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Max Mayer’s
Opens July 29, 2009

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Hugh Dancy has been thesp-flying under the radar, delivering remarkable supporting performances in a number of recent indies (Evening, The Jane Austen Book Cub, Savage Grace). In Max Mayer’s always absorbing but occasionally uneven film Adam, he is finally given a leading role where he can show off his tremendous talents.

When we first meet Adam, he seems like any idiosyncratic, affluent New Yorker. Upon closer scrutiny, he is refreshingly but oddly unfiltered. The reason, it turns out, is Adam has Asperger Syndrome, a functional type of autism where the afflicted person speaks what he is thinking (making him socially awkward) and has no idea what other people are thinking (meaning he’s terrible at relationships).

Adam’s father has just passed away and he must now deal with everyday living, alone. Enter Beth (Damages’ Rose Byrne) who eventually realizes Adam’s disorder but decides to embark on a relationship anyway.

The film works best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The more heavy-handed scenes are, the more it feels tv-movie-esque. Mayer’s direction and script can be clumsy, but he is terrific at getting the best from his actors.

In addition to Dancy and Byrne creating some wonderful moments, the supporting cast shine—especially Amy Irving as Beth’s long-suffering mother. Peter Gallagher is saddled with playing her slick trickster cheat of a husband in a subplot that should have been engrossing but seems cliché’ and out of place in the film.

I found myself falling in love with the first half of Adam (as Beth does with Adam) and then wishing it didn’t have to take the obvious routes in the second half—though the ending is atypical.

What makes Adam so good is Adam: Dancy’s honest, quirky, understated, nuanced performance. He allows us inside Adam’s world without betraying the affliction or the man. Hugh Dancy, along with Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker, is the first real Best Actor Oscar contender of 2009.

Sophie Barthes’
Cold Souls

Opens Friday, August 7, 2009

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

I’ve never liked Paul Giamatti. Critics have fallen over themselves singing his praises in such films as American Splendor and Sideways and I could not have agreed less—until this year.

First came his funny turn in Duplicity and then I saw the John Adams HBO miniseries (which I avoided watching last years specifically because it starred Mr. G!) where he was simply astonishing.

Now comes the off-beat and original Cold Souls, which could have been written by Charlie Kaufman.

Giamatti is deadpan hilarious as himself…or some strangely concocted version of himself (via writer/director Sohie Barhes’ clever mind) embarking on a NYC production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. The angst and anxiety of playing the role causes him to take a chance on a new fad that is gripping the globe, the extraction of one’s soul to alleviate suffering and, well, feeling. This leads to a series of insane plot twists that involve the illegal transfer of souls to and from Russia.

Sophie Barthes is a clever and wonderfully satiric writer. Had the film been directed by a Spike Jonze, it could have soared to unconventional heights. In the directorial hands of Barthes, the film does take off, but never reaches the heights the ambitious script and eager cast aspire to.

One of the major disappointments is the complete waste of Emily Watson, a towering talent relegated to portraying a one-dimensional ‘suffering’ wife. There were so many possibilities to explore and, yet, the relationship between Giamatti and Watson is cliché’ and downright dull.

Giamatti manages to hold viewer interested throughout and makes the film worth the time.


Boaz Yakin's
Death In Love
Opens Friday, July 17, 2009

Written By: Boaz Yakin
Starring: Josh Lucas; Jacqueline Bisset; Lukas Haas; Adam Brody; Morena Baccarin; Betty Gilpin; Emma Bell; and Carrington Vilmont.

Screen Media Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

“Oh what a tangled web we weave/ When first we practice to deceive.” So said Sir Walter Scott. Deceptions in high places were going on thousands of years ago, when King Agamemnon opted to deceived Queen Clytemnestra with a mistress; more recently when Cassio manipulated his boss Othello with scandalous gossip about Desdemona; and when former President Bush deceived the world about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Deception reigns in 1993 and 1945, the two periods embraced by Death in Love, probably a semi-autobiographical film by writer-director Boaz Yakin. Yakin's A Price Above Rubies told the story of a Jewish woman, trained as a jeweler, who was unhappily married to an Orthodox Jewish scholar.

The film was shot by Danish cinematographer Frederik Jacobi in just 25 days in New York. It was also sharply edited by John Lyons who cross-cuts between ’45 and ’93 so rapidly that the stirring melodrama moves swiftly. Death in Love is a challenging work of art, one requiring close attention particularly to Yakin’s arch, theatrical dialogue.

