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Roland Emmerich's
Opens Friday, November 13, 2009

Written By: Harald Kloser, Roland Emmerich
Starring: John Cusack; Amanda Peet; Chiwetel Ejiofor; Thandie Newton; Oliver Platt; Thomas McCarthy; Woody Harrelson; and Danny Glover

Columbia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Is 2012 apocalypse new? No, it’s apocalypse the same. Unless you’re one of the a new generation of moviegoers that have never seen Independence Day or (both directed by 2012 helmsman Roland Emmerich), you’ve taken this roller-coaster ride before. To paraphrase Spiro Agnew, if you’re seen one building topple, one wave immerse thousands, one statue crushed, several people falling through the cracks to their death, one giraffe and one elephant hauled onto a would-be Noah’s ark—well, you’ve seen ‘em all.

So what’s left in 2012 to delight us? Why the story, of course. Sad to say, the dialogue ranges from moronic to idiotic, but not without leaving considerable room for the audience's unintentional laughter—though you’ve got to hand it to the principals in the cast for not cracking up from what they’re saying in rhythm with the breaking down up of the earth’s surface.

Anyway, to make a long, long, two and one-half hour story shorter, leave it to the Mayans. Thousands of years ago they knew the precise date for the earth’s demise; that would be December 21, 2012, just before Christmas and what an irony! The good news is that we’ve all got three years to live it up before packing it in. The bad news is that we can’t blame George W. Bush for the calamity (sorry W, you’ve surprisingly managed to defer the apocalypse), nor can we blame Iranian President Iminneedofjihad, much as he’d like to take the credit for transferring North America to the South Pole. Blame Mother Nature. Because of an alignment between the sun and the planets on December 21, 2012, the earth’s crust simply began to melt, dragging worldwide civilization with it. In this case, almost everybody fell between the cracks including the fortune-cookie spouting Tenzin Lama of Tibet.

Each character in this drama is a human trait, so clearly defined that it could be affixed to everyone’s forehead. John Cusack as failed novelist Jackson Curtis starts out as a loser whose wife left him, taking their two kids, because Jackson Curtis paid more attention to his laptop than to her. This is mighty surprising since his ex-wife, Kate Curtis (Amanda Peet), is better looking than even the writer’s Sony laptop, but that’s just my opinion.

Sharing top honors with Cusack is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Adrian Helmsley, an assertive geologist and adviser to the President, who discovers what’s about to happen and ultimately steers at least some people to safety. As a reward, he will get to date Laura Wilson (Thandie Newton), the President’s daughter, a match that one feels confident that President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover) would approve. The President’s ambitious chief of staff, Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), has plans to save only the rich and influential. And he’s a Democrat! Woody Harrelson chimes in as Charlie Frost, a nutcase radio announcer stationed in Yellowstone National Park, who warns his listeners to repent, but who can take Woody Harrelson seriously? Tom McCarthy does yeoman work as Gordon Silberman, Kate Curtis’s new squeeze, who is eager to start a new family to add to the two kids fathered by Jackson Curtis.

The picture cost Columbia in excess of $260 million, but with three years to go before extinction, the studio must have figured that you can’t take it with you, so why not provide a hefty stimulus payment to hundreds of crew members including a CGI team who give us action in the air, on the water and on the ground, throwing in fires, explosions, car crashes, hard plane landings, sinking ships and sinking dialogue.

Think back to John Buillermin and Irwin Allen’s 1974 film The Towering Volcano. Putting Steve McQueen and Paul Newman in the stellar cast and having the destruction centered on just one building, instead of the entire world, the cast and crew were able to focus the attention of the audience instead of allowing it to dissipate from Yellowstone to the Yalu River.

Rated PG-13. 158 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Lars von Trier’s
Opens Friday, October 23, 2009

Written by Lars Von Trier
Starring: Willem Dafoe; Charlotte Gainsbourg

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

A horror film born out of the disturbed, genius mind of auteur provocateur Lars von Trier, Antichrist is one of the most disturbing and deliberately enigmatic films of 2009. It will also prove to be one of the most divisive.

In the press notes, von Trier invites his audience to “glimpse into the dark world of my imagination; into the nature of my fears…” von Trier admits the film was made during one of his most severe depressions and he pretentiously calls it: “the most important film of my entire career.” After seeing the film twice, I have more of an appreciation and understanding of the work than I did after the first viewing —although many moviegoers will find it difficult to sit through once.

In the visually and viscerally stunning Prologue, a married couple played by Willem Dafoe (marvelously chilling) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (a bold and daring performance), are in the throws of passionate sex. Their young son awakens and watches them for a spell. He then walks over to a window and falls out. The camera juxtaposes shots of Dafoe and Gainsbourg’s carnal bliss with the son moving towards the window. As he horrifically falls to his death, we are presented with shots of the parents in orgasmic ecstasy. The scene is beautifully shot (by Slumdog Millionaire photog Anthony Dod Mantle) in slow motion black and white with a rhapsodic Handel vocal accompanying it. Never has the terrible been so visually arresting.

Highly influenced by the misanthropy of playwright August Strindberg, von Trier goes on to explore the Grief, Pain and Despair (the first three chapter headings) felt by the couple as well as the guilt, fear and dark sexual desires that motivate them. Dafoe is a therapist who arrogantly attempts to treat his wife who, in turn, accuses him of being indifferent to their son’s death. At the end of the the second chapter (Pain) she seems to be on the mend, although a disemboweled fox appears and announces, “Chaos Reigns.” No, I am not joking.

By the time we get to the ominously dark forest (Eden), the stage has been set, symbolically, evocatively and psychologically for something evil to occur. And, oh, does it…


One of the helmer’s hypotheses is that nature is not the wonderland we’ve been led to believe it is, but it is in fact “satan’s church”—a place where the malefic, wicked and demonic thrive and rule. In the fourth and final chapter, titled The Three Beggars (a fox, crow and deer—inversions of the three kings), von Trier’s deliberate and fascinating bastardization of Christianity reaches full bloom as the Gainsbourg character becomes possessed and completely unhinged.

von Trier loves to provoke his audience and there’s no better way to do so then by showing some good old fashioned genital mutilation. Both screenings I attended produced walk outs, disgusted grunts, jeering and exclamations that the film was excrement. Shouts of misogyny—nothing new for a von Trier pic—abounded as well.

Regardless of one’s take, von Trier is one of the few contemporary filmmakers who dares to challenge, rattle and ask very difficult and cosmic questions about the dark side of human nature—male and female and how the sexes relate (or do not relate) to one another. His style is highly influenced by old Hollywood but he turns each genre on its ear and then gives it a swift kick in the ass. His films startle, enrage and mesmerize. Antichrist, in that vein, does not disappoint.

