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Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo's
After.Life
Opens April 9, 2010

Written By: Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo; Paul Vosloo; and Jakub Korolczuk

Starring: Liam Neeson; Christina Ricci; Justin Long; Josh Charles; Chandler Canterbury; and Celia Weston

Anchor Bay Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If ever product placement permeated a movie without an industrys even being mentioned, After.Life is a commercial for the cremation business. Watching the film, we witness the gruesome methods of one possibly psychotic mortician—how he drains the blood, sews the mouth closed, puts huge needles into the necks of the dead as part of the embalming process, then adds rouge and lipstick to make corpses look as though they were live. All of this is carried on quietly by a calm, seasoned undertaker who has papered the wall of his laboratory with photos of his former "customers."

If you already have the impression that After.Life is essentially a horror movie, you’d be correct, but its an elegant one with just a few of the conventional scares and false alarms on which cheaper and unintentionally funny movies rely.

This film is a great full-length start for Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloos, who directs her freshman feature presentation. Her previous film, the 30-minute Pâté, is likewise a dark drama, one that features a deranged, insect-loving mother and her children.

Paul Haslinger’s original music pumps up the tension in the film which cinematographer Anastas N. Michos shot in and around Jersey City. Many scenes are set in the spacious home of Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson), the town’s mortician who is currently working on Anna Taylor (Christina Ricci), who has just died in an auto accident after a tumultuous verbal fight with her boyfriend, Paul (Justin Long). Anna, a teacher before her alleged death (and the word “alleged” is significant here because the film allows the audience to debate the matter during and after the close of the story), “wakes up” and begins to converse with Deacon. Deacon, you see, claims the gift of being able to speak to the dead during a “transitional” stage, when a body is spending a few days preparing for the final journey into demise.

Throughout the conversation, Deacon insists on being frank about death, regularly saying that “you people” never accept the tragedy, but insist that they are fully alive, held captive by a crazed mortician. The bulk of the picture consists of the conversations between Deacon and Anna, the former insisting that the deceased recognize her departed condition, the latter demanding to be let out of what she considers an insane asylum. More robust physical activity finds boyfriend Paul demanding that the police, headed by Captain Tom Henderson (Josh Charles, who is also The Good Wife's Will Gardner), take out a search warrant to vet the mortician’s lab, while the young woman’s mother, Beatrice Taylor (Celia Weston) accepts the fact that her daughter is dead but blames the young man for allowing her to drive at night in the pouring rain.

After.Life's scariest scene brings to mind the excellent Dutch horror movie, George Sluizer’s Spoorloos (The Vanishing).

Liam Neeson proves that the best actors are those who can play restrained roles credibly and with class, and Christina Ricci, who looks better than ever in long hair, matches Neeson’s talent. After.Life is elegant, scary, and perhaps best of all does not allow us to check our brains at the door. Expect discussions that will bring in Freud’s concept of the death wish with its insistence that many people, more afraid of life (especially love) than death, will opt for the latter.

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


Leslie Zemeckis
Behind The Burly
Opens April 23, 2010 in NY, May 7 in L.A.


Written By: Leslie Zemeckis

Starring: Alan Alda; Nat Bodian; Lorraine Lee; Tempest Storm; Blaze Starr; Evangelina the Oyster Girl; Taffy O’Neill; Mike Ianunucci; Rachel Schteir; and Janet Davis

First Run Features
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

By today’s sexual standards, burlesque shows look slightly more risqué than The Sound of Music, which explains the disappearance of burlesque houses. For some reason, back in the early fifties, New Yorkers had to go to Union City, New Jersey to see the gals take it off (though I went there strictly for the comedy acts and the bands).

Leslie Zemeckis takes us on a trip down the burly Q lane in her documentary. The paucity of motion picture photography inside the burlesque houses of the twenties through the early sixties, makes her rely too much on still pictures and that bête noire of documentaries, the talking heads. Though there are good reasons to see the movie, what can’t be gotten around is that the chatter of the women who were queens of the burlesque houses decades ago becomes not only repetitious but cinematically static. For pure entertainment, there’s no way that a typical audience would prefer this doc to a dramatic show, specifically Gypsy, the 1959 musical comedy starring Ethel Merman.

Cameos include the filmed Mayor Fiorello La Guardia who in 1937 closed down New York State’s burly houses, presumably only because of an uproar by his constituents. Taffy O’Neill tells of how after her performance each night she would escort her son for treatment for his polio. Her son spent a year in the hospital which certainly justified O'Neill's choice of profession and its handsome pay. Tempest Storm, surrounded by a mop of blazing red hair, tells about her experience as one of President Kennedy’s lovers. Lorraine Lee describes how she’s danced for Bonnie and Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd. One of the women in the documentary even says that Gypsy Rose Lee, the most famous of the burlesque strippers, was without looks or talent. The most charming interview subject is Alan Alda, if only because he is one of the few that members of the audience might recognize. Alda describes the role of his father as a straight man

None of the former strippers tries to hide behind “I did it because I needed the money.” All agree that stripping afforded them the greatest times of their lives. The saddest song on the soundtrack is “Stay Young and Beautiful,” a benefit that all of these entertainers might wish for.

Unrated. 98 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

behindtheburlyq.com/gallery.html


 

Daryl Wein’s
Breaking Upwards
Opens Friday, April 2, 2010


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by: Peter Duchan, Zoe Lister Jones, Daryl Wein

Starring: Zoe Lister Jones, Daryl Wein, Julie White, Andrea Martin, Peter Friedman, La Chanze, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Olivia Thirlby

Breaking Upwards is yet another indie breakup film that painstakingly yet comically chronicles the deterioration of a twentysomething relationship.

At times the amiable film shows signs of being the Goodbye Columbus of the new millennium but it never quite finds a comfortable tone and narrative drive.

Apparently autobiographical (the lead actors co-wrote the script and she co-produced and he directed and edited the film), Breaking Upwards takes us through the sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking moments in the lives of Daryl and Zoe (not even the names are changed here) as they move further away from one another. But there is nothing really new here.

On the plus side, Daryl Wein is a charming presence, capturing his character’s confusion and carnal pull away from Zoe while he simultaneously feels jealousy and misery without her. Unfortunately there is an ill-balance since Jones’s character is too whiny and annoying to be likeable in any way.

Andrea Martin and Julie White are the two best reasons to see the film. As the mothers of the respective soon-to-be-broken-up lovers, they are hilarious and real. Martin is the less meddling mom, while White is a master manipulator. And by the Passover Seder scene, they have taken the film hostage—which is a very good thing indeed.




Liam Neeson, Juliane Moore and Amanda Seyfried in Chloe

Atom Egoyan's
Chloe
Opens Friday, March 26, 2010

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Written By: Erin Cressida Wilson, from “Nathalie” by Anne Fontaine
Starring: Julianne Moore; Liam Neeson; Amanda Seyfried; and Max Thieriot

Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, filming in Toronto to represent Toronto (for a change), has remade the French film Nathalie. But instead of an overweight Gerard Depardieu and a reasonably appealing Fanny Ardant in the principal roles, Egoyan luckily cast Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson and Amanda Seyfried.

Atom Egoyan, whose name comes from his Egyptian-Armenian background, is noted for intense dramas such as (my favorite) The Sweet Hereafter, about the effects of a fatal bus accident on the residents of a small village. With Chloe, Agoyan taps into the effects of a fatal attraction, showing how sex is a double-edged sword - the source of pleasure but also the impetus for self-destructive tendencies and homicidal urges.

Julianne Moore’s turns out a well-honed, nuanced performance as Catherine, a gynecologist in Toronto’s upscale Yorkville neighborhood. Catherine is married to David (Liam Neeson), a college music professor. Their gifted but neurotic son Michael (Max Thierot) shares their stunning, spacious contemporary home. Catherine is beautiful, but she is undergoing a mid-life crisis, believing that while she is showing her age with each increasing wrinkle, her husband is becoming more handsome. When David fails to show up for a surprise birthday party, giving the excuse that he missed his flight by minutes and will not be home until the next day, Catherine suspects that he is cheating on her.

Instead of hiring a private investigator, which she can well afford, she hires a young, beautiful hooker, Chloe (Amanda Seyfried). Catherine asks Chloe to attempt to seduce her husband by “running into” him at his usual coffee shop and flirting with him to determine if he is capable of cheating. Chloe, however, is not merely a bimbo out for money, but a complex individual with her own neurosis and hang-ups, which add crafty dimensions to the plot.

Scripter Erin Cressida Wilson’s provides sharp dialogue for her characters who speak the way two highly educated, cosmopolitan people should speak. Ms. Moore—who should already be considered for end-year awards—gives the slow-moving drama its needed momentum. If only the loose ends were not so neatly tied up by the concluding scenes! A deus ex machina is used to create a too easy conclusion to what is otherwise a believable story. But, nevertheless, Chloe, with its soundtrack featuring a opera, symphonic music and a sonata, is suspenseful, insightful, scary and charming.

