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Ron Howard's
Angels & Demons
Opens Friday, May 15, 2009

Written By: David Koepp, Akiva Goldsman, novel by Dan Brown
Starring: Tom Hanks; Ewan McGregor; Ayelet Zurer; Stellan Skarsgard; Pierfrancesco Favino; Nikolaj Lie Kass; and Armin Mueller-Stayl

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

The pope’s trip to the Middle East this week coincides (probably coincidentally) with Columbia Pictures' plan to release Angels & Demons, an expensive work based on a book written by Dan Brown before he wrote The Da Vinci Code. A newly lean and muscular Tom Hanks plays an agnostic academic, who, when asked whether he believes in God, replies“I have not yet been given the gift of faith.” Director Ron Howard takes us on a ride through Vatican City, using one of the hoariest tricks in the book: the ticking bomb. Will the good guy be able to defuse the explosive before the entire city (with its hordes of tourists) is blown to smithereens?

Of course defusing a bomb is not the principal aim of the film, which is to send its audience on a trip to unravel a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma—to quote from an address by Winston Churchill in 1939. Angels & Demons is most definitely from the same genre as Brown's other novel, The Da Vinci Code.

Though some in the audience might be pleased that this film is more focused than Da Vinci, with a greater emphasis on action scenes, truth to tell, Angels & Demons is rife with Da Vinci’s mumbo jumbo and confused motivations. The opening half hour or so is spent whisking us through various and sundry arcane commentaries on Church history. We are armchair tourists taking in everything from the role that the Swiss Guard has had in protecting the Pope since the sixteenth century to the fact that one pontiff way back ordered that male members on Vatican City statues be "dismembered" or covered with sculpted fig leaves.

Though there’s an interesting, albeit impossible, twist near the conclusion, the film appears (only appears) to pit science against religion, honing in on a centuries’ old group called the Illuminati (Enlightened Ones) who seek vengeance against a Church that in its opinion were intolerant of scientists like Galileo. In the opening scene, Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a Harvard symbologist, is invited to take a brief leave from his college duties to fly to Rome in order to interpret a set of clues that would allow him to save Vatican City from an explosive end. The Pope is dead, to the particular dismay of Camerlengo Patrick (Ewan McGregor ), who was raised by the Father. A new election draws the College of Cardinals to a locked chamber to select a new pontiff. But four cardinals are missing, kidnapped presumably by the Illuminati, and the kidnappers have announced their plan to execute one cardinal each hour, ultimately blowing up the city with a cylinder of anti-matter (a bomb) that was stolen from a Geneva lab. Langdon is to be aided in his quest to save both the cardinals and the Vatican by Italian scientist Vittoria Vetra (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer) and by Richter (Stellan Skarsgard), a skeptical commander of the Swiss Guard. Langdon and Vetra race through Rome, following clues conveniently left by the Illuminati.

A spectacular explosion, coupled with some stunning vistas including a site in which thousands of pilgrims cheer the entrance of a new pope and a colorful array of shots of red-robed high Church officials, fails to compensate for a standard-action conclusion. Angels is a movie riddled with, well, riddles that only Langdon and Vetra can decipher. Despite the efforts of cinematographer Salvatore Totino, who points his camera to the Vatican, showcasing principal tourist attractions like the Sistine Chapel, the picture is curiously uninvolving.

Rated PG-13. 138 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Rinko Kikuchi in The Brothers Bloom

Rian Johnson's
The Brothers Bloom
Opens Friday, May 15, 2009

Written By: Rian Johnson
Starring: Rachel Weisz; Adrien Brody; Mark Ruffalo; Rinko Kikuchi; Maximilian Schell; Robbie Coltraine; narrated by Ricky Jay..

Summit Entertainment
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If movies about con artists are not attracting huge crowds, the reason could be that the stories on celluloid cannot match what has been occurring in real life. The most prominent case of a con is, of course, the tale of Bernie Madoff, who made off with up to fifty billion dollars in a Ponzi scheme that defrauded people who would not ordinarily be considered marks. Anyone who watches TV and print commercials for products such as a $17,000 exercise machine that gives the user a full workout in four minutes, is familiar with the ploys. Con games involve con artists, who are out to empty the wallets of naive marks. Often the marks are so embarrassed at being taken for a ride that they do not complain to the police.

