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R. W. Goodwin's
Alien Trespass

Opens April 3, 2009

Takes off great but runs out of fuel too quickly

Starring: Eric McCormack; Jenni Baird; Robert Patrick; Jody Thompson; Dan Lauria; Aaron Brooks;Sarah Smyth; Andrew Dunbar; and Sage Brocklebank

Reviewed by Shawn C. Harris

The best way to watch Alien Trespass – especially for people like me who weren’t around in the Fifties – is to see it as a part of a B-movie sci-fi marathon. Otherwise, you’ll miss out on a lot of the nuances of moviemaking at that time. As a tribute to the alien invader movies that were all the rage at that time, Alien Trespass succeeds quite well. But it runs out of fuel all too quickly because it doesn’t take the source material in a new direction.

The filmmakers have a solid grasp of the genre. R.W. Goodwin clearly understands that the joy of B-movies doesn’t come from their layered plots, complex and nuanced characters, or technical wizardry. He keeps Alien Trespass light and slightly tongue-in-cheek. The plot is paper-thin. The dialogue has squeaky-clean corniness straight out of Leave It to Beaver. The actors deliver performances that are appropriately one-dimensional. And the special effects – from the laser blasts to the rubbery Ghota – are completely cheesy, just as they ought to be.

The actors themselves deserve special kudos, especially since most of them aren’t old enough to have been around when B-movies were all the rage. In particular, Eric McCormick does an entertaining switcheroo as both Ted Lewis, eye-candy astronomer and loving husband, and Urp, alien visitor and protector of Earth and humanity. And Jenny Baird as Tammy gives the role just the right mix of spunk and vulnerability that marks her as a woman of and ahead of her time.

But Alien Trespass is not without its own trespasses. The running gags about the movie’s genre conventions start wearing thin about halfway through the film. There are only so much you can take of watching that wholesome ‘50s veneer (one that conveniently whitewashes ugly realities like racism and sexism), listening to Urp speak of himself in the third person, and looking at the Ghota doing its disappearing act before it gets old. It soon becomes apparent that, although R.W. Goodwin roots Alien Trespass squarely in the realm of B-movies, he doesn’t do anything new with it.

If you're a fan of sci-fi from the B-movie era, you should definitely take a trip on this cinematic time machine. But if the only version of The Day the Earth Stood Still that you know is the one starring Keanu Reeves, or if you don't remember ducking under a desk during a drill for nuclear attacks, you may want to give Alien Trespass a pass.




Julia Roberts and Clive Owen in Duplicity

Tony Gilroy's
Duplicity
Opens Friday, March 20, 2009

Written By: Tony Gilroy
Starring: Clive Owen; Julia Roberts; Paul Giamatti; Tom Wilkinson; Ulrich Thomsen; and Thomas McCarthy.

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Frank J. Avella

There’s a scene in the thrilling new film Duplicity where corporate spy Julia Roberts is listening to office flunkie Carrie Preston explain how she compromised their company and potentially exposed vital secrets by willingly falling prey to the charms of a suave and manipulative Lothario. (I won’t spoil a great plot point by revealing any more.) Roberts has no dialogue whatsoever. What she has, however, is her amazingly expressive face conveying shock, outrage and upset in the most understated ways; never truly giving away what she’s feeling but hinting strongly. Gone are the Pretty-Woman-heart-on-her-sleeve reactions. Roberts has matured magnificently and honed her craft along the way. One of the many marvels in a movie filled with them is just how multi-faceted an artist Roberts has become. It’s exhilarating to watch!

Tony Gilroy, the Oscar-nominated writer/director of Michael Clayton, has cast his leads impeccably. Duplicity reunites Roberts with the continuously underrated Clive Owen (they worked together in Mike Nichol’s Closer in 2004) and the sparks truly fly proving these two could be the Tracy and Hepburn of the new millennium.

Duplicity opens with a mesmerizing slow motion credit sequence that pit two corporate titans (Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti) against one another in a literal physical attack! It’s an absolutely hilarious moment that proves scarily befitting our messy economic times.

The film leapfrogs back and forth chronologically with winding and intricate plot machinations that keep you breathless. And whether the locale is Dubai, Rome, London or Cleveland, the fascinating and exciting caper continuously rivets as we wonder about our two operatives and just how loyal they are to their companies as well as to one another.

The film delves into trust issues that each and every audience member can relate to while pulling off an Ocean’s 11/12/13 type of sophisticated adventure.

Part of Gilroy’s genius is in his ability to genre-blend to perfection. The film is: capitalist satire; romantic comedy (in the classic film sense); suspense thriller (in the Bourne tradition) and crime drama combined in one deftly entertaining package. But it does not feel like an appropriation confection. It feels like a Tony Gilroy film: original and compelling. And the kick-ass ending is rich and wholly satisfying, though, not necessarily for obvious reasons.

All production values are fantastic, especially: Robert Elswit’s dazzling camerawork; John Gilroy’s frenetic editing and the usually bombastic James Newton Howard providing a subdued and sublime score.

The supporting cast play the Gilroy game marvelously with Preston and Wilkinson doing particularly outstanding work.

Duplicity is a better film than Michael Clayton and, although it’s quite early in the year, this clever, intelligent, sexy and stylish motion picture is the best film of 2009 to date.


 



Julia Roberts and Clive Owen in Duplicity

Tony Gilroy's
Duplicity
Opens Friday, March 20, 2009

Written By: Tony Gilroy
Starring: Clive Owen; Julia Roberts; Paul Giamatti; Tom Wilkinson; Ulrich Thomsen; and Thomas McCarthy.