Rated R. 96 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Raymond De Felitta's
City Island
Opens Friday, March 19, 2010


Written By: Raymond De Felitta
tarring: Andy Garcia; Julianna Margulies; Dominik Garcia-Lorido; Ezra Miller; Emily Mortimer; Steven Strait; and Alan Arkin

Overture Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Some believe that once you are married, you and your spouse should open yourselves up completely - let it all hang out. But many a guru will tell you that we all have skeletons in our closets which are best to leave undisturbed. In a film which could have easily been entitled Secrets, writer-director Raymond De Felitta seems to have the idea that relationships can be strengthened by revealing those intimate details that we hide from one another, the deeds that we’ve done that we’re ashamed of as well as the stuff we’re proud to reveal. In De Felitta's City Island, we in the audience are lucky. Without the tensions held inside by De Felitta's characters, who are all afraid to open themselves up, we’d never get all the laughs the writer/director evokes not only by his clever dialogue, but by the performances of a group of actors who act as though they have been living together for years. City Island is a fun movie.

The film is set on City Island, a part of the Bronx section of New York City. City Island is a special place that one of the film's characters, Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia), says is a place “You never want to leave.” (I’m ashamed to say that as a lifelong Brooklynite who has been to India, China, Russia and Chile, I’ve never set foot on the place.) Looking like a New England fishing village (yes, right here in the Bronx!), the one-mile isle is the film home of a stereotypical Italian-American working-class family headed (or so he thinks) by Vince, a correction officer at the local prison. His good wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies) has a job answering telephones; his daughter Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) is supposed to be in college but her secret is that she works as a stripper. Vince's secret son from another woman, Tony (Steven Strait), is a prisoner in the jail where his dad works. Vince's teenage son, Vinnie( Ezra Miller), is a pro at wisecracks who has a (secret) passion for morbidly obese women such as his 350-pound neighbor. Vince also has a (secret) desire to become a movie actor, taking classes with Michael (Alan Arkin), a drama coach who pairs him up for an assignment with another student, Molly (Emily Mortimer), who has a (secret) family upstate. Several family members (secretly) smoke.

There are plenty of skeletons in this City Island closet, all of which play havoc with relationships and find the dinner table a hotbed of shouting and stomping.

The story is loaded with twists, information that we in the audience know about but is subject to misinterpretation by the members of the family. For example, what wife would believe that a phone number for someone named Molly written inside one of husband’s books is for a woman who is nothing more than Vince’s fellow student? And what can Joyce make of the book itself, which is about acting? For a prison guard? Fans of Julianna Margolies’s work as the title character in the TV drama The Good Wife will marvel at the way make-up artists Jorjee Douglas, Joseph Farulla and Pamela May transformed Margolies from a restrained, upper-middle class lawyer into a working-class ethnic housewife.

The film is loaded with, dare one say, ethnic energy, the characters’ dialog bouncing off one another as though everyone were aware of the drama coach’s stern advice, “No pauses.” Obviously Alan Arkin’s Michael is no fan of the late Harold Pinter. This is an entirely upbeat film that floats easily as though skimming the waters of the Long Island Sound, a terrific comic entertainment that may even motivate some of us world travelers to visit City Island: no passport or visa required.

Rated PG-13. 103 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Shawn Levy's
Date Night
Opens Friday, April 9, 2010

Written By: Josh Klausner
Starring: Steve Carell; Tina Fey; Mark Wahlberg; Taraji P. Henson; Jimmi Simpson; and William Fichtner

20th Century Fox
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

In Shawn Levy's Date Night, Steve Carell and Tiny Fey perform in the roles of Phil Foster and Claire Foster, respectively a tax lawyer and a real estate agent, who describe themselves as a “boring New Jersey couple.” Trouble is that Tina Fey’s character in Shawn Levy’s Date Night is hampered by Josh Klausner’s by-the-numbers script making Ms. Fey herself only slightly less vapid than Sarah Palin. There is some merit in the film: a critic could grudgingly concede that it would make the grade as a date movie, but otherwise even if you’re a regular fan of Saturday Night Live, you may find that this caricatures of cops, criminals and especially an African –American cab driver are alarmingly obvious. Date Night has some laughs and one of the better car chases of any modern romantic comedy, but despite its moving along briskly (eighty-eight minutes), the film offers limited entertainment value.

Maybe I formed this opinion because just twenty-four hours earlier I was present at a screening of a terrific film that also centered on a couple, The Joneses. The characters in The Joneses made all the right moves and enjoyed the good fortune of playing out Derrick Borte’s sharp, satiric, clever script.

In Date Night, Tina Fey's character, Claire Foster, is a woman who works full time as a realtor and performs a second full-time job taking care of a couple of energetic kids, driving them to their soccer games and preparing their meals. She is afraid to delegate such responsibilities to her husband, Phil, because she considers him inept—unable to even toss a salad on his own. Her big wish is to spend a day or more in a quiet hotel room, with no kids and no husband to take care of. Claire is too tired for even an occasional roll in the New Jersey hay with her man.

Phil surprises her by taking her to a fancy restaurant on their weekly date night, a scheduled, predictable activity that allows them to hire a sitter and spend a few hours with just each other. But this night is different; Phil gets a chance to prove to his wife that he can be a superhero by thwarting a criminal conspiracy involving the district attorney, Frank Crenshaw (William Fichtner) and a leading mobster (Ray Liotta). In a case of Shakespearean-style mistaken identity, they are picked up by two thugs, Armstrong (Jimmi Simpson) and Collins (Common), who demand that they produce a damaging piece of evidence that could send the D.A. and the top mobster to prison.

After the dull initial parts of the story, the pace picks up leading the couple into contact with a muscular security agent (Mark Wahlberg) who speaks Hebrew with perfect intonation to his Israeli girlfriend. They also run into one of the town’s honest cops (Taraji P. Henson). Their adventures require them to break into an apartment on New York’s Lower East Side where they question two zonked-out lowlifes (Mila Kunis, James Franco). And then there is the aforementioned car chase that finds them trying to escape from the clutches of two thugs even after the sporty Audi that they borrowed for the night hooks up to a cab maneuvered by a terrified driver.

The chemistry between Tina Fey and Steve Carell is sizzling, the well-cast duo coming off credibly even when they had lost their sizzle. The interiors, particularly of a snobby New York seafood restaurant and the security officer’s pad, are to die for. But the subsidiary characters seem to come from a comic book, the script is banal, a pole dance that the couple are forced to perform in order to gain entrance to a strip club is more embarrassing than amusing. OK, I’ll grant that watching the pic is more fun than listening to Sarah Palin, but that’s not the highest bar to clear.

Rated PG-13. 88 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Click here for the film's website: Date Night.


 



Iben Hjejle and Aidan Quinn in The Eclipse

Conor McPherson's
The Eclipse
Opens Friday, March 26, 2010

Written By: Conor McPherson, Billy Roche, based on Roche’s novel “Tales from Rainwater Pond”
Starring: Ciarán Hinds; Iben Hjejle; and Aidan Quinn

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

The Holmes and Rahe Stress Measurement chart indicates degrees of stress from 1 to 100, where, for example, increased arguments with a spouse measures 35 and a marital separation scores 65. The highest level of stress is death of a spouse, which rates the full 100, though one could argue that the death of a child is off the charts. Two of the characters in Conor McPherson’s ghost-and-love film are afflicted with top scores. An aging Malachy McNeill (Jim Norton), now in a nursing home, suffers the loss of his daughter, Eleanor. McNeill’s son-in-law, Michael Farr (Ciarán Hinds), must now provide for his young son Thomas (Eanna Hardwicke) and daughter Sarah (Hannah Lynch), without help. Since Michael’s wife died just three years back, he is impacted enough by the loss to experience hallucinations, ghosts if you will; one, the scary kind, is of his father-in-law who screams and looks enraged; the other is of his departed wife, who simply sits at his bed and gazes longingly at Michael.

This is the subject matter of McPherson’s The Eclipse, so named because that is the title of the latest book by Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), a reowned author who in the film is currently making an appearance at a literary festival in the small seaside town of Cobh in County Cork. When best-selling author Nicholas Holden (Aiden Quinn), Lena’s former lover, shows up to pursue his courtship with the writer, Lena at first demurs, even walking out on him at a classy restaurant . Lena rejects Nicholas becuase he is married, but later she has second thoughts about the charismatic fellow.

The Eclipse moves along at a leisurely pace, the sudden appearances of ghosts causing particularly good audience frights given the unpredictability of the spooky moments created by Team X’s special effects and bolstered by Fionnuala Ní Chiosáin’s original music.

Hinds, who took a Best Actor award at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival for his measured role in the film, deserves praise while Aiden Quinn, who seems to have aged not a bit in the past decade, provides melodramatic moments as a guy who is often drunk and who, at one point, literally engages in fistacuffs with Michael, whom he erroneously considers his competitor for Lena. Iben Hjejle also deserves acting accolades for her performance in the film. Hjele is a Danish actress who once lived in Massachusetts and delivers her lines with a standard American accent.

Unlike Hollywood dramas, the story in the The Eclipse provides time for depict the growing bond between the widower and the author without the inevitable bedding. The pleasures of the movie come in part from the views of rural Ireland, but also from a look at the respect provided to writers of books at a litereary festival.

This is a small, independent film featuring stellar performances, the histrionics provided by Aiden Quinn while the real treat lies in the quietly growing bond between the teacher and the writer.