Rian Johnson would appear to be among the writer-directors who would naturally fall into the noir Bloom theme. His superior 2005 movie, Brick, which was photographed like a 1930’s Dashiell Hammett story, focused on the attempts of a high-school student to get to the bottom of his ex-girlfriend’s disappearance.

The Brother Bloom takes place in the present time, though it has a 1930’s look for no apparent reason except to pay homage to noirish films. The film's biggest mark, though, is not the naive, rich, bored woman of the story, but members of the audience who may be brought into the theater by the movie’s star power—Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Maximilian Schell and Robbie Coltraine—but who are likely to leave disappointed with the film's mechanical plot. The story's big twist, that should provide the greatest fascination, is the production’s challenge to us to ascertain what’s true and what’s a con. But the characters are so uninteresting, the love match between those played by Weisz and Brody so unconvincing, that the story comes across as an attempt at hipness that unfortunately tries to hard.

The title characters are Bloom (Adrien Brody) and his brother Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), who appear to us as con artists even as pre-pubescent lads who wear big black hats as though playing Amish at a Halloween party. Young Bloom (Zachary Gordon) and his older sib Stephen (Max Records), have just cashed in on a scam that raises $2 from each of a group of kids.

Twenty-five years later, apparently after continuing in their professions with the help of training by a pro (Maximilian Schell), Bloom wants to quit but is himself conned by Stephen to go for one last scam before retiring. They target Penelope (Rachel Weisz), a heiress who lives alone in a fabulous New Jersey estate (filmed in Romania). Penelope is a woman who dabbles in lots of things but has no interest in any, at least not until the brothers attempt to lighten her cash assets by millions while simultaneously providing some much needed excitement. The brothers justify their work by the slogan that in a con game, everyone gets what they want. Like the folks from Nigeria who spam the emails regularly asking for participation in dubious investments, they raise a million from Penelope with the goal of stealing a manuscript from Prague and reselling it for more than double the price. Predictably enough, love blooms for one of the Blooms, threatening to subvert the scheme.

With Rinko Kikuchi in the role of the brothers’ sidekick, Bang Bang, a woman who does not speak but knows a lot about explosives, The Brothers Bloom looks like little more than an attempt by its writer-director to wink large at the audience as if to say “See how clever I am in evoking the dimensions of the noir films?” Despite a valiant attempt by Weisz as the one juicy personality, the picture is flat to the point of joylessness. It was a pleasure, though, to revisit the Prague’s Charles Bridge, arguably the most visually exciting bridge in the world.

Rated PG-13. 113 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Essence Atkins and Marlon Wayans in Dance Flick

Damien Wayans'
Dance Flick
Opens Friday, May 22, 2009

Written By: Keenen Ivory Wayans; Shawn Wayans; Craig Wayans; and Damien Wayans
Starring: Marlon Wayans; Essence Atkins; Damon Wayans Jr.; Shoshana Bush; Amy Sedaris; Shawn Wayans; and Kennen Ivory Wayans

Paramount Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Who needs Middle Eastern oil? Dance Flick has enough energy to power the U.S. economy until the next Wayans Brothers comedy comes along. And rest assured, we’ll be hearing from the two generations of this family in the near future with their current movies in development: Super Bad James Dynomite, Scary Movie 5, and The Year of Living Biblically.

The Wayanses have a way of tapping into our need for off-the-wall laughs, their special effects people doing quite a job at infusing the high spirits of Dance Flick with bizarre and often hilarious special effects. Though at just eighty-six minutes, Dance Flick borders on overstaying its welcome given the repetitiveness of the sketches, there’s more than enough wheat within the chaff of some uneven performances and sketches that go nowhere.

Dance Flick sends up both serious dance movies and stereotypes of African-Americans. Though the film advances like a series of Saturday Night Live style episodes, the story centers on the students of Musical High School, resembling New York’s High School of Music and Art, with some of the teens aspiring for entrance to Juilliard while others must make do at “Just Community College,” which mails its applicants a semiliterate note to the effect that “you’ve been excepted [sic] like everyone else who applied.”