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Tony Gilroy's new film, Duplicity, is from the same genre as David Lynch’s 2001 Mulholland Drive, Stephen Gaghan’s 2005 Syriana and Tony Gilroy’s own masterpiece, the 2007 Michael Clayton. Duplicity is likely to be the most cerebral film of this year, but cerebral is not necessarily the same as intelligent. The plot of Duplicity is opaque and features some arbitrary shift in time periods (“five years later,” “ten days earlier” and the like). The film also has a major twist at the conclusion that should serve as a resolution but only leaves the audience to ponder on their own. Tony Gilroy was the obvious man to write and direct this film after he helmed Michael Clayton, the story of a lawyer who has a breakdown when he realizes that the chemical company he represents is the guilty party in a multi-billion dollar class action suit. Corporations, in Gilroy’s opinion, operate by the law of the jungle.

Michael Clayton might have been looked upon as interesting fiction when it appeared, but given the skullduggery of Ken Lay’s Enron corporation and most recently by AIG’s outrageous action in awarding bonuses to executives just after receiving a huge bailout from Uncle Sam, we already expect the worst from the suits who operate the Fortune 500.

Corporate skullduggery rages in Duplicity, which is filled with mean-spirited actions that are tempered by a parallel romance between two spies who have difficulty trusting each other but who are probably in love. To avoid feeling vulnerable, each waits for the other to make a declaration. Julia Roberts as Claire Stenwick and Clive Owen as Ray Koval are the principals. Both have experience as spies, he for the British M16, she for the CIA. When they meet for the first time in Dubai, he comes on to her not realizing that she is the party more interested in seduction. After a roll in a hotel near the American Embassy, Claire drugs Ray and makes off with some secret Egyptian codes.

Even though Ray has good reason not to trust Claire when they meet five years later at New York’s Grand Central Station, they concoct a scheme to make big bucks for themselves. Utilizing the skills they gained from their government cloak-and-dagger experiences, they arrange to spy for two pharmaceutical firms: he for Burkett & Randle, whose CEO is Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson), and she for Omnikrom, under the direction of Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti). Ray and Claire uncover a top-secret, handwritten note stating that Burkett & Randle is soon to announce a major new product that could mean hundreds of billions of dollars for the first company to garner the patent. The two need only to find out what this product is and, more important, its formula.

Among the many plot developments, the most humorous involves the seduction of a Burke & Randle executive, Barbara Bofferd (Carrie Preston). Bofferd is gamed by Ray, who affects a southern accent and claims to be a pediatrician involved in helping the poor. This subterfuge allows Ray to gain access to the offices of her company.

Romantic souls in the audience are likely to focus principally on the two mistrusting lovers, while fans of Michael Clayton and the Bourne series will try to deconstruct the corporate manipulations, double-agents and double-crosses. The resolution, such as it is, comes at the very end in the lobby of a luxurious hotel.

Kevin Thompson’s production design excels and the film benefits from the steady camera of Robert Elswit. The players are seen in the increasingly smaller world of Dubai, the Bahamas, London, Cleveland, New York and Rome. I personally prefer Gilroy's Michael Clayton, a thoroughly entertaining tale of corporate sniping that does not depend on presumptuous time changes. But Duplicity did awaken my desire for revenge against those avaricious AIG execs who take home huge bonuses despite the near failure of their company.

Rated PG-13. 125 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



John Maybury's
The Edge of Love
Opens Friday, March 13, 2009


Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Written By: Sharman MacDonald
Starring: Keira Knightley; Sienna Miller; Cillian Murphy; and Matthew Rhys

Striking performances from the talented Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller fail to overcome the lack of narrative momentum in the World War II period piece, The Edge of Love. While the story in The Edge of Love might appear to center on the great Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, the real spine of the story is the now frivolous, now volatile friendship between two young women whose romantic relationships would not necessarily be approved by folks in today’s Red states, but which may not have been so unusual during wartime.

Opening in 1940, the film (penned by Keira Knightley’s mom, Sharman MacDonald) finds Londoners huddling albeit without fear in an underground shelter during the German bombardment known as the Blitz. Vera Phillips (Keira Knightley) is making her living singing in the shelter. (Knightly is dolled up with bright red lipstick and photographed in dramatic close-up by cinematographer Jonathan Freeman.) Vera had been one of the many girlfriends of Dylan Thomas (Matthew Rhys). Vera is still holding a torch for Thomas even though he is married to the fiery Caitlin Thomas (Sienna Miller). Caitlin and Vera become fast friends, even enjoying a bath together as naturally as they would share a drink. When British Captain William Killick (Cillian Murphy) attempts to pick Vera up in a bar, she is at first resistant but eventually marries him just before he is ordered to report to Greece.

When William returns from the war, he is, as they sometimes say, “a different man,” in one scene wild stating that Vera's new baby was sired by Dylan Thomas. This is a volatile moment that might have led to the deaths by hand-held grenade of all parties.

We in the audience are made privy to some of Mr. Thomas’s poetry, giving a literary air to the film, but there is little indication that director Maybury has much interest in giving us a Poetry 101 lesson. He is instead committed to showing how war changes people, pointing out that the poverty-stricken Thomas at one point allows his friend’s wife, Vera, to withdraw money from a soldier’s pension to finance an abortion.

