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Film
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Anton Corbijn's
The American
Opens Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Written By: Rowan Joffe, Martin Booth, adapted from Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman

Starring: George Clooney, Irina Björklund, Lars Hjelm, Thekla Reuten, Johan Leysen, Paolo Bonacelli

Focus Features
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

It’s chic for a movie critic to say that “the book is better,” but in this case—considering that the story is a slow-moving psychological suspense thriller—Martin Booth’s 1990 novel is the way to go. As you turn the pages you will doubtless wonder what comes next; it is the type of tale that intrigues on the page but comes across inert on the big scree. As directed by Anton Corbijn, The American is spare of dialogue (script by Rowan Joffe and the novelist), the music by Herbert Grönemeyer either non-existent or anything but intrusive, with a landscape in Italy’s Abruzzo region that’s, what should we say, European? The medieval town built on a hill, scene of most of the action, would be nice to drive through but would hardly entice tourists to stay overnight. This is the sort of place, however, that a fellow in the assasination business might want to live, a place for redemption that he would not likely find in his home country, but perhaps can as an expatriate living a quiet life away from what novelist Martin Booth calls “the shadow-dwellers.”

Did we say that he wants out, that he wants to quit his gig constructing high-powered guns for his boss, Pavel (Johan Leysen)? This is something that’s simply not done, not if you value your life. This is the situation that could bring Jack (George Clooney) down just as he was contemplating retirement.

In the story Jack is described as a loner: he does not have friends, at least not in the way Americans think of them, but instead has women who find him a hot number. The opening scene in the snowed-in cabin in rural Sweden finds him bedding a woman who may or may not be connected to the criminal scheme. Leaving the country in a hurry by taking a train to Rome, he remains in contact with Pavel, his employer, who sends him off to the picturesque Italian town where he engages in a picaresque affair with Clara (Violante Placido), a hooker who does not consider Jack to be a client but rather a romantic lover. If Jack hooks up with her on a permanent basis, he would be redeeming more than himself. His own desire for forgiveness allows him to befriend the local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who urges him to confess but gets no further than sharing a lamb stew in Benedetto’s Spartan quarters. Jack’s final job involves Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), a redhead who is sent to pay him. Jack meets the client in a small Italian coffee house bereft of the phony-European ambiance of Starbuck’s and where double espressos without food are the style.

I suppose some critics and regular moviegoers would fear finding fault in what can probably be called art-house fare. After all, there is only one car chase, no deafening music to tell us what to feel, and limited gunfights which befits the director who is a fan of American Westerns and who in this film replicates a scene from High Noon. Nonetheless after watching George Clooney in Up in the Air, the incredibly taut, satirical, funny film about the jungle that is the American job market, it’s disappointing to find him this time as a burnt-out killer. Martin Ruhe’s camera is close-up on Clooney back and face when he’s not contributing some stellar crane shots of the mountainous Italian landscape.

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


 


David Michôd's
Animal Kingdom
Opens Friday, August 13, 2010

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Written By: David Michôd

Starring: Ben Mendelsohn, Jacki Weaver Guy Pearce, Luke Ford, Joel Edgerton, Sullivan Stapleton, James Frecheville

After 2008 when a typical U.S. stock portfolio lost from 30% to 50%, it’s a pleasure to hear that you can make more money in securities than you can in the profession of armed robbery. We learn that lesson from David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, a look at the Melbourne underworld that features corrupt cops, skuzzy criminals, and at least one honest detective. On the other hand, the movie reinforces the idea that the greeting “We’ll treat you like family” is a pleasure you’d be smart to do without, at least in terms of one dysfunctional family that’s anchored by a horny grandmother whose hobby is to kiss her sons on the lips.

Animal Kingdom is an intelligent police drama whose principal character is a seventeen-year-old who is anything but the wild kind we see here in the States. If he’s sullen throughout the film, he has a reason to be. His mother dies from a heroin overdose, he moves in with his grandmother Smurf (Jacki Weaver) and his uncles, and he’s taken in by the magnetism of these uncles. Michôd, who wrote the script as well as directing it, knows how to pump up the tension, though the tale only in some parts becomes visceral in the style of Bonnie and Clyde or this year’s Mesrine.

Adam Arkapaw films this dysfunctional family in and around Australia’s second city, Melbourne, which appears to be populated by people who rarely say “g’day” and mean it. Barry ‘Baz’ Brown (Joel Edgerton), the handsomest of the uncles, tells his evil brother Pope Cody (Ben Mendelsohn) that he’s looking for a way out; that the stock market pays more than armed robbery. Sadly, this born-again chap meets a poor end, resulting in Pope’s determination to get revenge against the police. And when you kill a cop, watch out: the force will not be with you.

This is why Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce), a senior cop, takes on the job of convincing young J Cody (James Frecheville) to testify against his uncles, particularly Pope, who himself is on the run from a team of renegade police who want him dead. The psychological play between detective and teen forms the intellectual segment of the film, a cat-and-mouse game that finds young J taking the admonition “Anything you say can be used against you” literally and refusing to give even his name to the concerned Leckie.

Michôd’s side characters are distinct, from Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), the addicted bimbo who is J’s girlfriend, to Darren (Luke Ford), a generally passive guy who’d like to get out, but has no idea how to function without his family. James Frecheville turns in a credible performance as the 17-year-old in his first feature-length movie, Guy Pearce oozes professionalism and determination as the senior cop. Then add the two characters whose roles could turn anyone’s stomach: Ben Mendelsohn as Pope, particularly when he drugs and asphyxiates a character for allegedly talking to the cops, and Jacki Weaver as the mother to the Cody boys who not only acts seductive with them but whose evil is effectively covered up by her outward show of naïveté, and you have a very nice mix.

Unrated. 112 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film

 



Robert Guédiguian's
Army of Crime (L’armée du crime)
O
pens Friday, August 20, 2010


Written By: Robert Guédiguian, Serge Le Peron, Gilles Taurant, from an original idea by Serge Le Peron

Starring: Simon Abkarian, Virginie Ledoyen, Robinson Stevenin, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, Lola Naymark, Yann Tregouet, Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Ivan Franek, Adrien Julivet

Lorber Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


The Holocaust inspires writers and film studios, and no wonder. What the Germans did is simply incomprehensible to the rational mind, making movies about the era is almost like tragic, albeit imaginative. science fiction. One example of such fiction involves the French who collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, some because they were anti-Semitic and haters and general, others because (they say) they were doing what was appropriate to their cause. In the latter instance, many of these collaborators in the Vichy area of France declared themselves to have been fighters in the Resistance. This may have been true for some, but for many the declaration was simply a cover-up, a bow to the temper of the liberated post-War times.

Robert Guédiguian’s Army of Crime takes a look at the people who were indeed Resistance fighters, men and women who risked their lives at every moment to kill Germans who were occupying their country. The fighters in Army of Crime are a mixed bag: some are Jews, one an Armenian, many are communists. As the film progresses we see that the high-ranking SS troops are looking for the specific fighters whose names come to them via torture (one involving a simple version of America’s recent waterboarding techniques).

The leader of the resisitance, Missak Manouchian (Simon Abkarian) is Armenian-born, from Soviet Armenia he emphasizes, a communist whose stunningly attractive girlfriend, Mélinée (Virginie Ledoyen) worries about her man when he is imprisoned—sending food, writing letters. Manouchian is a poet who is jailed together with other intellectuals, he is a gentle-looking fellow who abhors violence, but recognizes its need at the time.

Manouchian's followers are engaged in killing Germans in the street or in mimeographing posters calling for action. Among the followers are Thomas (Gregory Leprince-Ringuet) who in one dramatic instance carves out pages from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, planting a bomb inside, which goes off in a bookstore killing German customers. In another instance a grenade is rolled down a sidewalk killing several German troops practicing their marching, while accomplices shoot two who are not yet dead.