If the Wayon's Scary Movie series parodies Scream, then Dance Flick takes aim at such pics as Flashdance, Signing in the Rain, Hairspray, Step Up, Stomp the Yard, and Fame, as the brothers, according to press notes, believe that dance movies are generally OK on choreography but too light on story. In addition, we can tick off other lampoons as the team takes aim on the Sam Jackson vehicle Black Snake Moan, about one Lazarus who imprisons a white woman, keeping her on a chain. One hugely racist (and quite amusing) skit shows a whipped slave trying to prove to his Simon Legree that he’s the fastest cotton picker on the plantation—perhaps skewering a short that opened October 21, 1912, called The Pickanninies and the Watermelon.

Shoshanna Bush comes on strong as Megan, a naïve, white, girl-next-door type who tries to fit in with the largely African-American culture of the school. She has eyes for Thomas Uncles, a black student who aspires to medical school and who makes sure that when some sisters are walking by, he is not emotionally or physically relating to Megan—a dig at how some black women condemn “their” men for hanging out with white women.

The dance scenes include wild special effects to create even more energy than the performers, in a couple of cases showing one contestant in the so-called street battle (sending up the movie Stomp the Yard) spinning so furiously that the wooden planks of the floor cave in, while another fellow, falling into a trap set by the competition (a can of oil spilled on the floor) winds up zooming through the gym, and into the street, upside down on the ground the entire time.

Essence Atkins performs winningly as Charity, a woman who puts her baby inside a school locker while she attends class and whose boyfriend’s idea of picking up their child on a weekend consists literally of picking up their child, putting it down and leaving. All in all, though, for bite, this picture is relatively toothless when compared to the Wayans’ I’m Gonna Get You Sucka, but succeeds more in the satirical vein than their White Chicks. Dance Flick works when it works, exuding high spirits even where it does not.

Rated PG-13. 86 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Will Ferrell, Anna Friel and Danny McBride

Brad Silberling's
Land of the Lost
Opens Friday, June 5, 2009

Written By: Chris Henchy and Dennis McNicholas
Starring: Will Ferrell; Anna Friel; Danny McBride; Jorma Taccone;and Douglas Tait
Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Some wags reviewing this movie might be tempted to say that the title is incomplete: it should read Land of the Lost Humor. That would be inaccurate, however, since humor has to exist before it can be lost. Land of the Lost may reference such films as Jurassic Park, Lord or the Rings, and the Indiana Jones series, but it’s so bland and laugh-free that the only people who might get emotional over it would be those religious fundamentalists who insist that the earth and its human beings are only a few thousand years old—not a couple of million as implied in Chris Henchy and Dennis McNicholas’s inept story.

The movie has apparently been photographed on Universal’s large studios to represent an age long past, with jutting rocks adding some interest to a vast array of sand. It opens on a TV interview between Rick Marshall, Ph.D. (Will Ferrell) and Matt Lauer, the latter reflecting the view of the general public that Marshall’s theories on space-time travel are hokum. To prove the newsman wrong, Marshall, after meeting with firecracker salesman Will Stanton (Danny McBride) and a long-time British believer, Holly Cantrell (Anna Friel), get themselves sucked into a vortex where they view a land populated with dinosaurs, strange creatures called Sleestaks, and a primate named Chaka (Jorma Taccone) whose language Holly somehow understands. The atmosphere is made menacing as well by giant bugs, small insects, and flying bats. There’s even a fellow who declares his intention to travel to our own time and to rule the world, as though we don’t have enough enemies without him.

Ferrell knocked out A-1 performances in the role of Buddy in Jon Favreau’s Elf, Ron Burgundy in Adam McKay’s Anchorman, and Ricky Bobby in Adam McKay’s Talladega Nights. I wish I had been able to see him on the Broadway stage in the role of George W. Bush in Marty Callner’s Will Ferrell: You’re Welcome America – A Final Night with George W. Bush, which had excellent buzz.

This time, he’s freighted with Danny McBride’s character, Will Stanton, the only one who makes the right decision near the conclusion of the story; and with Anna Friel’s rendition of Holly Cantrell, whose role is to open her eyes wide in surprise now and then and to be protective of the scientist she reveres, expecially when the latter is eaten by a dinosaur after trying to pole-vault to safety. The only vulgar note aside, of course, from being puked upon, which is essential in this sort of project, is a verbal one, describing the way that Marshall is able to free himself from the body of the creature, who howls and howls and howls—which is a lot more than director Brad Silberling (“Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events”) can expect from the audience.

Summer comedies tend to be silly, which is fine, but movies like Damien Wayans’s Dance Flick can be hilarious. Land of the Lost is decidedly not. Get caught in its vortex at your own risk.