Stylistically, Maybury wavers from arty to quotidian. The film is, to coin a critics’ cliché, all over the place, and appears to have been edited down topsy-turvy by editor Emma Hickox. Angelo Badalamenti’s World War II music is spot-on and Keira Knightley can really sing.

Caution: This film is guaranteed to give apoplexy to members of anti-smoking leagues.

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


 


Steve McQueen’s
Hunger
Opens Friday, March 20, 2009

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

Five years ago, Lars Von Trier’s groundbreaking film, Dogville, had its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival. Lions Gate acquired it for distribution and dropped the ball completely. Instead of releasing it in 2003, where it might have gotten critical and awards attention, they dumped it in early 2004 with a practically non-existent promotion campaign. Dogville remains one of the true cinematic gems of the decade that no one has seen.

Steve McQueen’s gripping and ballsy film Hunger is, by far, the best film to show at this year’s New York Film Festival and one of the best films of 2008, that is if IFC (the company that has acquired it) is smart enough to not follow Lions Gate’s blunder and release the film in 2008. If they do, Hunger could find itself doing quite well since it’s a powerful and different take on an oft-told story. McQueen, like Von Trier--although in a completely different manner--fucks with the way an artist can tell a story onscreen. And in doing so rewrites the rules. The results are invigorating and mesmerizing.

Hunger takes us into the bowels of the psychological madness of prison life. The setting is Northern Ireland in 1981. The film recounts the events that lead up to the IRA hunger strike that took the life of nine prisoners including the leader, Bobby Sands.

The plot is pretty simple but the presentation is fascinating as McQueen and his co-writer Edna Walsh, structure the story in a most original way. We first meet prisoner Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), as he is brought in. His hair is violently cut and then he is thrown into a filthy cell (where smeared feces stain the walls in an almost-painterly way) with another non-conformist, Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon), who trains him in how to behave and how to smuggle in items and communications.

We then meet Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and midway through the pic, there is an extended 22-minute scene between Bobby and his priest, Father Dominic (the extraordinary Liam Cunningham). McQueen holds the same shot of the two of them sitting across from one another for most of the duration of the scene. It’s an audacious move but the results are riveting as they discuss the morality and ethics involved in the notion of giving up your life for your cause. In this scene, in particular, the script probes all the questions and answers and, in the end, one is still left with a discouraging sense of futility.

The final act is the determination and simultaneous deterioration of Bobby, body, mind and spirit. McQueen doesn’t hold back as we watch the lesions grow on his emaciated body and witness the hallucinations caused by lack of food. Then we watch his parents seeing their boy near death.

In a devastating performance that is uncompromising and so bloody real it’s painful to watch, Michael Fassbender is simply astonishing as Sands. To say he embodies Sands completely is an understatement. Fassbender reminds one of Daniel Day Lewis with his total immersion into his character. It’s the bloody performance of the year.

McQueen, an artist making his motion picture feature debut, takes many unconventional liberties including allowing us to see what the guards who are doing the terrible torturing feel as well. It’s a bold idea that works brilliantly as we realize that they’re forced, by the Thatcher regime, to carry out horrific acts that go against their nature.

The look of the film is impressive, specifically Sean Bobbitt’s camerawork which is visually arresting.

The unrelenting, visceral depiction of Bobby’s decline is one of the many ways McQueen toys with the our senses, giving us a cinematic experience that cannot really be described as enjoyable, but can easily be called transcendent.



Paul Rudd in I Love You Man

John Hamburg's
I Love You Man
Opens Friday, March 20, 2009



Written By: John Hamburg and Larry Levin

Starring: Paul Rudd; Rashida Jones; Sarah Burns; Greg Levine; Jaime Pressly; Jon Favreau; Jane Curtin; and J.K. Simmons
DreamWorks Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

I Love You, Man is too predictable to be edgy, too clean to be more than second-tier Judd Apatow, but John Hamburg who directed the feature and Larry Levin who co-wrote the story with the director still manage to elicit a considerable number of laughs. The fun is evoked from the bonding between two guys who in real life would no more think of saying more than “hi” to each other than would Katherine Heigl’s character Alison Scott hang out for more than five minutes with Seth Rogen’s Ben Stone in Knocked Up. But movies deal with fantasies and many succeed at merging fairy-tale images with real life. In that sense, one could make the stretch and believe in the instant friendship between a couple of guys who seem to be opposites in every way, but who have enough spirit to compromise their differences and find a lasting bond.

Writer-director Hamburg’s implied question to the audience is: what can straight men give to each other that women cannot? Paul Rudd plays Peter Klaven, the guy who is in need of something another guy can give to him and Jason Segel plays Sydney Fife, the fellow who can deliver. What Peter, a successful California real estate agent needs is to loosen up. He’s too straight-laced to find a friend to be Best Man at his upcoming wedding to Zooey (Rashida Jones), and judging from the stiff way he introduces prospective clients to the homes he is commissioned to sell, one wonders how he ever gained material success. By contrast Sydney, who runs an investment counseling service and has a flashy bachelor crib with a complete set-up of musical instruments, is outgoing to a fault and sometimes too honest for his own good. (In one discussion he has in his home with Peter, he points out the chair he uses to masturbate.