Yet, alas, there is little action of this sort and simply too many characters. The movie lacks a original point of view that would set it apart from the masses of Holocaust dramas. What Guédiguian excels at is showing us a Vichy France where the typical French citizen, who is not Jewish and not political, can go about his or her business almost as though nothing much is happening. Alexandre Desplat’s score is strictly classical with emphasis on Mozart and Bach with one operatic piece that seems more melodramatic than the action would logically invite. Army of Crime is a well-meaning piece with its heart in the right place and should be seen by moviegoers who, like me, obsessively revisit anything that deals with the period just before and during the European theater in World War II.

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


 

Ruba Nadda's
Cairo Time
9th Tribeca Film Festival

Written by: Ruba Nadda

Starring: Patricia Clarkson; Alexander Siddig; Tom McCamus; Elena Anaya

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Ruba Nadda's Cairo Time is a slow-moving beautiful film, filled with subtext and words that cannot be spoken.

Patricia Clarkson plays Juliette, a New York magazine editor, who travels to Cairo to spend a week with her husband who is on assignment in Gaza with the United Nations.

When Juliette arrives in Cairo, her husband does not. He has been delayed by an uprising in Gaza and send a former UN employee, Tareq (played by Alexander Siddig), to pick her up at the airport.

Juliette is alone in Cairo; she stays at a beautiful hotel but when she ventures out into the city, she is overwhelmed by the immenseness of the city, both in size and cultural differences. While walking down the streets, the late fortiesh Juliette is accosted by men who mistake her for a loose woman because her hair is uncovered and she is wearing a sleeveless dress in the oppressing heat.

Not wanting to continue to be a stranger in a strange land, Juliette visits Tareq at his coffee shop, a men-only establishment. There she asks for his help.

The film then becomes an entrancing travelogue for the city of Cairo. Juliette and Tareq explore the city, visiting the markets, sailing around the city and even travel to Alexandria to attend the wedding of the daughter of an old friend of Tareq. Juliette is entranced by the culture of Egypt and even though she is happily married, she is also entranced by Tareq.

Cairo Times not an action filled film. The romance in the film is revealed more by looks and the words that are not spoken and is similar in tone to the films of Merchant Ivory.

I left the screening entranced by the story but also by the city of Cairo, the true star of the film.

 


Burr Steers's
Charlie St. Cloud
Opens Friday July 30, 2010


Written By: Craig Pearce, Lewis Colick
Starring: Zac Efron, Amanda Crew, Ray Liotta, Kim Basinger, Chris Massoglia, Dave Franco

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

There may have been a time when making a movie about someone who sees people that no one else can see was risk-taking, but then again, maybe not, since even in 1946, Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey was able to see Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. When Cole Sear announced in 1999's The Sixth Sense that “I can see dead people,” others in his life treated that gift as no big deal. Seeing things that nobody else can see may be a cliché, but M. Night Shyamalan knew how to win over an audience by evoking terrific performances and displaying a suspenseful plot.

By contrast, when Charlie St. Cloud (Zac Efron) promises to be with his vivacious eleven-year-old brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan), every day in the same place at the same time, you can’t blame an audience for yawning. Sam was killed when Charlie’s car is hit by a drunk driver, killing the kid brother while Charlie ended up nearly dead himself. In fact Florio Ferrente (Ray Liotta), the paramedic who notes that Charlie’s heartbeat had gone flat, but perked up suddenly, leaving him merely injured, but despondent. Florio lets the young man know that he has been given a gift—which turns out to be the ability to see and play catch with Sam’s ghost. Nonetheless, Charlie is so overwhelmed with guilt for being the indirect cause of the kid’s death that he gives up a sailing scholarship to Stanford University, the Harvard of the West. Instead, he takes on a job usually held by 70-year-old grizzled men: graveyard caretaker. His job gives him the use of a shack by the cemetery. In other words, he defies the tagline of the movie, “Life is for living,” which seems logical enough. But a twenty-three-year-old man, with looks that rival a young Brad Pitt, should be e doing a lot more than taking care of weeds and making sure that people do not make marks on the gravestones.

The picture is divided into two plots. One involves watching Charlie play catch with his brother. The other involves a romance with Tess Carroll (Amanda Crew), a pleasant-enough-looking person, but not one with looks that could take audience attention away from Charlie’s. Like Charlie, Tess is an avid sailor. The movie opens, in fact, on a sailboat race, beautifully filmed by Enrique Chediak—though it’s difficult to film anything in the Oregon-Washington area that is anything but beautiful. Other than cinematography, the dialogue is banal, the plot utterly conventional (talking to a ghost notwithstanding), and the whole business might find a spot on TV’s Hallmark Hall of Fame.

Why would anyone want to go to such a formulaic project? Two words: Zac Efron. The 23-year-old is probably the handsomest Hollywood actor in his age range today, head and shoulders above Robert Pattinson—but in a pretty-boy way, which is to say with age he is not likely to acquire the manly charisma of a Colin Farrell or a Daniel Craig. The audience for this is the teen and tween girl demographic, a PG-13 job with only one or two mildly vulgar words and a sex scene as discreet as you’d find in a 1950s movie.

The poster is a giveaway: just a closeup of Zac Efron looking wistfully at the sky, the dock and water in the background. This could be the dullest poster of the year, but the marketing department knows what it’s doing: The film is not marketed for any group but the young women who might drool each time they see this young man and go to this movie. not for plot or acting, but for a celluloid modeling session. Blink and you won’t see Kim Basinger, who plays the part of St. Cloud’s mom, but then again, what teen wants to spend much time with a 56-year-old woman, however beautiful?

Rated PG-13. 90 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 

A Documentary by Lucy Walker
Countdown to Zero
Opens Friday, July 23, 2010

Produced by Lawrence Bender
(USA, 91 min.)

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The Oscar winning song “I Need To Wake Up,” from the Oscar winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth (written and sung by Melissa Etheridge) could have easily been written for the new scare-us-into-action documentary produced by Lawrence Bender, Countdown To Zero.

With appearances by Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Pervez Musharraf, Tony Blair, former CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson as well as disturbing footage of a reflective J. Robert Oppenheimer, among others, the film renews a fear of nuclear annihilation that was prevalent during the Cold War into the late 70s and early 80s but, somehow, lost steam as the 20th century came to a close.

Today there are over 20,000 nuclear weapons in existence and in this post-9/11 world; the threat of rogue forces and/or dictator-run nations being able to get their hands on nukes is a great one. The film shows how easy it could be for terrorists to buy, steal or make their own weapon and detonate them. The dangers are staggering.

In addition, the notion of human error comes into play with examples of just how accidents have almost occurred many times in the last few decades. One near miss, in particular, is quite startling. On January 25, 1995 a rocket launch was misinterpreted by the Russians as the start of a nuclear assault. Boris Yeltsin should have immediately retaliated. Luckily for the world the man refused to believe it without proof.

Director Lucy Walker has put together a tense, frightening and relevant film loaded with impressive interviews with reputable experts and heads of state as well as alarming statistics and a plea for disarmament that actually provides some hope.

As documentaries go, it’s one of the most important in recent times and Walker keeps things moving in an exciting, informative and, ultimately, terrifying way.

A famous JFK speech about how everyone “lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles” frames the film and street interviews with everyday people prove we know so little about the subject and have stopped worrying about it. Countdown to Zero renews the worry and initiates urgency. And that can only be a good thing.

Visit: TakePart.com/CountdownToZero


Jay Roach's
Dinner for Schmucks
Opens Friday July 30, 2010


Written By: David Guion and Michael Handelman|

Cast: Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Stephanie Szostak, Jemaine Clement, Zach Galifianakis, Lucy Punch, Bruce Greenwood, David Walliams, Ron Livingston

Dreamworks Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

During the pre-feminist times when I got my education both from books and my peers, members of my college fraternity engaged in an annual pig party. Now this is gross, but remember that neurologists tell us that our brain literally does not become fully mature until the age of twenty-five. Once a year each “brother” invited the homeliest girl he could find to be his guest on a given Saturday night set aside for this party. On Sunday, the males would gather and vote one of their fellow party animals a plaque for showing up with the worst-looking young woman. Hopefully, fraternities nowadays will still find the beer flowing from the kegs on Saturday nights, but have given up this ugly game.

