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Tim Burton's
Alice in Wonderland
Opens Friday, March 5, 2010



Written By: Linda Woolverton, book by Lewis Carroll

Starring: Johnny Depp; Mia Wasikowska; Helena Bonham Carter; Anne Hathaway; Crispin Glover; Matt Lucas; Stephen Fry; Michael Sheen; Alan Rickman; and Timothy Spall

Walt Disney Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

T. S. Eliot said “Human beings cannot stand too much reality.” This homily presumably explains why we drink, smoke, and indulge in movies. While most movies tell us something about our current times, those like Alice in Wonderland let our imaginations soar into fairy-tale worlds.

It would be a pleasure to say that Tim Burton allows us to escape reality, even for two hours, but his Alice in Wonderland, (scripted by The Lion King co-writer Linda Woolverton), is a crashing bore. The huge sums of money that must have gone into making this 3-D confection (placing real live actors next to computer generated imagery), created a a cone of cotton candy that mimics the high tech imagery of recent movies like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. If this picture had been made earlier, a viewer might be more charmed by the marvels of CGI and 3-D, though one might still be flustered by the films random episodic nature and lack of a clear spine.

Yes, of course Lewis Carroll, who wrote Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, was opposed to class bigotry. Remember, these works were first published during Victorian times, when corsets were de rigeuer and clear lines were drawn between the servant class and the aristocracy, but satirizing such snobbery today is beating a dead horse.

As if challenging T. S. Eliot’s quote, Alice in Wonderland is most interesting before Alice falls down the rabbit hole, hurting her head and hallucinating as though she had swallowed LSD. The film’s rare moments of humor comes across in the opening half hour as Alice Kingsleigh, played by the willowy Mia Wasikowska, attends the festivities arranged by her well-off single mom, Helen Kingsleigh (Lindsay Duncan). Alice is soon to discover that she was tricked: this is an engagement party to link Alice to the dorky Hamish (Leo Bill), who is anything but hamish. He is rather a nose-in-the-air fop who probably never worked a day in his life and has bad digestion besides. Alice, being a proto-feminist, wants nothing to do with this lord; she is determined to do things her own way. Fortunately for her, she is able to make her escape from the festivities by following a white rabbit (Michael Sheen (who has turned in far better roles as Tony Blair in The Queen and David Frost in Frost and Nixon), falling down a hole so deep it seems to lead the center of the earth. There she meets and greets a wealth of human and four-legged beings, the most evil of which is the execution-crazy Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who regularly shouts “off with her head.” Alice also encounters: the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), who literally would not hurt a fly; a Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), who is the among the few truly fascinating creatures, able to appear and disappear and turn upside down at will; and the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who is allegedly a victim of mercury poisoning which drove him batty.

Much is made over Alice’s identity. Is she the real Alice, the one who visited Underland (as it’s called here) when she was six (Mairi Ella Challen) and not yet a feminist? But the real element of Alice's filmic identity is the CGI technology that allows Alice to grow taller than Wilt Chamberlain or shorter than Peter Dinklage depending on what she eats or drinks.This technology allows Alice to fight the fierce Jabberwocky (Christopher Lee) with whatever passes in the Underland for Excalibur.

Not even Johnny Depp as the endlessly repetitive Mad Hatter, can save this formulaic work. But dog lovers will cheer that Bayard the Bloodhound (Timothy Spall) retains all the virtues of an animal, giving Alice unconditional love. But unfortunately, unconditional love from the viewers is what this movie needs, but is unlikely to get.

For those interested in looking into the ways that Lewis Carroll’s books (published in 1865 and 1871 respectively) subvert the social and political customs of the time, or whether there’s a womb for a Freudian interpretation of the rabbit hole, consult alice-in-wonderland.net/alice8.

Rated PG. 108 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online





Don Cheadle and Wesley Snipes in Brooklyn's Finest

Antoine Fuqua's
Brooklyn's Finest
Opens Friday, March 5, 2010

Written By: Michael C. Martin

Starring: Richard Gere; Don Cheadle; Ethan Hawke; Wesley Snipes; Jesse Williams; Lili Taylor; Ellen Barkin; Will Patton; Brian F. O’Byrne; Vincent D‘Onofrio

Overture Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

A couple of months ago, one Corneliu Promboiu came out with a cop picture, Police Adjective, that had no music except for a song that one character listens to, no cars at all to speak of, no bullets or explosions, no profanity, and no jump-cuts, manic editing, or even a mild fight or two. In fact some scenes find cinematographer Marius Panduru training his lenses on such un-cinematic scenes as a secretary pecking away for several minutes at the keyboard of a stone-age computer in a drab police station or, more significant, on a police officer staking out a scene at a high school in a hayseed town for days, giving the moviegoer the impression that the scene is being taken in real time. The film, Romania’s candidate for our Oscar competition, is supposed to reveal some things about corruption in Romania’s society, and is proudly labeled “art.”

It’s no wonder Europeans as well as Americans go for our police movies. We love profanity, gunplay, violence, manic editing, jump-cuts, and car chases. Some of us could not care less if logic took a vacation. This is where Brooklyn’s Finest comes into the picture. Antoine Fuqua, best known here for his Training Day, a film that told the the story of an experienced cop played by Denzel Washington , who takes a rookie cop played by Ethan Hawke out on a run in a tough neighborhood in L.A. In one scene in Training Day (which show up again in Brooklyn’s Finest), the rookie sees a girl about to be raped and wants to jump out of the car and make an arrest, but he is told by the experienced policeman to do nothing.