Rated R. 88 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



\ Dagur Kári's
The Good Heart
Opens Friday, April 30, 2010

Written By: Dagur Kári
Starring: Brian Cox and Paul Dano

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Brian Cox reveals his Dick Chaney persona in his performance in French-born, Icelandic-bred Dagur Kári’s new film, The Good Heart. The heart of the title is a metaphor for a sentiment that you won’t find in the Hallmark section on Valentine’s Day. The heart in the title has nothing to do with Eros and Cupid, but rather with the ugly organ that we’re more than happy to keep inside of us.

The Good Heart has the look and feel of a filmed play, with most of the action taking place inside a cruddy looking bar that has never experienced the footprint of a yuppie (except for a brief look by some developers in suits), and except for the final scene, is photographed by Rasmus Videbæk with patina of sickly green.

Thematically the story deals with how two dysfunctional individuals play off each other, each modifying the behavior of the other. A confirmed misogynist develops his sissy self while a naïve do-gooder grows a tougher skin.

Jacques (Brian Cox) looks like a bum with the personality of the aforementioned Dick Cheney and the health of the former vice president as well. Among the gruesome scenes are his fifth and sixth heart attacks. He is a man with no friends or family who has been warned without results to stop drinking and smoking. He’s a guy who knows that he’s not much longer for this world and wants to pass his bar on to a young person whom he can train. He gets his wish serendipitously when he makes contact with Lucas (Paul Dano), a young, homeless person who lives with a kitten inside a cardboard box on a scruffy New York street. Developing rapport as roommates in a hospital (heart attack and suicide attempt respectively), Jacques invites Lucas to join him at work, the older man mentoring his trainee in the art of pouring drinks and getting rid of anybody who is not a roughneck. No new people, no women: regulars only. They depict a pot-pourri of caricatures that could have come out of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh or Maxim Gorki’s The Lower Depths.

When April (Isild Le Besco), a lost soul of a flight attendant who is afraid of flying, enters the bar crying, Lucas takes her under his wing as though she were a lost kitten. As Jacques shields Lucas, Lucas protects April. There are lots of lost souls in this serio-comic look at the lumpenproles of recent years, but the strange collection of bar customers—none of whom you’d ever find in the Boston based TV comedy Cheers—seem happier than the suits who came into the place with an offer to buy. The question we in the audience all have is: which of the two leads will become happier when the story ends?

Ultimately, though, given the combination of physical limits in the production design, the sickly photography, and the familiar caricatures, The Good Heart mostly burns.

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

 




Shana Feste's
The Greatest
Opens Friday, April 2, 1010


Written By: Shana Feste
Starring: Pierce Brosnan; Susan Sarandon; Carey Mulligan; Johnny Simmons; Aaron Johnson; and Zoë Kravitz

Paladin
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Feste is the name of the Clown in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, but writer-director Shana Feste’s debut film has more in common with Hamlet than with any of the Bard’s comedies. Director Feste is likely aware that the Holmes and Rahe scale of stressful events, puts the death of a spouse and, presumably the death of one’s child, right on top. Losing a child is the most psychologically disastrous occurrence a parent can feel: if you have any doubt about that, The Greatest will convince you. While there’s some humor in the film, restrained in parts and flat-out comical in one scene that finds a naked guy at a party strung out on acid while performing some shtick, the film will have particular resonance for those who have lost someone dear to them.

While the story is itself nothing new, the acting is luminous all around.

Two generations share time. Math professor Allen Brewer (Pierce Brosnan) and his wife Grace (Susan Sarandon) are in mourning, though to Grace’s dismay, Allen has no outward signs of grief. Their son, Bennett (Aaron Johnson), who had recently begun a relationship with another high-school senior, Rose (Carey Mulligan), was killed in an auto accident while his girlfriend survived—as did her unborn baby, the result of her first-time sexual liaison with Bennett. With no thought of terminating her pregnancy, Rose—whose mother is in rehab and father out of the picture, enters the Brewer’s home virtually asking to be taken in under their wing. Accepted straight-out by the Brewer’s other son, Ryan (Johnny Simmons), who will soon meet Ashley (Zoë Kravitz) in group therapy and begin his own romance, Rose works her charm on Allen while Allen’s wife, Grace, appears to blame her for the accident, even wondering “why didn’t she die instead?”

Carey Mulligan is again a real find, making an appearance months after her stunning role as Jenny in Lone Sherfig’s 2009 film An Education—which placeds her in a relationship in 1960s London with a man twice her age. Pixie-ish and without guile, her character struggles to gain the acceptance, even the love of Susan Sarandon’s Grace, whose grief knows few bounds and whose hostility to both the 18-year-old for her role in the accident and to her husband for not grieving in the conventional manner is poignant, if not alarming.

With Christophe Beck’s score punctuating the sorrow of all, The Greatest may not be the most apt title for the tale but is credible and heart-rending without crossing over into the territory reserved for the soaps.

Rated R. 100 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Daniel Barber's
Harry Brown
Opens Friday, April 30, 2010


Written By: Gary Young

Starring: Michael Caine; Emily Mortimer; Charlie Creed-Miles; David Bradley; Iain Glen; Sean Harris; Ben Drew;, Jack O’Connell; Jamie Downey; Lee Oakes; Joseph Gilgun; and Liam Cunningham


Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

While leaving the advance screening of Harry Brown, I was buttonholed by a critic affiliated with a left-wing network. She gave me the usual left vs. right argument about the criminality on display in this violent film. Objecting to the glorification of vigilante justice, she insisted that the vile gang members that terrorize a seedy London neighborhood (filmed at Elephant and Castle) had been corrupted by an uncaring society. “Look at the flats that the government assigned to these people. You can guess what kinds of schools they have. And the police? Who knows what goes on in the stations when they get hold of these people—whom they probably call “animals.”

I was not about to argue because I agree in part with her. In fact the press notes admit that the gang members are probably illiterate and that nine of out ten of these “kids” have no fathers in the home to act as good role models. But meanwhile, society has to deal with them, and if the police are unable to stop the heroin trade and concomitant gang behavior, maybe the movie audience would not be so hard on the vigilante justice on display in Daniel Barber’s film, written by Gary Young and featuring Michael Caine as a pensioner-vigilante and Emily Mortimer as a police inspector whose theories are being ignored by her boss.

Daniel Barber’s previous film, the short The Tonto Woman, is about a title character who is kidnapped by Apache Indians, traded to Mojave Indians and living like a squaw for eleven years, is found by her husband, judged to be unfit for civilized society, and confined to a shack. The underside of civilized life is Barber’s métier, then. Now with Harry Brown he emulates the Charles Bronson Death Wish thematically, touching as well on motifs enunciated in Gran Torino. The theme: “These punks are no damn good.” So what do we do with them?

Harry Brown is filmed largely with a murky green palette similar to that of Ondine, showing us a London that few tourists would ever visit—any more than they would enjoy a trip to the favelas of Rio made famous by City of God. But a movie audience would be drawn to the neighborhood by the presence of Michael Caine in the role of Harry Brown, a pensioner approaching the age of 80, afflicted with emphysema, suffering from the death of his wife and the murder of his only friend and chess buddy, Leonard Atwell (David Bradley). Never mind that his pal, fed up with the senseless activities of the gang like putting doggy-doo in his mailbox, was not too bright about seeking revenge when he is killed after approaching a half dozen toughs, armed with only a long knife.

Martin Ruhe photographs a considerable amount of gang action seen through Harry Brown’s POV. As Harry looks through his window he sees the young men pushing one another around, and in one case a fellow who is behind on payments must submit to sexually servicing the creditor in the latter’s car. Mostly, Harry is incensed that his only friend is brutally murdered while the police, led by Superintendent S.I. Childs (Iain Glen) seem to put the incident on a back-burner. As the story progresses he begins to take these gang members out, one by one.

However we wonder what point is being made by the writer-director. Is he in sympathy with the young men whose lives are limited by the lack of role models, the lousy education system, the treatment as animals by the police, the dreary flats in which they live? The most cartoonish scene of a largely cartoonish movie finds Harry following a youth to discover where he lives, then pretending to be a man who wants to buy a gun. The two lads are the most stereotypical low-lifes that I’ve seen in any film of this kind. One is filthy from head to foot with tattoos around his body and his demeanor spaced-out as, right in front of the “customer” he shoots some heroin into his leg while ignoring a sick girl who seems on her last legs.

Emily Mortimer is miscast as a woman who is assigned to a tough neighborhood as an inspector, one who is not even liked by the superintendent who is determined to transfer her out because she thinks too much when he wants to take drastic action against the criminal element. Michael Caine’s very presence gives the tale the kind of class which the film simply does not otherwise have, though a thoughtful audience would catch the most involving theme, which is what happens to old men when their friends and spouses die off leaving them with nothing to do and without a purpose in life.

Rated R. 103 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Tom Six's
The Human Centipede (The First Sequence)
Opens Friday, April 30, 2010


Written By: Tom Six
Starring: Dieter Laser; Ashley C. Williams; Ashlynn Yennie; Akihiro Kitamura

IFC Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Forget everything that Michael Moore has been telling you. Here’s a movie that tells it like it is. The Human Centipede is a co-production of the Wall Street Journal and the American Medical Association to show Americans that Europe’s socialized health system is not quite what it’s cracked up to be.