Peter may not be an outcast—he’s in his métier at his Los Angeles office where he attracts enough attention from his co-workers—but he envies the intimate circle that his fiancé travels in. Before he meets Sydney, he relies on his parents (J.K. Simmons, Jane Curtin) and his openly gay brother Robbie (Andy Samberg) for advice. He is counseled to arrange dates with other men, a project that ends up badly when it turns out that the guy he’s having dinner is gay. He meets Sydney at one of his opens houses where he finds out that Sydney has no intention of buying but is only making the rounds of open houses to meet divorcees. Peter and Sydney find common ground - they are both amateur musicians and singers. Peter is sure he has found a Best Man—at least until the inevitable falling out over some misunderstandings between Sidney, Peter and Peter's girlfriend .

Most of the comic touches come from Peter’s misguided attempts to be hip and cool like his new friend. When he makes his first phone call to Sydney, he fumbles over his words. Later on, while attempting to show Sydney how cool he has become, Peter tries out some phrases in a language known only to him, puzzling even the ultra-casual friend.

One might expect a film like this to come across with the message “Be yourself,” but John Hamburg, best known for his Along Came Polly (a buttoned up newlywed finds his too organized life falling into chaos when he falls in love with an old classmate), never cautions his audience to avoid Peter’s abortive attempts to sound way cooler than he is. Jason Segel's (who plays Sydney) best work was as Peter Bretter in Nicholas Stoller’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where he played a guy who travels to Hawaii to try to forget about his breakup with a woman only to end up staying in the same resort as his ex. Segal may not have the opportunity for as much solid comedy as he did in Forgetting, but he has no trouble moving Paul Rudd away from the center of attention with his over-the-top performance as Sydney.

Rated R. 105 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Dennis Iliadis's
The Last House on the Left
Opens Friday, March 13, 2009


Written By: Adam Alleca, Carl Ellsworth
Starring: Garret Dillahunt; Riki Lindhome; Aaron Paul; Sara Paxton; Monica Potter, Tony Goldwyn; Martha MacIsaac; and Spencer Treat Clark

Rogue Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

You don’t always get what you pay for. In 1972, Wes Craven made The Last House on the Left for $100,000. Craven probably did not expect the film to go anywhere, but 1972 was one of the peak years of the Vietnam War and the youthful public was up in arms against authority. Craven’s film struck a note by showing the public what violence was really like—up close. At least that’s what he said to be his purpose—which might strike you as a roundabout way of saying he had pretensions to “art.” However, that movie, which did box office far beyond the cast and crew’s expectations, may have appeared at a time that the slasher genre had not already been done to death.

The current (and much more costly) version of Last House on the Left, is helmed by director Dennis Illiadis—whose Hardcore was about two girls who leave their families and end up in brothels—has nothing more than the usual gore. The film's violence comes first from a trio of sadistic rogues and then from the parents of one of the victims. If the dialogue were anything but clunky, Last House would have some recommendable attributes. Alas, there is not a shred of wit in the conversations between the two girls, who are best friends, or in the obligatory chatter between the adversaries as they stalk each other in a fight to the death.

Believe it or not, Last House, both in its 1972 version and the current nonsense, were inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. The Virgin Spring tells the story of a pious farmer whose angelic daughter is raped and murdered in the woods. Bergman fills the 14th-century story with religious motifs, singing, and gorgeous Swedish ambiance. Bergman's tale that reaches its climax when the murdered girl’s father learns that the guests he has taken in for the night are responsible for his daughter’s death.

This version of Last House, penned by Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth, changes the original somewhat. The 1972 pic involved the murders of two girls with scenes involving some dumb policemen but it was a movie that Roger Ebert stated had “a good ear for dialogue.” What happened to that good ear is anybody’s guess, because the Keystone villains in the current version, Krug (Garret Dillahunt), his girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome), his reluctant nephew Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) and Krug’s brother Francis (Aaron Paul), bring zero originality to this tale.

After some mayhem that begins with a frightful car crash—the one good scene in the otherwise banal movie—The Last House on the Left becomes a “dark-and-stormy-night” thriller which takes place in a summer home six miles away from civilization. This is also a house where the phone lines are dead, of course. The house is inhabited by a young doctor, John (played by Tony Goldwyn) and his wife, Emma (played by Monica Potter). The plot is set in motion when John and Emma let their 17-year-old daughter Mari (Sara Paxton) leave their country home to spend the night with her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac). After their daughter is brutally attacked , the parents unwittingly give shelter to the three killers. Then, after discovering who their new guests actually are, the parents quickly decide to forgo the first rule of medicine: first do no harm.

Monica Potter, as the mom, seems to come from another movie, or perhaps she was hoping she could bolt to another movie set, as she and Goldwyn’s character act on humankind’s most primitive desire - that for revenge.

The only sign that the film was getting across to the audience was the walkout of one couple—indicating that an early scene of horror had really gotten to them. The rest of us must be just too blasé.

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


Michael Keaton's
The Merry Gentleman
Opens Friday, March 27, 2009

Written By: Ron Lazzeretti
Starring: Michael Keaton; Kelly Macdonald; Bobby Cannavale; Kareem Bandealy; Darlene Hunt; and Philip Earl Johnson
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

I'd like a dollar for every woman who believes that she can redeem her man. In the case of Michael Keaton-directed The Merry Gentleman (penned by Ron Lazzeretti with a starring role for the director), hoped-for-redemption is supposedly just a few weeks away. The Merry Gentleman, an ironic title for this film, deals with three lonely people who "find" one another in the same manner that the vivacious and sexy people paired off in P.J. Hogan's movie, Confessions of a Shopaholic. In Merry, another kind of "holics" are present: director Michael Keaton play Frank Logan, a suicidal hit man; Kelly MacDonald holds the screen in almost every frame as Kate Frazier, an abused wife; and Tom Bastounes plays Detective Dave Murcheson, an alcoholic, weight-challenged chain-smoking cop. The three-vulnerable-people setup is ripe for a ménage-a-trois, despite the age differences between the woman and the two older men who seek her attentions. There's a fourth guy in the story, but he's only the woman's estranged, abusive husband, Michael (Bobby Cannavale), who makes an appearance at his wife's place insisting that he's a changed man because he's found Jesus.

