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Helen Mirren and James McAvoy in The Last Station

Michael Hoffman's
The Last Station
Opens December 4, 2009

Written By: Michael Hoffman, from Jay Parini’s novel
Starring: Helen Mirren; Christopher Plummer; Paul Giamatti; and James McAvoy

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Bear with me because this is not a digression…Liberals want money to be distributed more equitably and often support tax increases on the rich, with revenue diverted to programs that will help the poor or the community as a whole. Socialists are liberals with a vengeance: the most radical want more than simply government takeover of the means of production, but rather a redistribution of income to all according to need. There are different kinds of socialists. One group, the well-to-do, like to talk a good game because socialism is fashionable, but they would be horrified to lose more than a pittance. Another are the poor, those who have nothing to fear from a redistribution since they do not have money or land in the first place. The third group, the true believers, do indeed possess wealth but have demonstrated with action their willingness to give it up to “the community,” if not while they’re alive, at least when they are dead and have willed their estate to all. Lev Tolstoy was in the third group, the ones with the integrity, but wait: there are others who are true believers but will use force of will if not of guns to get that money into mass circulation. Those are the ones who became the dreaded communist leaders like Stalin, Lenin, and Mao.

The Last Station may not be primarily a political movie, but politics is the thrust that motivates all the players, even though the film can be sold to the public as a love story—which it is as well. And it’s a love-story-cum-politics that boasts one tour de force performance (what else do we expect from Helen Mirren?) and fine performances indeed from Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, and James McAvoy, all playing political roles during the final year of Tolstoy’s life. The title of the movie has a double meaning: that of Tolstoy’s exit from the world and that of the railway station to which he had traveled as though emulating the exodus of animals who, somehow aware that they are on the way out, go off into the woods to pass away.

With an assist from Jay Parini’s novel (available from Amazon for $10.20 but not yet on Kindle) and live advice from some of Tolstoy’s descendants, writer-director Hoffman takes advantage of some lovely settings in Leipzig and some smaller towns in Germany to stand in for Russian locales. The conflicts are many. Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) is in conflict with himself between his vow of poverty and his extreme wealth. He has taken a vow of celibacy, not a great sacrifice considering his advancing age and his fathering of thirteen children with his wife of forty-eight years, Sofya (Helen Mirren). He is in conflict with his wife, even evoking a love-hate relationship with her, because he is considering a testament that would grant his copyright and attendant money for “War and Peace,” “Anna Karenina” and other novels to the Russian people rather than to his own large family. Sofya is likewise bitterly opposed to the manipulations of Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), Tolstoy’s best friend, a true believer who puts enormous pressure on the novelist to re-write his will so that the Russian people will have the wealth from the copyright.

To further his aims, Chertkov hires a young secretary for Tolstoy, the naïve Valentin (James McAvoy), with instructions to report back on all the people who visit the great man and who might persuade him to rejoin the Church and give up his socialist ideals. For his part, Valentin, having taken a vow of celibacy (at his age!), finds it most difficult to keep that vow, given the seductions of Masha (Kerry Condon), who works on the collective that Tolstoy has fashioned from his land.

Some critics have praised the story but have had problems with its telling. The film has even been compared (gasp) to Masterpiece Theater, a TV series that has often presented classics with a stultifying lack of drama. This appears not to be at issue here, as Helen Mirren in particular displays her talent for shifting from blissful affection for her husband to the emotions of an enraged harridan, one who’d appear to have no problem shooting Chertkov just after she put a few bullets in the man’s picture. She has already done more than almost anyone to boost her husband’s career, having copied “War and Peace” in longhand, six times over. If her attempt at suicide by drowning is not dramatic enough for viewers, consider the credible performance she delivers on Tolstoy’s deathbed. All is in the service of paraphrasing the old saw about women by announcing perhaps the principal theme, “Love: can’t live with it, can’t do without it.”