But that’s not what the production notes state, so I’m probably wrong. The studio press pages indicate that this is a horror picture written and directed not by the AMA and reactionary newspapers, but by Tom Six, a 37-year-old Dutchman who wears cowboy hats, eats curry every day, has a pet pug, and likes films like La grande bouffe and Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma. The first film is about a group of men who retire to a villa with some hookers,determined to eat themselves to death. The second finds four fascists rounding up nine teenage boys and subjecting them to four months of physical, mental and sexual torture. So you’re not likely to see Tom Six making sequels to The Sound of Music or Andy Cadif’s Leave It to Beaver.

The Human Centipede should really have the title like Cheaper by the Dozen, because the three victims of a retired doctor’s surgical procedure have not one hundred legs but—add ‘em up—the combined total of six arms and six legs. What’s more, they manage to keep their arms and legs: that’s not what three hapless folks are worried about. What they don’t like is that this doctor, whose specialty had been separating conjoined twins, has decided that such operations are not novel: they won’t make medical history. Instead, he is determined to connect his three victims to one another, reversing the more conventional procedure. All will be kneeling. One fellow will be the lead, another will have her mouth stitched tightly to the lead man’s butt (after her teeth are extracted), while the third girl will have her mouth sewn to her own friend’s butt. One review put the operation more delicately: “Three people will be connected by their gastric systems.”

Why waste food? The first guy will get a meal served in a doggie dish, then upon absorption three hours later he will automatically feed the “digested food” to the girl behind him, and the third gal will be fed by the second. Some may think that this takes “going green” to an extreme. In fact this will remind passionate moviegoers of another picture about the food industry in which a lecturer tells a class that to economize on food, waste materials could be processed through filters, the processed output then released to the public.

Granted: the surgeon in The Human Centipede is sick and appears in no mood to get free help from a psychiatrist who is presumably paid by the German health industry, considered by many to be the best in Europe. The action takes place in rural Germany and features Dieter Laser in the role of mad scientist Dr. Heiter, Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie as a pair of adventuresome 20-somethings Lindsay and Jenny respectively, and Akihiro Kitamura as Katsuro, the lead victim of the experiment.

The movie begins as typical horror convention: a couple of young women in a rented car in Germany on their way to a party, invited by a “cute German waiter,” get a flat tire on a dark and stormy night, knock on the door of the only house in sight, and are admitted by the psycho. After naively imbibing a date-rape drug, they are strapped to gurneys as is the Japanese tourist, all set to be bonded per above description. But before you judge the doc, it must be said that he experimented on his three Rottweilers first.

Expect an audience leaving this movie, which will likely be shown to cults at midnight albeit not in Kansas City or Wasilla, to say that writer-director Tom Six is “sick” and wondering “What must he be like when he’s home with his significant other?” Whether or not he is encouraged by box office returns, Six is already working on a sequel, which will be called The Human Centipede (final sequence).

The picture has the usual gore, not likely to cause audience walkout except for the men and women who attend with their eight-year-old kids without having read about the subject, thinking that this is a documentary about insects. The idea of an operation to conjoin people rather than separate them is original, sure, but the doctor is too obvious. From the moment he opens the door to the two young women, the tourists would in real life run for the hills, as Dr. Heiter looks insane. Remember that Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Daumer, two of the most vile serial killers, could be quite charming when enticing victims to their webs, and in one of my favorite horror movies, Eli Roth’s Hostel: Part II, the woman who charms three American girls into a house in Slovakia where they will be sold to the highest bidder, seem perfectly normal as do the sickos who torture them upon placing the winning bids.

A second problem is that the story lacks cinematic breadth, looking more like a filmed play than a yarn that opens up cinematically. Indeed the two American tourists are stage actors, both trained in American conservatories. Third flaw: a lack of complexity. In Hostel: Part II we meet a number of people who are bidding for the trapped victims, each having some back story as they explain to each other why they are there. We watch as one rich guy talks his reluctant friend into joining in the fun. Here there is just one villain, and the three people are almost interchangeable. Fourth: there are opportunities open to the three victims that are lost. One could have escaped and run to the police for help, but out of stupidity does something else. Another could have killed the doctor with a scalpel ,but fails to do so.

Ultimately, horror fans—presumably the ones who will attend and stay for the entire ninety minutes—may or may not think that the director is sick. But the real enthusiasts for this sort of thing may be disappointed as I was because of the relatively anemic story. Final note: This doc that must have skipped class when the professor discussed the concept Primum non nocere, or as Hippocrates would put it, “First do no harm.”

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



Jon Favreau
Iron Man 2
Opens Friday, May 7, 2010


Written By: Justin Theroux, from Stan Lee’s Marvel Comic
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr.; Gwyneth Paltrow; Don Cheadle; Scarlett Johansson; Sam Rockwell; Mickey Rourke; Samuel L. Jackson

Paramount Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If you’re over forty years of age, you have clear memories of the time that no man would touch a keyboard and women were happy to take jobs as coffee- delivering secretaries. Times have changed, and if you don’t believe that take a look at Iron Man 2. The two women in the movie work at the level of secretaries, yes, but later one will become the CEO of a major corporation and the other will be delivering body chops and karate blows. And keyboards, improperly used, can end the world as we know it.

There’s not a lot of narrative plot in Jon Favreau’s sequel to his year 2008 movie. There is more complexity with the title character’s capture in Afghanistan by rebels who want him to assemble some crackerjack weaponry. Iron Man (aka Tony Stark) escapes with his suit and with some nasty shrapnel in his chest, only to later return to Afghanistan to kick serious butt. This time the man of steel is fighting against a Russian who, like Hamlet, itches to avenge his father who in this case was killed allegedly because of the machinations of the Stark Corporation, a weapons manufacturing company that allows Tony Stark to amass a billion dollars and gain a reputation as a Bruce-Wayne type playboy.

While Scarlett Johansson has been known to appear in art-house fare like Girl with a Pearl Earring and Lost in Translation, and Gwyneth Paltrow made a name for herself with similar uppity pics such as Sylvia and Shakespeare in Love; the two women in Iron Man 2 may be opting for the money this time, or maybe they realize or rationalize that Favreau is doing no more and no less than giving his target audience what they came to the megaplex for. And what they came for are not Shakespearean sonnets or readings of Sylvia Plath’s poems. Credit the icture, then, with doing what it set out to do: handing its audience explosions, car crashes, flights through the air and flights of fancy, computer wizardry, and top stars.

Top star Robert Downey Jr. comes off as though he was doing an imitation of Chris Tucker in motor-mouth template—most annoying when he regularly talks simultaneously with his partner in conversation. He is again Iron Man, this time admitting his identity to the adoring crowds that cheers him as though he were a rock star. As Tony Stark, he is strong, thanks to his iron suit which comes accompanied by awesome hardware including machine guns and killing rays. But he is also vulnerable, dying in fact from the vagaries of his own industry. He tests his blood regularly, noting the percentage of toxins therein, and makes decisions on his successor in the Stark Corporation.

The visuals take video-game movie fare to a high pitch, particularly in the final scenes when Tony Stark and his Russian nemesis, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), go heavy metal on each other. Stark is accompanied in battle by Lt. Col. James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes (Don Cheadle, who comes off stiff unlike the more relaxed Terrence Howard who starred in the first version). They go at each other in a battle to the death, Vanko specializing in producing lightning from both arms while Stark tries to talk the guy to death and, when not succeeding, gains leverage by holding his palm out to him. Why give him just the finger when you put him off with your whole hand? Sam Rockwell steals the scenes that give him time as Justin Hammer, a man who betrays the corporation by an alliance with the villain, hoping to get suited up with some heavy metal himself for reasons not too clear. Samuel L. Jackson appears with a patch over his eye, which may have been the result of an injury sustained while transporting himself from what seems to be another comic book; Garry Shandling gets screen play as a senator who demands that Stark turn over his iron to the government (Stark is free-market conservative, though, who insists on keeping everything himself); and director Jon Favreau pops up now and then as Happy Hogan, who in the process of teaching Natalie how to box is thrown for a loop in the ring. Good strong roles for women, here, great visuals. Try to see this at an IMAX theater where it is showing, gratefully, in just 2-D.

Rated PG-13 124 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 



Ben Hollingsworth, Amber Heard, Demi Moore and David Duchovny

Derrick Borte's
The Joneses
Opens Friday, April 16, 2010

Written By: Derrick Borte
Starring: Demi Moore; David Duchovny; Amber Heard; and Ben Hollingsworth

Roadside Attractions
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

A slew of “happiness” books have been published lately, the best being Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project.” Most authors don’t see the road to happiness as being smoothly paved and they all seem to agree that money, at least beyond a certain fairly nominal amount, does not buy happiness. When told this diagnosis, a wag once responded, “Maybe money doesn’t buy happiness, but give me a million and let me shop around for a while.”

In his dazzling debut as a director, the German-born-but-US-educated-actor Derrick Borte puts a stunning visual spin on the old question about the relationship of money to happiness. At first, we in the audience for Borte’s The Joneses, get the impression that living la dolce vida in suburbia blows away the argument put forth by most of these books; money does seem to buy a lot of happiness. We watch a broadly smiling family made up of Steve (David Duchovny), his wife Kate (Demi Moore) and two teen children Jenn (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) enjoying their new digs—a block-long mansion decorated with sleek contemporary furniture on polished wood floor - golf clubs, big-screen TV etc. They have broad smiles when their next-door neighbors, Larry (Gary Cole) and his wife Summer (Glenne Headly) stop by with a gift to welcome them to their new gated community.

