stricken husband without direction, Rudi then decides to travel on to Japan and discover what there is about Japan that so excited her Butoh-dancing mate. Rudi's son, Karl (Maximiliajn Bruckner), is busy working for a German company in Tokyo and he leaves his dad alone for most of each day. When Rudi sightsees in Tokyo, he encounters an 18-year-old hippie-ish Butoh-dancer, Yu (Aya Irizuki). Rudi travels with her to Mount Fuji to find the closure he seeks. At the same time he finds out more about his wife than he knew about her during their marriage. Just as the Butoh dance style combines Japanese steps with German expressionism, so Rudi's discovery joins his German roots with his Japanese enlightenment.

This contemplative story has the casual pace of Ozu's Tokyo Story, whic is obviously Dorrie's inspiration in that Ozu's 1953 masterpiece also deals with the visit of elderly parents to their children. Though the journey, and not the destination, is the point of life, Dorrie's film is remarkably successful in evoking the value of both.

Not Rated. 124 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 


Olly Blackburn's
Donkey Punch
Opens Friday January 23, 2009

Written By: Olly Blackburn, David Bloom
Starring: Robert Boulter; Sian Breckin; Tom Burke; Nichola Burley; Julian Morris; Jay Taylor; and Jamie Winstone.

Magnet Releasing
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

When Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote "And the sky and the sea/ And the sea and the sky/ Lay like a load on my weary eye/ And the dead were at my feet," he was thinking of a fellow who sinned by shooting an albatross. He could scarcely imagine corpses emerging when a bunch of bimbos and testosterone-addled youths sail on a pleasure yacht in search of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. In Oliver Blackburn's mind, however, there may be little connection between sex and love, but there is a surprising correlation between sensuality and death. Blackburn employs the tools native to a genre broadly known as horror pictures—a class of movies that sometimes include zombies, vampires and werewolves, though human beings with chain saws, rifles, axes and ropes sometimes accomplish quite a bit more than things that go howling in the night.

Such is the case for Donkey Punch, filmed by Nanu Segal off the coast of Capetown, South Africa, which stands in for sunny Marbella, Spain. (One clue to the geographical transformation lies in the name of the yacht in which most of the action takes place: "Durban.")

A relatively low-budget feature cast with no-one over the age of thirty, Donkey Punch aims at an audience of similar age who happen to be fans of sex, drugs, gore, and rock and roll

The film opens on three boy-crazy babes from Leeds, England who supply the film's eye candy by spending the film clad in bikinis and birthday suits. They've chucked their cloudy home town skies for the clear waters Marbella, Spain.

The men in the story are interchangeable, none a killer to begin with, but all set to commit homicide under the proper conditions of fear and loathing. The women are somewhat more diversified, one of the three acting as the smarter, more reluctant gal, hesitating to get on board with guys they had just met, somehow realizing that once the skipper sets sail, they could be at the mercy of their dates. Flirting morphs to drinks, Ecstasy, crack, and the making of a porn flick in which all happily partake—save for the relatively smart one who remains in the upper deck.

Full nudity sex evolves—none of the coy "sheets and blankets from the waist down" performing. All is captured on video, even some celluloid that could send these kids to jail for a long time. When one fellow donkey-punches his blond partner, i.e. clips her hard on the back of the neck because his pal told him that such a blow increases the woman's pleasure, the only thing to turn more rigor than the guy is his date's mortis. As the survivors recoil in horror and anxiety, each blaming the others for the mishap, the men are determined to invent a story to tell the authorities. Unfortunately, the women, rather than playing it cool by agreeing to falsification, threaten to turn the guys in as soon as the Coast Guard can make an appearance.

There's nothing new in this genre piece, but Francois-Eudes Chanfrault's eerie music, which ranges from the techno played by the frolickers to eerie tones endemic to horror pics, augment the chills. Enough chills are supplied to make for satisfactory tension. The actors are good-looking; though generally new to the movie industry, their performances are credible enough. A couple of knives, a chain saw, a rifle, and a rope make for the inevitable pileup of bodies and, as is typical to slasher films like Hostel 2, there is but one survivor. We in the audience place our bets a half hour into the picture.