The Merry Gentleman allegedly was a bit of a hit when it was introduced at the Sundance Festival. The hit-man scenario gives the picture its melodramatic flourishes. The plot kicks in when Kate discovers a potential suicide on the roof of an adjacent building. It is the depressed Frank, who perhaps feels guilty because he just offed someone with his high powered rifle. After Kate's scream knocked him off balance and onto safety, he decides to meet her. Their budding relationship is challenged when Officer Murcheson, after questioning Kate, becomes determined to court her also.

Whether it's Kate's saintliness, her undisguised vulnerability or her delightful Scottish accent that attracts these neurotic men is anyone's guess, but the meetings that she has with each of them—the cop, the killer, the abusive husband—serve not only to increase the suspense but also serve as a platform for some eccentric humor. Murcheson thinks Kate has accepted a date with him, or so he tells his partner, Billy Goldman (Guy Van Swearingen), but Kate believes the offer of dinner is strictly for professional reasons - so she can help in Murcheson's investigation. Frank Logan is charmed by Kate, his relationship with her, though more paternal than romantic, could perhaps melt his icy heart and calculating mind. Michael's insistence that he is born again is more ludicrous than touching; all of which leads us in the audience to guess the extent to which the people in the tale have really changed fundamentally.

Keaton's pacing is deliberate, the many silences among the characters telling us much more than their conversations. The ensemble is peachy with the possible exception of the absurdly off-the-wall proclamations of Bobby Cannavale, who is a decent actor bogged down by some embarrassing dialogue. Darlene Hunt does well as Kate's co-worker who is frustrated that she is unable to get to know the very private Kate. The concluding scene is unexpected but credible. At the age of fifty-seven, Michael Keaton has turned in a solid directorial debut.

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


 

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

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

Reviewed by Francesca Simon

Paris 36: A Movie Made of Melodies

Paris. Spell it “P” for picturesque, “A” for angst, “R” for romance, “I” for intrigue and “S” for song, then add the number 36 and you’ve got a foreign film that’s so much fun and so moving that you won’t mind reading the subtitles. Paris 36 opens Friday, April 3, 2009, and despite what some critics may say, I believe you should not miss it. It’s got everything – comedy, drama, tragedy, and dance – and because it’s a French film there has to be love! You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll question, but you’ll always be intrigued.

The story is universal and all New York artists can relate to the struggle for artistic expression, while also trying to have a little fun in-between the polar goals of making a living and having a love life. Set in a working-class district in the north of Paris in the spring of 1936, the film tells the story of three men working at the Chansonia, the neighborhood vaudeville theatre, whose lives are rudely disrupted when the local “Godfather” figure drives the Chansonia’s owner to suicide due to a debt. The Godfather takes over, closes the theatre and sets off a revolution of sorts when the trio of working men decide to take over the theatre.

There is a political element reflective of the politics of Paris in the 30s, which gives the film an agitated edge – the usual right wing versus left wing. But the core of this movie is the human spirit struggling toward an inner victory while working cooperatively with others in society.

The mild-mannered hero of story, Pigoil (played by Gerard Jugnot), is a middle-aged father fighting for custody of his 12-year-old son, Jojo (played by Maxence Perrin). It is Pigoil who decides to challenge the Godfather, Galapiat (played by Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), and defiantly reopens the theatre. Milou, the resident electrician/lighting and ladies’ man (played by Clovis Cornillac) and Jacky (played by Kad Merad), a wacky sandwich man yearning to turn entertainer, join forces with the unlikely hero to attempt to create a musical moneymaker. There is an underlying tension between the three, caused by a mixture of infidelity, political incorrectness and the frustration of frayed friendship. But they work through it so the show can go on.

Enter the love interest, Douce – a blonde-haired beauty (played by Nora Arnezeder) who sings like an angel and exudes an alluring innocence. Douce becomes a hit with the audience and a love triangle is created with the Godfather, lusting after her while she falls in love with Milou, the tough as nails Casanova. In this love triangle the vulnerability of both tough guys is revealed. We see a Godfather who cries and a tough guy who wants to be loved. One of the hottest numbers in the film has a haunting refrain, roughly translated is “if I die before my man.” It is a scene charged with longing, anger and fear.

Pierre Richard, a veteran French comedian, plays the role of a recluse who lives by the radio and is known as Monsieur TSF. His character provides another twist to the slice of life storyline and he emerges as the musical genius, who used to t who used to conduct the Chansonia orchestra. But unrequited love drove him crazy and he only regains his sanity and decides to step outside his door when he hears Douce sing one of his songs on the radio. Another love triangle emerges between the conductor, the singer and a dead woman. You’ll have to see it to figure it out!

There are some wonderful Busby Berkeley type numbers complete with overhead camera shots, colorful costumes and great choreography by Corinne Devaux. The musical team of Frank Thomas and Reinhardt Wagner created some wonderful musical melodies with lyrics of longing and love. And it is from this collaboration of Thomas and Wagner that the original idea for the film was born. If you think that dumb McDonald’s filet-o-fish song is slowly eating away your brain, wait until you hear some of these accordion-fused tunes.