From the beginning, the film strikes notes of originality. It begins with no title, no credits, bluntly confronting us with a scene from a German prison in which a Nazi doctor who is performing gruesome experiments on Jewish women (graphically shown) is deceived by a woman prisoner of about 17 years of age (Emma Bell) who smiles at the experimenter (Carrington Vilmont). She become his mistress, a woman who falls in love with the Nazi while at the same time feels desperately guilty about her manipulation, even more so about her genuine passion for this handsome ogre. Decades later, the woman (Jacqueline Bisset) now the wife of a passive man she married because unlike the Nazi doctor he will never leave her, has two grown sons who are smothered by her rages - they react to the world neurotically but in vastly different ways. The forty-year-old man played by Josh Lucas runs a scam of a modeling agency, manipulating the lonely women he charms into his New York workplace into paying for acting lessons. Lucas' character has a rough-sex relationship with his boss (Vanessa Kai). His brother (Lukas Haas) is an unemployed, depressed compulsive living with his parents and insisting that they cook for him two yams (must be two, not one or three) for dinner.

The film for all its staginess and borderline-pretentious dialogue, rivets attention to its graphic scenes of sex (involving S&M, missionary, and masturbation), on violence (particularly the carving up of hapless Jewish women), and on family disruption and dysfunction. Jacqueline Bisset turns out a towering performance as a modern-day Medea, throwing dishes and furniture about the apartment to vent her frustration at having never again received the perverted intimacy she enjoyed during the 1940s.

Cinephiles, who long for films with originality, will be happy to enjoy the melodramatic excesses of Death in Love, which reminded this viewer of Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book (the story of a Jewish singer who infiltrates Gestapo headquarters for the Dutch resistance movement). Death in Love falls easily into the same category.

Unrated. 100 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Judd Apatow's
Funny People
Opens July 31, 2009

Written By: Judd Apatow
Starring: Adam Sandler; Seth Rogen; Leslie Mann; Eric Bana; Jonah Hill; Jason Schwartzman; Aubrey Plaza; and RZA.

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If you want to be a stand-up comedian, it may pay to start out as a dishwasher in a comedy club. That’s the way Judd Apatow got into the game, one which, according to Funny People, concentrates on penis jokes and bodily functions both ecstatic and awful. If Lenny Bruce came of age during the early part of this century, he’d be lucky to play in a Peoria nursing home. I hesitate to make a value judgment on this, but one wonders whether there’s much else left to joke about. Political satire? The latest movie entry into that field is the critically acclaimed In the Loop, a parody of international relations starring idiots from both sides of the Atlantic who parse the costs of war by using a toy calculator in a child’s room abounding in teddy bears. But even there, profanity reigns as though a satire without the use of the f-word would be impotent.

If you know Judd Apatow, you know that he’s the sort of writer-director who’d be nobody if he came of writing-directing age in the 1950’s when the censors would scarcely allow an actor to use to word “pregnant.” We’ve come a way since then, though the pendulum has swung to the other side. Funny People is awash in penis-testicle jokes, only one mentioning a vagina in the context of a young woman’s organ being narrow and therefore preferring entry by men with cozier-size equipment. Happily, though, no bodily fluids and solids are on display, a step up for a picture that depends on verbal sparring instead.

Judd Apatow has come along. Having scripted such crafty comedies as Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan and Pineapple Express, he has now created his most mature film: one which mixed drama and comedy so subtly that we’re left with a fleshed-out piece rather than one which simply exhibits fleshy pieces.

While the emphasis is on comedy, how can a plot that finds its principal character afflicted with a terminal blood disease be anything but serious—especially if Queen Latifah is not in the cast? In Funny People, which is billed by the studio as “the story of a famous comedian who has a near-death experience,” George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a nationally-famous celeb who has appeared in junk movies playing a baby with the head of an adult, has been diagnosed with an illness that is no longer treatable through chemo and radiation. He undergoes an experimental treatment with drugs that have been successful with only eight percent of patients. Looking death in the eye, George reevaluates his life, one which is hugely rich in material goods (he has a drop-dead California estate with indoor and outdoor pools) but no real friends—a divorced man who tries to redeem himself by apologizing to his ex-wife, Laura (Leslie Mann-who happens to be Judd Apatow’s wife in real life) for “screwing up”—literally. That’s the deadly serious theme.

But when George hires unsuccessful stand-up comic Ira Wright nee Weiner (Seth Rogen), pulling him away from the deli counter where he makes sandwiches together with co-worker Chuck (RZA), the laughs begin. Apatow shifts the action from stand-up comedy scenes to a no-holds-barred attempt by George to win back his wife, who is now married to Clarke (Eric Bana) and is raising two daughters, Mable (Maude Apatow) and Ingrid (Iris Apatow—both Judd’s real-life kids). The principal comedy centers on the relationship between George and Ira , as Ira writes the gags and sometimes delivers them himself, and George performs in elegant comedy clubs and one large concert hall.