Sometimes such fun does not end after graduation day, even long after the age of ethical maturity. Such is the case in Jay Roach's Dinner for Schmucks, inspired by Francis Veber’s Le diner de cons. (“Con” is a French vulgarism referring to female genitalia but generally meaning “idiot,” just as “schmuck” is a Yiddish term denoting the penis but connoting “jerk”. The term “schmuck was first used the movies in 1961 by Billy Wilder in his hilarious film, One Two Three. Oddly the term “schmuck” is not used in Jay Roach’s new movie except in the title.)

The tale revolves around a game that a major L.A. financial company, headed by Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood), would play once a year. Fender’s executives are invited to attend a dinner at his home. Each employee would show up with a guest who is told that the dinner is to honor “extraordinary people,” which is true in a way, though what these invitees do not know is that they are invited to a contest which ends in awarding a cup to the biggest schmuck. Financial analyst Tim Conrad (Paul Rudd), who is competing with another suit, Caldwell (Ron Livingston), for a promotion to the seventh floor, believes that if he could escort a bigger idiot to the dinner, he would win the promotion. Seated at the dinner is a Swiss billionaire, Mueller (David Walliams), whose $100 million account the company is eager to win. Fender believes that if Mueller thoroughly enjoys the dinner, especially since, he notes, that in Switzerland, they have a similar custom with a prize awarded to the execs who escort the biggest “underschlagen.”

Dinner for Schmucks features Steve Carell in a different role than the one he plays as the main character in the TV sitcom The Office. There, he is droll, but low key. The dialogue of The Office is clever, witty at times, but does not go over the top by insulting people which political correctness would not permit to be insulted. With Schmucks, Jay Roach (Meet the Fockers, Meet the Parents) throws P.C. to the wind, allowing the audience to eavesdrop on put-downs delivered to people who do not deserve the bullying—including a blind man who considers himself a fencer, a woman who hears voices from the beyond, a fellow with a pet vulture, and the boss in a tax office who practices mind control.

Tim believes he can win the contest bringing Barry (Steve Carell), a tax auditor with a weird toupee, an amateur taxidermist whose hobby is to give mice a second chance by stuffing them and dressing them in dioramas to represent The Last Supper, The Mona Lisa and Van Gogh, among others. He would show his scenes to the folks at the dinner table—though, trouble is, there’s nothing idiotic about the fine work he does with the mice: he is there to show himself as an complete idiot, which he does. But ultimately, Barry is not as idiotic as Tim may think.

Most of the humor in the movie consists of watching Barry get on Tim’s nerves by stalking him, if you will, showing up at his apartment and refusing to leave and turning up uninvited at a restaurant. We are privy to scenes that may result in Tim’s losing his girlfriend to an eccentric artist, Kieran (Jemaine Clement). He may also lose his job. Tim's apartment and his Porsche are wrecked along with his romance (of which there is only a token amount on screen).

Some of the alleged humor does not work; in fact for a considerable segment I found myself smiling but not laughing hysterically as an audience at a Montreal screening is said to have done. There is much here that is mean-spirited, dumb and hackneyed, mostly everything that involves Darla (Lucy Punch), a bimbo who has an unrequited attraction to Tim but who, in the movie’s most embarrassing and unfunny scene finds her trying to seduce Barry by role playing: “I’m a bad girl. Spank me.” Barry takes her literally. “We don’t do that at the IRS.” As the mind-control guy, Zach Galifianakis’s role simply does not work.

Nonetheless, Paul Rudd is excellent as the straight man who finds out that maybe he’s the biggest schmuck at the dinner, Steve Carell can elicit plenty of laughs, sometimes by his clever improvisations where he shows himself to be more of a nudge than schmuck, and when the movie works, it goes over like a more than decent screwball comedy.

Rated PG-13. 114 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten


 

Ryan Murphy's
Eat Pray Love
Opens Friday, August 13, 2010

Written By: Ryan Murphy and Jennifer Salt, adapted from Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling novel by the same name.

Starring: Julia Roberts, Billy Crudup, Viola Davis, Mike O’Malley, James Franco

Columbia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Some sociologists and marriage counselors have noted that there are two periods in a marriage that are dangerous. One occurs seven years into the marriage, a time memorialized in Billy Wilder’s 1955 film The Seven Year Itch. Another vulnerable time is when the married couple reaches their late thirties or early forties. Women may want to take a break from the routines, perhaps travel if they have the money. Men dream of getting a Mercedes Kompressor 2-seat sports car.

Eat Pray Love, a memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert which has sold over six million copies, focuses on a string of flawed characters, anchored by a performance of Julia Roberts as the novelist, Liz Gilbert. She appears to have the world on a string, living with a handsome husband, Stephen (Billy Crudup) whose only flaw, albeit a serious one, is his jumping from one career to another. His latest ambition is to take a Master’s in Education. She leaves him with considerable guilt as he still loves her. When she sees an off-off-Broadway performance starring David Piccolo (James Franco), she is smitten and begins an affair with him. He seems almost incapable of wiping a silly smile off his face, which is not necessarily why she jumps ship once again. With support from her best friend, Delia Shiraz (Viola Davis), whose changing of her baby’s diaper has a negative effect on Liz, she takes off for a year with the aim of giving up salads in favor of pizza and pasta in Roma and Napoli; praying to the God which she is told dwells inside her in India; and finding new love in the Indonesian island of Bali.

It’s difficult to sympathize much with this rich, successful woman who discards people, including even one young and cute drummer in a band in Bali, who despite being in the world’s most populous Muslim country challenges her to join him in skinny dipping. She gets her hand read by a toothless man in Bali who claims to be 101 or 64, he’s not sure which.

The photography is gorgeous, lending support for a possible cinematography awards for Robert Richardson. Particularly awesome is an aerial view of Rome with the Coliseum in the center. The by the time she finds a potential true love in Bali with Felipe (Javier Bardem) a jewel merchant whose 19-year-old boy lives with him and who challenges her to spend her life (or seven years) with him on an island more remote than Bali, the glitz has gone on a half hour too long. There is more schmaltz than herring shoppers would find on a Sunday shopping spree in Zabars. One redeeming feature is Liz’s non-romantic relationship in India with Richard (Richard Jenkins), a Texas divorcee now spending time at an ashram, who increases the cliché parade with “You’ve got to learn to forgive yourself.” This on top of the platitude by an Italian in a barber shop who notes “You Americans don’t know how to enjoy yourselves.” The film is recommended for the photography.

Rated PG-13. 139 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY F

 



Josh Crook's
La Soga (The Butcher’s Son)
Opens Friday, August 13, 2010

Written By: Manny Perez

Starring: Manny Perez, Denise Quiñones, Paul Calderon, Juan Fernandez, Hemky Madera, Alfonso, Rodriguez, Anais Martinez, Margo Martindale, Celines Toribo, Michael Ángel Martinez

7-57 Releasing
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

La Soga is on track to be the best movie about a vegetarian butcher out this year. The title figure, played by screenwriter Manny Perez, may have learned the trade of butchery from his dad, but seems so disgusted by the stench and blood on the killing room that he refuses to eat meat. Who knew he could be a poster-boy for PETA? The Dominican Republic, where Josh Crook filmed the movie, appears to have no Humane Society rules on killing animals. A 150 pound porky is “euthanized” with a knife to its heart (rather than via cutting its throat since that would release too much blood, which is of value for some reason), and this looks done in real time. A couple of cock fights ensue, and if they’re not real, more power to the special effects guys.

This is a violent movie centered on a revenge theme that asks: If someone kills your father twenty years ago, do you have the guts to do likewise to the murderer, or have you gone soft? There’s nothing soft about Luisito, aka La Soga (literally “The Rope”), unless he’s near Jenny (Denise Quiñones), the love of his life, a hot woman who turns against him when she realizes what his secret job is like.