My favorite is a full blow-out number “Partir Pour La Mer” – it’s a really catchy tune that had me making up French words since I don’t speak the language. Douce and her three heroes sing and dance delightfully on a make-believe beach complete with yards of colorful blue fabric being waved to create a visual sea. It’s a great number, made all the more fun because you can see they had to work hard to learn the routine, but they’re still smiling all the while! Christophe Barratier has written a wonderful screenplay full of twists and turns and coupled with his director and Tom Stern’s cinematography, this movie is visually a million dollar job. I agree with the wise men who have said that Paris 36 could be a “dark horse” Oscar contender. And if you’ve got a heart, love to laugh or have at least one artistic bone in your body that loves music, dance and mystery, then you’ve got to see it! And don’t blame me if you leave singing “Paree-Paree” with a French accent.

Check out the Paris 36 clip: http://www.sonypictures.com.au/movies/paris36/




Algenis Perez Soto in Sugar

Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck's
Sugar
Opens Friday, April 3, 2009


Written By: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Starring:: Algenis Perez Soto; Rayniel Rufino; Andre Holland; Michael Gaston; Jaime Tirelli; Jose Rijo; Ann Whitney; Richard Bull; Ellary Porterfield; Alina Vargas; Kelvin Leonardo Garcia; Joendy Pena

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

How nice to see a foreign film that does not say (or think) “Death to America.” In fact, if you believe what you see in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar, everyone in the Dominican Republic loves America, wants to come here, and virtually worships our national pastime of baseball—which the people on this tropical island have been playing for a century. Sugar tells the story of an athlete who, like seemingly everyone else under the age of the thirty in the Dominican Republic, dreams of getting a contract to play minor league ball in the U.S.. It is a feel-good film with the feel of authenticity. Sugar is filmed with a cast of mostly non-professional actors, who prove that you don’t really have to go to acting classes to create believable, emotional scenes. It helps, though, that all the men in the cast are baseball players, who know what competing for the big contracts is all about.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, whose Half Nelson was about a drug-addicted inner city teacher who forms an unlikely attachment to one of his students, may be on less commercial grounds this time around since most of the dialogue is Spanish with English subtitles. You don’t have to know much about the game of baseball—there may be one or two people in our country who do not—but it helps to realize that Sammy Sosa is the Dominican Republic's biggest hero and that every kid from the age of eleven in the island nation thinks he can do as well with just a little practice.

Miguel, the title character, played by Algenis Perez Soto (who, production notes tell us was cast after the company interviewed six hundred applicants), got the nickname of Sugar because he has a sweet way of dealing with the ball. Miguel is however not necessarily as sweet to the girlfriend and mother he is about to leave behind. At the age of nineteen, Santos is discovered by recruiters while tossing pitches on a diamond in the village of San Pedro De Macoris. He is called to Arizona, where Boden and Fleck mine the humor of cultural dissonance. Sugar and his buddies go regularly to a coffee shop for breakfast, but all they know in English is “French toast,” which prompts Santos to call home to say that “everything they serve here is sweet.” (One wonders why the waitress cannot suggest huevos fritos or revueltos, or why Santos cannot look in a conversation book for the word for “egg”).

Sugar is then assigned to a Single-A team in Bridgetown, Iowa where he lives with the Higgins family on a remote farm. The elderly couple are accustomed to playing host to Dominican athletes, their big thrills in life come from watching every local baseball game and attending the local Presbyterian church. Given the language barrier, Sugar has no-one to talk to except his friend Jorge (Rayniel), but he does have his team and despite a racial incident at a dance club, is doing fine until he faces a long slump—which leads him to head without friends or much money to New York.

Sugar does not have much melodramatic action, save for an incident at the dance club, but while there’s quite a lot of baseball on the writer-directors’ minds, the emphasis thematically is on the old’ fish-out-of-water concept. Filmed by Andrij Parekh on location in the Dominican Republic, Arizona, Iowa and New York and punctuated by Michael Brook’s salsa soundtrack, Sugar profits from the authenticity of its principal character, whose experience may be somewhat different from that of most of America’s immigrants, but who faces the same waves of homesickness, loneliness and isolation that millions of other newcomers have experienced.

Unrated. 118 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 



Amy Adams in Sunshine Cleaning

Christine Jeff's
Sunshine Cleaning
Opens Friday, March 27, 2009

Written By: Megan Holly
Starring: Amy Adams; Emily Blunt; Alan Arkin; Jason Spevack; Steve Zahn; Mary Lynn Rajskub; Clifton Collins Jr.; Eric Christian Olsen;, and Kevin Chapman
Overture Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Christine Jeffs’ Sunshine Cleaning could be called Little Miss Sunshine (same producers) light; the film lacks the comic verve of the 06 movie about a family that is determined to help their nine-year-old participate in a beauty contest. But Sunshine Cleaning is also a darker film, one that deals with suicide, murdera and the hassles of being a single parent. This mixture of fun and regrets does not always work. But given the appeal of the two leads, Amy Adams (in a decidedly un-nun-like role) and Emily Blunt (with absolutely none of the sophistication she showed as Emily in David Frankel’s The Devil Wears Prada), we leave the theater with more sunshine in our hearts than gloom.