It’s not long, though, that we find out that the newly-entrenched quartet are not a family at all, but a construct of a marketing corporation whose salespeople are trained to get their neighbors so envious of their (mock) holdings that they will buy, baby, buy. Steve demonstrates custom carved golf clubs to three new pals on the course, and makes the sale. Kate throws a lavish party to introduce a score of nearby folks to their digs. Result? Copies of everything they own are quickly purchased.

The Joneses takes us into the lives of people whose interests lie almost solely in their possessions—the best golf clubs, the finest hair salons and spas, the most elaborate vacations. Ultimately, justice triumphs, but not until Borte has given us a sparkling two acts that do, however, threaten to become undone when the film turns to melodrama in the third segment.

Given the scandals with Enron and the recent meltdown of banks and brokerage firms, it has become fashionable to attack materialism. Borte, however, does not appear to be opposed to people buying stuff they can well afford - he is pillorying the practices corporations use to entice people to want to buy what they do not need.

The Joneses is a terrifically entertaining movie, slick and commercial as opposed to being deliberately grainy for the sake of seeming like cinema verité. David Duchovny in particular turns in a sharp performance as a laid-back fellow who can sell clothes, sporting equipment, cars, TVs, whatever else his marketing company wants him to push, without being high-pressure in the slightest. Duchovny is paired with Demi Moore as the fake wife who insists that they sleep in separate rooms and treat each other strictly like partners in a lucrative business. As a neighbor taken in by their ostensible dream life, Gary Cole's character, Larry, proves himself to be a big patsy who is taken in by the glitter, buying things he cannot afford simply to please his heretofore frigid wife Summer. Lauren Hutton plays the role of KC, the boss, who tracks her employees’ sales on a computer graph and judges them strictly and fairly by their production.

It becomes obvious while watching the film that Borte was inspired by themes from such movies as Sam Mendes’s American Beauty and anti-suburban tracts like Mendes’s Revolutionary Road (really about people who blame their unhappiness on the ‘burbs) and Richard Linklater’s SubUrbia. The Joneses may not be deep like the films mentioned above, but with a snappy script and a class ensemble of actors, it’s a marvelous entertainment, one that could put Derrick Borte in line for awards.

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


 

Tim Blake Nelson's
Leaves of Grass
Opens Friday, April 2, 2010

Written By: Tim Blake Nelson
Starring: Edward Norton; Keri Russell; Richard Dreyfuss; Susan Sarandon; Josh Pais; and Melanie Lynskey

First Look Studios
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

In his production notes, director Tim Blake Nelson says that we all try tofind balance in our lives: between order and rationality, between chaos and spontaneity. This is another way of interpreting Aristotle’s notion that a happy life finds a mean between two opposite poles, the ultimate happy medium. Leaves of Grass quotes not only the obvious author, Walt Whitman, but philosophers like Epicurus, Aristotle and Socrates; the playwrights Shakespeare, Plautus and Sophocles; even Lucretius.

This is heady stuff, the making of a film that would go over big with highbrows, yet have enough comedy and melodrama to become a hit with the groundlings. Yet, ironically, the film's shifts in tone from comedy to melodrama, from refined characters to screw-ups, make the movie neither here nor there. It would seem to fit in neither the art-house theaters nor the mainstream ‘plexes, though Edward Norton should create a draw for all levels of sophistication. The idea of twin brothers who appear regularly in the same frames of the 104-minute film, not only in the stereotypical cross-cuts but even in one scene that shows a brother (Norton) trying to strange his brother (also Norton). Nelson definitely used the right editor for his quasi-philosophic comedy-drama.

Leaves of Grass stars Edward Norton in two roles, one as Bill Kincaid, a beloved philosophy professor at Brown University, the other as Brady Kincaid, a screw-up pot grower in the sticks of Oklahoma who owes serious money to a drug kingpin. The best scenes are in the opening minutes, of special value if you’re a student of philosophy or one who aspired to gain happiness through wisdom. Bill Kincaid (Edward Norton) is delivering a lecture in front of a board loaded with chalk, discussing a bevy of philosophers to make his points. The women in the class are misty-eyed and smiling, not because they love Socrates but because they’re all in love with Bill—or so says the receptionist.

When Bill hears that his estranged Oklahoma based brother Brady (Edward Norton) has been murdered with a crossbow, he flies south to Little Dixie, Oklahoma, to find his brother very much alive. Brady claims that he wants his brother to be with him at his upcoming wedding to a pregnant Colleen (Melanie Lynskey). That’s not true either: Brady has more nefarious plans for the well-dressed, handsome professor, plans which involves drug lord Pug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss). This adventures leads Bill out of academe, into the real world where he engages in a romance with poet and high-school English teacher, Janet (Keri Russell) and interacts with, among others, a Manhattan orthodondist moving his practice south, Ken Feinman (Joseph Pais). Bill is also reunited with this his eccentric mom, Daisy (Susan Sarandon), who lives in a nursing home for reasons not entirely logical.

Light touches lead to serious stuff going down; bodies are sprawled out everywhere. The pot boiler involves two stereotypically drawn members of Tulsa’s small Jewish community, officials you don’t want to run into like Big Joe Sharpe (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and one good guy resembling a refugee from the sixties, Bolger (Tim Blake Nelson).

It costs a number of bodies to make the film's point that ultimately you want to reconcile with the estranged people you grew up with to gain release from guilt feelings and find redemption. All these ideas underly the literature of classical civilization. Nevertheless, much of the mayhem feels forced rather than organic. Colorful cast notwithstanding, the picture ultimately disappoints. Nonetheless watching two-time Oscar-nominated Edward Norton ply his talents (perhaps seeking his first Academy win) makes watching the film worthwhile.

Rated R. 104 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Gianni Di Gregorio’s
Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto)


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by: Gianni Di Gregorio

Starring: Gianni Di Gregorio; Valeria De Franciscis; Marina Cacciotti; Maria Calì; and Grazia Cesarini Sforza

In Italian with subtitles

Gianni Di Gregorio, co-writer of the fierce and ferocious Gomorrah, makes his directorial debut with the opposite end of the spectrum: a quiet, plot-less comedy filled with nuance and grace.

Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto) is a gem of a film filled with hilarious and poignant moments. The film treats the elderly with the respect and dignity they deserve. No one dies or has a stroke. Instead, they are delightful, petulant and, ultimately, just looking to have some fun via food, vino, television and, even, a little flirting. Imagine!

Gianni (Gianni Di Gregorio) is a bachelor in his 50s who cares for his 93-year old mother. Behind in condo bills (they live in Rome’s wonderful Trastevere neighborhood), Gianni and his mother agree to take in the condo manager’s mother for a few days. In turn, the manager will “forget” some of the past due fees. When the man and his mother arrive, they bring along an Aunt as well. Before the day is over, he has also been coerced into taking in his doctor’s mother, since he cannot afford the house call he made.

Gianni must now deal with these four marvelously eccentric ladies—cooking for them (food is a very important part of any Italian’s day) and dealing with their legion of idiosyncrasies. I won’t spoil any of the wonders of the film, suffice to say, the results are funny and enchanting.

The film perfectly captures the reality that in the Italian culture, if you are unmarried, you remain home with your mother no matter how old you are. It also hilariously shows the lengths some sons are willing to go to get away from mom…if only for a day!


Felix van Groeningen's
The Misfortunates
(De Helaasheeid der dingen)
Opens April 14, 2010

Written By: Christophe Dirickx; Felix van Goeningen; based on Dimitri Verhulst’s novel “De Helasheeid der dingen”
Starring:: Koen De Graeve; Johan Heldenbergh; Wouter Hendricks; Bert Haelvoet; Valentijn Dhaenens; Kenneth Vanbaeden; and Gilda De Bal
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 3/30/10

Neoclassics Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If you were brought up in a tight knit family, you’ll probably identify with the slogan uttered now and then by one of the members of the family in The Misfortuntes: “No one lays a finger on a Strobbe.” Then again, maybe that’s not such a great feat, because who’d want to? In adapting a best-selling novel about a wacky Belgian family, filmmaker Felix Van Groeninger captures the essence of Dimitri Verhulst’s book “De helaasheid der dingen," making the tome cinematic by giving more activity to the principal performer.

The Misfortunates (Belgium’s Oscar entry for Best Foreign Picture of 2009) is a down-and-dirty look at a white-trash family in the Belgian province of Flanders. The film is set in 1988 with occasional extensions to current times. Few films possess the kind of genre-swapping that Groeningen taps into, merging off-the-wall ribaldry with moments of tender emotion, a look at people who are wasting their lives as seen through the prisms of comedy and sympathy.

In the film, the Strobbes are a family of six seen through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Gunther Strobbe (Kenneth Vanbaeden), who is living with his father, Celle (Koen De Graeve), his grandmother (Gilda De Bal), and his uncles Petrol (Wouter Hendrickx, (Johan Heldenbergh), and Koen (Bert Haelvoet). Whether the middle-aged men still possess jobs of not, they are without a euro, having gambled, drunk, or womanized their money away. As the young man on the threshold of his teens, Gunther seems not to know that his dad and uncles are bad influences: he looks up to one and all as he takes in the brawling, cursing, and attempts by his granny to moderate everyone’s behavior. One might well wonder how the boy ever grew up to write five successful novels commencingthe first at the age of thirty-three, but rest assured, he is not emotionally healthy. And though resolved never to have a kid of his own, he is faced by the pregnancy of a girlfriend who refuses his demand to “get rid of it.”

