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Larry Charles'
Opens Friday, July 10, 2009

Written By: Sacha Baron Cohen; Anthony Hines; Dan Mazer; Jeff Schaffer; story by Sacha Baron Cohen; Peter Baynham; Anthony Hines; and Dan Mazer
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen; Richard Bey; Ron Paul; Paul Abdul; and Elton John

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Bruno is one of the funniest films of the decade. How dare I make such a bold statement? Am I just looking to be quoted? Actually, I’ll go one step further, after seeing the movie, I defy anyone to name another film that has come out in the new millennium that is as hilarious, daring and makes some very important statements about the way we treat people based on appearance, actions as well as sexuality. C’mon! I dare you!

What about Borat, you ask? Borat was amazing and insightful but the difference between the characters define the difference between the statements the films make. Borat, the crazy/cuckoo Kazakhstanian, comes across, on a first meet, as sweet and naïve. Yes, his appearance may resemble the cliché terrorist but one warms to Borat because of his profoundly unsophisticated nature and we, and the subjects in the film, forgive him tons (like when he brings his own excrement to the etiquette table in a baggie).

Bruno, an out-loud-and-proud Austrian, on the other hand, puts folks off immediately with is uber-homo exterior and continues to alienate with his arrogant, narcissistic and overly sexual behavior. He’s a fashion queen and as you get to know him, he’s also pretty obnoxious. In Borat, there are plenty of wince-inducing moments where ignorance and prejudice is exposed via Borat’s needling. Bruno, however, is truly an individual--someone who definitely bangs his own drum and thinks it’s pretty (to paraphrase the gay anthem “I Am What I Am,”) so the reactions to him reveal an inherent hatred Americans have for anyone and any type of behavior that doesn’t conform to what they view as normal.

The genius of Sacha Baron Cohen (a practicing Orthodox Jew) is that there are no limits to how far he is willing to go to expose intolerance. He doesn’t push the envelop as much as blast it into the stratosphere.

In one of the funniest scenes in a film that assaults us with hilarity, Bruno decides he will become a celebrity by interviewing established stars but the chairs and tables he needs for his newly rented home have yet to be delivered. Bruno comes up with the perfect solution—he’ll hire a few Mexicans to act as furniture.

Enter Paula Abdul, who is initially put off, but sits on a Mexican anyway. It’s only when a naked Mexican with a food spread on his person is wheeled out that she storms out. In an excised scene that the press audience was privy to prior to the death of Michael Jackson, Latoya actually eats off the Mexican—it’s a brilliant moment that I hope winds up on the DVD.

There’s another scary moment when we witness just how far a mother will go to uarantee that her baby lands a commercial--and too many other incredulous vignettes to mention.

Bruno has a very skilled and clever narrative (far more original and thought out than Borat) and one is never entirely certain what is staged and what isn’t (guessing is part of the fun)…

Kudos to Cohen for his audaciousness and for his unending skill as an actor/writer/provocateur.

With AMPAS’ recent and terrific decision to enlarge the Best Picture category to ten films this year, Bruno may very well find itself nominated for the top Oscar Award!

Sacha Baron Cohen at the London Premiere of Bruno
Photo Credit PR Photos

Larry Charles'
Opens Friday, July 10, 2009

Written By: Sacha Baron Cohen; Anthony Hines; Dan Mazer; Jeff Schaffer; story by Sacha Baron Cohen; Peter Baynham; Anthony Hines; and Dan Mazer
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen; Richard Bey; Ron Paul; Paul Abdul; and Elton John

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

As you leave the theater after viewing Bruno, you may ask yourself: if Californians had seen this movie before voting on Proposition 8, which side would have increased its leverage? The knee-jerk answer might be that gays are portrayed in such an outrageous manner that Proposition 8, which changed the California Constitution to add a new section (7.5) to Article I, which reads: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California,” would have passed in a landslide. I’m thinking, though, that when people of an oppressed group are ready to laugh at themselves publicly, in front of the a more conservative public representing the status quo, the group must be feeling more comfortable about themselves and by extension, the mass public would be more accepting of them.

Bruno is likely to be played before largely gay audiences plus a considerable number who are fans of the antics of Sacha Baron Cohen, who in a similarly controversial picture, Borat, infuriated people with whom he came into contact as he sought to marry Pamela Anderson. This time there is no indication that scenes are anything but rehearsed, though some ad libs are probably de rigueur. Bruno is so off-the-wall sexual that it makes There’s Something About Mary seem like a film that Doris Day would have considered for her repertory—at least within the framework of our current openness.