Unrated. 112 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Peter Jackson's
The Lovely Bones
Opens December 11, 2009

Written By: Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, from Alice Sebold’s novel
Starring: Mark Wahlberg; Rachel Weisz; Susan Sarandon; Stanley Tucci; Saoirse Ronan; and Michael Imperioli

Paramount Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

The rape and murder of a young girl is among the most atrocious and sordid of all crimes, though when you watch scenes of Peter Jackson’s victim looking beatifically down on earth against a background of limitless beauty, you might be tempted to say: hey, maybe there is some salvation for those whose lives are taken from them just as they are beginning to bloom. There is a considerable amount of emotion in Alice Sebold’s novel of the same name, but Peter Jackson, known to moviegoers for his momentous Lord of the Rings trilogy, turns the story into a tale or horror, the need for vengeance supplying the motivation for most of the film’s overlong tenure.

Jackson’s best movie, perhaps, is not any of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but rather Heavenly Creatures, which was based on the true story of Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, two close friends who share a love of fantasy and literature and who conspire to kill Pauline's mother after she tries to end the girls' intense and obsessive relationship. The visuals in that film heightened the emotional involvement of the two closely knit girls, who recognized that they were different from others in their circle. In Bones, the dreamlike sequences that take place in heaven and some scenes of earth appearing as though presented as a stage play, simply distract from the passion of the characters. (In a similar vein, Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come, about a man who dies to find himself in a heaven more amazing than he could have ever dreamed of, is also loaded with dreamy effects, which also work against the passion that drives Chris Nielsen to hell, risking all to find his wife.)

The Lovely Bones is anchored by a fine performance from the beautiful, New York born fifteen-year-old actress Saorise (pronounced SEER shee) Ronan who plays the role of fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon. Susis is a kid who is just beginning to see herself as a woman and is attracted to a boy in her school, Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie). Susis makes the mistake of trusting George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), a single man who lives in a nearby house in their Pennsylvania village. Harvey coaxes Susie into an elaborate underground room where he kills her, after presumably raping the poor girl. Though Susie is trapped in heaven, she is determined to obtain justice, but even more obsessed with allowing her grieving parents, Jack Salmon (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Abigail (Rachel Weisz) a chance to heal. Jack, whose love for his daughter is unconditional, becomes so preoccupied with personally killing whoever has done the deed that his wife leaves him, allowing Susie’s grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon) to take charge of the household. Sarandon's character is a a chain-smoking alcoholic who provides the movie’s occasional comic relief.

One of the touches provided by Jackson is a tree whose leaves blow away and turn into birds. All heavenly scenes take place within a wide area surrounded by cliffs, grassy hills and friendly dead people, who exhort Susie to be free. In much the way that the Greeks and Elizabethans believed that a soul cannot be truly released until justice is served, Susie must continue to use her will to help bring about a healing of her beloved parents.

Stanley Tucci, almost unrecognized under his Waspish makeup of blond rug and mustache, sees his prey through the wide-framed glasses fashionable during the 1970s. He represents the banality of evil, covering his inner torments and compulsions with a bland but friendly exterior, which can lead history buffs in the audience to recall how Hannah Arendt referred to the Nazi killers with perfectly natural home lives as “the banality of evil.”

The picture could have been more by being less—stripping away the CGI bells and whistles to develop its characters, particularly the grieving parents—allowing us genuinely to feel the torment that leads them to fall apart.

Rated PG-13. 139 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Richard Linklater's
Me And Orson Welles
Opens November 25, 2009

Written By: Holly Gent Palmo, Vince Palmo, from Robert Kaplow’s novel
Starring: Zac Efron; Claire Danes; Christian McKay; Zoe Kazan; James Tupper; Leo Bill; Eddie Marsan; and Ben Chaplin.