The edgy thriller features a fine soundtrack by a group called Aventura, featuring Latin Grammy award-winner Anais Martinez. The hero is handsome, manly, a ideal fellow to be working for the Dominican secret police under General Colon (Juan Fernandez). His cover is that of a killer of pigs, a task he does for the rich just before they have a party to keep the meat fresh. His real job is to take care of drug dealers who, in the words of the Dominican president are ruining the country, though his specialty while working under the powerful general is taking out those who committed crimes in the U.S., notably New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, and who are caught by the FBI and deported back to the D.R. (This is news to me: I thought crimes are dealt with in the location of their commission but apparently some foreigners who commit them are simply thrown out of the country to be handled by their own police.)

The story begins when ten-year-old Luisito (Fantino Fernandez) witnesses the murder of his his father (Miguel Angel Martinez), who taught the sensitive boy the butcher’s trade. When he is kissed on the check by young Jenny (Leslie Cepeda), he is in heaven, dreaming of the time he can meet with her once again even if it takes twenty years. Two decades later, sure enough, Jenny is back, looking great, living in a mansion in the D.R.’s city of Santiago or its outskirts. She does not yet know the kind of work her man does, but his desire to escape from the gig of professional killer seems impossible as long as he is under the thumb of the general—who could have him killed with the snap of a finger.

While peppering the entire movie with gunshots, stabbings, and one murder by hypodermic needle, cinematographer Zeus Morand does most of his lensing in the slum-town of Boitoa with a few flashbacks to Washington Heights. The latter area, presumably populated by a few criminals amid the mostly Dominican residents, is policed by FBI agent Simon Burr (Joseph Lyle Taylor), affording us a few sentences in English—while the Spanish is clearly subtitled. The photography is grainy, giving the film a cinema-verité effect; the action is pulsating. Much credit goes to Renaissance man Manny Perez in the lead role and as the writer, whose previous acting role, Washington Heights, finds him in the lead as Carlos Ramirez, itching to escape his Washington Heights neighborhood to make the scene as an illustrator in the downtown comic book world.

Unrated. 102 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 

 

Samuel Maoz's
Lebanon
Opens Friday, August 6, 2010


Written By: Samuel Maoz
Starring: Michael Moshonov, Zohar Strauss, Itay Tiran, Yoav Donat

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

After Israel’s victories against overwhelming odds in 1948 and 1967, one could not blame the world for believing that the citizens of the Jewish state were invincible. If that’s the case, it’s just a step further to believe that Israelis in the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) are more like robo-warriors than vulnerable human beings. You expect people proud of their conquests, therefore believing that they’d not fear when fighting their Arabic enemies. Not so, says Samuel Maoz, who wrote and directed Lebanon. Israeli’s can be scared out of their wits, indicates the writer-director, and he should know. He was part of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, caught shrapnel in his foot that still bothers him decades later, and faced the trauma of killing a human being. He writes what he knows, and what he knows is…surprise!...that war is hell.

In what could be the most claustrophobic movie ever made, Lebanon takes place nside a tank that gets lost trying to follow the instructions of commanding officers over a sputtering radio. The entire picture is framed by a field of sunflowers, but the sunny, floral exhibit proves only that war is a Sisyphean task, one that never ends, in which the result is neither gain nor loss. The Israelis occupied the south of Lebanon in 1982, invading Beirut to get rid of the Palestine Liberation Organization housed there. They withdrew only to later have to fight Hezbollah in 2006 during the government of the incompetent and possibly corrupt Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

This is all background that’s ignored in the film. Maoz is so wrapped up in his own trauma that he does not bother informing the audience as to the causes of the war or the results He also ignores the controversial wreckage of Shatila and Sabra refugee camps by Phalangists, Christian Arabs who were allied with Israel.

Maoz’s focus, then, is strictly on the men inside the tank, which makes us think of a similarly claustrophobic film, Das Boot. Feel free to call this one (The Tank).

The four Israelis, all in their twenties, don’t know why they’re there. They’re in a tank that’s hotter than Phoenix in August, dirt and sweat covering their faces. One man, Assi (Itay Tiran) is the commander, but that doesn’t mean so much considering that he is ruling over only three soldiers, and Israelis are not ones who obey orders without question. The quarreling is almost endless, beginning with an objection by one soldier to staying on guard while the commander takes a half-hour nap. Shmulik (Yoav Donat) is the gunner, but you’d never know it. Ordered to shoot at a moving target which he has in the crossbow of his night-vision periscope, he freezes—pretty unusual considering the heat. That leads to another quarrel: “Why didn’t you shoot?” Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) is the loader, the guy who puts the shells into the gunnery, something that the commander believes can be done by an ape. The tank is driven by Yigal (Michael Moshonov), who is obligated to move this hunk of steel even when the gas tank refuses to oblige.

Principal action includes a scene of a village whose population had been mostly wiped out. A young Lebanese mother (Reymonde Amsellem) almost gets killed by the soldiers when she refuses to stop: she is heartsick and screaming because her five-year-old is missing. A fire burns off most of her clothing, forcing her to accept a blanket around her body supplied by a soldier. The most important action occurs when the four in the tank, now with a Syrian prisoner (Dudu Tassa), are visited by a Phalangist member (Ashraf Barhom), who tells the Syrian in Arabic that he will take this man, scoop out one eye with a spoon and cut off his genitals. When the Israelis refuse to turn the man over, the Phalangist will get his irrational revenge. The film concludes with an ironic scene.

This intensely personal film benefits from Alex Claude’s sound system, which allows us to hear the lumbering grunts of the heavy metal, its rattles, even its leaks of oil. Though Maoz offers us yet another insight into the hellishness of war, a personal one at that from a veteran of the very conflict, its value to the audience is limited by its claustrophobic nature. Even Das Boot, which takes place under water, exhibits itself to an audience as a spacious submarine, one with several nooks and crannies allowing its inhabitants to walk around while singing such verses as “Tipperary.” The Israelis in Lebanon are probably all conscripts, paying the price of citizenship by being drafted at the age of eighteen—no excuses for college students either, the system is universal. They at no time express pride in what they are doing, no sign that they see themselves as avatars of a new, pro-Israel regime in Lebanon. In that regard, they are like draftees anywhere, grunts who either find their best buddies as their fighting companions even while undergoing incessant bickering to the point of insubordination.

Lebanon won Best Film at the Venice International Festival and was featured at festivals in Toronto and New York.

Rated R. 94 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

 


Erik White's
Lottery Ticket
Opens Friday, August 20, 2010

Written By: Abdul Williams

Starring: Bow Wow, Ice Cube, Brandon T. Jackson, Naturi Naughton, Keith David, Charles Q. Murphy, Loretta Devine, Terry Crews

Warner Bros
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

As the TV announcer states near the opening of this movie, the chances of winning the lottery on that particular day was one in 175 million. This sounds about right. But movies about lottery tickets should have a better chance of being winners. Maybe one in every five such tales on the screen would hit the jackpot. But this is not the one. The story reminds me of an actual event that occurred last year on August 3. A Florida man, Louis Tolentino, bought a winning scratch-off ticket worth $500,000. After he got it confirmed he put it in his back pocket and went straight to the nearest lottery office. Unfortunately it was closed. He went to a nearby gas station to ask the attendant where he could find another office, but when he left, the ticket was gone. Tolentino believe that a man was standing behind him at the gas station. Duh.

What kind of fool has no idea that the lottery offices are closed on weekends, and walks around with a piece of valuable paper in his back pocket? Probably the same kind of naïf who holds a winning lottery ticket in Atlanta worth $370 million and promptly tells his grandmother with whom he lives. You can guess what happens after that.

Lottery Ticket is pretty obviously targeted to a young, African-American audience, and for all I know they could eat up the comedy, but would likely be turned off by the Hallmark Hall of Fame sentimentality that arises near the conclusion.