Bruno (Sacha Baron Cohen), an Austrian fashion designer with a rich, gay life that includes a partner half his height who uses a huge mechanical dildo, is intent on becoming a Hollywood celebrity. Specifically, he aims to be “the biggest Austrian celebrity since Hitler.” Going to L.A., he infuriates many while pleasing a select few—essentially working with his prospective movie theater audience in miniature. The plot takes the form of skits, as in Borat, involving largely physical humor with some sharp wisecracks as well.

To describe too many actions would be to give away the laughs, but they include his adopting a baby from Africa which he acquires “by trading my iPOD;” running down a list of Hollywood pictures affixing names like Der Fuehrer for Mel Gibson; having Paul Abdul eating from a man’s naked body while sitting on a Mexican; interviewing mothers who want their little ones to appear in a celebrity photo shoots—parents who are perfectly willing to allow their babies to be symbolically crucified, dressed in a Nazi uniform, and losing thirty pounds in one week. Verbally the best scene finds Bruno conferring with a minister who “cures” gays but who is taken aback when Bruno hits on him, calling his lips not suited best for speaking the praises of Jesus but “for other things.”

The story picks up steam as it runs along, with a climactic (so to speak) appearance at “Straight Dave’s Man Slamming Max Out,” where he moves the crowd to hysteria with pro-hetero chants but falls prey to his inner gayness as the crowd boos and throws things into the ring.

If Cohen has not already risen to the top of the list of comedians who push the limits, this movie will ensure that within that category, he’s on top in every way.

Rated R. 88 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock in The Proposal

Anne Fletcher's
The Proposal
Opens Friday, June 19, 2009

Written By: Pete Chiarelli
Starring: Sandra Bullock; Ryan Reynolds; Mary Steenburgen; Craig T. Nelson; Betty White; and Denis O’Hare

Touchstone Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

I recall Sandra Bullock’s last successful comedy performance as cop-turn-beauty-contestant Gracie Hart in Donald Petrie’s Miss Congeniality. The funniest scene in that film found Bullock’s character waving her FBI credentials in Starbucks to get to the front of a long line where she then recites nothing more urgent than a litany of orders much to the frustration of the other customers. This Bullock’s character, Margaret Tate, is a hotshot editor-in-chief of a Big Apple publishing house who barks orders for latte and the like to her assistant, Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds). Paxton is himself an author about to be published who must take guff from a boss that everyone fears. Just watch as Margaret walks quickly into the large office. The drones in their cubicles, lazing around and chatting about the game or the show, snap to attention. Margaret Tate = Miranda Priestley in David Frankel’s The Devil Wears Prada.

Bullock regains her title as one of Hollywood’s top comedians this time in a formulaic, therefore predictable romantic lark that follows the usual trajectory in which the couple, with many factors keeping them apart, get together at the conclusion. But director Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses, Step Up) using Pete Chiarelli’s script, evokes much chemistry between Bullock and the handsome and fit Ryan Reynolds, who play a milder role than he played as the title character in Walt Becker’s Van Wilder. Bullock and Reynolds hit the right notes throughout.

The chick flick finds the Department of Immigration and Naturalization’s Mr. Gilbertson (Denis O’Hare) threatening to deport Canadian citizen and U.S. expired visa-holder Margaret to her home city of Toronto, a move which would cost her the prestigious job at the publishing house. Desperate to find a way to halt the proceedings, she hits on Paxton (an assistant who freely emails messages to the staff that “the witch is on her broom”) suggesting that they marry and later get a quickie divorce. Andrew, hardly lusting after his superior officer, agrees, only after forcing the boss to make ample concessions to him—leading to an amusing scene that finds Tate on her knees in the middle of a busy street proposing marriage to him: therein lies the title.

Most of the pic takes place in Palin country (actually filmed in Massachusetts), the small Alaskan town of Sitka where Margaret and Andrew must visit to get Immigration off the former’s back and for the latter to make one of his rare visits to his family, this time introducing Margaret as his fiance. The whole town appears owned by his dad, Joe Paxton (Craig T. Nelson), married to Grace (Mary Steenburgen). Also on the scene is Grandma Annie (Betty White) who is about to celebrate her 90th birthday. True to the conventions of the genre, Annie is the hippest person in the lot, with daddy Joe being the curmudgeon who resents that his son prefers to sit at a desk reading books rather than taking over the huge family business.