One must guess that George might steadily lose an audience. With the Damoclean sword of disease hanging over his head, he delivers monologues that give expression to his depression: “We all die”—that sort of thing. For his part Ira appears to be George’s comedian-in-waiting, a new, big hit with the crowds but sexually, a zero, unable to connect intimately whether with one of the bimbos invited to George’s house or with fellow stand-up comic Daisy (newcomer Aubrey Plaza). Ira seems on his way to becoming a forty-year-old virgin.

While there’s no single scene that finds Seth Rogen as funny as he was when playing a clueless cop in Pineapple Express, on the whole this film is more sophisticated than anything previously handled by Apatow. The scenes that find Adam Sandler’s character trying desperately to reconnect with his ex-wife are tender (mixed with gags, of course), while side roles played strictly for laughs find Mark (Jason Schwartzman) and Leo (Jonah Hill), the former as an educator in a TV sitcom Yo, Teach, the latter as a successful comic. Seth Rogen has slimmed down by twenty pounds, though his role does not appear to require such discipline.

The entire film’s quality rests primarily on the chemistry between Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen. Happily, they’re as a combustible together as a mixture of H2S04 and KCL03.

Rated R. 145 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Armando Iannucci’s
In the Loop
Opens Friday, July 24, 2009

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nora Ephron’s
Julie and Julia

Opens Friday, August 7, 2009

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Nora Ephron's new feast, Julie and Julia, is an absolutely delightful and delicious concoction that boasts a refreshing non-traditional narrative, presents food the in the most scrumptious way since Babette’s Feast and—surprise-- features another brilliant performance by our reigning queen of cinema, the divine Meryl Streep!

Pay no attention to those silly early online reviews (written by geeky men who usually only love geeky and loud studio shit); this film is captivating throughout and, like its more famous subject, a grand inspiration!

Ephron has a wonderful time depicting and contrasting the lives of two real people and their relationships with their men as well as their livelihood—food. Based on two memoirs, “My Life in France,” by Ms. Child and “Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously” by Julie Powell, Ephron juxtaposes the story of one woman’s attempt to pay homage to her heroine while giving her life new meaning.

Unhappy at work, Julie decides to blog about her new goal, she will cook all 524 recipes in Child’s legendary book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” The film moves back and forth between Julie’s life in 2002 and that of Child’s in 1940’s France and her journey toward actually writing the masterwork that would change cooking forever.

Meryl Streep’s spot-on Julia Child is a towering (both physically and talent-wise) figure filled with insecurities and underlying secret ambitions but a tremendous joi de vivre that envelops everyone around her. The scene where she masters the art of cutting onions (I am allergic so that sequence held a simultaneous hypnotic and repellent fascination) is a great example of her determination and Meryl nails it. What a marvelous character! What a fabulous performance! Streep may very well be on her way to Oscar nomination number sixteen. A Golden Globe nod is certain.

Amy Adams is an enchanting creature (pun intended) and her Julie is a neurotic mess except when she is cooking. Julie could have easily emerged as an unappealing bitch but Adams gives her just enough sweet idiosyncrasies that we want her to succeed in her goal (and stop alienating her husband!) Watching her apprehensively murder a lobster and triumphantly bone a duck is just a joy.

The two women together, even though they are NEVER together, are a dream film team. The film contains solid supporting turns by Stanley Tucci (a Devil Wears Prada reunion of sorts) and Chris Messina as the respected spouses as well as Linda Emond, Mary Lynn Rajskub and the hilarious Jane Lynch as Child’s taller sister.

The third star of the film, though, is the yummy dishes that both women cook. Trust me, seeing Julie and Julia will prompt the need for a visit to a fancy restaurant as soon as the credits roll.

Milla Jovovich and Kiele Sanchez in A Perfect Getaway

David Twohy's
A Perfect Getaway

Opens Friday, August 7, 2009

Starring: Steve Zahn; Milla Jovovich; Timothy Olyphant; Kiele Sanchez; Marley Shelton; and Chris Hemsworth

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If you don’t leave the theater thinking “wtf,” maybe you were not paying attention. A bizarre film with a flashback that does more to confuse than elucidate, David Twohy’s B-movie thriller graphically recaps the old saw (so to speak) that if you vacation in remote areas, you’re going to be stalked by knife-wielding, gun-toting psychopathic killers. While there is that element of horror familiar to fans of the Hostel series, this film is more appropriately called a murder mystery, one in which patrons in their safe theater seats try to figure out who are the maniacs and who are the ordinary neurotics.