The film’s Epilogue initially bothered me, and not in a typical cathartic-von Trier way (as with his best films, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville), until I stopped internally defending him from misogyny. When I allowed the idea the film (arguably) puts forth that women are these destructive, satanic figures, so much of the (over use of) symbolism began to enhance my understanding of the film. Dafoe must crawl and hide in a hole in the earth (a large vaginal opening) if he is to survive. The beggar deer-- appears to be walking around with either an open abortion or miscarriage—lending credence to the idea that the Gainsbourg character is responsible for her son’s death (we see her in flashback deliberately putting the wrong shoes on the wrong feet so his balance is shaky). As a matter of fact, Mother Nature seems to be one large gaping vagina ready to swallow Dafoe—and all men--up.

In a press conference following the NY Film Fest screening--via Skype since von Trier has a fear of traveling and has never been to the US—he explained that the title refers to the fact that he believes there is no God. That notion is quite evident in the bleak, brilliant and hopeless ending. If women are, indeed, evil, the facelessly feminine conquest of the planet of the living females is proof enough that there can be no God, and if, perchance, there is—according to von Trier—she’s a man-hating, sexually-decimating bitch!

Lars von Trier’s
Opens Friday, October 23, 2009

Written by Lars Von Trier
Starring: Willem Dafoe; Charlotte Gainsbourg; Storm Acheche Sahlstrom
IFC Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg,

Not only is psychotherapy a waste of time in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. It may lead to even more problems such as a host of gruesome bodily manipulations that are more part of the vocabulary of Wes Craven than of the Danish helmer. All of the blood and gore could have been prevented if they had listened to two words of advice: window guards. Yep. Here in New York, all residents with toddlers in their apartments are required by law to have them, or else. This is either not true where He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are living, or else these educated, middle-class folks are violating the law wherever they are.

You never know what genre you’re getting with von Trier: this time the great Dane dabbles with porno-horror, usually an audience grabber, but Antichrist is too arty to attract the raincoat crowd or the adolescent rebels. It emerges from the mind of a von Trier during a period of depression—not the kind caused by bankers and brokers, but by the grim devils of the mind who attack often without grounds. In this director’s case, he is at least able to convert his demons into art, which is good, old-fashioned misogyny and, to extend the hostility further, all-around pessimism about the human race. Von Trier is inspired by Nietzsche, whose book in 1888 The Antichrist, opposes Christianity as a religion of pity that drains life of vitality, and the playwright August Strindberg, who urged lawmakers not to emancipate women whom he called “half-apes, mad, criminal, evil creatures.”

Sandwiched between a prologue and epilogue, both featuring a vocal composition by Handel “Leave me to weep over my cruel fate…,” Antichrist finds He and She playing drop-the-soap in the shower while their infant son Nic (Storm Acheche Sahlstrom) falls to his death through an adjoining bedroom window. Plagued with guilt far more than her husband, She is hospitalized with a breakdown and falls under the care of He, a professional therapist who mistakenly treats his own wife—which she correctly interprets as arrogance. Reporting that her greatest fear is her forest home, Eden—where she had spent the previously summer alone with her son—she is taken there by her husband under the premise that the way to recovery is to confront fears directly. Big, big mistake. Animals appear as sinister omens, including a dead bird being eaten by ants and a vulture, a dismembered fox that delivers the director’s message, “Chaos Reigns!”

Audience patience is rewarded as the real gore erupts near the conclusion—with a bloody climax that has a double meaning. With considerable nudity and a few hard-core porn shots, some of which are possibly taken with body doubles, “Antichrist,” like other substantial works of artistic substance, will leave its audience debating meaning as well as artistic quality. Is there more to the film than a reenactment if the director’s dreams during his period of depression? Does Lars von Trier have it in for women, does he hate men and women equally, or is he just pessimistic about his fellow human beings?

Anthony Dod Mantle’s hand-held camera gets the close-ups that are Lars von Trier’s signature camera preferences including one singular act of female mutilation that will have theatergoers gasp in a film that is well worth your time, with theatrical tour-de-force performances by Willem Dafeo and by Charlotte Gainsbourg, the latter winning a Best Actress award at Cannes. The film is dedicated to Andrei Tartovsky, not surprising since the Russian filmmaker was known for metaphysical themes and a lack of dramatic structure and plot.

Unrated. 109 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Peter Billingsley's
Couples Retreat
Opens Friday, October 9, 2009

Written By: Jon Favreau; Vince Vaughn; and Dana Fox
Starring: Vince Vaughn; Jason Bateman; Jon Favreau; Malin Akerman; Kristin Davis; Kristen Bell; and Faizon Love

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

A comedy is in trouble when the funniest character is a four-year-old who has five minutes of screen time. Colin Baiocchi, the four-year-old, makes his debut as Kevin, the young son of a happily married fellow who, when his folks are looking for some tiles to redecorate a room, pees in the exhibited, for-sale toilet of a big hardware store.

Wait, check that. The kid is cute, he’s got a good set of pipes to show enthusiasm, but what director and sometimes actor Peter Billingsley consider to be a big laugh is nothing but a big embarrassment.

Billingsley is far from the only dude at fault. Writers Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughn, and Dana Fox, should take their share of blame for relying on humiliations, mostly lame sexual situations, to tell their story.

The story is propelled by a power point presentation from the obsessively compulsive character, Jason (Jason Bateman), whose marriage to Cynthia (Kristen Bell) is in trouble because she cannot become pregnant. He is frustrated because they only have sex when she is ovulating. Jason cons his best friends into joining him at a luxury resort which will be half-price if he can bring a group of eight. What he does not tell his pals is that the resort requires their daily presence , at 6 a.m., to hear a “couples whisperer” (Jean Reno) discusses ways to improve their relationships. This "whispering" is followed by one-couple-at-a-time sessions with separate analysts.

The resort is breathtaking: supposedly Hawaii because the participants each get a lei (no snickers please) but the topography looks more like Bora Bora. There, Jason and his best friends Dave (Vince Vaughn), Dave’s wife Ronnie (Malin Akerman), Joey (Jon Favreau) and his wife Lucy (Kristin Davis) and Shane (Faizon Love) and his much younger girlfriend Trudy (Kali Hawk) vacation in what must be one of the most romantic spots on earth, while attending "sessions" which put a damper on even the happy marriages in the group.

