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Alexander H. Browne and Christopher Browne's
After the Cup
Opens Friday, May 21, 2010

Written By: Alexander H. Browne and Christopher Browne
Starring: Waji Abboud; Mazen Ghanayem; Eyal Lachman; and Abbas Suan

Variance Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

So Arabs and Jews are getting together for indirect talks with American diplomats acting as couriers. What's new to talk about after so many decades? Maybe talking is not the way to accomplish much. Something more physical is in order to bring disparate people together, though that physicality should not be war. Sporting events have been used by national leaders to become catalysts for uniting people who have been traditional enemies. While it takes more than a couple of games before kumbaya is sung, given the passion for sports in several national states, the program depicted in this documentary certainly cannot hurt.

In After the Cup, talking heads take a back seat to the soccer field, and those who do get interviewed are not sitting stiffly in a chair but are caught by the camera in moments of sadness and elation, depending on how their team is doing. The team in question, Bnei Sakhnin, is named for an almost exclusively Arabic town in the Galilee, some miles from the city of Acre. What stands out here and throughout the movie is that everyone speaks Hebrew, in fact one wonders whether the predominantly Arabic players on the team consider Arabic their second language. They are said to have one foot in each camp: as Israeli citizens, they appear loyal to the state of Israel, but they are also sympathetic with those they call their brothers in Gaza and the West Bank.

Much of the footage is on soccer fields in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and their home town, with citizens in the stands and watching on TV going into hysterics whenever their team scores a goal. In other words, like Europeans and South Americans (but not like us in the U.S. where soccer is no rival for football and baseball), the sport is exciting but winning is everything. By some unprecedented quirk, Bnei Sakhnin, representing the town of 23,000 people, wins the Cup and is therefore entitled to play against European teams.

The idea of bringing Arab-Israeli Muslims and Israeli Jews together through sports would appear a most desirable concept if you are on the left politically, like, for example, the Israeli Peace Now group, but in the film, we are made witness to a despicable performance from a smattering of right-wing Jews in Jerusalem who, upon the landing of the team from the Arabic town in the holy city for a game deliver vile comments to them such as “Muhammed is a homo.” ,

The film would surely fit into a human rights festival, though apolitical moviegoers who like sports will appreciate the keen action scenes filmed on the field by Eitan Raklis.

Dialogue is in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

Unrated. 80 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Alex Gibney's
Casino Jack and The United States of Money
Opens Friday, May 7, 2010


Written By: Alex Gibney
Stgarring: Jack Abramoff; William Branner; Tom DeLay; Donn Dunlop; Kevin Henderson; Hal Kreitman; Ralph Reed; Michael Scanlon; Stanley Tucci (as the voice of Jack Abramoff)

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If your reading is restricted to the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, you may think that lobbyists are those uniformed people who hand you UPS and open the door for you. If your only contact with the idea of lobbying is from a course like Political Science 101, you might imagine that lobbyists are honest people who legitimately try to educate members of Congress about their client's businesses and organizations. If you’re well beyond these examples and, in fact, are a news junkie, a subscriber to C-Span who has followed every day in the President’s struggle to provide health care to the uninsured, you will have a cynical idea about the institution of lobbying.

While amassing far more facts and incidents than can be absorbed by the average viewer, Alex Gibney—whose Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (about America’s seventh-largest company that went from the apex to bankruptcy in a year)—lays out the case that our country is ruled by cash and not by ideals. What a surprise!

Gibney utilizes plenty of talking heads on what could have been a bone-dry doc, but keeps our interest from wavering with a stunning array of graphics (particularly one that features leading politicians as faces on a casino slot machine) and some vivid background music.

Though the title character, Jack Abramoff, is the catalyst for the documentary, Casino Jack spends the majority of its two-hour time exploring the nefarious deeds of powerful Washingtonians such as former Republic Senate Majority Leader Tom DeLay, now disgraced; Ohio Congressman Robert Ney, who is in on the take and who gets his comeuppance; a Greek tycoon who is murdered allegedly by the mob; and Ralph Reed, head of the Christian coalition, who received $4 million from Casino Jack for running a faith-based, anti-gambling campaign not for religious ideals but to eliminate potential competitors from Abramoff’s other casino clients.