New Zealand-born Jeffs, best known to cinephiles for Sylvia (about the romance between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath), situates her movie in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where everyone seems to live in a small house. Rose (Amy Adams) and her younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt) should by all rights be more successful than they are given their looks, charm, and intelligence. But, by her own admission, Rose is “not very good at anything.” Norah is just lazy, perfectly happy to sleep past her morning alarm and the human wake up calls of her dad, Joe Norkowski (Alan Arkin). Joe also lacks focus, he tries to make a living selling anything from chocolate to shrimps, though no-one wants his products. Rose, who has a seven-year-old son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), complicates her life further by her affair with Mac (Steve Zahn), a married cop whose wife is pregnant for a second time.

At one a bloody crime scene, Mac clues the young women into a well-paying job as crime-scene cleaners—the people who scour the blood and sometimes throw the entire contents of a house into a dumpster. Without the proper license or specialized knowledge on how to deal with hazardous waste, they team up as the Sunshine Cleaning company.

Alan Arkin does his typical shtick with the young lad, speaking in his traditional exaggerated monotone while Emily Blunt adds to plot complexity with her relationshsip with another woman, Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who adds her own dark secret to the mix. As the film glides to a conclusion that finds the kooky comedy giving way to dispiriting meditations, we are led to believe that the sisters will find their way out of their “we’re not good for anything” ethos in a new venture.

Ultimately, Sunshine Cleaners is all about family.

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




Kiyoshi Kurosawa's
Tokyo Sonata
Opens Friday, March 13, 2009

Written By: Max Mannix; Kiyoshi Kurosawa; and Sachiko Tanaka
Starring: Teruyuki Kagawa; Kyoko Koizumi; Yu Koyangagi; Kai Inowaki;, Haruka Igawa; Kanji Tsuda; and Koji Yakusho

Regent Releasing
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Save for its two-hour length, which the plot falls just short of sustaining, and a strange robbery scene near the conclusion that breaks up the tone of the film, Tokyo Sonata would go down as one of the truly great films about that ever-popular subject: family dysfunction. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, known in the West for the J-horror pic Pulse (Japanese university students investigate a series of suicides apparently brought about by contact with the Web); Cure (a series of murders in which the letter X is carved into the victims’ necks); and Charisma (a detective is called in to rescue a politician held hostage by a lunatic), travels a different road with Tokyo Sonata. There is no horror as the term is customarily defined. The film uses drama, melodrama, comedy, farce, and music to make its points about one family, a family which stands in for Japan as a whole and, in fact, for the whole global shebang.

The story bears some common ground with the Yoshimitsu Morita’s send-up of the stereotypical Japanese unit in The Family Game. The script for Tokyo Sonata by Max Mannix, Sachiko Tanaka and the director Kurosawa, allows us to eavesdrop into the going-on within a Tokyo family headed by breadwinner Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuji Kagawa), his home-maker wife Megushi (Kyoko Koizumi), their sensitive sixth-grader, Kenji (Kai Inowaki) and adolescent college student Takashi (Yu Koyanagi). Everything about this family is traditional; the wife and kids wait ever-dutifully at the dinner table for their dad’s arrival home from work as an administrator in a modern Tokyo office. But the bubble bursts when, after an office visit by two Chinese delegates with fluent Japanese who tell the big boss that jobs can be exported to their country at a much lower wage scale, Ryuhei is downsized. Japan, a land previously known for nearly ironclad security for workers, is changing with the rest of the developed world. Globalization is beginning to take its toll on Japanese workers just as it has here in America.

Even the story on which the film is based is Australian Max Mannix’s Dance of the Dragon, is an example of the globalization of culture. In Tokyo as in Dance, the dad is humiliated by the loss of his job. And since the loss of a job in the Japanese culture brings on humiliation with a capital H, the father tries to hide his unfortunate situation from his family. In one of the many comic interludes, Ryuhei, who is planning to hide out in libraries and parks, runs into a former high-school classmate, Kurosu (Kanji Tsuda), who, though dressed in a bespoke suit and rattling orders into his cell phone, admits that he too is out of work and arranging for five automatic cell-phone rings daily to make him feel better and to hide his status from his own family.

While the Sasaki family’s college student shows increasing alienation which ultimately leads to a strange decision involving the war in Iraq, young Kenji determines to take piano lessons, a decision which meets vigorous opposition from his dad who believes the desire is an unaffordable whim. Kenji’s teacher, Kaneko (Haurka Igawa) is going through the trauma of a divorce while at the same time the lad’s sixth-grade instructor is identified as a reader of manga porn, thereby losing losing his authority in the classroom. Lots of comedy here.

A weird switch in tone toward the conclusion involving a self-hating robber (Koji Yakusho—directed in a ham fisted way), who is driven through Tokyo streets by his strangely loyal hostage, stops the film short. But the final scene, which involves the curative power of music on the family, is spot-on. And director Kurosawa respects us enough to treat us a recital of the entire title sonata, Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” Hmm: another example of globalization in Japan.

Tokyo Sonata works terrifically as both an allegory and as an absorbing story. It is
both a warning about the danger of increased globalization and a paean to the restorative powers of music. You’ll just have to accept the fact that young Kenji, played by the delightful actor Kai Inowaki, can perform like a concert pianist after a few months of lessons without an instrument at home on which to practice. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose film won the jury prize at Cannes and was performed at the New York Film Festival, states in an interview that he expects to use Tokyo Sonata as a point of departure for exploring why the 21st century is “muddled and confused” and “vastly different from the vision of the future we had in the previous century.” We wish him the best, given his ability to evoke crackerjack performances from his ensemble who have been blessed by the chance to act in a great story.