Rated PG-13. 106 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

J.J. Abrams'
Star Trek
Opens May 7, 2009

Written By: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman
Starring: John Choc; Ben Cross; Bruce Greenwood; Chris Pine; Jennifer Morrison; Zoe Saldana; Zachary Quinto; Simon Pegg; Eric Bana; Winona Ryder; and Leonard Nimoy.

Paramount Pictures/ Spyglass Entertainment
New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Easily the best movie of the year, one that does not outlast its welcome and which thrilled the audience, is…Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, which he co-wrote with Scott Marble. OK, we’re talking 1903, not 2009, but who’s counting? With Justus Barnes as the guy who fires a shot at the camera, that priceless, eleven-minute film was the first ever shot in the U.S. When I think of the old masterworks that Robbery and Louis Le Prince’s Roundhay Garden Scene (in 1888 the first film shot with a motion picture camera), I fantasy an early 20th Century audience marveling not to those pics but to Star Trek. would have to be a doctor on call at these early bijous: the skeptical crowd might shudder and duck when the sheriff fires his gun at the camera, but just think of how they’d react if the first film they’d ever seen were J.J. Adams back-to-its-origins Star Trek, which employs the ultimate in special-effects technology. They’d probably bolt from their seats figuring that the Earth was under attack by big bad Nero, who. like Mr. Ahmadinejad, dreams of uprooting governments right and left and establishing a sphere of influence over a vast area beyond his own quarters.

In Star Trek, Eric Bana performs in the role of the villain; Chris Pine as a fellow whose striking good looks evokes a younger Brad Pitt; and the beautiful Zoe Saldana functions as a communications officer. However, the real star is special effects—somewhat beyond the scope of the illusion of a bullet shot at a camera and a train on the fast track into the earliest movie audience.

Star Trek can serve as a template for an audience of women and men who have never looked at the TV series that began in 1966 and may have seen some other incarnations of the series only on DVDs placed inside a tiny, 60-inch TV screen. Yes, tiny is the word for any TV set now in existence: you’re wasting your time if you do not see this movie where it’s meant to be viewed, preferably in an IMAX location.

Like the James Bond series, Star Trek begins with a back story, showing the birth of James Tibeius Kirk at the very moment that his father is killed in a spaceship. Kirk’s boyhood is a wild one. He zips along a traffic-free Iowa highway until he is flagged down by a super cop. He is a young man governed by emotions, a risk-taker who is leaps before he looks; his impulsiveness will later be contrasted to rival who is half-human, half Vulcanese. By the time he is in his early 20s, Kirk is recruited into the Starfleet Academy by Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) to train for a flight on the U.S.S. Enterprise. Later on board the Enterprise, Kirk (Chris Pine), the Vulcan-born Spock (Zachary Quinto), Dr. Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban), 17-year-old Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and the lovely Uhua (Zoe Saldana), take over the principal actions as the crew determined to frustrate the desire of heavily tattooed Nero (Eric Bana) to wipe out the so-called Federated planets-particularly our own Earth and the planet Vulcan.

The plot is sometimes as difficult to follow as that of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, but that’s no problem for Trekkies who will likely see the pic ten times and the newly converted who could do likewise. Action scenes carved by scores of digital artists who have grown somewhat beyond the skills of YouTube uploaders, include one that seems to come from a different movie when Kirk is chased on a snowbound path on the ice-planet Delta Vega by refugees from Jurassic Park. Human-made and natural intergalactic wow-inducing vistas include a black hole, two men parachuting when they’re not digitally changing locations faster than the speed of light, and a miles-long drill that the villain uses in his determination to wreak havoc without a shred of ethical considerations.

Turning up in side roles are Leonard Nimoy, as the original Vulcanese Spock, now as Spock’s future incarnation, Simon Pegg for comic relief as Montgomery Scott, and John Cho, well-known for his role in a couple of Harold and Kumar movies. With Michael Giacchino’s music and Scott Chambliss’s production design punctuating Dan Mindel’s lensing, Star Trek explores the need for people with cultural, ideological, and physical differences to get together. In this case Kirk, who acts on his emotions and gets beaten to a pulp more than once, and Spock who has been trained to repress all emotions and use only the part of himself from the neck up, must bury their basic identities to defeat a common enemy.

You may think that traveling to distant solar systems is somewhat difficult, given that the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is two light years away. Star Trek proves you wrong.