Photographer Ruben Impens uses the Red One digital camera to capture the images, which include the generic hardscrabble town that’s out in nowhere and could for all we know be a forgotten American rural community. Using a variety of filters, Impens is aided greatly by editor Nico Leunen, who seamlessly traverses the two eras of Gunther the young observer and Gunther the active participant. Koen De Graeve registers the strongest performance in the key role of Gunther’s drunken, brawling dad, who is so attached to his kid that he resents the boy’s decision to leave the family and attend a boarding school— a decision which appears to have saved Gunther from the fate of his elders.

Scenes bursting with good spirits include a bike race (participants pumping their pedals butt naked) and a beer-drinking contest that reminds us of Nathan’s annual hot-dog eating competition. One can’t help being left with the feeling that most kids raised in such households would become like their caregivers; that this boy is exceptional in his will to transcend his family troubles particularly since he is so fond of the men. While The Misfortunates may not yield a laugh-out-loud reception from the audience, its genre-smashing and strong performances make this a picture worth your while.

The dialogue is in Dutch with English subtitles.

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



Bahman Ghobadi's
No One Knows About Persian Cats
(Kasi az gorbehayeh irani khabar nadareh)

Written By: Bahman Ghobadi, Roxana Saberi
Starring: Negar Shaghaghi: Ashan Koshanejad: Hamed Behdad

IFC Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Is it not rational to believe that governments should allow their residents to do anything that does not harm others as illustrated by the adage, “Your freedom ends where my nose begins?” If smoking in a closed space causes a problem for non-smokers, then smokers are hurting others and thus regulation is needed in restaurants. If drinking harms only the person who is imbibing, then alcohol should be legal for adults, who are presumably mature enough to do what they want with their own bodies.

But when activities that we in the West believe OK conflict with the ideologies of of the Middle East, some Middle Eastern leaders support repressive laws. The average Westerner can see no harm in allowing people who like rock music or hip-hop to attend the concerts of musicians who appeal to these audiences. I’m still grooving on Bach’s Toccata and Fugue and hear little of interest in most pop music (Beyoncé excepted), but if millions of others dig 50 Cent, Run DMC, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, why should I care if that music is played on their iPODs?

Such reasonable liberties, were banned in Afghanistan where all music was once prohibited under the Taliban. Rock music is still verboten in Iran eve though seventy percent of the country is under thirty. In this lies madness.

Persian Cats director, Bahman Ghobadi, is best known for Turtles Can Fly, a film set in the director’s native Kurdistan, which tells the story fo a 13-year-old boy who installs an antenna so the residents of his village can hear about Saddam's fall, but while greatful for this fall, he is disturbed by his girlfriend’s brother who was left armless after he stepped on a landmine. Ghobodi, who presently lives in Berlin, directed his latest Iranian based film, No One Knows About Persian Cats, on the fly with high-speed cameras. Ghobadi is appalled that a country swarming with energetic youths has a government that may allow religious songs but bans indie rock as a violation of the Koran. Government ideology trumps money, it seems. (Except that, not mentioned in the film is the strange fact that Supreme Leader Ali Khameni, who preaches fundamentalist Islam, has personal assets of $30 billion, owning 8 planes, 5 helicopters and twelve times as many cars as Jay Leno, all purchased with corrupt money siphoned off from oil sales.)

Cats is filmed in docu-drama style; it is based on a true story documented in part by recently imprisoned Iranian-American co-scripter Roxana Saberi. The film tells the story of one youthful group which is making plans to perform concerts in London and other European cities. They raise funds for both eight tickets to London and funds to pay for acquiring false passports and visas. Negar (Negar Shaghaghi), a quiet-spoken woman with large eyeglasses who has performed as a duo with Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad), is determined to play at least once more in her native country, despite the lack of permits. The two conspire with DVD bootlegger Nader (Hamed Behdad), a man with contacts who for a stiff price can prepare the illegal documents. While they wait, they zip around Tehran on a motocycle (he without a helmet), hooking up with other performers of indie, or underground, rock, the bands rehearsing literally underground in soundproof basements.

During the course of the film, we in the audience are made privy to segments of their music, the most impressive being a song performed off stage by Rana Farhan. Most of the singing is sung in their native Farsi, but some songs are sung in English, a tactic designed to win them approval in their upcoming trip. All groups, including those named Hichkas and Mirza, are illegal.

While the director is on record as loving music—eating, sleeping, listening to it throughout the day—his principal objective in making this film is to underscore the unreasonable repressions of the regime, a regime that was recently reaffirmed by the stolen election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While driving through Tehran’s traffic jams, the duo are stopped by the police who confiscate their dog, as dogs and cats may not legally be taken outdoors. “Filthy,” says the policeman off-screen, as he seizes the dog through an open window and speeds away. The most humorous scenes find motormouth Nader pleading with a judge who wants to sentence him to a stiff fine and 75 lashes, and one in which a rock band sorrowfully admits that a few cows on one singer’s small farm refuse to eat or give milk while the band rehearses. We actually see a pair of bovines looking at each other as if to say “What’s with these guys?”

Photographer Turaj Aslani takes us on a tour of Tehran but appears to have avoided any place that might be of touristic interest. The lenses underscore a city with no visible personality. The title of the film comes from the law forbidding cats to be taken outside, symbolizing these ambitious music-makers’ mandate to perform what they know best indoors in soundproof basements. For better or worse, the film will surprise those who believe that Iranians are obsessed with making movies about children such as Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon, about people who try to con a child into giving up the money her mother gave her to buy a goldfish. No One Knows About Persian Cats is of importance to those interested in both politics and music though it lacks the elegance of the outputs of filmmakers of imaginative fiction like Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Majid Majidi and Abbas Kiarostami.

Unrated. 101 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Niko von Glasow's
Nobody's Perfect
Opens April 16, 2009

Written By: Andrew Emerson, Kiki von Glasow, Niko Glasow

Starring: Fred Dove: Mat Fraser: Stefan Fricke: Sigrid Kwella:, Andreas Myeer: :Kim Morton: Doris Pakendorf; Sofia Plich; Petra Uttenweiler; Bianca Vogel; Mandel von Glasow; Niko von Glasow; and Theo Zavelberg

Lorber Films/Kino Lorber Inc.
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

In Roland Emmerich’s 1996 movie Independence Day, Julius Levinson tells those around him to pray. “But I’m not Jewish,” protests one. “Nobody’s perfect,” replies Levinson. There are worse things that can happen to people than being born other than Jewish, although the general public probably thinks that imperfect people must be permanently depressed. In an occasionally amusing, even upbeat documentary about people born with deformities because their mothers took the drug Thalidomode while they were pregnant, Niko von Glasow, himself a Thalidomide victim, pulls together twelve people for an unusual project. To have them “come out” in the most graphic way, all would be photographed nude, their tiny arms, or miniature legs to be seen in posters that would be exhibited in a public square in Germany.

Most of the Thalidomode babies were born in Germany from mothers, who, while pregnant, took the drug in the years between 1957 when it was first released until 1961 when it was banned. The drug was not properly screened before its release and was being used by these women to combat morning sickness. Some women may have taken only a single such pill, but that’s all that was needed to produce babies with deformed arms and legs. The luckier kids might be missing only their thumbs.

Niko von Glasow, who directs and co-write the documentary, is affected with arms that are only three inches long, making him afraid to swim with his incredibly photogenic and normally developed son, Mandel. Realizing that the key to emotional health is, in part, to accept yourself, warts and all, and to stop trying to hide physical defects (like men who get toupees, perhaps), Glasow “came out,” interviewing an assortment of contacts who include Sigrid Kwelle, a lesbian dance instructor with the most serious deformity in the film: she was born with only one finger, no arms, and has to eat and drink with her toes. This has not stopped her from attracting a mate, who has been living with her for years. Stefan Fricke, shown in a wheelchair with a background and appearance that could make you think of the brilliant scientist Stephen Hawking, is an astrophysicist who notes that in our own galaxy there are about a hundred million stars. Though his Vietnamese wife left him, the filmmaker considers him the “hero” who is most at peace with his handicap.

Andreas Meyer represents the guy who is most political, most focused on the arrogant way that the Grünenthal Corporation, developer of the drug, never apologized and fought any settlement to the limit, forcing the victims in a class action to accept a fraction of what they should have received. He notes that Grünenthal’s head chemist started experimenting on Jews in the Krakow concentration camp during the Second World War.

I’d have liked to see more coverage on exactly how this drug works in the human body to cause such damage. What does come across perhaps partly resulting from the Thalidomide disasters of the late fifties is the attention our own U.S. government pays to Big Pharma. If you’ve been watching the commercials for Cialis, Viagra, on how people now trust their hearts to Lipitor and the like, you may have noticed that more time is taken up with announcements of harmful side effects than on the virtues of the drugs. As the Cialis people say on TV, “If you have an erection lasting more than four hours, consult your health care provider.” Why? To be congratulated and envied? This is all to the good and obviously the drug makers would not be putting this information into TV spots unless forced to do so by the FDA.