Not Rated. 100 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


David Ondaatje's
The Lodger
Opens Friday, January 23, 2009


Written By: David Ondaatje, from Marie Belloc Lowndes's 1913 novel

Starring: Alfred Molina; Shane West; Hope Davis; Donal Logue; Simon Baker

Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

There is little in The Lodger that has not been done before; even the forensic details are the kind that would have excited an audience in 1950 and mayl seem old hat to today's viewers. But The Lodger compels attention anyway by the use of intricate plotting, noirish visual imagery and a Hitchcockian soundtrack. The story is a fictionalized account of Jack the Ripper, who in the late 1880's put a number of hookers out of business permanently. Presumably Jack was "getting off" by murdering the ladies of the night rather than paying for their services.

The film opens (of course) on a dark and rainy night, this time in West Hollywood as an overweight, grouchy detective Chandler Manning (Alfred Molina) obsesses about a series of killings which the mayor and police chief are under pressure to solve. This is a story that would be right up Alfred Hitchcock's alley and it is unwrapped in two separate developments that come together seamlessly. Manning, who feels guilty that he might have sent the wrong man to the execution chamber for Jack-the-Ripper style killings, spends so much time on the case (even stealing documents from police files and pointing a gun to a fellow who catches him in the act), that his wife attempts suicide by slitting her wrists. As though that were not enough, we find him treated shabbily by a daughter who does not trust him. He has few if any friends, and lets out some of his hostility against Street (Shane West), the rookie also assigned to the case.

Another character, Ellen (Hope Davis) is saddled with a jerk of a husband (Donal Logue). Ellen has accepted a lodger, Malcolm (Simon Baker), a handsome, charming fellow who calls himself a writer. Malcom will obviously ingratiate himself into the lonely heart of his landlady and become the apparent suspect. But Malcom is only one one of perhaps three or four suspects who might conceivably have been doing the hookers dirty.

David Ondaatje, in his debut as the writer-director of a feature film, uses some film-school devices such as fast-motion looks at L. A.'s heavy traffic. In one take, there is a view of Ellen making sandwiches for her lodger—the speed of the take seemingly mimics the way a psychotic might look at his or her environment. Simon Baker takes principal acting kudos in the understated role of a fellow who, like Ted Bundy, is able to charm the ladies--while also being the lead suspect in the Jack-the-Ripper copycat murders. Hope Davis, always reliable, particularly when she is paired off with Campbell Scott, does yeoman-like work as a frustrated wife who just might do anything she can to take suspicion away from her suave lover.

As is typical of movies of this genre, the twists come thick and fast as the story wraps up, though these stereotypical noirish films may have just about gone on past their welcome.

Rated R. 95 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Joel Hopkins'
Last Chance Harvey
Opened December 25, 2009

Written by Joel Hopkins :
Starring: Dustin Hoffman; Emma Thompson; James Brolin; Kathy Baker; Richard Schiff
Overture Films

Reviewed by Francesca Simon

Okay – I’m admitting this in print but I just found this out last week – I’m over 50!
Not only am I over 50 but I’m single – well divorced actually! But no matter – I’m alone. After spending last week gazing at our new President and First Lady Michelle, I confess I started feeling that maybe I wouldn’t mind being in a loving relationship. Of course the current course of events in NYC hasn’t given me much hope.

But the film Last Chance Harvey filled with me the audacity of hope and made me laugh at my pain and contemplate the possibility of a future. So whether you’re 50 or not, if you’re single and want to see a real life portrayal of love lost, love found, go see this movie before its gone! This is a true romantic comedy!

The two Academy Award Winners – Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson -- shine in this charming, funny comedy about finding a last chance for love. I admit it’s a chick flick, but I think some disillusioned men might find hope in seeing Dustin Hoffman, playing Harvey, a middle-aged man on the edge of desperation and defeat, still find the gall to engage himself in a feminine adventure of the truest kind. And Emma Thompson, playing Kate, faces the facts that so many females over 50 must confront – weight gain, apathy, and just plain tired of trying.