A key point is made that influential figures with professed religious ideals are often the perpetrators of criminal acts because they consider themselves righteous, therefore having ethical motives for what they do. Abramoff fits that bill as a a secular Jew who was so influenced by the musical Fiddler on the Roof that he became identified with a Conservative-to-Orthodox affiliation. A brief bio of the man shows that he was a jock at Beverly Hills High, able to bench-press over 500 pounds while performing on its football team. Yet at the same time he possessed enough nerdiness to lead the College Republicans, virtually worshipping Ronald Reagan. It was in college that he saw the merits of making connections with important people, later parlaying that ability into becoming America’s #1 lobbyist. His typical spiel to potential clients was that if you they wanted access to major players like Senator Tom DeLay, even getting the ear of President Bush, they should hire him to lobby. As a result, at least one Indian tribe paid him millions for rights to open a casino, while his lobbying would, at the same time, eliminate potential competition.

The movie really comes to life when dealing with the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, once a U.S. territory but now with even a closer connection as a commonwealth entity of our country. Hired by the big garment business there to press their cause with the U.S. Congress, Abramoff was able to give these “free-market” proprietors the right to pay well under the U.S. minimum wage to its Asian workers (though a buck an hour looked mighty good to immigrants accustomed to making a dime in their native countries). At the same time these garment industry could legally put “Made in the U.S.A.” on their labels.

Gibney frames the doc with scenes from Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a film that featured James Stewart as Jefferson Smith, an idealistic but naive fellow who is appointed to fill a Senate vacancy. Gibney seems to say, “Would it be too much to ask for Congress to represent the American people and not just one man, Benjamin Franklin (the face on the hundred-dollar bill)?”

Rated R. 122 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Jan Kounen 's
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky
Opens Friday, June 11, 2010


Starring: Anna Mouglalis; Mads Mikkelsen; Yelena Morozova.

Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Jan Kounen's new film, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, is the other Chanel movie. Released approximately one year after Anne Fontaine's charming Coco Before Chanel, Kounen's film shows us a harsher more venal Coco (played by Anna Mouglalis) than the Chanel played by Audrey Toutou in Coco Before Chanel. Mouglalis's Chanel is also sexually voracious and seemingly without conscience.

The film begins with the Paris debut of Serge Diaghilev's controversial new (in 1913) ballet The Rite of Spring. The ballet was choreographed by Najinsky and the music was composed by Igor Stravinsky and was considered to be quite controversial at the time. The Rite of Spring was very different from the music and choreography the citizens of Paris had previously enjoyed. The music was modern, more based on tones and moods than melodies and the ballet was abstract, even jarring.The curtain rises, the music begins and the dancers start their performance and within a few minutes the catcalls begin. The catcalls exploded into an uproar, then the audience started to riot and the police were called. (These were the days before rock concerts had siphoned the unruly from classical music performances).

Coco Chanel was in the audience that night and she was not turned off by the music or the ballet. Quite the contrary, she was intrigued.

Seven years later Chanel runs into the now impoverished Stravinsky and invites him to bring his family (consumptive wife plus four children) to live in her country home just outside Paris. The artist now has a patroness but with a twist: the patroness is also an artist whose clothing designs and sense of style are now considered to be museum quality.

Both artists are portrayed as selfish sexual animals. Anna Mouglalis's Coco seduces Stravinsky (played by Mads Mikkelsen) by simply walking into the room and taking off her clothes. The sick wife might be upstairs but the paramours have no problems enjoying each other on a daily basis. And they do until Mrs. Stravinsky (played by Yelena Morozova) decides that the situation is unbearable and leaves, taking her children with her.

The film tries to rise above the sordidness of their affair (cavorting while the sick wife is just a few feet away) by depicting Igor Stravinsky's triumphal return to the Paris Opera House where he conducts the orchestra in a performance of The Rite of Spring. This return is a benefit of his relationship with Chanel who anonymously bankrolls the performance. We are also shown the story of Coco's search for the recipe for the perfect perfume and her final discovery of the exact formula that became Chanel Number 5. The inference is that the stimulation of their affair enhanced their creativity.