The documentary, however valuable in information, could use Michael Moore’s wit to relieve some of the monotony of the talking heads, the bane of documentaries in general, and also to get across a more effective broadside against the corporation that continued sending out its product months after its gruesome side effects were publicized. The movie takes its place among literary, celluloid and theatrical productions that virtually announce, “Hey, nobody’s perfect. Stop staring at people who look different from you, and stop averting your eyes at the same time. Inside, we’re just like you.”

Unrated. 74 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

 


 


David Kittredge's
Pornography A Thriller

Opens April 16th in NY and LA

Written by David Kittredge
Starring: Matthew Montgomery: Pete Scherer: Walter Delmar: Jared Grey; and Dylan Vox

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Pornography A Thriller
is an audacious new film that challenges and mindfucks it’s audience the way the best David Lynch films do (Mulholland Drive, in particular, leaps to mind).

In his (non-linear) narrative feature directorial debut, David Kittredge poses fascinating and disturbing questions and refuses to answer them in any direct, cohesive or obvious way and how fucking refreshing is that? Instead, audience participation is key to enjoying this bold and exciting film.

One of the many joys of Pornography (love that fragment!), is the various themes presented about the nature of desire and why people are drawn to porn. The movie also delves into the dark side of the industry and how aficionados of porn (as well as folks in general) are soon bored with the same old-same old sexually, and crave the new and thrilling—and how dangerous losing oneself in fantasy can be.

Kittredge is a clever filmmaker and he keeps the mystery of his crazy/crackers/cuckoo narrative alive. He even pokes fun at the expectations—requirements that audiences have (thanks mostly to Hollywood) that films be simple and packaged---all must be explained in the end…well, not in this madflick! Kittredge dares the audience to fill in their own blanks—to think, for a change—to piece it together themselves, but to also ruminate on their own complicity in the necessity for pornography.

Broken into three specific portions, the film first chronicles the last few days in the life of porn star Mark Anton (Jared Grey). The bracingly lengthy scene between Alton and the sleazy producer is compelling and a perfect example of how well written, directed and acted the film is. The look of this first segment has a very gritty, 70s-movie feel to it with a porno-blue color domination.

Just when you’re settling in for being unsettled, the film jarringly switches gears as we flash forward 14 years and writer Michael Castigan (a believably grungy Matthew Montgomery) is investigating the actual disappearance of Anton. He has just moved into a new place with his lover and the apartment seems to hold some clues to the ever-growing mystery.

But don’t get too comfy because just when you feel you’re becoming as unhinged as the characters onscreen, the film shifts a third time as we watch porn star/writer/director-wannabe Matt Stevens (Pete Scherer) writing the story of Mark Anton. Apparently he’s been dreaming his life, not even certain there was ever a real Mark Anton, and has been typing it into a porn extravaganza. Stevens insists on playing Anton and directing. Many of the characters in this segment resemble people in the first and second segments.

The surreality of the situation reaches a plateau as the film speeds towards its highly ambiguous and spellbinding conclusion.

The cast is mostly above par with Jared Grey and Pete Scherer particularly outstanding as the porn star and his portrayer. Ironically, these two actors are also in The Art of Being Straight. Kudos to both for being discerning.

Midway through Pornography, images are shown of a hot young porn star and a story is told about how he went berserk and killed his director and co-star. On occasion these images are returned to but I was hoping for another alternate reality link to the already spider webby story. And maybe there was and I just need to see it a third time…or wait for the DVD deleted scenes.

I look forward to seeing more of what Kittredge has to offer as a filmmaker. His work is vital and original and he isn’t afraid to piss the viewer off. I can respect that.



Juan Jose Campanella's
The Secret In Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos)
Opens Friday, April 16, 2010

Written By: Juan Jose Campanella and Eduardo Sacheri from Eduardo Sacheri’s novel, La pregunta de sus ojos

Starring: Ricardo Darin; Soledad Villamil; Guillermo Francella; Pablo Rago; Javiet Godino; and Jose Luis Gioia

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

On the day of a critics’ screening of The Secret in their Eyes— the Argentine entry which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film of 2009—an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Can You Alter Your Memory: Taking the Sting Out of Upsets.” People may soon be treated by new techniques for phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety-related conditions. Rape victims can replace their memories with less fear-filled ones.

Yet, maybe not all bad memories should be expunged. If writers deleted every unpleasant event from their lives, where would their novels come from? If love unrequited did not cause pain, how would poetry get written? Juan Jose Campanella does, in effect, deal with this paradox—that painful memories, if expunged, would lead to happier lives for at least two people in his film. Had this happened, however, justice would not have been served, and a long-held love that perished because a man lacked the confidence to express it, might never have reignited.

Writer-director Campanella spins a tale of a romance whose embers burn after more than a quarter of a century within a crime thriller, the two story lines seamlessly woven in a film with serious heft but also with considerable comic turns, particularly delivered by one Argentinian performer who is known in his own country as a great comic artist. If any movie is deserving of its over two-hours’ length, every moment capturing the audience through remarkable performances, this is it.

Campanella, known in the U.S. for having directed seventeen TV episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, situates the movie in two eras: one is present-day Argentina, which finds retired prosecutor-investigator Benjamin Espósito (Ricardo Darín) drawing a blank page when penning a novel based on incidents in his own life (most from 1974). The film is simultaneously also set in the present. He visits his former office to refresh his memory and hs is greeted by Judge Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), a woman for whom he has been carrying a torch for a quarter century, unexpressed because of class differences (she is a Cornell graduate, he has only high school). A long flashback to 1974 brings us to the investigation of the rape-murder of Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo), a 23-year-old newly married to Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago). The police on 1974 seemed unusually eager to close the case, to the extent that they beat confessions out of two innocents. But the present day Espósito and his bumbling alcoholic assistant, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), doggedly pursue the case to the disgust of the chief judge, who is so opposed to a re-opening the case that Espósito and the magistrate come to physical blows. Something was rotten in Argentina in the seventies, a time when the junta would do anything to win the conflict with rebels.

When Espósito sees a group picture in the criminal file, examining particularly the eyes of one man, he has a hunch: these are the eyes that hold the secret: this man, Isidoro Gómez (Javiet Godino), is the killer.

The film’s loudest and most visceral scene occurs in a soccer stadium where tens of thousands of people cheer their teams. In that location the investigators, stepping beyond their authorized bounds, believe they will find their man.

High action in the film reminds us of similar scenes in blockbuster movies. These scenes contrast quiet romantic episodes, as one man who is getting on in years and hating the thought of dining alone, is moved to action.

Writer-director Campanella, whose El hijo de la novia tells the story of a 42-year-old man who, after a crisis, is helped to reconstruct his past and move toward the future, has demonstrated his interest in showing the ways that the past may both hurt and aid individuals in crisis. El secreto de los ojos intrigues by similar means, it is a more complex film with its storyline about the politics of the extreme right-wing government that ruled Argentina in the 1970's.

Competing with sixty-five other non-English pics, this gem fully deserved its recent Academy Award.

Unrated. 127 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Paul Schrader in Tales From the Script

Peter Hanson's
Tales from the Script
Opened Friday, March 19, 2010


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by Peter Hanson & Paul Herman.

Featuring: William Goldman; Richard Rush; Paul Shrader; Shane Black; John Carpenter; and Frank Darabont.

As a film lover/playwright/screenwriter and person who gleefully wallows in all-things-cinema, I found Peter Hanson’s Tales from the Script to be a riveting, maddening and wonderful experience. But if your idea of fun does not involve almost two hours of screenwriters (successful—dubiously so and otherwise--as well as unsuccessful) bitching and moaning about how they’re never treated properly, perhaps this won’t be your cup of tea.

For the most part, it’s a treat to watch 46 screenwriters discuss the craft, tell stories—with happy endings and without as well as wax angry and frustrated about how they are treated as an “abused entity” and bemoan the ‘duplicitous nature’ of Hollywood.

Fab film clips from gems such as The Last Tycoon, The Way We Were, Barton Fink and In a Lonely Place open each segment--but where was Robert Altman’s The Player, the quintessential Hollywood screenwriter film???

The docu is most fascinating when it delivers some glimpses into the the ever-changing world of filmmaking like a discussion about how the market-research –era of the 1980s changed the industry forever or when a fairly unknown screenwriter discusses going from being on food stamps to getting a gig.

And when great screenwriters like William Goldman, Paul Schrader, Richard Rush, Naomi Foner, Peter Hyams and Ron Shelton speak, it commands our attention. But, really, who cares what the writers of Click have to offer??? And it was sickening having to listen to Shane Black (who received a buttload of money for the mess that was The Last Action Hero) whine and complain about how ill-treated he is. Shut up and write something good (actually, to be fair, he did: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.)

Writer/Director John Carpenter puts it best when he says: “They paid you, so stop bitching, stop whining and move on!”

Director Peter Hanson should have spent more time interviewing more reputable screenwriters instead of loading the film with so many lesser level figures. Andrew W. Marlowe is a great example of someone who we should not be listening to speak about the craft. His credits are: Air Force One, Hollow Man and End of Days. His writing is crap!

Still the film offers an interesting glimpse into the world of the unsung movie hero: the writer.