Harvey, a jazz pianist in his heart, makes his living writing commercial jingles – and he ain’t happy. Flying to London to see his daughter get married, he knows he’s at risk and could lose big account. But he goes anyway. Kate, taking surveys at London’s airport, stops him for a comment or two but he’s just too busy. As fate would have it they meet again and the romance begins. London provides a scenic background and seeing these two stroll through this city truly warms the heart. They’re real people – not so pretty, but no where near ugly either!

Emma gained weight for the part and weighed in with a size 16 – I can relate. Her character is not desperate for love – she almost doesn’t care anymore – I can relate. Dustin, who’s 71-years-old in real life, just had to comb his graying hair to get ready for the part. These two loveable characters become people we care about very early on. So we cheer a little inside when destiny decides to give them both an opportunity to try to be happy they snap the bait and get the blessing. This is a great movie to see before the Valentine’s Day blues hits you – no matter what your age. These two have chemistry, real conversation and heartistic connections. It’s a great human story and you’ll leave smiling – I promise.

Read Emma’s blog (quoted from womenandhollywood.com/2009/01/emma-thompson-blogs-by-email-about-last-chance-harvey/and step out of your emotional fog and take a chance.

“Dear Fellow Females – I’ve been asked to offer a blog on my new film,Last Chance Harvey– which, as a computer illiterate, I get confused with ‘snog’ (British slang for kissing) and ‘shog’ (Shakespearian word used by Pistol in Henry V meaning ‘leave’) neither of which - I realise - is the correct interpretation.

But it is a comment, or view, I think, that you want, and here it is –
I shall turn 50 this year, which is not without its odd emotions and has got me thinking about being, well, old. I don’t mean decrepit, I mean not infantile, no longer so attached to things, no longer so concerned about what others think, no longer so anxious to prove myself – you may know the sort of thing I mean. It was rather a treat, therefore, to play what is – in a way – my first modern romantic lead in a film that is more romantic than comic (although it has very funny moments and is underscored with irony and subtle humour throughout) where I was not required to be stunningly attractive or in despair or in need of rescue, but simply an ordinary woman in her forties living a rather stale-looking life as best she can.

Along comes this rather brash American (Dustin) and he blows a great hole in her defenses (don’t you think we all build them for various stages in life and then FORGET TO DISMANTLE THEM when the danger is past or the trauma has been lived through?). So what you are watching is a sudden flood of real communication (how rare is that?), the sort of communication that shifts the emotional tectonic plates and provokes seismic movement in the soul.

Again, it’s rare to watch this on the screen because you need to be a little thoughtful and not require explosions of the literal kind to keep you interested. I’d guess that’s a fair description of us.

If you see the picture, and I hope you will because I love it very much and am moved by it every time I see it, you’ll notice I am decidedly unglamorous and at least size 16. I really wanted to look like a “normal” woman, I mean in terms of body size.

Actresses seem to be getting tinier and tinier and I do wonder how we think we can present really powerful women, matriarchs and the like, when we seem to insist upon having such attenuated physiques.

So Kate is solid – probably worries a bit about her muffin-top (mine is more like a desk-top these days if you must know) but can’t find the energy to worry enough to go to the gym and can’t find the time either.

She’s a real sort of person, someone I could relate to entirely and I hope you enjoy her. If you do, tell your friends because the more we can get films like this well distributed the more films we can make about (for want of a better epithet) real women, as opposed to (let’s face it) pretend ones.

Warmest wishes to you all for 2009 from Emma Thompson, a first time blogger at fifty.”


 

Barry Jenkins'
Medicine For Melancholy
Opens Friday, January 30, 2009

Written By: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins

IFC Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

The film opens on a couple in bed, hung over from a party the day before after "potentially" engaging in a one-night stand. A Judd Apatow production? Hardly. Medicine for Melancholy deals with what would probably happen in real life in such a situation, though the two people appear to be mismatched except for their being slim African-Americans. The morning-after activities give the audience the impression that these two are about to conclude a date from hell, as they both brush their teeth with their fingers without dialogue, then repair to a taxi that finds them not speaking or making eye contact. Is there hope? There may be. Barry Jenkins, who wrote and directs this eighty-seven minute film, prefers his characters to be mired in authenticity, which partially explains why the movie is desaturated to such an extent that it appears to be a black-and-white picture with the occasional flash of color in a T-shirt or other article of clothing.