But Chanel and Stravinsky's flame eventually petered out. This is not surprising if the real life characters were similar to the soulless, ambitious, amoral artists portrayed by Anna Mouglalis and Mads Mikkelsen.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky tells the story of two artists we can certainly admire but probably would not like. And that is the problem with the film. The clothes, the houses and the actors are gorgeous, but everything is a bit cold. And then there is the unfortunate comparison to the soul in Audrey Tatou's eyes.

Nevertheless, this movie is a must see for lovers of fashion and music.


Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass's
Cyrus
Opens Friday, June 18, 2010



Written By: Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass
Starring: Jonah Hill; Marisa Tomei; John C. Reilly; Catherine Keener

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Who needs to slog through the unrelentingly grim Oedipus Rex when you can enjoy watching characters deal with Oedipal conflict in Cyrus? Sophocles might turn over in his grave, watching a psychological ailment being made into a comedy, but there’s no stopping Mark and Jay Duplass. The brothers directed one of the year 2008’s leading head-scratcher pictures, Baghead, the story of four struggling actors who retreat to a cabin in Big Bear California to write a horror story which begins to come true. Cyrus is also an original (well, discounting the Greek classic), but thoroughly accessible. With some laugh-out-loud moments and a climactic, violent turn that is not only logical but even air-clearing, the Duplasses trot out a trio of characters who are not exactly a ménage-a-trois but who hit home even with a psychologically healthy audience without conscious Oedipal conflicts of their own.

Cyrus may even encourage the schlubs among us to go ahead and be vulnerable. There is a partner waiting for each of us males—maybe not Keira Knightley or Scarlet Johansson—but someone who is not bad-looking at all who has a thing for nerdy types. In fact the 21-year-old man in this movie, the title character played by 26-year-old Jonah Hill, reflects the character of mid-forties John (John C. Reilly) in just the right ways to make John particularly appealing to Molly (Marisa Tomei). Marriage may not have worked out between John and his ex-wife, Jamie (Catherine Keener), but the way John and Jamie have continued to be best friends seven years after their split mirrors the relationship between Molly and her son, Cyrus. Just when we’re about to laugh at those of our friends who say that their divorces are “friendly,” we get a picture of two such people who remain attached, perhaps because they are no longer sharing the same bed and board.

Jonah Hill had just knocked out a picture targeted to a younger audience, Get Him to the Greek. In Greek, Hill play the role of a guy whose boss orders him to get a rock singer to leave his drugs and booze long enough to fly from London to the Greek Theater in L. A. This time, a clean shaven Hill comes off as a strikingly mature kid of twenty-one who is able to have on-the-same-level talks with people twice his age but whose night terrors mark him as distinctly vulnerable as well. More important, he’s an enormously manipulative character who is so attached to his mom that like a fierce Doberman Pinscher challenging all who approach its owner, he will find a way to push potential husbands out of his mother’s life.

John and Molly meet cute: at a party that finds John turning off a couple of women with his too-honest talk about himself, Molly catches him peeing in the bushes, and from then on the sparks fly. When John visits Molly at her home, he is impressed by the way the younger man welcomes him as though he were an old friend of the same age. No sooner does John move in with Molly than the Oedipal battle takes off, as the young man plies his manipulative trade to get the mother to break off the relationship. The love that Molly has for her son is clearly an unhealthy one: she is to blame for her kid’s behavior, having home-schooled him, even allowing him to come into the bathroom while she’s taking a shower. The methods that Cyrus uses to get John out of the picture form the both the laughs and the embarrassed melodrama of the story.

Cyrus, then, uses a triangle that we’re already familiar with—the antipathy by which a son or daughter will treat a potential stepfather —giving the theme a take as original as was the Duplass brothers’ Baghead, and perhaps more important, an authenticity that will strike a chord with the audience.