But it is irrelevant that Brooklyn’s Finest looks a lot like Training Day, because Americans and the rest of the world can’t get enough cop movies, even after taking in a surfeit of TV’s CSI's, Law and Order, and Cold Case. There are visceral thrills in Brooklyn’s Finest. Fuqua, who grew up in a tough Pittsburgh neighborhood, knows of what he speaks. Yes, logic takes a vacation, the plot goes over the top, particularly as cops fire at bad guys and in one case a good guy as though they do not have to account for every bullet, and one rogue cop goes bananas in the apartment of a drug dealer, looking for money everywhere—in the washing machine, the freezer, the cabinets—without worrying about the fingerprints he’s leaving.

But the film does provide the excitement that even we surfeited critics find easy to take, given the macho performances of Ethan Hawke, Wesley Snipes, and Don Cheadle, whose performances are all balanced by the classy show put together by a police officer played by Richard Gere.

Everybody here wants something, money and authority, and all the action is directed toward getting it. The most evil character is not a hoodlum: you expect the hoods to act the way they do. That honor goes to Sal, played by Ethan Hawke, using his signature facial tics and no-holds-barred actions. Sal wants money for a down payment on a larger house to suit his wife, Angela (Lily Taylor) who is sick with asthma because of the mold in the walls of his run-down digs, and for his three children plus a pair of twins about to be introduced to the world. He doesn’t like the idea that cops have a starting pay of $20,000—which made me think that the movie takes place in 1970 when in fact it’s in 2009. He’ll even kill his fellow cops who are stealing from drug pushers, not to rid the world of evil, but to intercept the money. Tango (Don Cheadle) is an undercover officer who wants to become a detective, but to get that promotion, all he has to do according to his mentor, Lt. Bill Hobarts (Will Patton), is to set up his old pal, Caz (Wesley Snipes), for a bust.

You’ve got a couple of good guys, but they finish last. Ronny Rosario (Brian F. O’Byrne) tries to restrain his partner Sal after discovering what the guy is ready to do to get that down payment, but you can guess at how successful he is. And there’s no way Fuqua is going to make Richard Gere’s character a baddie. Gere’s Eddie Dugan is seven days from retirement after 23 years on the force. Eddie is separated from his wife, he’s miserable (we know this because he takes a drink right after waking up from a nightmare), he’s not on the take, but also does not have much of a commendable record because he is not on the take. Eddie is fond of a hooker and seems willing even to marry her, but she doesn’t want to be tied down (so to speak).

Maybe you can see something like this on TV. But on the big screen, with Marcelo Zarvos’s music pumping up the adrenaline, with Patrick Murguia’s lenses on the beat on location in the Van Dyke housing project in Brownsville, Brooklyn (one wonders how they were able to film this on location in project that houses 15,000 people), Brooklyn's Finest, with Michael C. Martin’s taut script in its favor, will find a somewhat larger audience than Corneliu Promboiu’s Police Adjective. Even in Romania.

Rated R. 133 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 

Kyle Patrick Alvarez's
Easier With Practice
Opens Friday, February 26, 2010

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by Kyle Patrick Alvarez; based on the GQ magazine article “What Are You Wearing?” by Davy Rothbart.

Starring: Brian Geraghty; Kel O’Neill; Marguerite Moreau; and Jeanette Brox.

Davy Mitchell is a shy, emotionally arrested, borderline-socially retarded loner who finds that it’s easier for him to have phone sex with a stranger than involve himself in any type of physical intimacy with a woman.

The guy’s creepy.

But as portrayed by the fascinating Brian Geraghty (so good in The Hurt Locker), Davy becomes the type of character you want to know more about. And as the film and Geraghty peel away the layers, Davy becomes less of a pariah you’d want to run screaming from and more of a loveable misfit you want to get to know.

Easier With Practice is like Davy. The film is off-putting at first—although it is visually arresting. The director keeps you at arms length with his long-shot choices until it’s time to slowly zoom in on Davy and give us glimpses of who he really is.

The autobiographical story is pretty simple. Davy is on a self- financed yet underwhelming book tour with his outgoing brother Sean (Kel O’Neill). One night at a motel in New Mexico (what I like to call ‘the creepy state’), Davy gets a random phone call from “Nicole,” and finds himself having phone-sex. Their impersonal yet steamy phone relationship continues and Davy becomes obsessed with the calls. Nicole refuses to give out her number so he must wait on her and we become privy to Davy’s frustration as he waits in anticipation.

Why is Davy able to have a fulfilling phone-sex relationship and unable to achieve true intimacy with a woman face-to-face?

The fact that the title of Davy’s short story collection is “Things People Do to Each Other,” is wonderfully ironic on a number of levels since Davy seems unable to actually “do” much to anyone, in person anyway.

What I really loved about the film is that Davy’s strange behavior allows us to reflect on our own lives and how we’ve all felt socially awkward and sexually nervous and downright uncomfortable in our own skin.

Easier With Practice is timely in the sense that emailing and texting have become the way so many of us communicate with one another. Text-sex is becoming pretty common, replacing phone-sex, which has always been popular. These are easy ways to avoid commitment on any level. We’re becoming a society that has no clue how to relate to people on any type of level beyond those that technology provides. We are becoming social misfits like Davy alienated from the world around us and terrified of the people that inhabit that world—our world.

The film’s last reel invites some small steps of hope, while introducing a new character layer or two.


 


Haim Tabakman's
Eyes Wide Open (Einaym phuhot)
Opens Friday, February 5, 2010


Written By Merav Doster
Starring: Zohar Strauss; Ran Danker; and Tinkerbell

New American Vision
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Isn’t it great to live in New York City, a city where your next-door neighbors doesn't know your name and doesn't care? Unfriendly? Perhaps. But who needs the opposite? Certainly not Aaron (Zohar Strauss), the principal character in Haim Tabakman’s film which tells the story of a man in his thirties who lives on a winding streets in an ultra-orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem. The snoopy people of the area know everybody’s business and they care enough to send someone packing if they don’t like what he’s doing. And what an “evil” person is doing, in their estimation, is to violate some aspect of the first Five Books of the Bible. Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, and Daniel and Ashpenaz may have had more than a casual friendships, but Leviticus 18:22 states “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with women: it is an abomination.”