With an adorable white puppy helping to maintain the good will of the picture, The Proposal is a surprisingly refreshing summer movie, an antidote, if you will, to the robotic doings of Terminator: Salvation, The Transformers, and the like. Sprightly grandma, Hispanic male stripper Ramone (Oscar Nunez), and the lovely Malin Akerman as the girl left behind because she refused to move to New York from Sitka, keep the bubbly spirit celebrating at a snappy pace.

Rated PG-13. 107 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Michael Mann's
Public Enemies
Opens Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Written By: Ronan Bennett; Michael Mann; Ann Biderman; from Bryan Burrough’s book Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34.

Starring: Johnny Depp; Marion Cotillard; Stephen Graham; Giovanni Ribisi; and Billy Crudup

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

When Willie Sutton was asked “Why do you rob banks?” he replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Sutton was less interested in money than in the high he received while robbing. He was a gentleman, never using a loaded gun, never carrying out a robbery if a baby or a woman customer screamed. Whether John Dillinger, like Sutton a Depression-era gangster, was a gentleman, would depend on whether you’re talking to his girlfriend or some bank presidents. As played by Johnny Depp in Michael Mann’s often riveting picture, Dillinger notes that he is “too busy having fun to think of tomorrow,” a good part of the fun consisting on winning the affection of a woman he truly loves, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). Considering that we never really see Dillinger using the money he extracted from several banks, we must conclude that his career of robbing banks plus the thrill of escaping from secure jails gave him the high he needed month after month.

However Depp is not having the kind of made-for-kids fun he enjoyed in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Looking considerably different from the way his fans have known him, his Dillinger is a cool, confident cucumber of a man—one who brazenly visits and casually leaves an FBI office which sports a painted door signed “Dillinger Division,” a trip he just might have taken to admire his pictures hanging on the bulletin boards. Though considered by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, playing the chief in a probably accurate foppish manner) to be Public Enemy #1, he has no problem hanging out in Chicago, the center of Depression-era gangsterism.

Mann’s film starts with a bang with the escape from the Indiana State Penitentiary by Dillinger and some followers in 1933. He takes an immediate liking to a nightclub coat-checker, Billie Frechette, who quickly allows herself to be swept off her feet. Hoover appoints Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to head the Chicago office of the Bureau, defining the chase: it’s Purvis vs. Dillinger, and almost needless to say the villain, as is true in most movies, has the charisma while the pursuers are arrow-straight.

Prison breaks alternate with bank robberies, the loud rat-tat-tats of the Thompson submachine guns light up the darkness like Fourth of July exhibitions. First Pretty-Boy Floyd is gunned down by the law, then Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham). Bank robberies are dramatic, in two cases the bank presidents are grabbed by their necks and forced to open the vaults. Not dramatized, however, is history’s testimonial that crowds cheered Dillinger as a Robin Hood, partly because of their hostility to banks (sound contemporary?) which had foreclosed on their homes, and partly because Dillinger destroyed records of loans and mortgages held by the institutions.

The chemistry between Dillinger and Frechette is palpable, in large part due to the excellent Marion Cotillard, who won an Oscar for her performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose.

Cinematographer Dante Spinotti avoids signs of the Depression. No soup kitchens here, just people enjoying themselves in night clubs and movies while wearing fashionable suits and dresses. Some of the dialogue is unintelligible, and the project could have been better if Spinotti used real film instead of HD.

Exciting as the film is, it somehow lacks the electrifying resonance of Arthur Penn’s 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, with benefitted from Faye Dunaway’s startling performance as Bonnie Parker.

Public Enemies appears to be accurate historically: even the marquis of the theater that found Dillinger enjoying his last movie is authentically recreated.The epilogue notes that the real Melvin Purvis died “at his own hand,” though many believe he shot himself accidentally while trying to dislodge a tracer bullet from his gun.

All in all, Mann’s production does not break new ground, though expensive production values make this one of the finest action movies in a season of adventure pics that has not yet come up with celluloid much better than The Taking of Pelham 123.

Rated R. 140 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Tony Scott's
The Taking of Pelham 123
Opens Friday, June 12, 2009

Written By: Brian Hegelian from John Goody’s novel
Starring: Densely Washington; John Travel; Luis Guzman; Victor Go; John Torturous; James Gadolinium; and Michael Tripoli

Columbia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karen

Every so often New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority takes a poll, asking passegers for their complaints. People complain about a variety of trains, but I personally think the Lexington Local (aka #6) train is the worst. And now everyone who watches Tony Scott's The Taking of Pelham 123 will have a chance to see that I'm right. The #6 is definitely one train you don't want to be on at the wrong time.