Rated R. 92 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Yorgos Lanthimos's
Dogtooth
Opens Friday, June 25, 2010

Written By: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou

Starring: Christos Stergioglou; Michele Valley; Aggeliki Papoulia; Christos Passalis; Mary Tsoni; and Anna Kalaitzidou

Kino International
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

You say you don’t like any of the public schools for your teens? You think the neighborhood is too dangerous, but you can’t afford to move and private schools are out of the question? No problem. Just watch closely what the family does to resolve these problem in Yorgos Lanthimos’s Kynodontas, as Dogtooth is called in its original Greek. Dogtooth,gives new meaning to that favorite American punishment, “You’re grounded.” The film could be considered a parody of grounding, or a warning about home schooling, or even a takeoff on absurdist theater (think of the great Romanian playwright Ionesco). What emerges is Greek tragedy, not in the sense that Sophocles thought, plus some aspects of Greek comedy (though Aristophanes might think that the displays of a one young man’s phallis is not bawdy enough for his plays).

Ultimately, Dogtooth is so off-the-wall absurdist, so minimalist even to the extent that there is not a note of background music in the soundtrack, that the movie would require a highly specialized audience to appreciate it. It found such an audience at Cannes where viewers astonishingly awarded the film the top prize at the Cannes segment known as Un Certain Regard—a branch of the festival that features styles that are “original and different.” Dogtooth is almost painful to sit through, and that’s not meant in the way the expression is sometimes used as a compliment. It’s different all right, but while a distinct vision may be welcome in the world of cinema, simply cutting away from what is usually expected on the screen is not enough.

The family anchor (Christos Stergioglou) is a stern father who makes sure that his son (Christos Passalis) and two daughters) Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni), never leave the family’s opulent compound which is surrounded by a large wall circling a pool and an extensive lawn. Nor does he or his wife (Michele Valley) want the children to be properly home-schooled. Instead of genuine lessons, the young ones are taught nonsense that could have come out of a Google translator: “zombie” is a “yellow flower,” and a “carbine” is a “beautiful white bird.” And he makes sure that his boy will not be tempted by his natural sexual appetite to seek wider pastures. He therefore brings in a toll collector, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou) to have sex with the son. But when Christina gives the girls a present, forces are unleashed. Violence ensues amid some of the young folks’ soft-porn games on an all-too-narrow bed and in a bathtub.

Why does dad behave the way he does? Who knows? Despite what the how-to-write-a-screenplay school says, that motivations must be made clear before the story ends, we have no idea and that’s not important, particularly in absurdist fare like this. What is important, though, is entertainment, something sorely missing in this spare dramedy with grainy photography, and silence replacing an expected musical soundtrack.

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



Paola Mendoza & Gloria La Morte’s
Entre Nos
Opened Friday, May 14, 2010
Quad Cinema

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival

I went into Paola Mendoza & Gloria La Morte’s Entre Nos without reading any press notes and knowing nothing about the film—except that it was in Spanish. And I am so happy I did! So read no further and simply see this gem with sleeper potential written all over it.

Okay, you didn’t listen to me!

Entre Nos is based on the true travails of Mendoza’s mother, a Colombian woman who emigrated to the U.S. with her two children, joining her husband, so they could have the proverbial ‘better life’ in America. Their world, however, turns into a harrowing nightmare when, after only two weeks in the land of opportunity, the husband decides to abandon his family, leaving them with a few dollars and an apartment that has three months rent due.

What follows is an absorbing tale of survival as Mariana does what she must to hold her family together and, ultimately, triumph.

As portrayed by Mendoza, Mariana is a strong and resilient woman fueled by her own grit and determination. It’s an extraordinary performance, made even more impressive by the fact that she’s basically playing her own mother in a film she has co-written and co-directed and dedicated to her mom. Not being privy to that knowledge I was able to truly appreciate the actress instead of being bogged down with the triple-duty facts.

Newcomers Sebastian Villada Lopez and Laura Montana Cortez give wonderfully naturalistic performances as Mariana’s kids and Lopez has the heartbreaking yet uplifting last line in the film.

There were a few holes that should have been filled--regardless of the real story--if only for narrative cohesion, specifically, giving us a clue as to why the father left. We are only given a small hint at the beginning. The film would have been stronger if his journey was juxtaposed with theirs. Instead, he is simply vilified. But that in no way takes away from the power of this terrific and altogether compelling film.