But lust overcomes restraint for Aaron and Ezri (Ran Danker), the latter a single man from the town of Safed who appears to be homeless and the former, a Jerusalem butcher with a cute wife, Rivka (Tinkerbell) and four charming kids. Eyes Wide Open is a casually-paced, intense drama, with intimate close-ups and long gazes, especially by Aaron, who almost never smiles even when his true nature is being fulfilled. Yet after enjoying a forbidden relationship with the younger gay man who is now his apprentice in his butcher shop, he still looks forlorn as he states, “I was dead: now I’m alive.” He could have fooled me, but let’s take him at his word.

The story unfolds as cameraman Axel Schneppat casts his lenses around the cobblestone streets of Jerusalem - a city where we are shown traffic jams with horns honking as well as scenes of men praying in small groups in the synagogue and attending lectures by the rabbi.

Aaron has repressed the gay part of his bisexual leanings until handsome young Ezri entices him as he learns how to cut meat. After much restraint (he insists that this restraint is God’s way of testing us), he gives in. The two bed down from time to time in the back of the shop. Meanwhile the nosy neighbors find out about the young guy’s reputation, even putting up posters in the neighborhood urging citizens to stay away from the sinner. Aaron is threatened with a boycott unless he parts with his helper. His wife, whose gorgeous red locks are covered with the prescribed wig, catches on and in her own, low-key way, lays down the law. How things turn out ultimately may be predictable, but we viewers also learn a lot about the customs of the ultra-conformists, who will absolutely not put up with man-to-man hanky-panky.

As a side note, I’m not sure Jerusalem residents would be speaking Hebrew at all. Ultra-orthodox, including Hasidim (many of whom live in Brooklyn and upstate New York as well as Jerusalem), generally consider Hebrew a holy language, to be spoken only in the synagogue - Yiddish is for ordinary conversation. But that cavil aside, Eyes Wide Open deserves to be seen by a broader audience than the presumed targets: gays, Jewish interest film lovers and festival-haunting cinephiles.

Unrated. 90 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Pierre Morel's
From Paris With Love
Opens Friday, February 5, 2010

Written By: Adi Hasak, from a Luc Besson story
Starring: John Travolta; Jonathan Rhys Meyers; Kasia Smutniak; and Richard Durden

Luc Besson was at his peak when he directed La Femme Nikita, one of the most exciting thrillers of our time. In From Paris With Love, however, Bresson only contributes the story, one given visual life through Adi Hasak’s screenplay and Pierre Morel’s direction. It is an unholy mess. Designed to be a thriller-cum comedy with a title which may well have been taken to give viewers the idea that it’s a James Bond vehicle, From Paris With Love is riddled with clichés. Think car chases, huge explosions, CIA operatives, a loose cannon. Morel designs the film primarily as a buddy movie for two men with opposing modi operandi--think Jackie Chan’s Lee and Chris Tucker’s Carter in Brett Ratner’s Rush Hour— who learn to dig each other while achieving a common aim.

This goal, however, is confusingly presented, because the two men, James Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Charlie Wax (John Travolta), are involved in exposing and wiping out a Chinese drug ring operating in Paris while they are simultaneously assigned to uncover a terrorist plot.

Special Agent Charlie Wax’s schtick becomes tiresome in short order with his over-the-top braggadocio, his use of automatic weaponry, and martial arts skills in the assassination of over a dozen men, while James Reese is insipid as an intellectual who regularly beats his boss at chess, but who, unlike his partner, cannot pull a trigger even when his life may be dependent on it.

The story finds James Reese lacking downtime as a personal aid to Bennington (Richard Durden), the American ambassador in Paris. If he’s not busy with Caroline (Kasia Smutniak), his fiancé, he’s hooking up with the aforementioned loose cannon on a job that could get him the promotion he desires as a full-scale CIA operative. He’s a cool enough dude with his stunning girlfriend, but with Charlie Wax, he’s out of his element. The video-game histrionics with the Chinese drug ring, mowed down right and left by Wax, is a far cry from early James Bond—who relied on his cool with the bad guys.

There’s a twist, of course, at the end, one which I did not see coming, but who cares? Jonathan Rhys Meyers looks like Henry VIII throughout rather than a guy who gets down into the gutter to do his job, and John Travolta simply humiliates himself with a shaved head, jumping from roof to roof, leaning out of a car window with a bazooka to take out a North African terrorist trying to get away in a dizzy car chase.

The film marketers may say “You’ve never seen Travolta like this before.” More’s the pity.

Rated R. 95 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online





Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor

Roman Polanski's
The Ghost Writer
Opens Friday, February 19, 2010

Written By: Roman Polanski, Robert Harris, from Robert Harris’s 2007 novel “The Ghost”

Starring: Ewan McGregor; Pierce Brosnan; Kim Cattrall; Olivia Williams; Tom Wilkinson; Timothy Hutton; Eli Wallach

Summit Entertainment
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

When President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington, he was backed up by a single bodyguard. When Winston Churchill walked from 10 Downing Street to the Parliament, he was accompanied by only one police inspector. According to the The Ghost Writer production notes, when Tony Blair retired as Britain’s prime minister, he was assigned twenty-four bodyguards who presumably will hover around him for the rest of his life. I’m not sure how many protectors are assigned to Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter, but you can bet that the number is high. As for why this is important, one of the themes of the political thriller The Ghost Writer is the isolation that a chief executive feels after leaving office where he relies on his assistants for everything.