The movie is anchored by a performance from Bow Wow (aka Shad Gregory Moss) as Kevin Carson, a 23-year-old ghetto resident, some of whose inhabitants spend their days clowning around, selling drugs, or thinking of ways to rob people of stuff like lottery tickets. Nonetheless they’re a real community: everyone knows everyone else. This is a group-oriented ‘hood with just one holdout, Mr. Washington (Ice Cube), who has not left his spacious basement apartment in twenty-two years because he doesn’t care for the folks that pass by his window every day.

When Kevin finds out that he has the winning ticket in hand but that the downtown lottery office would be closed for a long holiday weekend, he does what anyone would have done: he tells his grandmother (Loretta Devine), who tells everyone else. Soon Kevin finds himself courted by Nikki Swayze (Teairra Mari), the foxiest lady of the community, who reportedly has dated Bill Cosby and Lebron James. The entire community looks upon Kevin as a hero-in-waiting, most thinking of ways to part him from his money, with the exception of his best friend, Benny (Breandon T. Jackson) and his long-term platonic friend, Stacie (Naturi Naughton). Sinister people plot their moves, particularly the tough Lorenzo (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and well-dressed gang lord, Sweet Tee (Keith David). Suffice it to say that the ticket changes hands a few times.

Most of the community are lovable people, though in a cartoonish way. One wonders whether director Erik White and scripter Abdul Williams are putting across real people, albeit folks acting in a heightened way, such as the comical Reverend Taylor (Mike Epps) who jumps about in his red suit, projecting himself with a bucket fool of money on the background screen. This has the look of a picture bearing slapstick comedy and slick sentimentality that is as unlikely to be sought after as yesterday’s thrown-out, ripped-up lottery ticket.

Rated PG-13. 93 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Jean-François Richet's
Mesrine: Killer Instinct (L’Instinct de Mort)
Opens Friday, August 13, 2010


Written By: Abdel Raouf Dafri, Jean-François Richet, from Jacques Mesrine’s autobiography L’Instinct de mort
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Cécile de France, Gérard Depardieu, Roy Dupuis

Music Box Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

You’d think that there is nothing “nice” about criminals. They are people who should be reviled, particularly for crimes of murder and rape. Yet in a New York Times review that cites Norman Mailer’s relationship with Utah killer Gary Gilmore, Michiko Kakutani states: “The 'ordinary' criminal who espouses a radical mode of thought, after all, has long exerted a certain hold on the literary imagination. Jean Genet, for instance, who was jailed for theft and male prostitution, was granted a presidential pardon thanks to pleas from Andre Gide, Jean Cocteau, Paul Claudel and Jean-Paul Sartre, and he was later canonized by Sartre in 'Saint Genet.' Eldridge Cleaver, who wrote ‘Soul on Ice’ while serving time for rape, was praised by Maxwell Geismar for eloquently illuminating the 'black soul which had been colonized' by an oppressive white society.'' For a time Jacques Mesrine, who once held the title in France of Public Enemy Number One, could have been considered a political prisoner, given his belated support for the Free Quebec Movement. But there is nothing really political about Mesrine. His career makes exciting copy not because he bragged about killing forty people, but because of his charisma, his charm, his ability to escape from high security prisons four times. In fact he escaped so many times that in the end, he was shot dead in cold blood on a Paris street by French police who were tired of locking him up. (This is not a spoiler: the event occurred in real life and the movie Mesrine: Killer Instinct, opens on his assassination.)

Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) is the principal character of Jean-François’s Mesrine: Killer Instinct, a person who commands attention from movie audiences by his personal magnetism, which includes his ability to talk his way out of a house burglary when confronted by the owners by pretending to be a detective who entered after a break-in is reported. But Mesrine does not remain just a friendly burglar (like our own bank-robbing Willie Sutton, essentially harmless) for long. That’s what makes this film, Part One of a two-part thriller cum biopic about one of France’s most notorious criminals, so riveting. Not since Bonnie and Clyde has a film elicited from me such intense pleasure, though anyone who knows about the acting career of Vincent Cassel (I liked him especially in Brotherhood of the Wolf, about an 18th century beast who has been attacking women and children) realizes why the man is A-list in French cinema.

Here in the role of Jacques Mesrine (based on Mesrine’s own book which has been adapted by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Jean-François Richet), Cassel is a trim, dashing man, at least before Cassel gained 45 pounds to portray the older man in Part Two. He is a fellow who loves women and gets the responses he desires from them, but who on the other hand has honed his criminal craft in Algeria in 1959 by torturing and killing an Algerian captive during the French/Algerian war.

For a time he may have gone the other way, settling down with his new, Spanish wife Sofia (Elena Anaya) and their three kids, but she may not have appreciated the way he jammed a pistol into her mouth during an argument. From robbing a bank, then going right across the street to rob another, he finds a motive for several killings, in at least one instance at the behest of Guido (Gerard Depardieu), a gangland boss. When he finds a hip woman, Jeanne Schneider (Cecile de France), who states that she is “up for anything,” we think she means sexually, which of course she does, but linking up with her man, she becomes a Bonnie to his Clyde.

If you’re looking for deep introspection, some psychological assessment of the criminal mind, you will not find it here: the action is episodic, but the episodes are so compelling that we simply do not, and should not, worry about a lack of deep character analysis. Other characters to which we are introduced include Mesrine’s wimpy father and domineering mother (Michel Duchaussoy and Myriam Boyer), Jean-Paul Mercier (Roy Dupuis), who bands together with Mesrine to raise money for the Free Québec movement, and Mesrine’s early accomplice, Paul (Gilles Lellouche), who bears some similarity with Mesrine in appearance.

Robert Gantz’s camera takes in the scenery in Montréal, Algeria, Arizona, and Paris, using split-screen when called for, while Marco Beltrami deafens the audience with his music.

Not Yet Rated. 113 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

 


 



Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano's
Neshoba: The Price of Freedom
Opens Friday, August 13, 2010

Written By: Micki Dickoff

First Run Features
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


Frank Rich in his July 24, 2010 column in the New York Times talks about a scene in the new seasons of TV's Mad Men. An advertising man is on a first date: “The world is so dark right now,” she says. “One of the boys killed in Mississippi, Andrew Goodman — he’s from here. A girlfriend of mine knew him from summer camp.” Her date is busy studying her decolletage, so she fills in the dead air. “Is that what it takes to change things?” she asks. He ventures no answer.

The "date" was talking about a cold case, a murder forty-six years ago. Justice was not served in that case, despite the conviction and sixty-year term given to just one of the perpetrators of the most infamous events in civil rights history—the murder of three young civil rights workers, two from New York who were Jewish and one African-American from Mississippi who worked during Freedom Summer 1964 to help African-Americans (then called Negroes) to register to vote.

From the way some of the white men in film clips from 1964 are speaking, I’m sure if you’d have told them that just decades later a black man would be elected President of the U.S., they’d suggest you check in to a psychiatric ward for observation.

Neshoba (named after the Mississippi County where the murders took place) tells the story of the quest for justice in the killing of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner by a dozen or more members of the Ku Klux Klan fn the ironically named town of Philadelphia, Mississippi. The crime took place during the years that white men were unlikely to be convicted of crimes against blacks, particularly given the all-white juries that were de rigueur in those days. Now, however, given the advances made by minorities in part brought on by President Johnson’s Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many of the citizens of Mississippi must believe that the name of the Magnolia state is still tarnished by these events.

Don’t expect Neshoba to be as dramatic as Alan Parker’s 1998 Oscar-winning picture Mississippi Burning, which told the story of an FBI agent's attempt to get to the bottom of these murders by the use of unorthodox methods. There is no animation, no attempts at humor, whether wry or otherwise. The recent scenes as well as archival footage are grainy, and the screen on which the film is projected is partially curtained-off, made smaller to accommodate the stock. There are too many talking heads with repetitive dialogue.