The movie abounds in cliche. For example, Salvadore (Carlos Ponce) is a hunk who emerges slow-motion from the sea like Halle Berry in Die Another Day. This entrance immediately bewitches the women in the group. Almost predictably, he gets into sexually simulated yoga positions with both the men and women, tee hee. When the women go off on their own and he emerges naked (well shadowed as befits a PG-13 pic), Lucy’s eyes almost bulge out of her head. Is there an ophthalmologist on call? Joey has a session with a hot masseuse who asks him where he has the most tension on his body. (Gee, I wonder what he’ll say.) And when Joey gets a boner, the masseuse is shocked, as though she had never seen anything like that before. Their group leader, who speaks with a pompous accent is Ctanley (Peter Serafinowicz) with a “c”. At one point, Dave is circled by sharks, the cerulean waters fill with red, yet his injury is a mere scratch, leading his pals to rib him about his allegedly dangerous experience.

Vince Vaughn is one of Hollywood’s funniest comedians. His timing is on target as is Jon Favreau’s—easy enough, perhaps, because each must have written his own part. But the talented performers are sunk in murkiness far cloudier than the exquisite waters of Bora-Bora.

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

Gaylen Ross's
Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis
Opens Friday, October 23, 2009

Written By: Gaylen Ross, Andrew Cohen
Starring: Zsuzsi Kasztner; Merav Michaeli; Ze’ev Eckstein; Joseph Lapid; Uri Avnery; and Eli Rosenbaum

GR Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Watching Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis will remind the viewer of an ironic quote, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” or another, equally ironic one, “No good deed goes unpunished.” In Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Deals with Nazis, documentarian Gaylen Ross tells the story of Hungarian Jew who is little known today, even in Israel. What is fascinating about the man is that he is considered a hero by many, but also regarded as someone who sold his soul to the devil by may others. By contrast Hannah Senesh, the heroic Jewish-Hungarian parachutist who was dropped behind enemy lines to Yugoslavia to join partisans helping Jews to escape the German occupation, is virtually worshipped in Israel.

What, specifically, did Kasztner do to split the Israeli and worldwide Jewish community into two groups: one group calling him a hero and others a traitor? Well, he negotiated directly with Adolf Eichmann (the Nazi who was in charge of transporting Jews to the death camps) to gain the release of Jews, eventually winning the right to send 1,684 Hungarian Jews on a train to Switzerland. Films taken recently show these survivors together with their children and grandchildren, showing how impressive Kasztner's work actually was; he saved more Jews than Oskar Schindler. Nevertheless, Kasztner was spat upon by fellow Israelis in Tel Aviv, where he had lived until his assassination in 1957. Their enmity came from the fact that he had negotiated face to face with pure evil. Some say that he even stole some of the ransom money. He also testified at a war crimes trials to save one Nazi official who had been in charge of economic affairs, aka the officer in charge of stealing riches rom the deported Jews. One of his biggest opponents was an anonymous fellow who states in a Facebook website “Kasztner saved 1,100 [sic] handpicked Jews, most of them elite Zionists. He collaborated with Eichmann and over half a million Hungarian Jews ended up at Auschwitz….Eichmann had less than two companies of soldiers and couldn’t have accomplished this without Kasztner’s help.”

Now, this does not sound convincing to me, but it would have sounded perfectly reasonable to Ze’ev Eckstein, the man responsible for shooting Kasztner in cold blood in 1957. He and his two accomplices received life terms, but all were released in just seven years, partly through the intercession of Israeli’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion.

As for the quality of the documentary…there are some worthy archival scenes of Budapest during the 1930s, which show all the men wearing fedoras as they go about their daily tasks. These scenes are contrasted with those of modern Tel Aviv, a prosperous-looking city that resembles southern California, bathed in sunlight and populated by people on the move. Assassin Eckstein himself speaks slowly, perhaps because his English is halting. He looks nothing like the radical right extremist that he once was, just a nice Jewish boy who turned to radical politics.

In the end, documentarian Gaylen Ross meant to be unbiased in analyzing the complex Hungarian liberator, but we’re left with the view that on balance he should be considered a hero. The evidence that he was a Quisling, based, in seems, strictly on the fact that he dared to face evil in direct talks, is lacking. As Winston Churchill once said, “If Hitler were to attack the devil, I would negotiate an alliance with Satan.”

In English,Hebrew and Hungarian.

Unrated. 129 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Lynn Roth's
The Little Traitor (Ha’boged hakaram)
Opens Friday, October 16, 2009

Written By: Lynn Roth from Amos Oz’s novel “Panther in the Basement”
Starring: Ido Port; Alfred Molina; Rami Hoebreger; Gilya Stern; and Theodore Bikel

Westchester Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

When two lonely people meet and establish a friendship, we say “They found each other,” an expression often used to denigrate couples but can also mean that the two have been blessed. In The Little Traitor, the gifted young actor Ido Port stars as a kid who, together with his two best friends, imagines himself like a panther in the basement, a member of the underground ready to pounce on his country’s occupiers and drive them out. The film takes place during one of Israel’s fateful years, 1947, when Jews and Arabs lived together in the British mandate of Palestine. While only a little is mentioned about the troubles that both subjugated groups would suffer when the British pulled out, the movie deals partly with the tensions that the Jews felt during the British occupation of Palestine, but more important with the unlikely friendship formed between an twelve-year-old boy and a British sergeant who takes him under his wing.

The film does not talk down to a potential young audience: this is a movie that could be appreciated by people the boy’s age and by others who are considerably older. Some of the book’s subtleties do not translate into celluloid—for example, novelist Oz favors word play as in his sentence “What connection is there between defect and descent, mole and rat, saboteur and stabber?” No matter: what emerges is a tender tale told from a young lad’s point of view, a boy whose education outside the classroom is, as the cliché goes, the more important one.

Avi Leibowitz (Ido Port), known simply as Proffy (for professor), is an twelve-year-old Jerusalem resident who despite his sharp mind does not at first see subtleties in considering the British occupation of his land. He cannot imagine that life will be more difficult after the British leave, nor does he see the occupiers as individuals who may harbor sympathetic feelings toward the Jews and want to return to Britain as much as Proffy wants them out. When Proffy is almost arrested by Sgt. Dunlop (Alfred Molina) for violating a curfew, he forms a cautious friendship with the man—believable enough since Proffy’s scholarly father (Rami Hoebreger) seems never to have time for him. Since Proffy and his two pals, Chita and Ben Hur, plan ways to terrorize the British, albeit on a small scale, Chita and Ben Hur are shocked to find Proffy regularly visiting British headquarters. They assume he’s passing information to them about their child-like plans—that he’s a little traitor. Little do they know that their pal has no secrets to tell but that he is simply bonding with the enemy on strictly social grounds. Dunlop, who wears a crucifix on his neck, is pro-Jewish, interested in parts of the Hebrew bible like the Book of Samuel. Given Proffy’s inability to find an audience with his dad of with his mom (Gilya Stern), we can bet that he will have mixed feelings when the British leave Palestine, as they are preparing to do.