The theme of isolation, however thought-provoking, is not the principal concept of The Ghost Writer. This film tells a story about criminal actions by heads of state.

The war crime attributed to ex-Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), whom novelist and co-scripter Robert Harris model loosely on ex-Brit PM Tony Blair, is not the big climactic discovery. From the beginning of the film, we watch news reports alleging that Lang had turned over four suspected Arab terrorists to the CIA for torture and is being sought by the international tribunal at The Hague for a war crimes trial. Lang has sequestered himself in a coastal location modeled perhaps on Martha’s Vineyard (actually filmed in Sylt, Germany and in a German studio). Determined to justify his entire term of office, Lang hires a ghost writer. The first ghost driver died by drowning after the rough-copy of the manuscript was completed. The ghosting job was then picked up by British writer named simply Ghost (Ewan McGregor).

In a Hitchcock vein, Polanski anchors the story with the Ghost who begins his job as an innocent seduced by a large fee. Ghost travels to the isolated coastal area, conducts a few interviews, and is pressured to knock out a manuscript in just two weeks, after having been given six hours to read the six-hundred plus pages submitted by his predecessor. As he investigates the previous scribe’s work, he is led more deeply into the tale. He becomes convinced that his predecessor was murdered. Ghost calls upon people in Lang’s life such as: an old college buddy from Cambridge University, Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson); the man’s lawyer, Sidney Kroll (Timothy Hutton); and especially the PM's wife, Ruth Lang (Olivia Williams); and the PM's personal assistant, Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall). With the sexual tension arising from the presumed relationship of the PM with his assistant and even between the writer and the politician’s wife, Polanski ups the friction, saving the big plot revelation for the conclusion.

Ewan McGregor is in virtually every frame. McGregor delivers a crackerjack performance as a man who behaves at first almost like Forrest Gump in his naiveté who then turns into a investigative reporter, determined to not simply receive his fee and walk away. Instead, McGregor's character becomes inspired by the demonstrators outside the PM’s compound who call the politician a liar and a war criminal.

Notwithstanding some sinister auto chases in BMW’s with full navigational systems, The Ghost Writer is a intellectual thriller with a taut script. The movie has the benefits of Pawel Edelman’s photography of a foggy, rainy coastal area and Alexandre Desplat’s atonal music which pumps up the suspense nicely. With its two strong female personalities, a reasonable show by Pierce Brosnan, and an introspective job by Ewan McGregor, Ghost Writer could turn out to be considered Polanski’s most commercial job and a welcome back to politically engaging cinema.

Rated PG-13. 128 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Julie DePietro's
The Good Guy
Opens February 19, 2010


Written By: Julio DePietro
Starring: Alexis Bledel; Scott Porter; Bryan Greenberg; Anna Chlumsky; Aaron Yoo; and Andrew McCarthy

Roadside Attractions
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


The Good Guy is a young man’s Wall Street. Though no-one in the youthful cast can yet match Michael Douglas’s portrayal of Greed Personified, the light, fast-moving comedy, cast with bright young faces, slips by as effortlessly as a couple of dollars in a Haagen Dazs emporium in August. The film is a romance with a conventional formula: a man and a woman are at first unsure of each other’s intentions, but they get together in the end, just in time to complete ninety minutes of frothy celluloid.

Nor does it hurt to have Alexis Bledel (TV’s Gilmore Girls) in the cast as Beth, a perky young woman working for a conservation agency who is attracted to a guy who is her polar opposite. Tommy (Scott Porter), her boyfriend for the past three months, may be an environmentalist for all we know, but we see him as a hard-hitting investment banker who has an eye for the fair sex as much as for the buck. He’s your basic Joe College All American success story. He heads a sales force under the overall command of the wisecracking, appropriately named Cash (Andrew McCarthy) and hangs out both during the workday and later at the pub with Shakespeare (Andrew Stewart-Jones), an African-American trader with a heavy British accent that astonishes the women he meets.

The plot thickens when a highly paid trader bolts from the firm to a company that will pay him double, and Tommy makes the unusual choice for his replacement of Daniel (Bryan Greensberg), a computer geek-cum-gopher who has no personality; the guy's a schlub. Little does Tommy know that when he gives the job to Daniel, he is being hoisted on his own petard. Daniel, the title good guy of the story, has much to offer, but simply does not know how to tell others of his experiences as a world traveler, one who in his travels has found the Vietnamese to be the friendliest people he’d ever seen, or of the joy he finds reading classical literature.

There’s not a whole lot to say about the production, one which probably could have found a place as easily on TV, but watching The Good Guy is not a bad way to spend an evening. It may not be as exciting as a trip to the singles bars that fascinate the men and women of the cast, but at the same time you’ll spare yourself the heartache that befall those who love and lose.

Rated R. 90 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Amy Ryan and Matt Damon in Green Zone

Paul Greengrass's
Green Zone
Opens Friday, March 12, 2010


Written By: Brian Helgeland, book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Starring: Matt Damon; Jason Isaacs; Greg Kinnear; Brendan Gleeson; Amy Ryan; Yigal Naor; Said Faraj; and Khalid Abdalla

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Special credit should go to producers who invest in yet another movie about the Iraq War. Box office returns have been poor for recent war dramas. The Hurt Locker, for example, was nominated for nine Academy Awards (Katherine Bigelow won for Best Director and the film won for Best Picture), has brought in under $19 million so far, yet it was released back in June of last year. Its opening weekend took in all of $145,000.

This brings us to Green Zone. Since Matt Damon is presumably a stronger draw than Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker, this Universal release should draw a sizable audience. One might wonder whether the film’s particular criticism of the Iraq War will be fully understood by most of the audience, the ones who who buy their tickets because of word-of-mouth about the bold action scenes.