Rated PG-13. 119 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Kiyoshi Kurosawa's
Tokyo Sonata
Opens Friday, March 13, 2009

Written By: Max Mannix; Kiyoshi Kurosawa; and Sachiko Tanaka
Starring: Teruyuki Kagawa; Kyoko Koizumi; Yu Koyangagi; Kai Inowaki;, Haruka Igawa; Kanji Tsuda; and Koji Yakusho

Regent Releasing
Reviewed by Francesca Simon

Tokyo Sonata: The Music of Life with a Modern Day Melody

There are moments in time when you are left suspended for seconds, unable to move or speak. These are moments of awe, wonder, discovery, revelation or sometimes simply acknowledgment. Tokyo Sonata, a modern day tale told with power and compassion, elevated me to such a moment and let me descend back into the world of economic woes with a “glimmer of hope.”

Director Koyoshi Kurosawa, known for his ghoulish movies, took on the task of telling a reality based story while employing his usual storytelling techniques of suspense and surprise. He asked himself several questions in his quest to tell us a superior story of human survival. He answered with the creation of a cinematic experience combining the tragedy of living with the comedy of survival and ascension of the human spirit.

“…I would like to show a glimmer of hope in the end,” he said, in one interview. “Can I do that? Even if I could do so, would that be something that saves a conventional family?” He answered them masterfully, profoundly and awesomely. Mission accomplished, Sir!

The story is true, tragic and transcendental – beyond race, culture, religion or class, despite the fact that the backdrop is modern day Japan. It is a story played out around the world with different scripts, in real life every day. In Tokyo Sonata, a husband and father loses his job and is too ashamed to tell his wife and two sons. It is a particularly arresting situation given the Japanese cultural background, where “saving face” is engrained in the culture. But truth be told, it is a human trait – this “saving face.” Undoubtedly we all want to be seen in the best light possible.

But there is something about moonlight that makes us see the world a bit differently – more softly, more luminous, even mystically – seeing through emotional eyes filled with visions of a future. “Clair de Lune” -- the haunting sonata by Claude Debussy, which serves are the musical summation of the film – literally means “moonlight” or “clear light”. So the story moves from the glaring sun of everyday reality into the inner realms of human pain and struggle played out from within.

There are three spiritual movements in this movie. The first is the father, who is fired from his job. The second is the mother and housewife, who plays her role as the female foundation of the home. The third is the son, a young boy who wants to play the piano, but is forbidden by his father. An older, rebellious son, comes and goes like a ghost, almost invisibly within the family. He stays out all night, sleeps all day and rarely plays his role in the family rituals of meals and everyday conversations.

The word sonata means “to sound” in Italian, so the title Tokyo Sonata clues us in to listen to the story told by sound – human sounds. The sounds made by the movement of the body, the sounds in the tones of the voices of the characters as they speak to each other, even the sounds of silence as they don’t speak, all tell an element of the story.

The father, Ryuhei, played by Teruyuki Kagawa, sets the slow beginning pace of the film. Moving heavily, burdened down with the worries of raising a family in an economic nightmare, Kagawa uses his body – dragging his feet, his head heavy with contemplation and confusion -- and facial expressions to help us feel the weight he bears.

His wife, Megumi, played by Kyoko Koizumi, moves through the sounds of daily routines -- clashing dishes, vacuuming, opening and closing doors and simply breathing. The youngest son, Kenji, who is a sensitive boy in elementary school, is an almost ethereal presence, moving through the family maze of daily living carrying his own burden – a burden of hope unrealized.

Although forbidden by his father to play the piano, he uses his lunch money to take lessons. In his youth, he mirrors the heavy movements of his father, but his burden is the unfulfilled dream he carries within him. There are several wonderful scenes shared with the father and son simply walking together up a hill to their home. The oldest son, Takashi, played by Yu Koyanagi, brings the rebellious edge of Generation Y reflecting the modern struggle to find self and sense of purpose. He is confrontation and confusion personified in this modern day tale.

The first movement of the film is like Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” – we know they’re all waiting for something. We know there must be a break down in order for the resolution of living to continue, but we have no idea how or when. The pace changes dramatically when the father meets an acquaintance, who is also out of work, and they pretend to go the work together. It is like the theatre of the absurd as the two leave with their briefcases in the morning, only to spend their days in libraries, parks and even eating in soup lines. When his acquaintance commits suicide the movie begins to take off with a break neck speed.

Koji Yakusho, famous for his comical roles in Japan, brings a crazy comedic quality to the film in his role as a bungling manic-depressive burglar. He breaks into the . He breaks into the home, kidnaps the wife, only to have her take control of the situation. It is hilarious! You have to see this for yourself – I won’t spoil it for you. Just be prepared to laugh.

Running takes a major role as the film moves to a climax. The father runs from shame literally running to exhaustion. The son runs to escape capture from a dangerous situation that lands him in jail. And the mother doesn’t quite run but she’s moving fast as she leaves the bungling burglar waiting in the car while she goes shopping. They’re all moving trying to make it to another plane of existence. Insane – brilliantly insane!

In the end the three stop running, begin the inner process of resolving their conflicts and drag back up the hill to their home knowing they must begin a new way of living colored in a different light. The ending scene is Kenji sitting at a piano recital playing “Clair de Lune” -- his musical genius recognized, his dream fulfilled – is the final emotional release. I sat listening to the sweet melody of the music with tears streaming down my face. I had been touched, I had been moved, and I had been changed just in the telling of this human tale of hope. See it!




 


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