Teens and tweens in the audience will relate to the conversations the three young people have: no doubt many of us have had grandiose plans for influencing events whose meanings may elude even the brightest among ourselves. Adults may well identify with Sgt. Dunlop, with the loneliness that any soldier might feel for loved ones back home, with a lack of understanding about the political situations that have caused them to be stationed in remote areas where they are met with hostility by the local population.

The Little Traitor is a solid piece of cinema, with a particularly emotional scene occurring near the conclusion as the U.N. votes to end the British mandate followed by dancing in the streets. A black-and-white archival scene compares the reality in 1947 with the dramatization in the story: more than six seconds should have been shown, as the event was a joyful to the Jews as V-J day in 1945 was for us in the States.

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

Sebastian Silva's
The Maid
Opens Friday, October 16, 2009

Written By: Pedro Peirano, Sebastian Silva
Starring: Catalina Saavedra; Claudia Celedon; Alejandro Goic; Andrea Garcia-Huidobro; and Mariana Loyola

Elephant Eye Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Once this film kicks into gear, you can’t be blamed for wondering whether you’ll get a story influenced by Wes Craven (Scream, Scream 2) or Ken Loach (My Name is Joe, Bread and Roses). After all, the title character is often enraged enough to commit murder, but at the same time she stands in for writer-director’s exploration of class relationships. Director Silva knows whereof he speaks since this largely autobiographical story that represents the relationship of a maid to her boss’s family could be, writ-small, a description of a semi-feudal system at work in Latin America. The story takes place in Santiago, Chile, though given the paucity of scenes outside the employer’s home, the action comes across with the claustrophobia of a staged creation. You won’t get to see much of greater Santiago and its distinct culture: interestingly, one Chilean angrily asks a Peruvian employee whether she will be cooking “Peruvian food.”

With that caveat in mind—though even more important on the negative side is the cheesy look and vertiginous movements of a hand-held digital camera—The Maid features a terrific performance by Catalina Saavedra as Raquel the maid, a woman who works so hard in her employee’s large, kid-filled house that she’s given to fainting spells and severe headaches.

Silva and his co-writer, Pedro Peirano, focus on the ambiguity of Raquel’s position in the home of Mundo (Alejandro Goic), his wife Pilar (Claudia Celedon), and an assortment of offspring of whom the liveliest and friendliest is Lucas (Agustin Silva)—an adolescent who has a fun time with Raquel thereby affording her the feeling that she is part of the family. But she is not. As one of the children states in anger, “You’re just a maid.” Raquel faces a permanent identity crisis by feeling, on the one hand, that her 23 years of service which includes raising the kids while their parents are out working merits her place as family, while on the other hand, she feels lonely, insecure, and defensive. When Pilar, citing the need to help Raquel by lightening her burden, brings in a young, sweet Peruvian woman, Mercedes (Mercedes Villanueva), followed by an old battle-ax of a servant, Sonia (Anita Reeves), Raquel, paranoid with fear that her position is being marginalized, plays tricks on the two helpers. Both are locked out of the house until they give up and quit their jobs. Nobody, but nobody, is to take Raquel’s place making sandwiches for the kids, horsing around with Lucas, bringing Pilar breakfast in bed, and keeping the entire home clean and waxed.

The action takes an about-face when a frustrated Pilar hires Lucy (Mariana Loyola), a free-spirited 30-something who sunbathes in the nude, laughs freely, and insists that she is not about to be a servant for the rest of her life. Director Silva convincingly, patiently demonstrates the way that one liberated person attaches to the wavelength of another, turning her friend around. The virginal maid who is inexperienced in the ways of the world is about to become a person in her own right.

Catalina Saavedra appears in virtually every frame, her mouth turned down, her eyes opening wide when angry or especially happy—handing us in the theater an incisive tale of a woman who works too hard, identifies too closely with her employer to have a “personhood” of her own, but who is redeemed in the closing moments. One wonders whether the happiness she finds is now mixed with a cautious regret of having spent over forty years dedicating herself too closely with others to have a life of her own.

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

Oren Moverman's
The Messenger
Opens Friday, November 13, 2009

Written By: Oren Moverman
Starring: Ben Foster; Woody Harrelson; Samantha Morton; and Jena Malone

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If you have a son or daughter in Iraq, there are two people you dread seeing at your door even more than an IRS auditor or your in-laws. Those would be the pair of soldiers sent by the Secretary of War to inform the next of kin of the death of a veteran ten thousand miles away. While being under fire in Mosul or Baghdad is, to the say the least, an uncomfortable situation, staying here in the States to inform surviving kin of a death is hardly an easy job.

Writer-director Oren Moverman, himself a vet, provides us with an involving education about the army program which is today considered a better alternative than the impersonal notifications that were sent to the bereaved by Western Union during the Vietnam War. This is not to say that the communication between the pair of messengers and the spouse or parent of a deceased soldier is up close and personal. In fact messengers are told not to share their grief, not even to touch the family members given the most shocking news of their lives. As played by Woody Harrelson in the role of Captain Tony Stone and Ben Foster as the novice in the communications area, Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, the job is indeed a tough one since the aggrieved often blames the messenger, in one case getting spit upon and called cowards, in another being hit. In all but one situation the duo must watch the newly informed people break down in sobs and screams.

Aside from the way the film enlightens, this is a buddy movie about two people who are unequal in rank, fragile characters who let their inmost feelings emerge as they continue to hang out with each other not only on the job but in bars, in an auto, in a boat, on a pier. They start off as distinct personalities but as they let their hair down (a term used loosely in the case of Woody Harrelson’s character), becoming a true team, eager to be in each other’s company in what could be called a male-to-male romance, albeit a platonic one.

Harrelson performs the role of a recovering alcoholic who has served for a while as a messenger stationed on an army base (actually filmed by Bobby Bukowski in Fort Dix and several New Jersey towns), while his unlikely teammate is a war hero who risked sniper gunfire to rescue a fallen comrade. Sgt Montgomery, the war hero, has just three months to go before he must decide whether to re-enlist. Having been wounded, he is assigned by Col. Stuart Dorsett (Eamonn Walker) to learn the messenger’s job from the captain (Woody Harrelson) who appears reluctant to accept him. The most intriguing part of the film deals with their bonding during off-hours.