The great wonder, however, is that Neshoba might not have been possible without the masochistic cooperation of Edgar Ray Killen, the one man who is indicted forty years too late while all others involved in the crime are walking the streets. Killen, whose name is so apropos it could have been used by the writer of an allegorical novel, is not only unrepentant about his racist views, he is stupid enough to chatter away to the two documentary makers about “Christ-killing Jew Communists” though at the same time he insists that he is innocent.

The folks demanding justice, though ultimately receiving only a sliver of it, include the relatives of the murdered victims and others in the Neshoba County community and, of course, the prosecutors and people connected to a group demanding that trials take place. The whites on the street who are interviewed briefly, do not fall into racist language, but some do say that the county should “let sleeping dogs lie,” and “who cares about something that happened forty years back when most of the killers are probably dead?”

Archival film from 1964 includes some scenes of the Klan with their burning crosses, one that graphically views a black man who has been hanged, and the gruesome look at the three corpses surrounded by mud with one, the murdered African-American, apparently beaten and tortured before being killed and buried alive. Nine bodies were picked out of the river as well.

What’s left hanging is: what is the evidence that led to a conviction of this Killen guy? He says he was not at the scene. How about letting us in the audience know what convinced the jury?

Unrated. 87 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 

Phillip Noyce's
Salt
Opens Friday, July 23, 2010



Written By: Kurt Wimmer
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski, August Diehl, Daniel Pearce

Columbia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


Doctors say that salt raises blood pressure and Phillip Noyce’s Salt certainly proves them correct. Salt is a political action thriller that brings to mind Tom Clancy’s novels and features a kickass performance by Angelina Jolie. Salt is welcome summer fare.

Word is that Tom Cruise was originally considered for the role in a film that was to be called Edwin A. Salt. We’re fortunate in being able to watch a woman who is ever so much sexier.

Though not exactly torn from today’s headlines, those who still read newspapers or listen to the TV anchors will recall that an accountant, a real estate agent and a Spanish newspaper columnist were recently convicted of being spies for Russia. In this movie, Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie), a CIA agent who works with apparatchiks Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has been trained in Russia from the time of her youth (having survived a car crash that killed her parents), to be sent many years later to infiltrate America’s Central Intelligence Agency. For reasons unknown, a Russian defector, Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), blows her cover, forcing Salt to flee from her fellow employees, a race that finds her crawling across the ledge of her D.C. apartment building a dozen floors from the ground, jumping on trucks, zooming on a motorcycle, and using well-placed kicks to get some pesky American agents out of the way. Nor is it enough that the North Koreans, who torture her as the story opens by pouring water through a funnel down her throat. She is gassed, punched, and shot at by agents on both sides of the renewed Cold War, an event that finds Russians smarting from their defeat by the U.S. and the breakup of their empire, determined to make the world stand up once again and defer to the Motherland.

The picture has been compared to some of the Bond movies—in fact I note two ways that director Noyce pays homage: the prisoner exchange in North Korea (Die Another Day), and the use of a shoe-knife in an elevator (From Russia With Love). Nobody asks for authenticity from Bond, nor need anyone expect something similar from Salt. But early Bond still excels with smart dialogue (“shaken, not stirred”) and his response to a customs agent who asks the purpose of his trip: (“Pleasure: is there any other?”)

Jolie is in her Tomb Raider métier, able to take serious punishment and pay it back in spades. She fires AK-47’s, delivers hand grenades, but mostly depends on her arms and legs to pulverize her opponents. She finds a good use for a spider in an action that, believe it or not, reminds us of Romeo and Juliet (there is some romance in the story involving Salt and her ethnic-German husband played by August Diehl). She is able to leap from a moving chopper into the Potomac, swim to the shore, and hit the ground running—as she does early on in bare feet. And could Tom Cruise cut off a surveillance camera by wrapping black panties around it?

We’re led to ponder Salt’s affiliation throughout, which is why the tagline is “Who is Salt?” Is she a Russian spy, part of a scheme to deliver nuclear missiles to areas of the world that would not like such action at all? Is she a patriotic American wrongfully accused by everyone in sight of being disloyal to her country? The answer is not altogether clear, given the extreme injuries she performs against both sides, but we may have to wait a while: Noyce makes clear that a sequel is certain.

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


 


Annemarie Jacir's
Salt Of this Sea (Milh Hadha al-Bahr)
Opens Friday, August 13, 2010


Written By: Annemarie Jacir
Starring : Suheir Hammad,, Saleh Bakri andRiyad Ideis

Lorber Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Nobody loves the Palestinians. Even in 1948, when five Arab countries attacked the new state of Israel, some historians point out that if the Arabs had succeeded, they would have divided the Palestinian lands among themselves. A survey by Al Arabiya TV network found that seventy-one percent of the Arabic respondents have no interest in Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. When Lebanese Christian militias massacred 3,500 Palestinians in the Beirut refugee camp of Tel al-Zaatar and when they slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians in 1982 in the camps of Sabra and Shatila, no Arab states came to their rescue. Shortly after the Persian Gulf War, Kuwaitis punished the P.L.O for supporting Saddam, expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinian workers and slaughtering thousands. Even Arafat acknowledged that what Kuwait did is worse than what had been done by Israelis to Palestinians in occupied territories.

No wonder Soraya (Suheir Hammad) is furious. In the first full-length narrative Palestinian film directed by a woman, Annemarie Jacir’s Salt of this Sea, the Brooklyn-born Soraya is determined to right what she considers some wrongs by the Israeli government. Her grandfather had owned a house in Jaffa, then a mostly-Arab town adjacent to Tel Aviv. When the 1948 war broke out, hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled or were expelled by the Israeli Haganah. Told that when Israel would lose the war they could return to their homes, they discovered to their dismay that the residences were either bulldozed or assigned by the Israeli government to Jews. (I’ve been unable to get details on how the Israeli government apportioned the abandoned homes.)

A naïve but aggressive woman, Soroya travels to Israel where she, and later the two men whom she meets and travel with, are hassled repeatedly. At Ben Gurion airport she undergoes a strip search. When customs asks “What is the purpose of your trip?” she could have said, “Pleasure: is there any other?” a James Bond comeback which might have eased the situation—or caused further woes. While stating that she is visiting her cousin in Ramallah, her real aim is to visit the house of her grandfather in Jaffa, now inhabited by an artist. In addition she wants to withdraw money that her grandfather left in a British-Palestinian bank pre-1948, a series of deposits now considered null and void—“history.”

A road-and-buddy trip and a pilgrimage attempting to turn back the clock to pre-1948 conditions, Salt of This Sea finds Soroya meeting Emad (Saleh Bakri), an attractive waiter in a posh restaurant who is disgusted by his “imprisonment” in Ramallah, presumably unable to leave the city without a pass and having never seen the sea. Joined by his friend Marwan (Riyad Ideis), they plan to rob the bank of just the exact figure deposited by her grandfather, $15,000 and change, at which point the film turns briefly melodramatic.

Benoit Chamaillard films the proceedings in both the West Bank and Israel proper, an action which, according to the film’s epilogue could have gotten everyone on the production team in trouble. There is no indication in the production notes just how they were able to pull this feat off, though the inhabitant of the house in Jaffa, a Peace Now member believing that Israel is the principal cause of the continued friction, could conceivably have given the trio a forum.

As Soroya, Suheir Hammad is used not as an abstraction of a cause but as a real human being living 7,000 miles from what she may consider her second home. Her adventures in Israel and the West Bank bring the controversy between the two sides to a far more intimate realization than could a documentary. Other films on this specific subject include 500 Dunam on the Moon, Rachel Leah Jones’s doc about a Palestinian village depopulated by Israeli forces in 1948; The Palestinian Catastrophe 1948 by Benny Brunner and Alexandra Jansse, following the events surrounding the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem; and The Sons of Eilaboun, Hisham Zreiq’s doc about the exodus of a small Palestinian village called Eilaboun.