 

Quad Cinema | 34 West 13th Street | New York, NY 10011
(212) 255-8800


Mia Hansen-Løve's
The Father of my Children (La père de mes enfants)
Opens Friday, May 28, 2010


Written By: Mia Hansen-Løve
Starring Chiara Caselli Louis-Do de Lencquesaing; Alice de Lencquesaing; Alice Gautier; Manelle Driss; Eric Elmosnino; Sandrine Dumas; and Dominique Frot

IFC Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Mia Hansen-Løve’s The Father of My Children is a deadly serious tale, based on a true event - the 2005 suicide of French producer Humbert Balsan. Balsan, born into an upper-class family, was a champion of Arab cinema who was found dead by hanging in his production office.

The principal character, Grégoire Canval (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), has charm to spare, even charisma, as he frolics with daughters Valentine (Alice Gautier) and Billie (Manelle Driss) while putting up with the teen angst of Clémence (Alice de Lencquesaing, his real-life daughter) in the family country home during one summer. His wife, Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) adores him as do the three children. He appears to have it all and shows few signs of actual depression, but the first half of the film takes us past his domestic bliss into his stress-filled days as a movie producer who is some four million euros in debt from films that soared over budget. An observer can easily say, “Why not take advantage of bankruptcy laws and liquidate the company?” Yet we see growing evidence that Grégoire is a workaholic who simply cannot live without his profession. In fact, I had the impression that he was going to commit suicide from the start, when I saw him driving over the speed limit while smoking, talking on his cell, and ignoring his seat belt.

Hansen-Løve gives us a taste of the work of an indie-film producer, one who may put up some money of his own but has to beg for funding from banks and private investors without which no film above the cost of The Blair Witch Project can get made. Given the suicide that takes place at midpoint, an audience can easily get the impression that maybe it’s not so great to be passionate about your work—passionate, that is, to the extent that you simply will refuse to carry on with life if your company goes belly-up.

If some will wonder why he does not show his sadness to his wife at any point, Hansen-Løve may be making the point that Grégoire’s real problem is that he represses his deeply-felt emotions, a factor that more than any other could have led him to a moment of suicidal madness.

There is some superb ensemble acting here, especially the roles played by Gautier and Driss who are wise beyond their years.

Unrated. 110 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Julie Davis's
Finding Bliss
Opens Friday, June 4, 2010

Written By: Julie Davis
Starring: Leelee Sobieski; Matthew Davis; Donnamarie Recco; and Denise Richards

Phase 4 Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Some literary critics hold that puns and double entendres are the lowest form of humor. Maybe so, because a pun is an ambiguity that is cheap way of communicating and a double entendre is an ambiguity that features an “indelicate” interpretation. Yet Shakespeare’s plays are loaded with both. Even the title Much Ado About Nothing would be better understood in the Bard’s own day because the word “nothing was then a slang word for a woman’s genitals. The porn industry these days utilizes titles that more often than not are double entendres (Debbie Does Dallas). The title of director Julie Davis's Finding Bliss is a double entendre with the two meanings being extreme pleasure and the name of a leading character in the film.

Before directing Finding Bliss,” Davis helmed Amy’s Orgasm, which told the a story about a 29-year-old self-help author who falls for a radio shock-jock with a reputation for hitting on his guests. Amy’s Orgasm may have been be inspired by Davis’s life, but Finding Bliss is even more closely autobiographical. Davis at one point worked for the Playboy Channel. Her job was to edit adult films, to turn hard-core porn into a classier, soft core version. Her alter ego in this film, Jody Balaban, is an Ivy-League grad who takes top honors for a student film, then attends graduate school determined to become a major film-maker (if only she could contact Garry Marshall), but ends up directing traffic on a studio backlot. She hits the jackpot when she gets a call from Kristen Johnston’s character, Irene Fox (not necessarily a double entendre), who runs Grind, a soft-core porn film company.

Leelee Sobieski plays the the principal role. Sobieski is a young, accomplished performer with a distinct way of speaking excitedly and ending her sentences abruptly. Her Jody Balaban is in one sense more naïve then one would expect in these times, perhaps because she’s a nice Jewish girl whose parents, Debra (Caroline Aaron) and Alan (Tim Bagley) brought her up as such. Desperate for a job that could get her noticed by the major powers of Hollywood, she reluctantly agrees to edit porn films directed by Jeff Drake (Matthew Davis). In this job she , gets to know the performers such as Dick Harder (Jamie Kennedy) and of course Bliss, an actress whose name is deliberately hidden for reasons that later become clear. She justifies working for these alleged low-lifes because she uses the equipment and the actors to make arthouse fare at night, the performers working the double shift without pay because they too want to break into mainstream cinema.