As they hang out together, they gradually reveal open up with their feelings. For his part the captain is the sort who would say that a man never asks for directions, but under the influence of a couple of beers the two come across with stories that you’d hardly tell even to your best friend. Montgomery’s compassion is shown not only by the way he touches the arm of one victim’s parent but by the relationship he develops with Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), whose husband had just died in Iraq but who is a widow who neither cries nor shows sorrow because, as she explains, he was no longer the man that she had married. We in the audience are guessing just how far the growing intimacy between widow and soldier will go.

The film was shown to some army officials who, according to production notes, appeared satisfied with the story particularly since the movie informs us about the human touch now in force for informing N.O.K.’s (next of kins). Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster develop a palpable chemistry which makes us wonder whether these two straight guys will ever find girlfriends that they’d prefer to be with.

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


Jay DiPietro’s
Peter and Vandy

Opens Friday, October 9, 2009

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by Jay DiPietro
Starring: Jason Ritter; Jess Weixler; and Jesse L. Martin.

Peter and Vandy is an unconventional love story about two people who want to bring out the best in each other but can’t help bringing out the worst instead. Through their very real struggles, Peter and Vandy come to terms with who they are together and then must decide whether that is what they want to be as a couple and whether being together is worth it.

Writer/director Jay DiPietro creates an infectious modern day love story, told in non-linear fashion, creating terrific suspense and shedding light on the couple in nuanced ways traditionally storytelling could not. It isn’t used as a gimmicky device strictly to toss twists at us''' (I’m talking to you M. Night!)—instead we can see the various stages of the relationship and how a simple thing as helping someone carry groceries can comment greatly on feelings and resentments.

Jason Ritter showed real promise in Don Roos’ Happy Endings in 2005. Here he advances to the majors proving he has leading man charisma even when the script occasionally forces him to play the cliché male jackass.

Jess Weixler, so good in the sick, twisted and fun film Teeth, continues to make her cine-mark. Her Vandy is a basket of emotions and she believably moves from apprehension to commitment and back again, her face revealing truths that her character probably prefers to keep hidden.

Peter and Vandy nicely avoids most of the Hollywood romance trappings (please Jennifer Aniston and Sandra Bullock, get yourselves a good screenwriter like DiPietro next time…or simply take a break…a LONG break!) It’s refreshing to watch a true to life love story—warts, PB&J and all!


Jay DiPietro’s
Peter and Vandy

Opens Friday, October 9, 2009

Written by Jay DiPietro
Starring: Jason Ritter; Jess Weixler; and Jesse L. Martin.

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Couples fight and break up for all sorts of reasons, anything from major cultural differences to ordinary trivialities. What might you think of a couple that have their biggest conflict over the way the woman makes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich—even the way she refers to the gourmet treat as a “PB & J”? In Peter and Vandy, a typical Sundance sort of picture, Peter (Jason Ritter) almost comes to blows with the woman he’s living with, Vandy (Jess Weixler) because Vandy uses two knives to make the sandwich—one for the PB and another for the J. He takes over the food preparation by showing how it’s easy to clean the knife by wiping it on the bread.

I mention this because so many fights are caused by seemingly insignificant events, the above match brought on, no doubt, by something else, something that would make the fellow tense while having nothing to do with his sweetheart. I mention this also because Peter and Vandy is an un-Hollywood romance; it shows couples going through their days in an ordinary fashion. Nobody is swept off their feet in Peter and Vandy; there are no murders or calamities - virtually no melodrama at all.

Writer-director Jay DiPietro puts his editor, Geoffrey Richman, through the hoops. He has the couple going backwards, forwards and all around the times of their relationship—essentially to show us in the most romantic scenes and how the two seem destined to become who they are. The scene opens on a bed in Vandy’s apartment. She tells Peter “I love you.” Cut to the scene where two strangers sit on a park bench, eating their lunches. He hits on her, she parries, they meet later, they set up housekeeping together. They fight over seemingly nothing, they make love. The two are regular young people, he more neurotic than she. It is quite likely that a young audience at Sundance could see themselves in the performers.

Cinephiles will remember 28-year-old Jess Weixler in the lead role in Dawn O’Keefe’s horror movie, Teeth. Wexler looks good in both pictures, so much so that one wonders how her character could fall for Peter, whom she easily outclasses.

Jay DiPietro opens up the movie cinematically, particularly during a wedding scene that finds Marissa (Tracie Thoms) arguing loudly with her man, Paul (Jesse L. Martin) because he wants to tip the bartender. Does that sound like something that could break up a relationship? Yes it is, and there lies the truth in Peter and Vandy, the right picture to see if you’re in the mood for a non-melodramatic, mostly naturalistically drawn romance.

Rated R. 80 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Mo’Nique in Precious

Lee Daniels’s
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Screenplay by Damien Paul, based on the novel by Sapphire.
Starring: Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe; Mo’Nique; Mariah Carey; Paula Patton; Lenny Kravitz.

A journalist at the NY Film Festival press conference asked director Lee Daniel’s if he felt his new pic Precious represented a bold, new step forward in ‘urban filmmaking.’ The helmer smiled widely and modestly sidestepped answering directly, which was the perfect way of handling it since Precious should not be pigeon-holed into one genre. It’s an amazing film that should appeal to all moviegoers who appreciate quality.

The actual story has Lifetime movie written all over it. What makes the film rise above your typical made-for-TV fare is the manner in which the narrative unfolds and, specifically, depicts the inner world of our protagonist. Of course, the fact that the film boasts some of the best female performances of the year doesn’t hurt.

Claireece “Precious” Jones is an illiterate, overweight 16-year old black girl with very little self-esteem.

Pregnant with her second child by her own father--who has vanished—she’s about to get kicked out of school. Her mother loathes her and when she’s not using her as a house slave, she’s abusing her—quite literally. Mom is obsessed with the lottery, watching game shows on TV and keeping her welfare checks coming. Precious enrolls in a GED prep school and meets a teacher who will forever change her life and show her that she isn’t the worthless person her mother is constantly telling her she is.

Precious is a film that seems to run against our country’s own sad view of intellectual pursuit. The film’s message has education triumphing over ignorance. How refreshing is that? A film that proves learning actually begets a whole new world of possibilities for all people.

Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe is perfection as the title character. The newcomer is able to capture the pain, confusion, anger and deep desire to escape the hell she was born into. It’s a marvel of a performance and one that will surely be remembered as awards season unfurls. Sidibe’s sweet smile alone, gave me goosebumps. And in the (too) few scenes depicting her mindescape, she comes completely out of her shell, whether she’s a film star on the red carpet or the lead girl group singer—she’s simply divine!