Paul Greengrass, the longhaired, British-born director whose films The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Supremacy virtually guaranteed his hiring for a Matt-Damon-centered work, ignores such Green Zone activites like the casual sex that goes on in abandoned offices. There’s not even a shred of romance in this serious film. Green Zone would have been a better film had it included some of the personal touches found in the book, but Greengrass is more interested in maximizing a potential audience with action, and for whatever else you can say about the movie, it has Action, with a capital “A.” The commonly expressed view by the performers, “What the F is going on!” might well describe the activities on the screen, which finds Barry Ackroyd’s terminally shaky hand-held camera on the lookout for mayhem on location in Spain, Morocco and the UK.

Yes, Green Zone excels with scenes of conflict, involving the usual toys like AK-47’s, helicopters, bazookas, pistols and other accoutrements possessed by Americans and Iraqis. Nor does it hurt that Matt Damon anchors the tale as Roy Miller, called “chief” by the unit under his command. Miller is chief warrant officer, a special category that places him higher than the most-senior enlisted soldiers but lower than commissioned officers. Warrant officers are assigned jobs because of their specialty training: Roy Miller’s group specializes in finding WMD’s, the Weapons of Mass Destruction that Saddam Hussein allegedly had hidden and which were used to gas Kurdish opponents. Little did the American press or national government realize that these WMD’s were completely demolished after Iraq’s loss in the 1991 war against the U.S. Matt Damon plays the American who is incensed that the war is being fought for no sensible reason, calculating after losing some of his men that the real reason for the war was to get rid of Saddam Hussein—not the kind of project worth losing so many American lives. His villainous opponent, Clark Poundstone, played by Greg Kinnear, is the administration’s tool whose job is to advance the war and quash the kind of dissension embraced by the chief warrant officer.

Others in the cast who do fine work include Brendan Gleeson as Martin Brown, a high-level CIA operative who comes around to Roy Miller’s way of thinking; Amy Ryan as Wall Street Journal columnist Lawrie Dayne, who had previously written copy in support of the war based on lying sources she will not reveal; and Khalid Abdalla as “Freddy,” an Iraqi who helps the Americans as a translator not for money, but because, he says, he wants the best for his country. Yigal Naor serves as Iraqi General Al Rawi, the man being sought by Roy Miller as the one person who might bring stability to Iraq.

In short, this is a movie more for folks who want well-photographed, virtually non-stop action at the expense of explorations about the morality of war.

Rated R. 115 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 


Dan Merchant's
Lord, Save Us From Your Followers
Opens February 26, 2010

Written By: Dan Merchant
Starring: Bono; George W. Bush; Stephen Colbert; Ann Coulter; Al Franken; Bill Maher; Pope John Paul II; Jon Stewart

Salem Radio Networks
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

This item appeared just days ago on UPI: SACRAMENTO, Feb. 17 (UPI) -- A billboard near Sacramento promoting atheism was vandalized by someone depicting atheists as lost, one of the billboard's sponsors said. The billboard -- one of several posted in the Sacramento area -- originally read: "Are you good without God? Millions are." Someone spray-painted the words "also lost?" beneath "millions are.” Rachael Harrington of the Sacramento Area Coalition of Reason -- which paid to have the billboards put up -- said the ads are intended to let atheists and agnostics know they are not alone. Prejudice against people who don't believe in God remains very real in America," Harrington said.

What a shame that defacement of a point of view could occur in a country which prizes free speech. But on the other hand, isn’t the person who defaces the billboard also exercising his right to free speech? This is the point about free speech made by Dan Merchant, who wrote and directed a documentary which has what may be the most salient title this year (Lord, Save Us From Your Followers), is that we’re all good at speaking, but pretty terrible at listening. According to Merchant's point of view, if people with opposing views only listened to one another, even those whose faiths are at polar opposites, we might decide that those "other" people are nice guys, and maybe some of the things they say are valid.

Religious people and secular humanists may be at odds these days, but the struggles are usually on a verbal level, quite different from what went on during the 10th Century Crusades and during the wars of the 16th Century Reformation which put Catholics, Protestants and Muslims at one another’s throats. Dan Merchant, a fun guy who could remind you of Michael Moore, albeit not nearly as divisive, wonders why Jesus’ gospel, which preaches love of even your enemies, is used to trash those we disagree with.

He uses animation to make points, one of the most clever being to expose a map of the U.S. to show how many cities are named after saints and then tongue-in-cheek offers to change the name of St. Paul, for example, to Lenintown. Some secularists who are interviewed in this fast-paced doc do not really oppose putting up crosses on government land, or support taking the words “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance, or oppose keeping the Easter Bunny on state-owned buildings, or even desire that the government scratch off “In God We Trust” from our money. Al Franken, who recently was declared the winner of a fierce battle for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota; Jon Stewart; and Bill Maher; are among the most amusing of the subjects Merchant interviews, while more serious types including Bono, Pope John Paul II and Nelson Mandela are given time to preach tolerance. (Mandela, imprisoned by a white minority government in South Africa for 27 years, was interested only in reconciliation and not in revenge once the majority blacks took over in that land. Perhaps his act could be considered the most Christian of all the incidents cited in the film.)

Merchant’s person-in-the-street interviews are sharp, the subjects undergoing quick edits, as the director, costumed with sayings culled from auto bumper stickers, asks passersby to choose their favorites. All in all, Lord, Save Us From Your Followers is a fine example of spiritual cinema preaching love of all people regardless of their views. Wouldn't that have been Jesus's point of view?

lordsaveusthemovie.com

Rated PG-13. 100 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Nicole Opper’s
Off and Running

Opens January 29, 2010

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by Avery Klein-Cloud and Nicole Opper.