Movies are a powerful force. They can change people’s political and social views in a matter of hours. One might expect an audience of this unabashedly pro-Palestinian film to think more deeply about the subject. I have some sympathy for Soroya but not for the politics she embraces. In 1948, Israel accepted a sliver of land granted to them by the UN, which received a request to do just that by the British, who had a mandate on the land since the end of World War I. The Arabs refused. Five Arabic nations—Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon attacked immediately after the raising of the Israeli flags. After a bitter eight months of violence on all sides, Israel decided not to allow the Palestinian refugees back to their homes, save for a token number—for which, in my opinion, they cannot be blamed. These Palestinians were looked upon as a potential fifth column, an enemy that could wreak havoc in the years following. Today there are checkpoints and hassles, but from the looks of the West Bank shown here, the folks are leading pretty good lives. They go about their business, they go to coffee houses and indulge in hummus, and do not appear in anything like the state of high anxiety that afflicts Jacir’s hero, Ms. Soroya.

Unrated. 109 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online






Edgar Wright's
Scott Pilgrim Versus The World
Opens Friday, August 13, 2010

Written By: Michael Bacall and Edgar Wright, based on the Oni Press graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Anna Kendrick, Alison Pill, Grandon Routh, Jason Schwartzman

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Human beings can only tolerate so much reality; this is why Broadway musicals are generally more popular than off-Broadway plays and why action-adventure films with absurd, over-the-top fighting, are better received by a mass audience than serious dramas. Imaginative fare is welcomed by the young as well as the more seasoned: thus Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and the like. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World falls into the category of the broadly imaginative, a movie that finds its 22-year-old lovesick fellow imagining all sorts of conquests of women and victories over former boyfriends of these women. The frantic fighting may not be something you’ve never seen before, even with its rapid-fire editing. The boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl is hardly hot-off-the-press stuff. But this movie does deftly combine comic-book modes with video-game aesthetics, tacking on realistic shots of the lives of young people in swinging Toronto.

Scott Pilgrim is not a victory of style of substance: style IS substance in the film, given the lack of any exploration in the screenplay, a search that might uncover just what it is that makes the nerdy Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) of any appeal to the women in his life. It’s no wonder that it’s directed by Edgar Wright, whose Hot Fuzz deals with an excellent cop who is transferred by jealous colleagues to a sleepy town to rid themselves of the competition, and his Shaun of the Dead tells the story of a man struggling to win back his ex-girlfriend, reconcile with his mother, and deal with a community of zombies. Imaginative stuff.

What exists of any substance in Scott Pilgrim is the theme of a young, unemployed man who is stalked by a high-school girl five years his junior, but has his eye on winning the heart of a fuchsia-haired hipster. Scripters Michael Bacall and the director press into a 100-minute movie a half-dozen graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Nalley (published by Oni Press), so you can be sure that the target audience are the 16-28-year-old fans of the comics.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) having been dumped a year ago, is now virtually stalked by Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a bubbly high-school girl who loves to listen to Scott play guitar and sing with his band. They even watch video games and copy the moves of the characters on the screen, though Scott is dissed as a cradle-snatcher by Kim (Alison Pill) and the other members of his band: Neil (Johnny Simmons) and Mark (Stephen Stills). His sister, Stacey (Anna Kendrick) and his gay roommate, Wallace (Kieran Culkin), also do not approve of his dating style. When he sets eyes on Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), his heart is touched by her hipness (hair color changes from fuchsia to blue to chartreuse), her seeming indifference, and her beauty. She tells him that to win her, he has to defeat her ex-boyfriends in physical battle. There is where the movie bogs down with repetitive martial arts movies, street fighting, and silly commentary between the fighters.

The most impressive fight is an extended one between Scott and Ramona’s last ex, Gideon Gordon Graves (Jason Schwartzman). Video game lovers and graphic novels readers will accept the reality of the dream-world created by the director, the performers, and the excellent editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss. Those whose enthusiasms have grown toward more serious, more down-to-earth fare, might be bored—and boredom is the one sin that the young people in the story cannot tolerate. Michael Cera has his fans, though one wonders where they find his appeal. The film deserves to be seen for its originality, its verve, and its packaging.

Rated PG-13. 112 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Josh Gordon and Will Speck's
The Switch
Opens Friday, August 20, 2010

Written By: Allan Loeb, from Jeffrey Eunides’ short story Baster

Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, Patrick Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Juliette Lewis

A Disney release of a Miramax Film

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

What a time we live in! For the past two million years, the only way for a woman to have a baby of her own has been to invite a male to her cave or boudoir. Now, thanks to the miracle of technology, we have not only the BlackBerry but the ability of a woman to have a kid without even knowing the father, should she so choose. Josh Gordon and Will Speck’s new movie The Switch, sees the absurdities that this could present. While the women may be deadly serious about their choices, the situation here is played for comedy with a healthy dose of sentimentality.

Since New York is the scene of the action, one might expect a Woody Allen treatment of the theme, and that’s what we get to some extent, though Woody might not necessarily go for the aw-shucks Hallmark tone that the Hollywood formula calls for and which is used here with a vengeance.

The Switch got some free publicity on TV when conservative talk-show host Bill O’Reilly of Fox News slammed Jennifer Aniston for saying that “women don’t need men to raise children.” Aniston had said that “women are realizing more and more than you don’t have to settle, they don’t have to fiddle with a man to have that child. They are realizing if it’s that time in their life and they want this part, they can do it with or without that.” Reports O’Reilly, “She’s throwing a message that hey, you don’t need a guy, you don’t need a dad. That’s destructive to our society.”

I’m not entirely sure we need Bill O’Reilly for anything, but that’s a subject for another movie.

The Switch may be formulaic but there’s a decent amount of off-beat comedy to make up for the absurdity of the premise. The first fifteen minutes were for me the high point of the pic given the sharp, breakneck dialogue that Allan Loeb has written for Kassie Larson (Jennifer Aniston) and Wally Marrs (Jason Bateman). The two had known each other for thirteen years. They have dated but consider each other best friends rather than lovers. Tracking back seven years, Kassie and Wally meet for lunch at which time Kassie announces her plan to have a baby via artificial insemination. She has chosen hunky Roland (Patrick Wilson) to be the dad, but at an “insemination party” a drunk Wally happens upon the donated sperm in the bathroom and unwittingly pours it down the sink, replacing it with his own. After the party he remembers nothing.

Seven years pass. Kassie has a six-year-old, Sebastian (Thomas Robinson) at her side, the kid already acting like an old man with neurotic baggage, including hypochondria and cynicism, a chip off the old block that should have alerted Kassie that something strange was going on given the athleticism of the man she believes is his dad. Every time Wally is about to confess his paternity to Kassie, the two are interrupted, all part of the rom-com formula that holds that two people who should obviously be together are kept apart until the end.

An exceptional performance from six-year-old Thomas Robinson as the boy who spouts full sentences that only adults would deliver provides both the cloying substance of the story and the endearment that would presumably be found particularly by the women in the audience ages 30-45. Patrick Wilson is used as outdoorsy foil to Jason Bateman’s urban sensibility, while Jeff Goldblum serves as Leonard, as Wally’s boss, mentor and best friend. Juliette Lewis is Debbie in her typical over-the-top role, this time as the producer of the insemination party. The film is nothing exceptional as rom-coms go, but if you want to see a remarkably good movie on the genre, take in the French production “Heartbreaker” when it comes around soon.

Rated PG-13. 101 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 


Alex Rotaru's
They Came To Play
Opens Friday, August 13, 2010

Starring: Mark Fuller, Clark Griffith, Ken Iisaka, Slava Levin, Drew Mays, Suzanna Perez, Richard Rodzinski, Esfir Ross, Kathy Trafton

Area23a/88 Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If you live in any big city in the U.S. that has a subway system like the one in New York, you’ve probably heard some of the musicians play their drums, accordions, violins, and clarinets while others sing to recorded music. All is in the service of collecting some change, humiliating as it must be to compete with the loudest subway in the country right here in The Big Apple. The strange thing is that some of these musicians seem good enough to play in legitimate theaters, maybe even in Carnegie Hall—particularly since a few of these folks may be studying at Juilliard while trying to earn some money for tuition. For the most part, I can barely judge quality differences between some of the excellent violinists and those who might find a home with the New York Philharmonic. I’ll wager that most people in the audience for the rousing documentary, They Came To Play, will not see why these 75 contestants, among those who meet every four years at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, are still known as “amateurs.” As they define the term, there may be no difference between the quality of an amateur and that of a pro, the only difference being that the professionals are earning a living with their music while the amateurs are chugging away for the love of the game.