Finding Bliss is briskly edited, sometimes coming across like a video production, which could be Julie Davis’s intention. The story has a copout ending, a sentimental one since Jeff, the good-looking director who is lusted over by the women in his casts, is someone other than he at first appears. Sobieski dominates the proceedings (no double entendre intended) in a film that looks more kindly than most on the porn industry, though it would be a hard sell (no double entendre intended) in Pakistan.

A fun picture with no pretensions.

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


Nicholas Stoller's
Get Him to the Greek
Opens Friday, June 4, 2010


Written By: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Jonah Hill; Russell Brand; Rose Byrne; Elisabeth Moss; Sean ‘P. Didy’ Combs.

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

You’d think that a rock star would be eager to play at the famous Greek Theater in L.A., especially when his career is in the toilet thanks to a racist video he made in Africa, a video which was voted the worst of the decade and the biggest insult to the continent since apartheid. But Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) is too busy getting drunk and drugged to care. Sergio Roma (Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs), honcho of a New York record company, is eager to get Aldous back on the wagon and bring in some money for his firm. Strangely enough, he picks an overweight, nerdy, basically shy executive with the firm, Aaron Green (Jonah Hill)—whose scruffy appearance (three-day hair on the face, crumby shirts with a tie a few inches down)—to go to London, meet the rocker, and get him to the Greek theater for a sold-out, tenth anniversary concert. Get Him to the Greek is essentially a road-and-buddy movie, the sort that allows the audience to see a number of skits, each of which could be independent of the story. Greek is a film that is played for vulgar humor throughout. What might get Aunty Bess in Oklahoma City to run for the exit, might strike fans of producer Judd Apatow as one of his mildest creations. Despite the frequent use of the “f” word, the movie does not even have a nude scene, and the sentimental parts—Aaron’s worries that he is losing his doctor girlfriend Daphne and Aldous’s late confession that despite his adoring fans, he is lonely—would appear to come from another movie if this were truly an off-the-wall, no-holds-barred invitation to anarchy.

Russell Brand and Jonah Hill carry the film on their backs (and other body parts); they play characters who learn to respect and like each other despite their distinct personalities and contrasting motivations. The situation is hairy for most of the movie since Aldous is a party animal with a stable of willing women, a love for the bottle and for Horse, which makes him far less conscious of the passing of time than his would-be mentor.

A spin-off from the director’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which featured Jason Segel in the role now inhabited by Jonah Hill and Russell Brand as the rocker who steals the poor guy’s girl, Get Him to the Greek is obviously influenced by its producer, Judd Apatow. As with Sarah Marshall, this release is directed by Nicholas Stoller, his second time in the director’s chair. Greek features some scenes that work splendidly and one that should have been cut from the story altogether. The most fetching episode occurs right in the beginning, honing in on Aldous with his girlfriend Jackie (Rose Byrne) performing a song that satirizes humanitarian gestures, one which is filmed, as Aldous states, “in Rwanda or Zimbabwe or one of those.” The most embarrassing vista occurs in Vegas. Despite Aaron’s worries that they may miss their flight to L.A., he is forced to accede to the rocker’s demand that they stop in Vegas to visit Aldous’s dad, Jonathan (Colm Meaney). The obligatory strip club finds the duo picking up a couple of tarts after watching the lap dance, which is fine. But the bedlam that ensues when father and son engage in a physical conflict, trashing the room, is unfunny to the point of discomfiture. It is interesting, however, that the most embarrassing scene in the filim does not involve nudity or vulgar language.

Diddy steals every scene he is in as the boss who pressures his man relentlessly to get Aldous to the Greek after treating his team of workers to the kind of meeting we all wish we had with our bosses rather than the dull blather that we put up with. There’s a fine parody of MTV and there’s a cute episode at the airport where Aldous agrees to go ahead with the plan only if Aaron would hide some heroin in his butt. As a Judd Apatow production, Get Him to the Greek is a middling affair, somewhere between the apex of the producer’s Knocked Up and his nadir, Talladega Nights.