Avery is an African-American teen with two white, Jewish lesbian parents, a mixed-race brother and an Asian brother. “Our family’s nickname is the United Nations,” Avery jokes. And, at first, all seems hunky-dory in Nicole Opper’s low-key documentary.

But Avery begins to wonder about her birth mother and, in the process, experiences a complicated cultural awakening of sorts that includes rebelling against her adoptive parents and contacting her actual mother.

Off and Running chronicles Avery’s crisis and captures a self-involved teen (what teen isn’t) trying to come to terms with, and figure out who, she is—at a time when her concentration should solely be getting into a good college and winning track meets.

The 76-minute documentary meandered a bit too much for my taste and I actually found the people in Avery’s life more interesting than Avery herself—especially her brother, who is determined to study Molecular Biology so he can figure out why his biological brother was born with Gestational Syphilis and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and he wasn’t.

Off and Running is playing at the IFC Center at 323 Avenue of the Americas in New York City - (212)924-7771.



Miguel Sapochnik
Repo Men
Opens Friday, March 19, 2010


Written By: Eric Garcia, Garrett Lerner
Cast: Jude Law, Liev Schreiber, Forest Whitaker, Alice Braga, Carice van Houten, Liza Lapira, RZA

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karte

There are so many apropos songs on the soundtrack that you’ve got to wonder why director Miguel Sapochnik overlooked the liveliest song in “Damn Yankees”: “You gotta have heart/All you really need is heart.” Then again the heart is far from all that you really need: it’s only one of the organs being replaced by a company that only charges people given organ transplants on the installment plan the same usurious rates that today’s credit companies get: 19% to begin, going up to 26%. Like with today’s credit cards, though, you’re better off paying in full before the procedure, but if your pockets are lacking $650,000 for a heart (if so you can always buy a liver instead), you’d better not be a subprime borrower. If you don’t pay on time—oh but they give you a 90-day grace period—the guys from the corporation come around and repossesses the organ. And you thought that repo men hired to take back autos were the bottomest of the bottom-feeders!

The folks who manage and work for The Union, as the company is called, are even lower-lifes than those who peopled Alan Cox’s 1984 Repo Men. As you might expect, the story, which takes place in the near future, involves a couple of twists that you’re likely to spot a mile away. If you’re allergic to blood on the screen, stay back or cover your eyes: when the title character deftly make deep knife cuts into the chests, abdomens, eyes and ears, the red stuff flows like a miniature tsunami.

Jude Law and Forest Whitaker star as Remy and Jake respectively, both in the employ of the company, both equipped with heavy, laser guns that fire red dots at people who presumably have learned that bulletproof vests are not going to save them. Early on we watch as a fellow who is more than 3 months behind on his debt is about to get more than he bargained for when he brought back a hot babe to his apartment. Remy zaps him, removes the unpaid organ, and takes no guff from the gal. The collections, that sometimes find Remy teaming up with Jake, are shown to us in the audience with expected variations, while Frank (Liev Schreiber), the boss who is better at selling than at collecting, scans the organs to make sure they’re from the right party. He sits on his desk and chats with desperate clients with an unctuous sales talk that we’ve all heard before: “You owe it to your family. You owe it to yourself.”

Problems add up when Remy, whose wife Carol (Carice van Houten—whom we know as Rachel from Paul Verhoeven’s exquisitely melodramatic Black Book) has thrown him out—needs a heart himself when an accident with a pair of shock devices backfires. When he cannot pay, and further, has moral compunctions about his job, he teams up with another debtor, Beth (Alice Braga), and takes off.

Will his partner stay loyal, or will Jake follow orders from the boss and turn on the poor guy? The story, based on a screenplay by Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner, is far too stuffed with the same ol’ quickly-edited fight scenes, wherein Remy takes on a veritable army of Union workers with fists, knives, laser gun, and hostile stares. Jude Law seems to have phoned in his performance, Forest Whitaker is miscast as a vicious company man, Liev Schreiber, a Shakespearean actor, appears almost embarrassed to be slumming. But Alice Braga is terrifically sexy, even with her falsies (heart, liver, kidney, I think eardrum, the works).

Rated R. 111 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Leonardo DiCaprio and Michelle Williams

Martin Scorsese's
Shutter Island
Opens Friday, February 19, 2010

Written By: Laeta Kalogridis based on Dennis Lehane’s novel

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio; Mark Ruffalo; Ben Kingsley; Michelle Williams; Emily Mortimer; Patricia Clarkson; and Max Von Sydow

Paramount Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

In “Shutter Island” director Martin Scorsese pays as much homage to the brain as Garry Marshall (the director of Valentine's Day) did for the heart. Scorsese uses the great Leonardo DiCaprio to explore the dimensions of what’s upstairs, examining it from both the standpoint of a healthy organ and that of a diseased one. In doing so, he rivets the audience to their respective seats, conjuring up thoughts of Anatole Litvak’s 1948 movie The Snake Pit, a film about a woman who winds up in an asylum for the insane without knowing how she got there.

In a story that’s loaded with twists and turnabouts, Scorsese takes us into the mind and body of Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), a veteran of World War II who was one of the soldiers who liberated Dachau.

With a tale that is set up to find a large audience rather than simply the art house crowd, Shutter Island takes us to a lonely atoll outside Boston harbor (actually filmed in the Medfield Hospital which was abandoned during the 1960s). Federal marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo Di Caprio) and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) have been assigned to the island to help locate Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson as Rachel 1 and Rachel 2), a runaway patient committed for murdering her children who has escaped barefoot. She is described by Daniels as a “prisoner” but he is regularly corrected by the institution’s chief psychiatrist, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) who appears to genuinely care for his “patients.” A severe hurricane prevents a return to Boston. Upping the tension, the federal officials are required to hand over their guns to deputy warden McPherson (John Carroll), who warns that Ward C is where the most violent people are housed. Guess which ward Daniels winds up visiting?