Many of the 75 who were at the competition depicted in They Came To Play insist that they have no intention of giving up their day jobs. What went unspoken is that if they want to make a living playing for a symphony orchestra, they should have gone with different instruments, as the piano is used in big-city orchestras only for the playing of concerti, and while there may be twenty violinists in the New York Philharmonic, there is rarely a need for more than one pianist at a performance.

The musicians on display are terrific, except for one who had a memory lapse. All but two performed their competitive pieces on the piano without written music in front of them. It’s no wonder that every contestant interviewed considered their talent to be a gift, not something that anyone can attain just by practicing piano six hours a day, six days a week. At least one said that since God had given him a gift, it’s only fair that he give back to the world by performing.

Thanks to the movies, we in the theater audience are able to get more out of the concert than those who watch it live, except for the fact that we hear only snippets of the piano music both while the pieces are being played and in the soundtrack as background. The people in Fort Worth, of course, can take in the glories of the classical tradition in full. I wish the film were three hours long, giving us the time to hear more—that’s how good these performers are.

As for the part where the people in the movie audience get more out of the concert than those who see it live, we are treated to interviews with some of the contestants, many of whom have fine senses of humor. One full-bodied woman who works as a dental assistant got the most laughs from us with anecdotes about her husband and other problems of life. On a sadder note, one fellow—who made it to the finals—is sick with AIDS diagnosed in 1995 and is now doing OK without drugs, while another has Hodgkins disease, putting up with eight months of chemo and then some rounds of radiation, having lost all hearing in one ear.

They Came To Play is in the tradition of movies about competition such as Jeffrey Blitz’s 2002 Spellbound, which saw eight teens competing to spell words nobody ever heard of; and of Patrick Creadon’s 2006 Wordplay, which tells the story of people who daily try to solve the New York Times crossword puzzles in ink. The difference is that watching the pianists is more entertaining: how much fun can you have watching people fiddle around with letters when we can listen to Chopin, Bach, Prokofiev, Gershwin, Schumann, and a few obscure others?

Shreveport-born Van Cliburn spoke at the proceedings that are named in his honor. If you’re under 50 you may not realize that he stunned the U.S. and the Soviet Union alike by being awarded top prize in a Tschaikowsky competition in Moscow with a rendition of Tschaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Concerto #3, receiving an eight-minutes’ standing ovation. This was a tense 1958 in the Cold War. Khruschev himself had to be asked permission to give him top prize: “If he’s the best, then give it to him!” responded the shoe-pounding party secretary. (Van Cliburn’s first name, by the way, is Harvey.)

For those who think that a person is given only one gift in life, if he or she is lucky enough to receive even that, you’ll note that many of the contestants are high up in the status scale. An ophthalmologist, another doctor, a physicist, a partner in a large law firm—you wonder where they get the time to practice six hours a day, which is probably necessary if you want to be listened to at all.

The top prize of $2,000 is obviously not the reason these folks compete—which anyone can do by sending in a tape. The Judges pick the 75 they like best. The contestants are in it for the glory, for evidence of their own self-actualization, and because people with such gifts cannot NOT be giving us a sample of their souls.

Unrated. 91 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Joe Winston's
What's The Matter With Kansas
Opens Friday, July 30, 2010

Book by Thomas Frank

Starring: Thomas Frank, Angel Dillard, Terry Fox, rank-and-file Kansans

Tallglass Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

When Nellie Forbush sang “I’m as corny as Kansas in August,” I got the impression that Kansas is a groovy little state that grows corn and whose people are diligent farmers without a political care in the world. The truth is more controversial as we learn from Joe Winston’s adaptation of Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas.The book is more polemical than the documentary, positing that there’s something wrong with the citizens of that flyover state who are too thick to realize that they’re sharing a political bed with Republican politicians who think nothing of shafting working class folks. As I watched the ordinary folks deliver their partisan spiels, I felt like congratulating Frank Baum’s Dorothy when she explained to Toto, “We’re not in Kansas any more.” Too bad she could not liberate herself by remaining in Oz, ruled over by a wizard whose lies were chickenfeed compared to those mouthed by the Bush administration. Noting how much higher the cost of living is here in New York than in Kansas, I feel better: it’s worth the extra money to spend my days in (by comparison) a relatively sane city.

Joe Winston, unlike Thomas Frank, is not really polemical. He does not look down on the irrationalities of those he selected to be talking heads. At the same time, however, he gives little room for the pro-Democratic segment of the population of Wichita and some smaller towns to voice their views: while at least one guy—a libertarian eccentric, not a Democrat or liberal—says “who cares if gays marry?”—there is virtually no discussion about homosexuality or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, though considerable time is spent on the unfavorable reaction that Wichita residents have to abortion.

The real matter with What’s the Matter is not the absence of a strong point of view by director Winston, but the almost excruciating dullness of the movie, which comes across as flat as the Kansas landscape. The talking heads, with the exception of the wacky libertarian farmer who mounts swastikas and crosses and signs with obscene statements on the boards of his farm, bring nothing new to an understanding of the political life of our country, nothing we could not already know, nor were any of my notions of the mind sets of the typical folks of the Sunflower State changed. I did not see them as less or more human after hearing them pontificate, though one of the folks made my blood boil—and that’s good: that’s what a movie should do.

The person in question, Terry Fox, not the Terrance Stanley Fox who was a humanitarian and cancer research activist but the pastor of the Evangelistic Immanuel Baptist Church in Wichita, delivered racist statements such as his view “I’m glad that I’m carrying the Bible and not the Koran,” who believes that mosques in America are hotbeds of jihadism, who called the A.C.L.U. the “Atheist Corrupt Lawyers United,” who opposes gay marriage and thinks that America is on an anti-God path. I felt like hugging the unseen directors of the church who bounced him for injecting considerable politics into his sermons. We hear a young woman who is home-schooled and about to enter the Christian conservative Patrick Henry College in Virginia, who insists that our founding fathers wanted the U.S. to be a Christian nation. (How the First Amendment got sneaked into our Constitution is not explored.) One of the most surprising statements in the picture comes from the motor mouth of a fellow with a Ph.D. in astrophysics who is convinced that the universe was created a few thousand years ago, noting that “the planet Jupiter is still warm.”

What is disappointing aside from the dullness of this yawner is that the principal concept is not proven. Though the author of the book and the movie director want us to believe that “the people of Kansas vote against their interests,” that is not the case at all. Most of the Kansans on the stage consider social issues—pro life, anti-gay marriage, fear of increasing secularization in America—to be more important to them than economic issues. Never mind that the Bush administration gave tax cuts to the rich and did nothing for the working class folks of Kansas or anywhere else (strange when you consider that George W. Bush once stated that Jesus is his favorite philosopher). He attacked the pro-choice movement, came out against more rights for gays, and helped provide an atmosphere that led to the murder of George Tiller, a doctor in Wichita who performed late-term abortions. Economic interests are not the be-all and end-all of politics: the people of Kansas did not vote against their interests.

Not explained, though, is how in the 2006 election, Kansas put the Democratic candidate for attorney-general in office, though a few minutes of listening to the Republican fellow’s flat speech could partially explain the G.O.P. loss. One bright spot: we see how Kansas at one point during the era of socialist Eugene V. Debs was a hotbed of left-wing populism. Given the cyclical nature of politics as well as economics, we can hope for the best. And did I say I’m glad to be living in New York?

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


 

 

 

 


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