In his first feature film, Jenkins gives us not only a portrait of a newly paired couple in his San Francisco—a city which has a black population of only seven percent, shrinking further because of the menace of gentrification coupled with the anticipated swan song of rent control. Wyatt Cenac, currently a New Yorker who writes for The Daily Show, performs the role of Micah, who is in his late twenties, unattached, and now focusing on a woman, Jo', played by Tracey Heggins in her first leading film role. Micah, who lets his date know that "Mike" is not acceptable to him though the sobriquet Jo' is fine with her, is attracted to Jo' who, for her part, is aloof. When he finds her purse on the floor of the taxi, he tracks Jo' down from the name on her driver's license. During their full day together, they get to know each other through conversation. Despite their cultural differences—she is into museums, has a boyfriend in London who is a curator, while he is so race-conscious that she thinks he is interested in her because of her race rather than her individuality. He does get the bright idea that would merge their diverse interests: why not visit the Museum of African Diaspora?

Filmed by James Laxton on location, his camera catching both the posh neighborhoods and the run-down sectors, Medicine for Melancholy follows the two as they bike around the city's hilly terrain. Micah gets ample opportunity to show his funny side, though he is angry about gentrification and not too keen on interracial dating. Jo' is more optimistic, not quite like Sally Hawkins's character Poppy in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, but she has no racial chip on her shoulder and resents her new friend's tunnel vision.

Though the story could probably be done on one of New York's off-Broadway stages with just two characters, Jenkins throws in some diversions including a couple of guys outside a club who urge the two to become hydrated, and a meeting of intense youths discussing the options to counter the city's momentum into gentrification. Medicine for Melancholy is about as indie-ish as you can get, a low-budget pic with a sharp script and a duo who have interesting things to say to each other.

Unrated. 87 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Jonas Elmer's
New In Town
Opens Friday, January 30, 2009


Written By: Kenneth Rance and C. Jay Cox
Starring: Renee Zellweger; Harry Connick, Jr.; J. K. Simmons; Siobhan Fallon Hogan; and Frances Conroy

Lionsgate and Gold Circle Films
Reviewed by Francesca Simon

Ever walk into a room when everyone’s laughing and you can’t wait to find out what was so funny? This did not happen when I went to the screening of “New In Town”. This movie, which opens today, is billed as a romantic comedy starring Renee Zellweger and Harry Connick, Jr. There are few times when I am grateful that the New York City Subway had made me late – this was one of them. I would have found it too boring to sit through the full 96 minutes of this film.

Renee is usually a hoot and Harry is just, well, hot!!! But in this movie the lack of chemistry between the two made for brutal boredom. After a week of thinking about President and Mrs. Obama’s wedded bliss I was ready for a bit of romance, so I could laugh at someone else’s sad state of affairs rather than bemoan my own singular plight. New In Town made me want to be lost in space.

The story’s cute enough: big city business girl Lucy (Renee Zellweger) gets sent to the symbolic Siberia of New Ulm, Minnesota, where on a real good day the temperature is above freezing. She meets Ted (Harry Connick, Jr.), who’s a union leader of the factory she’s sent to take over. They’re instant enemies and this could have been funny if there had been any edge to their anger. It was dull as a popsicle stick. No Spencer Tracey/Katherine Hepburn energy here.

Since Lucy comes from Miami the obvious temperature adjustment fare is there, but not so funny. Renee does some funny stunts of slipping, sliding and falling – but she’s no Lucy Ricardo. And I still can’t figure out why there was no steam between these too. Even in sub-zero weather Harry is well – hot! But not with her.

The story is typical “little guy fights back at big business” – the suits threaten to close the factory where the quirky townspeople all work. Lucy works to save the factory and well, win the heart of the hot guy!