Freestyle Releasing
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

You might expect a low-budget recreation of Orson Welles’s New York stage production of Julius Caesar to be typical Sundance fare: amusing, but instantly forgettable. Lo and behold, Me and Orson Welles, directed by Richard Linklater (Before Sunset, Dazed and Confused), is a sensation blessed with remarkable acting, authentic-looking production values, and enough energy to power a Cadillac on a freeway full of hybrids. To travel from Roland Emmerich’s bloated, $260 million 2012 to Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles is to go from the ridiculous to the sublime. While some would say that Me and Orson Welles is targeted to lovers of theater, it’s nice to have faith that a regular audience with broad but sensitive tastes, would gobble the movie up. It doesn’t hurt that the poster-perfect Greek-godlike Zac Efron stars. Efron (the High School Musicals) is a guy who rivals the Twilight Series's Robert Pattinson as a teen heartthrob.

However, the real acting honors of the film go to Christian McKay, who does a spot-on impersonation of Orson Welles when that great actor-director was in his early twenties. McKay looks quite a bit older, but who cares when the man’s theatrical delivery is enough to make one cut back on movies and devote some time—and lots of money—to Broadway theater.

Adapting Robert Kaplow’s novel, Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo create some fiction within the framework of Welles’s actual directing of Shakespeare’s Caesar, which Welles made contemporary by suiting the actors in the style of the Fascist Rome of the twenties and thirties. If you want to know what rehearsals are like for professional stage productions, the madness, the ersatz heart attacks of scared performers, the bellowing of the director, this is the film to see. Though photographed not in New York’s 41st Street where the original Mercury Theater stood (now an office building without even a plaque to mark the historic place), Linklater makes good use of the restored Gaiety Theatre in Douglas, the capital of the Isle of Man. Outdoor scenes are set in constructed sets at Pinewood Studios, which devised a replica of New York of seventy-two years ago. The British Museum stands in for the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where a Grecian Urn and a young couple standing before it in admiration, form a classy near-conclusion.

Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a bored 17-year-old high-school student, gets the chance to rise well beyond his years on a chance encounter with Orson Welles on a street outside the Mercury theater. While Richard prepares for a small role as Lucius in the Shakespeare play—which every middle school student used to know —he attracts the affection of the theater's assistant manager, Sonja (Claire Danes). Richard is cautioned about Welles’s prima donna status and is advised to never to criticize the man.

During the hectic weeks of preparation when everything does wrong, Welles surveys the kingdom like a pampered prince, enjoying assignations with actresses and assistants who do not get paid, but look upon this experience as a way to jump-start their careers. By becoming attracted to Sonja, Richard sets himself up to compete with Welles, who believes that all starlets must be willing to head to his apartment at any time. The the big, expected showdown then occurs. This showdown is witnessed by Mercury Theater co-founder John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) and George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), who plays the key role of Marc Antony on Caesar.

As strikingly handsome and assertive as Efron’s character, Richard Samuels comes across, the show belongs to Christian MacKay who delivers a stellar performance that could well be the talk of the guilds during this awards season.

Unrated. 107 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Michael Shannon and Amy Ryan in The Missing Person

Noah Buschel's
The Missing Person
Opens November 20, 2009

Written By: Noah Buschel
Starring: Michael Shannon; Frank Wood; Amy Ryan; and Margaret Colin

Strand Releasing
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Going from a screening of 2012, which cost $260 million into a showing of The Missing Person, that seems to be made from pocket change, leads to cognitive dissonance. Here again is an exception to the rule that you get what you pay for. This is not to say that The Missing Person has much to write home about, but we can allow that this picture is the preferable one to see if you have to choose.

A cop picture without so much as a siren, The Missing Person comes at you as an intellectual, noirish production, its desaturated colors even more unattractive than black-and-white, all presumably for the purpose of announcing itself as unreconstructed noir. The labyrinthine plot may become clear, or may not, by its conclusion. The best thing about the film is that it stars Michael Shannon, who turned in a terrific role as the psychotic John Givings in Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road and earned my humble vote for best supporting actor at my annual meeting of New York Film Critics Online. Here he is the principal attraction, which is not to say that he mesmerizes in any way as he did in this previous work.