The stand-up comic Mo’Nique delivers a powerhouse portrait of a seemingly inconceivable mother. This is one of the most horrific monster mom’s ever created onscreen. This is not a campy Mommie Dearest performance to savor and enjoy. This is a true-blooded, terror of a mother who’s so ignorant she blames her own daughter for the fact that she was molested, starting at the age of three. Mo’Nique will be nominated for an Oscar, the sheer courage in her embodiment of this horrorwoman, demands that. And the fact that we are actually able to feel some sympathy for this ogre, albeit near the film’s end, is an extraordinary feat on her part. Although once the reason for her hatred is revealed, we are even more horrified.

An unrecognizable Mariah Carey is quite effective as a jaded social worker who attempts to get Precious to tell the truth about her homelife. Carey goes without any makeup or glam and proves she actually has acting chops.

Paula Patton breathes nuance and grace into the role of the teacher who happens to be the first (only) person who believes in Precious. In a scene where Precious has a monologue about all the terrible things life has dealt her, Patton fiercely demands she stop feeling sorry for herself and write.

Tech credits are good with highest marks going to Joe Klotz’s inventive editing.

The script, by Damien Paul, is crisp and tries its best to avoid clichés. The harrowing scenes between mother and daughter are particularly well written.

Daniels proves he’s a good director. At times, there’s a certain clumsiness to the film, but Daniels does a magnificent job of blending the borderline melodramatic elements of the plot with exhilarating comic moments and always keeping focus on Precious, herself, a young girl who matters—and actually begins to believe that important and life-altering fact.

Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe in Precious

Lee Daniels’s
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire

Screenplay by Damien Paul, based on the novel by Sapphire.
Starring: Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe; Mo’Nique; Mariah Carey; Paula Patton; Lenny Kravitz.

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Who needs a mother-in-law from hell when your own mom is worse than your biggest nightmare? Lee Daniels evokes powerful performances from a gifted cast when he tells the story of a Harlem junior high student. The film features newcomer Gabourney Sidibe, a college student chosen by audition, in role of a morbidly obese sixteen-year-old with two kids of her own, fathered by her own father.

The best-selling book by former Harlem teacher and poet, Sapphire, gets a sterling adaption from Damien Paul. Claireece “Precious” Jones is passive-aggressive, she is silent when around others and her blank expressions and ungainly weight make her appear dull. When she actuallydoes express herself, she is articulate, does not say “like” or “you know” even once.

The plot if set in motion when Precious punches a kid in her Harlem junior high school because he was dissing the teacher. Thrown out of the school (when in truth the kid she punched should have received his exit papers instead, she lucks out when she is placed in an alternative school, called “Each One, Teach One,” a place where school dropouts go not to prepare for their G.E.D. certificates but to prepare them for the eventual class that will train them for the document. The distinction is important since the teacher is free to act as social worker, psychoanalyst, and friend, giving the young people confidence they need before tackling hard subject matter. The class's teachers, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), has a small class of young women who she will help journey from rebelliousness to become a citizen of the world who is ready to take on life's challenges.

None of the other students in Precious' class had faced the horror inflcted on her by her father who impregnated her twice, producing one Down Syndrome baby and one healthy, and also by her horrendous mother, played by Mo’Nique—whom we’ve usually enjoyed in comic roles as in “Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins.” Her mother thinks nothing of braining her daughter with a fry pan, calling her stupid, ordering her to get her drinks and to cook and to take care of family business at “the welfare.” We learn later in the mother’s tearful monologue to a case worker that there’s a reason for her hostility. Nothing will excuse the way she and her boyfriend made such a mess of Precious that most would give her up as lost.

What makes the film stand out are the remarkable acting chops of Mo’Nique, who might already be lined up for Best Supporting Actress prizes, and the gifted Gabourey Sidibe, who can evoke both tears and smiles from the people dealing with her in Harlem and by us in the audience. Second, there is the faultless camerawork and editing, giving us insight into Precious’s hopes and dreams by her narration of what’s in her head and, more dramatically by showing us these daydreams. The fantasies include being a Hollywood star on the red carpet, throwing kisses to an enthusiastic crowd of fans, but even more poignant is a scene of Precious looking in the mirror and seeing her reflection as that of a blond, blue-eyed woman, slim and well-dressed.

In the side roles, Mariah Carey looks good as a welfare counselor who could have been a well-paid psychoanalyst given her patience, her rapport, her interest in her client.

As a retired high-school teacher, I’ve seen many-a-lad doing what he can to get the attention of the class and to bust teacher’s chops, people so unlikeable that it’s difficult for any teacher to play the liberal card and say, “Oh, but I don’t take personally…I feel for him: he must have it difficult at home.” Best to sit back in a comfortable movie theater, watching Precious with a band of fellow critics, generally polite, middle-class people who despite their sophistication and seen-it-all temperament would be shocked, even tempted to cry at the misery faced by the helpless, hapless victim in this film.

Rated R. 109 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Joel Coen, Ethan Coen's
A Serious Man
Opens October 2, 2009

Written By: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Simon Helberg; Adam Arkin; Richard Kind; Michael Stuhlbarg; George Wyner; Peter Breitmayer; and Fyvush Finkel

Focus Features
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Watching A Serious Man is not unlike engaging in Talmudic debate—the sorts of disputations that use the syntax “On the one hand” contrasted with “On the other hand.” The Coens, as writers and directors, are known for such eccentric fare as Fargo, a parable from America's midwest which tell the story of a car salesman who pays $80,000 to have his wife killed. The Coens are also famous for the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, a thriller about a botched drug deal which has three men circling one another in the West Texas desert. This film, in what is said to be their most autobiographical drama and perhaps the most Judaism-centered film ever released by a major studio, the question is posed, “What does God want from us?” On the one hand, we leave the theater with the notion that we should not expect much if anything from God: we’re in this world by ourselves and it is up to us to make ourselves, our surroundings, indeed the entire world a better place that it was before our existence. On the other hand, maybe God has quite a lot to do with what happens to us: that fate holds the Ace, the King and the Queen, that all is determined by a pre-existing destiny.