Rated PG-13. 126 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Pete Docter and Bob Peterson's
Opens Friday, May 29, 2009

Written By: Bob Peterson, story by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter, Tom McCarthy
Starring: Voices of Edward Asner; Christopher Plummer; Jordan Nagai; Bob Peterson; Delroy Lindo; Jerome Ranft; and John Ratzenberger

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

The most exhilarating scene in this splendid Pixar feature occurs when the principal character, the elderly Carl Fredericksen (Ed Asner), is stuck when his house becomes too heavy for the balloons to lift it. He first chucks a dresser drawer, then a few chairs go flying through the window, until virtually all his “stuff,” is heaved overboard. The house lifts off once again. This is perhaps the best visual evocation of what psychologists and other pundits have been saying for a while. “If you want to be happy, spend your money on experiences; not on "stuff.’” Think long and hard about that. Given the need to make a choice because of limited funds, would you rather have a lovely house with the latest bathroom tiles and expensive carpets, or would you prefer to spend your money on trips, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of different cultures?

Not that this furniture-dumping scene is the only smart one: far from it. Up, is arguably the most imaginative, colorful, Pixar film to date, with brilliant contrasts, and clever dialogue that encourage the attention of adults as well as the young ‘uns. Further, there is an interesting use of geometric shapes, particularly the squared off character images of Carl Fredericksen, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson (the voices of the characters). These squared-off-images produce perfect vocalizatioins from Ed Asner as the older man who travels for the first time in his life, Christopher Plummer as an explorer with a villainous streak, and Jordan Nagai as the persistent 8-year-old Russell.

The story of Up reminds one of the Pennsylvania Dutch proverb, “We get old too soon and too late smart.” Up begins with a black-and-white reimagining of the old Movietone newsreel that every theater showed before TV took over the job in 1949. The newsreel cites the activities of explorer Charles Muntz, who was laughed at when he introduced a 13 foot bird’s skeleton which is considered by scientists to be a fake. We’re introduced to the friendly young Elie (Elie Docter) who meets a shy young Carl (Jeremy Leary). They become sweethearts, enjoying a happy married life, having been brought together by their joint interest in the exploits of Muntz. Elie dies when the couple are in their seventies, leaving a grief-stricken Carl to imagine a dull final years sitting on his porch, pining for his lost love. Though their dream had been to travel to Paradise Falls at the crossroads of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana, they had settled into a more mundane existence. Carl sells balloons in the park until he is faced with eviction by a construction company. Miraculously a bevy of balloons pops up lifting the house and its occupant from its creaky foundations, at which point Carl discovers Russell (Jordan Nagai) an eight-year-old boy who has invited himself aboard, seeking an advancement in his Explorers’ Club by helping an elderly person.

The unusual road trip finds the two meeting an array of unusual creatures, particularly a large bird with a healthy appetite and a dog who adopts Carl as his master. Fighting off vicious hounds, the two meet the famous explorer, Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), but are unprepared for Muntz's villainous plan.

Much of the film appears inspired by The Wizard of Oz, particularly the flying house and the Wicked Witch of the West, who is here personified by the dastardly Charles Muntz. While Dorothy in The Wizard meets up with three pals who are lacking particular character traits, Carl is a fellow who for reasons not explained has not fulfilled his dream while his wife was alive—the dream of traveling together to meet Muntz and leave their humdrum existence for at least a while.

To its credit, Up does not bombard the senses with explosions as did the early Merrie Melodies Looney Tunes cartoons, which gave viewers the impression that you can set off dynamite within inches of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd without much harm save for brushing off some dust. In their place, directors Docter and Peterson rely on literally cliff hanging experiences, any of which could have resulted in the deaths of the two new explorers. The principal conflict aside from man-vs.-nature arises when Muntz, determined to catch the 13-foot bird and take it back to the States, is thwarted by the odd couple, one 78 years old, the other just 8.

Up boasts an intense story, precise vocal inflections, considerable action albeit without car chases and explosions, and sharply defined characters. I deliberately chose the 2-D version because I find 3-D annoying after a half hour’s use; the goggles are responsible for a twenty percent decrease in brightness.

Up was the opening movie of the 2009 Cannes Festival, the first time an animated picture set the tone at the prestigious gathering of cinephiles.

Rated PG. 89 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




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