He does, however, know how to overdo drunkenness, getting his inspiration, for all we know, from Ray Milland’s job as Don Birnam in Billy Wilder’s 1945 film The Lost Weekend. In the role of private detective John Rosow he looks lost every day of the week, having lost his wife to the Twin Towers inferno 9/11, at which point he became a friend of the bottle. His daily drunk does not help his business as a private eye much, a fact taken into account by the lawyer who phones him at 5:11 one morning, asking him to trail one Harold Fullmer (Frank Wood) on the latter's voyage from Chicago to L.A. on the Zephyr (which actually goes to Oakland in real life and not L.A.), offering a neat sum of money to do so. On the train he notes that Harold leaves his compartment door open although he suspiciously has the company of a young Mexican youth, making us all suspect that the man is a pederast.

Things are not what they seem. Not only is Harold not a pederast: he himself is employed by an orphanage in Mexico that is not simply an orphanage. Here the plot thickens and includes two women that Rosow meets: one femme fatale, Lana (Margaret Colin), who tries to seduce him at a bar, the other, a Miss Charlie (Amy Ryan), who works for the lawyer who hired Rosow and who may prove to be more to him than simply a job.

The Missing Person seems more like a picture to project the acting ability of Michael Shannon than a story that rivets audience attention. Shannon’s drunkenness at times seems like a parody of the noir genre, though director Noah Buschel may consider his script a straightforward, Hitchcockian melodrama. Special mention should be made of John Ventimiglia’s character-actor bit as Hero Furillo, a cab driver who bonds with Rosow when the two discover they grew up in the same Greenwich Village neighborhood.

Unrated. 95 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Cheryl Hines's
Serious Moonlight

Opens December 4, 2009

Written By: Adrienne Shelly
Starrung: Meg Ryan; Timothy Hutton; Kristen Bell and , Justin Long

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

It's not unusual for a long-term spouse casts an eye on others, particularly younger others. That syndrome was codified into hilarious celluloid by Billy Wilder’s 1955 film The Seven Year Itch. The question posed by Serious Moonlight is what to do if your husband has been flirting with another and you suspect that he plans to leave you forever (the passion just died) and go with his mistress to Paris on a romantic pre-honeymoon. Louise (Meg Ryan) is faced with that situation, if you can believe that anyone would want to leave Ms Ryan (strangely enough, it happened in real life). She hits on an idea to get her husband (Ian played by Timothy Hutton), back, despite his growing relationship with much younger Sara (played by Kristen Bell), whose blank good looks belie her alleged smarts.

If you’re thinking of what to do to bring back your lover and you have not yet seen Cheryl Hines’s “Serious Moonlight,” written by the late Adrienne Shelly, consider Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, a terrific thriller that finds two psychotic youths in tennis outfits working their way into the home of a wealthy couple, tying them up and planning to kill them—though more out of envy than for money. In a broadly similar vein, when Ian announces his plan to leave Louise for good, she knocks him out, binds him with duct tape, and threatens to leave him in that condition until he regains his senses and declares his love for her.

This is a pretty wacko idea that would appear to have no chance of working, in fact one that could convince Ian that his wife belongs in the loony bin, but leave it to the movies to find a way, a situation that involves the incursion into the household of a burglar in the guise of a gardener (Justin Long).

Meg Ryan is the one to watch in this combination crime/romance/horror tale that provides a stage for her enormous thespian talents. The key word is “stage.” Moonlight is a claustrophobic adventure that takes place almost exclusively in a bathroom, with the man attached to the toilet, Serious Moonlight would have a better platform on one of New York’s office-Broadway stages. Timothy Hutton, whose role calls for him to scream his lungs out at times, lacks the optimum ambience to test his own acting chops. Hutton is almost completely upstaged by Ryan, while the burglar, played by the now ubiquitous, 31-year-old Justin Long (Youth in Revolt, Funny People, He’s Just Not that Into You, Drag Me to Hell), has scant opportunity to steal the show.

Aside from the claustrophobic setting, Serious Moonlight has a script that cannot be favorably compared to that of writer-director Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress, which also deals as well with an affair, that affair involving a married doctor who becomes the heartthrob of a pie-baking coffee-shop server. In contrast to Serious Moonlight, Waitress is chock-full of wit, both caustic and homespun.

Rated R. 84 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



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