As an example of the latter idea, Joel and Ethan Coen, who co-wrote and co-directed this wonderful parable, open with a stunning ten-minute, black-and-white piece with the look of a D.W. Griffith silent, that takes place in a remote, wintry shtetl in Eastern Europe. Two inhabitants of a one-room shack (Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson), who speak Yiddish throughout (with English subtitles), hear a knock on the door. An old rabbi (Fyvush Finkel) enters. The rabbi is invited by the man to share a fire and some soup. The rabbi was thought to have been dead for the past three years, felled by typhus. The wife, who is not as hospitable as her husband, thinks that the old man is a dybbuk, an evil spirit seeking to inhabit the body of a living person. She stabs the old man in the chest, he somehow assumes therefore that he is “not welcome.” When he leaves the domineering woman cheers the exit of evil. Because of this episode, an ancestor of the mid-19th century couple is cursed by God. Or is he?

But forget about analysis for a while. What is superb about the Coens’ filmmaking is the story itself. Larry Gropnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a serious man, a university physics teacher in 1960s Minnesota with two bratty kids on the cusp of adolescence and a wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), who will eventually break his heart with the news that she wants a divorce in order to marry a widowed neighbor, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Larry is a nice fellow, a good teacher, but he suffers through indignities like the Biblical Job, but unlike Job he is too passive to curse the heavens. He is blackmailed by the father of a failing Korean student, who had handed over a bribe to get a passing mark. The tenure committee is meeting to determine whether Larry is worth a lifetime appointment. His wife wants out, her lover Sy, a self-righteous prig, condescends to Larry, seemingly supporting the poor man’s grief but in effect treating him like a child. Larry's thirteen-year-old son Danny (Aaron Wolff) smokes grass in the synagogue bathroom minutes before he is to be bar-mitzvahed. Larry's brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), moves into his house to the disgust of Larry’s wife. Seeking advice from his rabbi (George Wyner), Larry, asking what God wants from him, receives the reply (a wise one, I would add), that he has no idea, that God “is not talking to me.”

Comic scenes abound, joyously acted episodes that, granted, would be received more genially by the Jewish segment of the audience who might just relate best to the travails, the beleaguered conscience, and self-doubting professor. In one terrific scene an old, super-wise rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), is said to be too busy to see Larry. When Larry protests that the old man does not look busy, his secretary (Claudia Wilkens) turns Larry away with the retort, “He’s thinking.” Mention must be made of the bar-mitzvah scene, populated by over a hundred extras who are dressed to the nines and project the joy of watching a 13-year-old become a member of the tribe.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins captures the alienation of American suburbia, a series of ticky-tacky houses with bourgeois furnishings that appears to have no connection to any slice of urbanity. The editing, handled by the Coens themselves, is crisp, dividing the parable into chapters, each progressing from the previous. The sixties period ambiance is maintained despite the occasional parochialism like “At the end of the day,” and “It sucks.” Tunes from the sixties abound, though Carter Burwell keeps the soundtrack free of tones that would divert attention from the rich dialogue.

Whether the film is autobiographical is irrelevant: what counts even more than the questions the story raises is the depth, the humor, the compassion (however limited), the humanity existing within several generations of a not-so-atypical Jewish family.

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

Anthony Fabian's
Opens Friday, October 30, 2009

Written By: Helen Crawley, Jessie Keyt, Helena Kriel
Starring: Sophie Okonedo; Sam Neill Alice Krige; Tony Kgoroge; Ella Ramangwane; and Faniswa Yisa, Hannes Brummer

The Little Film Company
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Some people think that history is a long, optimistic march toward progress, and that progress means democracy and prosperity. Not true. History moves like the Dow, in blips. In South Africa, the majority received independence from minority white rule, which is good, it is progress. But today the economy of that country is nothing to write home about and Jo’burg, its largest city, is the most crime-ridden on the continent. But I digress.

Skin tells the story of a march toward progress in South Africa. Filming in remote areas of Capetown and Johannesburg, director Anthony Fabia (using a script by Helen Crawley, Jessie Keyt, and Helena Kriel), traces the true story of a woman born black to white parents after those same folks had given birth to her white brother. How is this possible? Could be a game that the Creator plays for fun, or more likely, as one fellow explains midway into the story, many Africaaners (white people of white, Dutch background living in South Africa) have traces of “black blood” (in quotes because all blood is red). I did not get an “A” in high school biology but I recall how some traits possessed by your great-grandmother that are absent in her children, and her grandchildren can pop up unexpectedly in her great-grandkids. This is what happened when Abraham Laing (Sam Neill) and Sannie Laing (Alice Krige), two whites living in a remote area serving produce to blacks, gave birth to a light-skinned black child, Sandra Laing (Ella Ramangwane as a 10-year-old, Sophie Okonedo as an adult).

Skin color being everything in South Africa at the time—when apartheid, or laws completely separating where races could live, sit, drink from fountains, work—ruled, and daddy Abraham being a thick-skinned character, he was determined that his ten-year-old daughter, barred from boarding school when the principal labeled her black, would be legally certified white. But documents do not impress primary-school classmates any more than they do adults on the street. After being treated with hostile stares everywhere for trying to mix in with white society, Sandra nonetheless is pressured by her father to date whites, to marry a white: lots of luck. When she sneaks off with Petrus Zwane (Tony Kgoroge), a black produce worker employed by her dad, Abraham threatens to kill the man, even taking a few shots at him as he flees in his beat-up truck.

The years roll on, the estrangement between Sandra and her parents appears permanent, as Sandra has remained with her husband, Petrus, having a child of her own. The movie turns into a Hallmark card, though that’s both inevitable and not to be taken as a criticism. Sentiment has everything to do with parent-child relationships when ties are frayed and later pulled together as well as they can be. Time heals, at least sometimes. Anthony Fabian has done a fine job recreating the politics of the time through the lives of the Laing family and those surrounding them, evoking particularly intense performances from the always dependable Sam Neill, this time as a villain who sees the light too late, and Sophie Okonedo as the woman with an identity crisis thrust cruelly upon her.

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

Kann Albou's
The Wedding Song
Opens Friday October 23, 2009

Strand Releasing
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Written By: Karin Albou
Starring: Lizzie Brochere; Olympe Borval; Najib Oudghiri; Simon Abkarian; and Karin Albou

Karin Albou’s Tunisia-based film The Wedding Song could be entitled The East Side Story, given its thematic similarities to the Broadway musical inspired by the story of Romeo and Juliet. Cross-cultural friendship and ensuing conflict appear in writer-director Albou’s 2005 film Little Jerusalem, which dealt with a French Tunisian woman living with her Orthodox Jewish family in a Paris suburb who develops a passion for an Algerian Muslim man who she met at work In The Wedding Song, Albou creates a story about adolescent best-friendship between two sixteen-year-olds in Tunis; one Jewish, one Muslim, whose feelings about each other are to change during the German occupation of Tunisia’s capital in 1942. While World War II forms a backdrop to the adventure, the film is not a war story, but one that centers on the relationship of two young women, each envious of what the other has.