And is Pelham 123 ever a wrong time! Thank goodness New York has not experienced anything like full-scale subway attack, so we can sit back and enjoy the many thrills and chills of Pelham 123 without a tragic memory of a real event to spoil the fun. Like Joseph Sargent’s 1974 version which pitted stationmaster, Lt. Garber played by Walter Matthau, against a diabolical thug named Blue, played by Robert Shaw, Scott’s version takes place in the New York City subways. This time though, Brian Helgeland’s scripting is wittier and sharper than the ’74 incarnation and the ethnic slurs are just about nonexistent. Another change in the 2009 version, is that the perps, headed by Ryder (John Travolta), are not asking for a million dollars (which would be laughable today), but ten million.

Ryder decouples the Pelham 123 line, so-called because it departs from the Bronx station at 1:23 p.m., and holds the conductor and about seventeen passengers hostage. He threatens to shoot one hostage every minute if the money does not turn up in one hour.

Luckily, Ryder loves to talk and is quite taken with his conversation with station-master Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), particularly because Ryder has discovered by googling (not available in 1974) that Garber is himself an accused criminal who has been demoted from a top MTA job to a job running the Lexington line.

The trio helping Ryder, which include Luis Guzman as Phil Ramos, have little to say or do: Ryder is a handful all by himself as he alternately screams obscenities and threatens and then laughs and spars good-naturedly with Garber. For his part, Garber is both helped and hindered by Camonetti (John Turturro), a hostage negotiator, and the city’s mayor (James Gandolfini).

Ryder stands to make quite a lot more than the ten million, or whatever his split works out to be. This is one of the plot points in the hyper-noisy, car-crashing, helicopter-flying, action-adventure picture that will be appreciated by the adults in the audience who read the Wall Street Journal and can understand that a man can make hundreds of millions in a down market.

John Travolta is terrific in the role of a man who can resemble an out-of-control child throwing a tantrum one minute and then exhibit a broad grin in the next minute. What’s not believable is his thuggish attire—leather jacket and extremely dark shades, which would make him a standout for the scores of police cars and a choppers looking for him.

Like all good villains (and playing villains is almost always a bigger challenge than performing as a saint), Ryder has some clever anecdotes for Garber, including one about a woman he once took on a six-hour trip to Iceland. The movie travels on all-cylinders until the final climactic moments, where it goes off track and all credibility is thrown to the wind. And a special effect known as step-framing during what should be the tensest moments in the story prevents the speeding train from looking as terrifying as it should. But why complain? The picture was shot in New York, which can use all the money it can get from filmmakers who so often choose cheaper areas in Canada.

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

Larry David in Woody Allen's Whatever Works

Woody Allen's
Whatever Works
Opens Friday, June 19, 2009

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

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Rudd and Jack Black in Year One

Harold Ramis'
Year One
Opens Friday, June 19, 2009

Columbia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Written By: Harold Ramis; Gene Stupnitsky; and Leo Eisenberg
Starring: Jack Blac; Michael Cera; Oliver Platt; David Cross; Christopher Mintz-Plasse; Vinnie Jones; and Hank Azaria

Throughout the U.S., youngsters taking tenth grade Social Studies are thoroughly unexcited about their course coverage of Neanderthals, Romans, assorted Biblical characters, and everything dealing with the subject of Ancient History—which to them is anything that occurred before they were born. Don’t fret, teachers. Take the students on a field trip to Year One, where they’ll get an account of the people who made the town of Sodom into the sin capital of Genesis. They will come back to class and praise you, saying, “Gee, Teach, I always thought you were dull, but now you’re looking good. Director Harold Ramis, his two fellow scripters, and the entire film company are more booooooooring than even you.”

In fact among the few people who might get emotional enough about the caricatures of Abraham and Isaac (though Muslims believe the father took Ishmael, not Isaac, to be sacrificed ) are the Iranian ayatollahs, mullahs, and President I’minneedofjihad. (There might be a few more, though.) Bill Maher need not be worried: his Religulous is still the funniest recent comedy about faith.

Let’s be abrupt. Though Variety reviewer Ronnie Scheib notes that the movie "elicits many mild smiles,” the reality is that there is not a single laugh in the entire ninety-seven minutes of this picture, whose acting, scenery, directing are amateurish enough to pass little muster even if had been released in the more innocent 1950’s. While Jack Black plays Bud Abbott to Michael Cera’s Lou Costello, this march past prehistory may hunt for audience titters but it gathers few.