Director Scorsese, near the top of his form, provides Daniels with frequent flashbacks, nightmares and hallucinations, mostly of his dead wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), who perished in a fire started by a maintenance man, George Noyce (Jackie Earle Haley).

DiCaprio delivers a powerful performance, dominating the film with his bravado, the vulnerabilities that arise from his nightmares and the near-paranoid ideas evoked from the Cold War ambiance (it’s 1954). Here is a man who could presumably be saved had the cell phone been invented at the time, who is stuck on an island, snooping about, even risking his life climbing dangerous cliffs with strong current crashing against the sharp rocks—all designed to make the doctors believe that the escaped patient must have died. A dependable Mark Ruffalo provides DiCaprio with a foil, a guy who does not take himself so seriously, who regularly calls the other marshall “boss,” and who allows the chief marshall to ask most of the questions. Some of the interviews that Daniels has with the mental patients are surprising, particularly one with a woman who claims to “have a dark side” but who actually behaves in a perfectly normal manner during the discussions.

The production design is elegantly scary, evoking a Hitchcockian atmosphere with Thelma Schoonmaker's music bringing tensions to a fever point particularly in the opening scenes where she calls upon the artistry of composers from Gustav Mahler to John Cage. The ensemble performs beautifully under Scorsese’s chilling direction; the 138-minutes’ running time is fully justified.

Rated R. 138 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 



Jessica Alba and Ashton Kutcher

Garry Marshall's
Valentine's Day
Opens Friday, February 12, 2010


Written By: Katherine Fugate from story by Katherine Fugate, Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein
Starring: Jessica Alba; Kathy Bates; Jessica Biel; Bradley Cooper; Eric Dane, Patrick; Hector Elizondo; Jamie Foxx; and Jennifer Garner

Warner Bros/ New Line Cinema
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Christmas is supposedly the most depressing day of the year because people expect so much and the holiday cannot meet their expectations. A good case can be made that Valentine’s Day is equally depressing because very few people can be as ecstatic as the Hallmark people tell us we should be. With his new film, Valentine's Day, director Garry Marshall tells a story about that day in February. And who could be a better choice for directing a love tale than Marshall, whose métier includes Pretty Woman, Frankie & Johnny, and The Flamingo Kid?

Marshall does show the miseries and the ecstasies, the miseries being portrayed by a party some unhappy single people attend in an Indian restaurant which has a sign on the wall stating, “I Hate Valentine’s Day.”

If you’re like me, you’ll be disappointed—not with the day, just the movie. As the film plods on, cliché piling upon cliché, surprises targeted miles away, performances some of which are so overdone that they’re embarrassing, you’ll wonder why the production team believed that it would take two hours to make its points as a team of A-list actors go through the paces of a tepid, virtually humorless “comedy.”

We do not see much chemistry brewing in in any of the romantic pairs. Morley (Jessica Alba) and Reed (Ashton Kutcher) open the proceedings by getting engaged, though Reed, who owns a flower shop, has reason to put a lid on his joy. Sean Jackson (Eric Dane), a 35-year-old football player who may be forcibly retired, will make an insipid surprise announcement that will set the country a-buzzin’. Edgar (Hector Elizondo) and his wife of many, many years, Estelle (Shirley MacLaine), will sit down on Valentine’s Day to have a serious talk that could threaten their marriage. Julia (Jennifer Garner) is in for a disappointment when she learns more about her lover, Dr. Harrison Copeland (Patrick Dempsey). Edison (Bryce Robinson, a ten-year-old who is not even credited in the production notes despite his prominent role) buys flower because he’s in love, and what’s a movie like this without a cute little prodigy with a big, intelligent mouth? Jason (Topher Grace), a mailroom employee, will get something going with temp worker Liz (Anne Hathaway) a woman whose more lucrative job may not be to Jason’s liking.

Alphonso, Comedian George Lopez who takes a day off from being funny, has an accident with flowers he is delivering for men who are not romantic enough to deliver them personally, while Holden (Bradley Cooper) strikes up a conversation with airplane seat-mate Kate (Julia Roberts), who is returning home to her great love on a fourteen-hour flight from the middle-East. And what’s a rich guy like Holden doing in coach? Queen Latifah, Jamie Foxx, and Jessica Biel make appearances as an office boss, a sportscaster interviewing people in love, and the publicist of the retiring football jock.

Don’t expect anything with the bite and humor of the classic story, Arthur Schnitzler’s 1900 play La Ronde, which looks into the sexual morals and class ideology of its day through a series of encounters between pairs of characters from all levels of society. Expect instead the mirthless merry-go-round of rather uninteresting people saying and doing rather uninteresting things.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Rated PG-13. 120 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Marco Bellocchio’s
Vincere (Win)
Opens in New York on Friday, March 19



Written by Marco Bellocchio
Starring: Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Filippo Timi.
An IFC Films Release.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Marco Bellocchio’s amazing motion picture Vincere is based on fact and begins in 1907 with a young, then budding journalist and Socialist, Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) provoking a crowd by standing up and telling God that he has five minutes to strike him dead to prove his existence. The beautiful Ida Dalser looks on completely enthralled. It’s this arrogant, hubristic behavior that marks who he will become and her reaction personifies the way an entire nation will find themselves entranced, beguiled and, ultimately, deceived by this titan.

The early part of the film moves back and forth between 1907, when they first meet and 1914, on the eve of WW1. Their first love scene is magnificently shot as a demonic Mussolini makes love to Ida, body thrusting, eyes bulging as he looks outward. It’s as if he’s fixated on raping the future. But there is also an extremely palpable sexual connection between the two.