 



Don Hahn's
Waking Sleeping Beauty
Opens Friday, March 26, 2010


Written By: Patrick Pacheco
Starring: Tim Burton; John Lasseter; Don Bluth; Michael Eisner; Roy Edward Disney; Jeffrey Katzenberg; John Musker; Christopher Emerson; Don Hahn; Glen Keane; Randy Cartwright; Sir Elton John

Walt Disney Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

The last few years have been a rough time for American finance—recession, job losses, pessimism and a loss in the stock market so extensive that investors who did not sell when the selling was good lost half their Wall Street wealth. Those with little faith in the future sold out when the market was at the bottom, while the optimists correctly guessed that in the good old American way, the market would rebound.

The boom and bust cycle applies to industries other than the stock market. One of the greatest boom/bust and recovery stories involves Walt Disney pictures, which was in the dumps during the seventies. During that decade, people no longer had a strong appetite for animation, and the Disney was teetering on the edge.

According to Disney insider Don Hahn, the director of the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, Disney’s problems seemed largely due to a a lack of innovation. But, during the eighties and nineties, the company, which was founded by brothers Walt and Roy Disney in 1923, enjoyed a miraculous renaissance. Today, everyone is familiar with the booming successes of The Lion King, Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Rescuers Down Under and Nightmare Before Christmas. The greatest praise in this documentary is bestowed upon Beauty and the Beast, which drew an extended standing ovation at the New York Film Festival when the unfinished, black-and-version of the film was shown. This was quite an accolade because the New Yorkers who attend these festivals rarely deliver more than polite applause which is bestowed only when members of the cast and crew are present for discussion.

Waking Sleeping Beauty is that rare picture in which a company CEO, Dick Cook in this case, gives a group of filmmakers free range to capture the problems of the world’s largest entertainment company. Were you to read in an extended article in The New Yorker about the Disney turnaround, you might find the drama dry. In this film, however, we can see the enthusiasm of the executive and animators alike. To Don Hahn’s credit, he did away with the awful documentary convention of having old people reminisce about the past while sitting in chairs across the aisle from the interviewers. Instead, Hahn depends on voiceover's to narrate the goings on during this period of frenzy, when animators were often forced to attend meetings at six in the morning and remained in the studio around the clock. The spouses of these employees could not be blamed if they looked elsewhere for companionship, for this group of animators obviously believed in the adage that “my colleagues are my family.” One surprise, though, is the almost complete absence of women and African-Americans. The Disney renaissance was a white male preserve, though no explanation was given for this uniformity in the documentary.

As executives like Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner and Roy Disney (Walt’s nephew) recounts the events of that golden age, the film often becomes plodding. The highlights of the film are the contagious, vibrant spirits of a group of innovators who looked forward to meetings at six in the morning (easy enough when they’ve spent the entire night on the premises).

The high spots of the documentary are ( a) snippets from the blockbusting cartoons and (b) caricatures that the animators drew for one another, particularly the one that depicts Roy Disney berating some workers with fire gushing from his mouth and a similar one showing a colleague’s head leaping up and out of his body. I did wish there were more examples from Beauty and the Beast. in particular, so the documentary audience, who may have only a faint memory of Beauty, could see what it was about that film that excited its audience so enormously.

Rated PG. 86 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Jerry Zaks's
Who Do You Love
Opens April 9, 2010

Written By: Peter Wortmann and Bob Conte
Starring: Alessandro Nivola; David Oyelowo; Chi McBride; Jon Abrahams; Megalyn Echikunwoke; Marika Dominczyk; Miko Defoor and Keb’ Mo’

International Film Circuit
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


Who Do You Love is a biopic with some electrifying moments. The film tells the story of Chicago blues during the forties and fifties just before the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Who Do You Love is superbly cast with Alessandro Nivola as a Jewish immigrant from Poland, who together with his brother took extreme financial risks to establish the well-known Chess records empire. Chess Records produced what was then called Negro music, giving prominence to Muddy Waters, Little Walter, The Moonglows, The Flamingos, Chuck Berry, Etta James Fontella Bass, Koko Taylor, Little Milton, Laura Lee and Tommy Tucker.

A few of the stars of Chess records—founded by Lejzor Czys, who emigrated to Chicago from Motal, Poland (now Belarus) and was reborn as Leonard Chess—are given a chance to perform by way of actors like David Oyelowo as Muddy Waters, Chi McBride ad Willie Dixon, Megalyn Echikunwoke as Ivy Mills (who was Etta James), Kimo Defoor as Little Walter and Keb’Mo” as Jimmy Rogers.

Scenes explore Leonard’s home life, highlighting the tension between Chess and his wife Revetta (Marika Dominczyk), who became aware of her husband’s affair with one of the singers, Ivy Mills, a dope addict that Chess tried to dry out by locking her in a motel room for a couple of week.

The film starts on all cylinders as producer Alan Freed introduces Bo Diddly at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater in 1955, more or less ushering in the rock ‘n’ roll craze which emerged from the blues. Director Jerry Zaks quickly brings us to the close relationship between Leonard and his brother Phil (Jon Abrahams), equal partners throughout, as they trash their junkyard proprietorship in favor of taking a risky bank loan to build the Macombe Lounge. “If they dance, we’ll succeed,” noting that also that if they don’t dance, it’s goodbye Macombe Lounge. The risk paid off.

With the obligatory fictionalizing from Peter Wortmann and Bob Conte’s screenplay, Chi McBride and David Oyelowo virtually take the picture away from Nivola as Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters respectively, but the interplay of the white producers and black performers exudes dazzling chemistry. One aspect of race relations that some in the audience may not realize is that even in the North—in Illinois and Indiana during the fifties—dance halls that included patrons both black and white fielded a rope across the center, separating the couples, at least until the dramatic and likely fictitious barrier gets torn away during one event.

You don’t have to love blues to dig Who Do You Love, and while some in the audience might find the picture slow going, my own attention was riveted throughout. Love is solid entertainment.

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



Barry Levinson's
You Don't Know Jack
Opens April 24, 2010 on HBO


Written by: Adam Mazer
Starring: Al Pacino; Susan Sarandon; Danny Huston; Brenda Vaccaro; and John Goodman

HBO Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Al Pacino was thirty-two years of age when he played Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic film The Godfather. Now seventy, he plays—nay, he is—Jack Kevorkian, a retired doctor dedicated to performing what he calls a medical service, which is ending the pain and suffering of serious ill people who request his attentions. Michael Corleone got his way by techniques such as putting a bullet into a rival’s brain. Yet one gets the impression from the hysteria surrounding the Kevorkian case that the American people were more upset about what Dr. Kevorkian was engaged in than what Corleone had done--had that fictitious person been real.

Organized crime makes for great cinema. By rights, euthanasia shouldn’t have much of a chance to compete, but in Barry Levinson’s two-part drama appearing April 24 and beyond on HBO, an almost unrecognizable Al Pacino delivers a stellar performance, never slipping on the Mid-West timbre of Kevorkian’s speech (the action takes place wholly inside Michigan), pronouncing “no” like “noooo,” keeping both body language and verbosity at a restrained pitch for most of the time while raising the roof in high drama in other situations.

If you think you know about Jack Kevorkian, how he performed acts of euthanasia and what became of him during a well-publicized trial, you don’t really know Jack. You won’t become bosom-buddies with the man after watching 144 minutes of Pacino and company, but you’ll likely be caught-up enough with the man’s character to come away with more insight that you’d had before.

A terrific ensemble cast lends credibility to the story: Danny Huston as the lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger; Brenda Vaccaro as the doc’s fiery sister, Margo; John Goodman as Neal Nicol, a medical technician as Jack’s best friend; and Susan Sarandon as Janet Good, an activist with the pro-euthanasia Hemlock Society.

Kevorkian assisted in ending the suffering of 130 people, though assisted suicide was not permitted under Michigan law. Before the disturbing conclusion of the story when the doctor’s luck runs out, he had convinced juries with videotaped pleas of several patients, most poignant those suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, a frightening, incurable illness that destroys the muscles beginning with the legs, paralyzing the arms, cutting off speech, and ultimately causing death by asphyxiation. Put on trial by an ambitious district attorney who has the support of some religious groups and conceivably millions of people nationwide, Kevorkian wins largely by showing videotapes made of the recently deceased, including weeping testimony by their loved ones who praise him for releasing the afflicted from incessant pain—pain described by one as “a toothache in every bone in your body.”

He uses gas dispensed in a mask held across the sick people’s faces but also, with unfortunate results in his final service, with a combination of drugs not unlike those used in prison to carry out death sentences. When sent to jail while under one indictment, he carries out a hunger strike for nineteen days, insisting that his lawyer not pay the bond because the doctor’s aim is to challenge Michigan legislation against assisted suicide. (Regular moviegoers will be reminded of Michael Fassbender’s role as I.R.A. hunger striker Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s 2008 film Hunger.)

Ultimately Barry Levinson, best known for Rain Man, gives us enough information to decide for ourselves whether Kevorkian should be known by a familiar title, Doctor Death, or as an angel of mercy, though he does tilt the scales in Kevorkian’s favor. In one scene, a picketer with a Christian group yells to Dr. Kevorkian, “Have you no religion?” The doc replies that his God is “Johann Sebastian Bach: at least he is not imaginary like yours.” The drama abounds with such wit, flirting with mawkish intent about the poor souls who are suffering, and in at least one case a man who wants to be released so compellingly that he is unwilling to wait even one week for deliverance. Kevorkian did not deserve his ultimate fate.

Part 1 is 79 minutes. Part 2 is 65 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 

 


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