The best thing about this movie is the funny northern accents and one-liners which J. K. Simmons; Siobhan Fallon Hogan and Frances Conroy pull off without a hitch. But somehow the script didn’t make me care about any of these characters. And I got cheated at the end when they didn’t even let me see a happy ever after ending. But the cast and crew are to be commended for shooting this slice of Minnesota life in below zero temperatures in Winnipeg, Canada. They were shooting in record-breaking winter temperatures of -52.6 below zero!

“We launched an entire new vocabulary,” Zellweger said. “You face is so frozen that you’ll be filming and you don’t know that you’ve been tearing up until your eyes lashes are frozen together. These are lash-cicles. And the guys had beard-cicles. My personal favorite is when your mouth gets numb and you can barely talk. You have no sensation at all, so you get nostricles. These are sexy.”

Maybe so Renee, but they don’t make a movie funny! If you’re looking for glimmer of hope to help you through Valentine’s Day check out Last Chance Harvey. The actors are much older – Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman – but the movie is funny!


 

Milcho Manchevsky
Shadows (Senki)
Opens Friday, January 30, 2009

Written By: Milcho Manchevsky
Starring: Borce Nacev; Vesna Stanojevska; Sabina Ajrula-Tozija; and Salaetin Bilal

Mitropoulos Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Shadows, or Senki in its original, Macedonian language, could be subtitled Love and Death,though there's a lot more Ingmar Bergman in the tale than Woody Allen. A lengthy, serious piece with comedic undercurrents, Shadows can be viewed as: entertainment done in epic style; an absorbing history lesson; a ghost story; a tourist product placement; and a film that does not stint on soft-core porn. Borce Nacev, who resembles a cross between a young Al Pacino and the current Adrien Brody, is in virtually every scene. Nacev plays Lazar Petrov, aka "Lucky," a handsome, youthful doctor who becomes privy to a number of strange occurrences; it is as though he were wandering about in a dream. Death is a frequent visitor in his days of stunning surprises, but so is love in all its myriad forms: love of his wife; his son; and ultimately of his own vital presence on earth as well.

Milcho Manchevsky, a Macedonian who has taught courses at New York University, is known to fans of serious films for his multi-award-winning 1994 picture Before the Rain, a look at intertwining lives in the strife-torn Republic of Macedonia. Rain featured a monk, a photojournalist, and a London woman at a key point in her life. The current film is laden with symbolism, one that not only will keep the audience guessing about its cryptic, central motif but may encourage us to think that such a tale could take place not only in the small, landlocked Macedonian nation but in a number of other countries that have been victimized by ethnic cleansing. (History buffs will recall that Macedonia was liberated from the Turkish Empire after a war that found Greece, one of the victorious powers, expelling hundreds of thousands of ethnic Macedonians from their land, seizing their estates, and filling the newly-emptied areas with ethnic Greeks, not only from Greece but from various nations to the east.)

Shadows could be interpreted as a comment on the way nations throughout history have devastated conquered lands, but writer-director Manchevsky must have been aware that limiting his story to politics would decrease 7his audience while reducing the story to mere chronicle. What emerges in Shadows is a look at injustice, taking aim specifically at people who throughout human history have violated the Eighth Commandment: "Thou shall not steal."

When Dr. Lazar Perkov (Borce Nacev) suffers a near-fatal car accident after an argument with his wife Gordana (Filareta Atanasova), he envisions the mythic tunnel that many say they have seen at death's door. One year later, his wife having remained at a vacation spot with his son Ignjat (Dime Iliev), Lazar returns to his apartment in the capital city of Skopje to find an old woman (Ratka Radmanovic) sitting on his couch, speaking to him in an ancient dialect he cannot understand. Visiting a professor for a translation, he instead meets a young, attractive woman, Menka (Vesna Stanojevska), claiming to be the teacher's assistant, who explains that the old woman was warning, "Return what's not yours. Have respect." The message appears cryptic to Lazar since he is aware of stealing nothing. We in the audience are meant to see that innocence of wrongs is no excuse: the duty of an ethical person is to locate injustice in the form of theft and to do his best to set things right—a notion, by the ways, introduced by the ancient Greek tragedians who believed that all sorts of bad things happen when hubristic deeds go unpunished. Among the strangers, with an accent on "strange," that Lazar encounters is a man (Salaetin Bilal) who can use a podiatrist in the worst way. At this point in the over two-hours long film, some theatergoers will get an inkling of what's going on, and what the young physicians must do to set the heavens right.