What emerges is an entertaining, even humorous look at Tunisian-Arabic culture, and more important, a sympathetic, powerful dramatization of two girls on the cusp of adulthood who have for years enjoyed an intensely loyal friendship.

As for cultural considerations, consider the custom of Tunisian women who wait excitedly outside the room of a couple who are settling in for their wedding night. The extended family whoop it up when the man comes out with a blood-stained section of bedding. Among elements that offers an original quality to Albou’s drama, a scene you probably will not find in any other film, is the practice of shaving all the pubic hair from the bride a day or so before her wedding, a painful procedure that photographer Laurent Brunet fixes upon in close-up. Full frontal nudity of women on camera? No problem either—though the men are treated more modestly.

Muslims and Jews have lived together in Tunisia, mostly in harmony for well over a thousand years. In the film we see one of those years, 1942, through the eyes of Myriam (Lizzie Brochere), a Jewish 16-year-old who lives with her poverty-stricken mother, Tita (Karin Albou), in the same courtyard as her Muslim pal, Nour (Olympe Borval). Myriam envies Nour as the latter is passionately in love with her future husband, Khaled (Najib Oudghiri). Nour envies Myriam as the Jewish girl is able to attend school (which Nour cannot) and Myriam does not have to wear a veil in public. When the Nazi program against the Jews of Tunis takes hold, as shown by hate-ridden broadcasts about how “global Jewry started the war” and leaflets dropped from a German plane with similar propaganda, Khaled, whose marriage depends on his finding a job, is taken in by the anti-Semitic propaganda. He gets a job with the German occupation, and warns his fiancé to dump Myriam. Myriam’s mother, meanwhile pushes her daughter to marry Raoul (Simon Abkarian), a much older man, a wealthy doctor whose money could allow her to pay a fine to the occupying forces for being a Jew. Political pressures force the girls apart, belying their need to remain best friends, while Raoul faces the choice of doing some Nazi bidding voluntarily or heading off to a work camp with the poor—who cannot pay the fine.

Karin Albou polishes her feminist credentials in a tale that provides individuals with genuine complexity. Khaled, though acting the macho man, displays more worldly traits by his willingness to marry a woman who is not a virgin. Raoul, offered a job with the Germans that allows him to wear a suit and avoid the work camp, struggles with his conscience. The story is favored by strong performances from both principal cast and ensemble of supporting women, all told amid deliberately desaturated colors to give the tale a strong feeling of place and time.

In Arabic and French with English subtitles.Unrated. 100 minutes.

© 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Spike Jonze's
Where the Wild Things Are
Opens Friday, October 16, 2009

Written By: Spike Jonze; Dave Eggers; from Maurice Sendak’s book
Starring: Max Records; Catherine Keener; Mark Ruffalo; Lauren Ambrose; Chris Cooper; James Gandolfini; Catherine O’Hara; and Forest Whitaker

Warner Bros/ Village Roadshow
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

When Bruce Handy reviewed the Caldecott-Medal winning book Where the Wild Things Are for the New York Times, he stated that “Sendak’s classic may be one of those books appreciated more by adults than by kids.” Spike Jonze’s movie and the book on which it is based are about the inability of a child to express his anger at home. In fact someone had said that the book served as a “construct to understand the writer’s own anger.” We’re getting into Freudian analysis, but that may explain why adults can relate to this children’s story better than the children for whom it was written.

However, whether adults OR children can relate to Spike Jonze’s filmed version of the 300 plus word book is questionable. The opening quarter hour is stunning, among the most vivid expressions of a kid’s mixed emotions as ever has been put on celluloid. Skipping the option of a slow start in order to develop characters, Jonze presents Max (Max Records) in a vaguely lupine costume expressing all the joy that comes from chasing a furiously barking dog. Max soon captures the dog in a loving but partly sadistic wrestling hold. Full of himself, high on his own adrenaline, he races outside laughing, hiding behind a fence, then taking on a half-dozen teenagers including his older sister with a barrage of snowballs. They hit back, but when Max takes cover inside an igloo he’d spent considerable time building, one of the adolescents jumps up and destroys the edifice. Max burst into tears. After watching his sister ignore him to go off with her friends, he heads indoors to see his divorced mom (Catherine Keener) smooching with her evening dinner date (Mark Ruffalo), all of which puts him into a frenzy. Demanding attention, he jumps on the dining table and then bites his mom on the shoulder. Guilt-ridden and aggressive all at once, he stalks out of the house into a world of his own imagination which puts him into a sailboat across a wide sea and into a jungle filled with the wild things.

So far, great. What bogs the picture down are not the action scenes: these are fine, including a dirt fight with the animals he encounters and the joy of mayhem with the furry but mostly ugly creatures who are eight feet tall and who look on the stranger with mixed emotions. The downer is the conversations that the morose creatures have with one another, who, granted are a sad and dejected lot, but which come across to us in the theater as though they were not on a cinematic stage projecting their voices but in their small living room, talking in quiet, non-dramatic, all too low-key tones. The dialogue, in fact, is so matter-of-fact, delivered with such desultory tones, that whatever they say gives us difficulty to follow the distinct personality of each member of the jungle community.

We should mention for those who are not aware of the broad plot outlines that Max is at first put on trial, so to speak, the animals soon deciding that they might as well eat him. When Max asserts himself, declaring himself to have special powers including the ability to make them happy, they crown him king. Then he gets all the attention he needs. The bickering, aimless animals get someone to follow. Carol (James Gandolfini) is the leader of the pack, second in command after King Max, who cheers when Max’s first order is “Let the wild rumpus start!” A jumping, thumping, joyful melee follows. The animals have all the jealousie and joy or people. Otherwise, the chatter continues. We the audience are not to blame if feel we are in the position of a psychoanalyst, tired from most of a day’s appointments, who if forced to listen to the kvetching of the day’s last, and quite dull, patient.

Aside from the weakness of dialogue both in content and delivery, there is little narrative drive. We’re not going from point A to point D, to say nothing of grasping a chance to reach point B. The Australian locations, though, are dramatic and are all filmed nicely by Lance Acord who uses a hand-held camera to film the sensational opening moments.

But there is not much story line; nothing really changes. The animals will go back to their neuroses after Max leaves, and Max, after being lovingly greeted by his moma reverts to his wild, sensitive, egotistical self, quickly forgetting that the people he deals with have feelings too.

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



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