Filmed in the jungles of Puerto Rico standing in for the Ma Pali coastline in Hawaii’s Kauai island, A Perfect Getaway opens with a stereotypical wedding scene (actually the best part of the movie). Cliff (Steve Zahn) and Cydney (Milla Jovovich) get hitched amid the guests’ horseplay, and off they go to Hawaii, as the bride repeats the mantra “Mrs. Cydney Anderson.” They hear of killings in Honolulu, wonder whether the murderer might have traveled to their part of the state. They give a lift to a trashy couple (Chris Hemsworth, Marley Shelton), come out of that episode safely, then it’s just their luck to run into another couple, Nick (Timothy Olyphant) and Gina (Kiele Sanchez). Nick’s the rugged type used to kayaking and mountain climbing, just the traits that make Cliff and Cydney suspicious. Cliff, on the other hand, is allegedly a screenwriter, though like most of his ilk, he has not had any of his scripts arrive to a screen. Cliff and Nick get along—opposites must attract, while the women chat about more intimate things than cutting up a wild animal that Nick has killed with a bow and arrow. There’s blood in the water, on the animal, on a knife, in a leg; everywhere but in the humdrum script.

Steve Zahn acts against type as a nerdy would-be writer. One wonders what Milla Jovovich’s character sees in him. The scenery is breathtaking, a product placement for Hawaiian vacations—ever though it was filmed in P.R.

Rated R. 98 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Gerald Butler and Katherine Heigl in The Ugly Truth

Robert Luketic's
The Ugly Truth
Opens Friday, July 24, 2009

Directed by: Robert Luketic
Written By: Nicole Eastman; Karen McCullah Lutz; Kirsten Smith; Story by Nicole Eastman
Starring: Katherine Heigl; Gerard Butler; Eric Winter; John Michael Higgins; Nick Searcy

Columbia Pictures/ Lakeshore Entertainment
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Google “men dating” and you’ll find a few pages of magazines, newspapers and blogs by digital Romeos and electronic Casanovas, all calling upon their readers to act in certain ways to get the women they want. Everyone with internet capabilities has his or her own ideas. One such counsel (ignored in this film) is to never give a woman advice because it will not be long before she’ll say, “Let’s be friends.”

Mike (Gerard Butler) is one such romantic advisor, one who would gasp and be overcome with depression if any woman ever said that to him. He is a womanizer par excellence who, during the course of Robert Luketic’s The Ugly Truth manages to attract every woman he sees. Mike has run a successful TV show called The Ugly Truth where he tells women that “all men are simple…don’t try to change us…we’re incapable of making progress.” In the fashion of romantic comedies his advice is subverted by The One and the object of his affection, Abby (Katherine Heigl) turns miraculously from control freak to absolute putty.

In his quest to show how two people with polar opposite personalities ultimately meet in the middle, Luketic exhibits Abby (Katherine Heigl) a Sacramento, California TV news producer as a control freak, one who thereby has little success with men and even less good fortune with the dismal ratings for her show. When her boss brings Mike into the news program to boost ratings, Abby is at first appalled but quickly, and without much credibility, turns to him for advice. Mike obliges, guiding Abby like a modern Cyrano de Bergerac through her courtship with a young, handsome orthopedic surgeon (Eric Winter), who checks off beautifully on Abby’s 10-point mental rating sheet as a boy friend and perhaps life’s partner. Abby meets her surgeon when she climbs a tree to bring down her pet cat, landing upside down on a branch. The doctor, living next door, interrupts his shave to rescue her and to meet cute, his own pants falling to the floor leaving him wholly exposed to her.

Though a beautiful woman, Abby seems not only incapable of getting dates on her own without advice, but must rely on Mike’s hackneyed cues to do things like 1) keep the guy on telephone hold to see whether he will hang up or stay on, 2) hang up on him to see whether he calls back.

Though Abby looks in her early twenties (Heigl is 30), could she be that naive and unpracticed that she must rely on such sophomoric counsel, which includes such homilies as when attending a baseball game to “put the hot dog slowly into your mouth?” To further Abby’s hunt for men, the ever-mindful Mike sends her a present of vibrating panties which does what they’re supposed to do during a dinner with the TV program’s corporate sponsors, leading to a predictably vulgar and less than amusing presentation to the suits.

Director Luketic moves into Judd Apatow country without originality, pushing Heigl to act embarrassingly over-the-top throughout, talking fast, talking dirty. Seeking humor, the film is instead an embarrassment. Heigl performed better in Knocked Up, where she benefited from Judd Apatow’s surer hand. Gerard Butler, whose mellifluous voice was exploited splendidly in Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera, is reduced to the level of Zack Snyder’s laughable action pic, 300. Given the amateurish direction at work in this movie, the cat is the best performer: need I say more?

Rated R. 101 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


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