Though Shadows is overlong, Manchevski fills the screen with enough love (in the form of heavy-breathing, full-nudity scenes without the sheets that somehow cover bedded American couples from the waist down) and violence (in the form of a hanging, a drowning, a fall down an elevator shaft, a stunningly photographed car crash) to satisfy even the groundlings in the audience who have wandered into a screening thinking that they were going to see Hostel 2. Shadows is nicely acted by an ensemble of actors who play characters whom Lazar—like Lazarus rising from the dead—meets on his quasi-religious journey .Shadows might just entice some Americans, particularly those who got out of the stock market in October 2007, to put Macedonia in their vacation plans, all thanks to Fabio Cianchetti's glorious photography of quaint villages and lakeside hot spots.

Shadows is Macedonia's entry into the Oscar competition for Best Foreign Film of 2008.

Not Rated. 130 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 


Carlos Reygadas'
Silent Light
Opens January 7, 2009

Reviewed by Shawn Harris

On the surface, Silent Light is about one man's struggle between duty, love, and faith in a rural Menonite community in Mexico. But a few minutes of viewing reveals that Silent Light isn't so much a story with a beginning, middle, and end as a collage of beautiful moments centered around Johan (Cornelio Wall), devoted husband and father and man of God.

Johan is a deeply moral man who dearly loves his wife Esther (Mirian Toews) and their children. From the first moments of seeing them eating breakfast together, it's clear that the foundation of their marriage and family is built around caring, respect, and faith. But Johan's heart remains torn because although he truly loves Esther as his wife and the mother of his children, his "natural woman" is Marianne (Maria Pankratz). How does Johan keep his family together? Is his love for Marianne a temptation from the Devil or a gift from God? What would be the right thing for him to do?

Wrestling with these dilemmas as Johan is Cornelio Wall, who lends Johan a gentleness, intensity, and melancholy that reminds me of Hamlet - in the best sense. Wall's, stark, unpretentious performance is refreshing and riveting. His restrained performance creates a sort of tension as he tries to keep a lid on powerful feelings that threaten to overwhelm him at any minute. Even in the midst of all that turmoil, he is gentle and considerate with Esther, clearly holding her in the highest respect even as he knows he cannot love her the way he should. Yet with Marianne he is warm, passionate, and free - the woman he can truly be himself with even though it violates his faith and his conscience. Indeed, the striking thing about his affair with Marianne is the lack of sleaze. Johan is clearly in love with her, and his first kiss with her is one of the most romantic moments I've seen on film. Here is a man whose heart is genuinely torn not between love and lust, but between two separate loves. Without any form of emotional manipulation, Wall makes Johan a man you can really empathize with.

In most films, the camera acts as a fourth wall that gives us an inside look at the lives of the characters yet keeping us distant from them. In Silent Light, Alexis Zabe (cinematographer) gives us something far more interesting. Instead of keeping us separate from the story, he places us right next to it. From the very beginning, he gets us close to the landscape rather than panning out from it. We spend long moments simply gazing at the sky near the crack of dawn then watching the sun rise on a cattle farm. We ride in the car with Johan like a silent, invisible companion, a constant presence in his life and in the lives of his family and community. Without a soundtrack or score to distract us, we can focus on the quiet, powerful beauty of every sound and image. It's as though every frame carries a secret presence that whispers to us through the film as if to say, "I am here. Always."

The challenge of watching any film is seeing it as it is and not as you're told it should be. Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light has no clearly defined plot, characters who are all to messy and human, and simple cinematograhy. Yet Silent Light remains one of the most engaging and moving films I've seen in a long time.


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