In 1914, they marry and Ida sells everything she has to finance his newspaper and one year later, she bears him a son (named Benito). She soon learns that he has married another woman. As he begins to distance himself from her, she demands he do right by her. (Ida could never produce a marriage certificate, but many sources state that they were indeed married before Mussolini’s acknowledged marriage to Rachele Guidi).

As his power rises, she becomes more stubborn and insistent that she and her son are legitimized. This leads to her being institutionalized, yet Ida never wavers. Had she agreed to be quiet, she probably could have lived out a wealthy existence, but she refused. Was it stubborn pride? A true belief in their love? A belief justice would win out? Or the need to know her child would be provided for?

In a gripping scene, with the help of a nun, Ida escapes and returns to her village in hopes of seeing her son one last time. She does not and as she leaves town the only thing she defiantly says to her fellow townfolk is, “Don’t forget me.” History (and cinema) would ultimately vindicate her, albeit more than half a century later as new evidence has come to light about this incredible true story.

Bellocchio is a master who knows the language of cinema and how to rewrite that language to great effect. He mixes archival footage with his own beautifully shot intimate moments. After Ida is institutionalized, the only Mussolini we see is the real dictator which leads to a very funny moment where she sees him in a newsreel and comments on how he’s changed and is now bald.

Genius production values help create the perfect mood and tone of the film from Daniele Cipri’s arresting cinematography to Francesca Calvelli’s intricate editing to Gaetano Carito’s exquisite costumes to Marco Dentici’s ravishing production design to Carlo Crivelli’s magnificent score.|

Vincere also boasts two of the best performances of the year.

Filippo Timi’s feral and focused Mussolini is a frightening depiction of ambition and lust—sexual and political. In the first half of the film Timi shows us the human side of Mussolini, before he becomes the consumate monster. And Timi’s portrayal of the dictator’s ill-fated son is equally astounding. In two brief scenes he is able to convey just how consumed with his mother’s manipulations he is and how terrifyingly mad he’s become. Timi is one of Italy’s rising stars.

Mezzogiorno has proven her acting chops in Ferzan Ozpetek’s Facing Windows and Cristina Comencini’s Don’t Tell. It was unfortunate that she was involved in one of the biggest filmic travesties of the last decade, Love in the Time of Cholera. Vincere should completely erase that mess. Her Ida is a ballsy, unwavering force of a woman and Mezzogiorno carries the film grandly.

Both actors deserve award consideration. Vincere should have been Italy’s Foreign Language film entry last year. It was one of my favorite films of 2009, until it wasn’t submitted. Now it’s one of my favorite films of 2010.

Besides the obvious modern relevance the film has in Italy and here in the US, Vincere also comments on the totalitarian ways of the Vatican. Catholicism has always had a stranglehold over Italy. Mussolini’s renunciation of his real first wife and child was necessary for him to rise to power unblemished with the needed blessing of the Pope—which he got. The pretense of morality in the Church has always been more important than morality itself.



Joe Johnston's
The Wolfman
Opens February 12, 2010



Written By: Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self
Starring: Emily Blunt; Benicio Del Toro; Anthony Hopkins; and Hugo Weaving

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

When I was a kid we used to hear this song on the radio…

By the light/ of the silvery moon,
I love to spoon/ With my honey in June

We asked the big round object looking down on us to

Shine on, Shine on Harvest Moon, Up in the Sky,
I ain’t had no lovin’ since January, February, June or July.

The moon’s cool, but nature can be cruel. Cool summer breezes turn into hurricanes, water, without which we could not live for a week, morphs into tsunamis. In the case of the old legend known well by the gypsies, uh, the Romani people of England, a full moon can give birth to horrendous monsters who rip people apart not for food, but just for the hell of it. Such a creature is given life by director Joe Johnson, whose previous looks into supernatural occurrences were no scarier than Wayne Szalinski Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

While the actors in The Wolfman —Benicio del Toro who play Lawrence Talbot aka The Wolfman, and Anthony Hopkins as Lawrence's dad, Sir John Talbot—execute their craft with the acting skills for which they are well known, there’s nothing particularly frightening about Johnston’s excursion into horror. He does have the advantage of Walter Murch and Dennis Virkler’s abilities as editors, which show up whenever the wolfman rips into yet another person quicker than the eye can see. Johnston's also benefits from his collaboration with the six-time Oscar winning fx artist, Rick Baker, whose work allows us to see how a mere mortal transforms into a beast with both supernatural powers and the ethics of Charles Manson.

Benicio Del Toro anchors the tale as he potrays Lawrence Talbot. The story is set in the remote hamlet of Blackmoor England with some scenes in London during the late Victorian year of 1891. When Talbot returns to his village at the request of Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) to search for his vanished brother, who is also Gwen’s boy friend, he reunites with his father, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins). Hearing that a brute has been maiming and killing inhabitants during the full moon, he joins the search as does Scotland Yard’s Inspector Francis Abberline (Hugo Weaving). Consulting with the people who know about these things, he learns that the huge, tormented creature lurks in the area—not surprising considering that Lawrence has been himself tormented since discovering the mauled body of his mother years back. Flashbacks via his nightmares reinforce the man’s fragile psyche.

The story is predictable enough, though perhaps serving as something new for the young ‘uns in the audience who never viewed the seventeen other movies about wolfmen, uh, wolfpersons, including Frankenstein Meets the Wofl Man (1943), The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), La furia del Hombre Lobo (1972), Dr. Jekyll y el Hombre Lobo (1972), even (shudder),Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet the Wolfman (2000).

Rated R. 105 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

 

 


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