Given that Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan) has a production credit, you’d expect Ramis’s offering to have some scatology and mock violence: the movie, indeed, may appeal to fanboys who appreciate the humor of a man’s urinating on his face while hanging upside down during a torture session while his pal indulges his appetite in recent bear poop.

The story takes flight, well not flight, but something, when Neanderthal Zed (Jack Black) eats the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and is thrown out of his village. With only one friend, Oh (Michael Cera), Zed goes into exile where he and Oh fall into a series of mostly unfortunate adventures. They witness the world’s first fratricide, as Cain (David Cross) stones his bro, Abel (Paul Rudd), a method of execution to be followed by a stoning of Zed and Oh. Walking through time zones without the use of a machine, they watch Isaac’s (Christopher Mintz) near death at the hand of his dad, Abraham (Hank Azaria), then wind up for the major part of the story in Sodom (where else?—this is in part a Judd Apatow production). Calling himself “The Chosen,” Zed, like the first member of Amnesty International, condemns and successfully inhibits virgin sacrifices, a practice that put fear into the heart of Oh, himself a twenty-one-year-old virgin. What’s a picture of this nature without hotties? These are provided by two virgin slaves, Eema (Juno Temple) and Maya (June Raphael), whom the two would-be heroes seek to liberate while trying to save themselves from execution for blasphemy and a dozen other made-up charges. For their roles in Year One, they may deserve punishment, but stoning?

Oliver Pratt is simply unfunny and fortunately for him, is almost recognizable as a hairy high priest who wants his body oiled and rubbed by Oh. When Variety reviewer Ronnie Scheib states “Some gags have no payoff whatever,” the critic is being too kind.

Rated PG-13. 97 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Aviva Kempner's
Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg
Opens Friday, July 10, 2009

Written By: Aviva Kempner
Starring: Gertrude Berg; Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Sara Chase; Norman Lear; Margaret Nagle; Roberta Wallach

International Film Circuit
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

The Borough Park section of Brooklyn, the neighborhood where i came-of-age, was about 90% Jewish. In my building only one Italian Catholic held court, but she was married to a guy named Schwartz. It stands to reason that The Goldbergs would be among the most popular shows, not only because of its Jewish themes, but because it was introduced to America during the very earliest days of television. These were the times that TV’s were black-and-white with stations closing down to the tune of our national anthem at 11PM and news programs were more likely printed pages spinning around than delivered by blow-dried anchor people. Gertrude Berg, aka Molly Goldberg, then, was a chalutz, a pioneer, playing a Bronx woman who spends her days leaning from the window into her courtyard, speaking to neighbors not with smart phones or even dumb phones but with resonant voices au naturel. Women of a certain age greeted each other not with the “hey yo,” or “hi” or “wassup” of today, but with “yoo-hoo.”

In this documentary written and directed by Aviva Kempner (whose The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg deals with a first-baseman with the Detroit Tigers, the first Jewish player in the major leagues) we are reminded that Gertrude Berg holds a place in entertainment history by winning the first Emmy award for Best Actress. Using archival footage and too many talking heads, Kempner takes us into TV’s pioneering days after reminding us that Gertrude Berg (1898-1966) did not debut on the tube; Berg wrote, produced and performed in a radio series during the 1930’s at a time that Jews were facing a dire fate in Europe. Berg's real life wealth was the polar opposite of the circumstances of her TV character, who lived in a working-class Bronx community and preferred to converse with friends through the window rather than use a phone. Since the radio show, called The Rise of the Goldbergs, moved from a weekly show of fifteen minutes to one that aired five days a week, we can appreciate the time that Mrs. Berg (who was married to chemical engineer Lewis Berg who invented instant coffee), had to spend to turn out the script, rehearse the show with the radio family and broadcast it to the American people. In fact Berg wrote 12,000 scripts! The shows popularity came from the fact that it transcended ethnic and religious borders and gave the the hope that with the support of family, the bad economic times of the Depression could be tolerated.

Politics reared its heads in 1950, one year after Ms. Berg's show moved to TV. The communist-baiters took action against alleged Red infiltration in the entertainment industry. As a result, General Foods withdrew sponsorship and Philip Loeb, a fine actor who played her husband, was blacklisted, forced off the program - he eventually committed suicide. In 1951, the show was canceled and replaced by I Love Lucy. When Berg moved her show to NBC with a replacement for Loeb, the show's early success was never recreated.

Unrated. 92 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


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