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


 

Daniel Alfredson's
The Girl Who Played With Fire (Flickan som lekte med elden)
Opens Friday, July 2, 2010

Written By: Jonas Frykberg from Stieg Larsson’s novel

Starring: Noomi Rapace; Michael Nyquvist; Lena Endre; Sofia Ledarp; Georgi Staykov; Peter Andersson; and Micke Spreitz

Music Box Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) has a boatload of psychological problems, but nobody can accuse her of having an Oedipal conflict. She does not see her mother as an obstacle to her dad’s love at all. Instead she hates her father with a passion. Is there evidence for this? Well, yes, there is some, the fact that at the age of twelve she doused dad with petrol and lit a match, turning him into a human torch. Not one to give unconditional love to his daughter, her dad responds in kind, determined to kill his little Goth gal. The Girl Who Played With Fire offers us in the audience a brief look at what happened in the first part of novelist Stieg Larsson trilogy, but still, it helps if you’ve seen The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which is more intense than this second episode, perhaps because this second time around we are already familiar with Lisbeth, a true individual whose nose rings and huge tattoo alert us to her feminist agenda. She’s after men who hate women. They’re after the woman who hates men who hate women. Thus we have a thinking person’s thriller with some of the elements of Hollywood blockbusters (car chases, fire, explosions, bizarre characters) but still comes to us as distinct from the generic American-style action-adventure pics.

What separates Fire from blockbusters like Knight and Day is the dialogue: thoughtful, authentic, using a wide vocabulary. Fire is a film in which what people say is even more involving than the adrenaline-raising physicality. There is a seven-foot tall villain (Micke Spreitz) in Fire (think of Jaws in the James Bond episode The Spy Whi Loved Me) who has a genetic disorder that some of us wish we had: he cannot feel pain. Punch him in the head, give him the taser treatment that was so effective in Part One, forget it. He shrugs his opponents off, though in one case he should have checked that his victim was dead before walking away. In this last regard, Fire apes the convention found in adventure movies wherein the villain could have won the day but loses because he talks too much to his victims instead of getting right into the shooting, maiming and strangling.

The action takes place one year after crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) has seen Lisbeth. Having successfully vindicated himself (after a prison sentence) for libel by proving the case against a gun-runner, he is now in pursuit of a story of sex slavery. Hookers, some underage, are being transported from Eastern Europe and Thailand into Sweden. When a fellow journalist pursuing the story is found murdered, Lisbeth is suspected since her prints are on the gun, which prompts Mikael, apparently Lisbeth’s only friend, to prove her innocence by exposing the real killers.

We learn more about Mikael than we did during the first episode. He has a sexual relationship with Erika (Lena Endre), a fellow journalist and must live with the accusation by police agents that he is nothing but an amateur gumshoe who should leave the cop stuff to those trained for the profession. For her part, Lisbeth is less interesting this time as she has given up her nose rings (but not her tattoo), and is no longer tattooing villains with their sexual piggery and perversion, though she threatens one man that if removes the lettering on his torso, she will put her Jane Hancock on his forehead.

Daniel Alfredson’s direction is more straightforward than Niels Arden Oplev’s: not so many extreme close-ups nor does Alfredson do as much to show Sweden as a place that foreign tourists might like to visit. We’re told to wait until mid-October for a celluloid adaptation of the third episode, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets's Nest, at which point we may learn what gave Lisbeth the idea for that tattoo provided that she survives the torment that she faced in this second installment.

Rated R. 129 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

 




Darko Lungulov’s
Here & There

Opens Friday, May 14, 2010
Quad Cinema


Reviewed at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival by Frank J. Avella

Eerily reminiscent of last year’s indie hit, The Visitor, Darko Lungulov’s sweet and evocative film Here & There, centers on Robert, a likeable yet misanthropic loner played by the perfectly brittle David Thornton, who is being tossed out of his apartment and forced to stay with a very bitchy Cyndi Lauper. While moving out of his place, he strikes up an unlikely business relationship with the mover, Branko (an excellent Branislav Trifunovic), who seems to have the solution to Robert’s financial woes.

Robert agrees to fly to Serbia and marry Branko’s girlfriend so she can attain a “fiancé visa” so they can live together in America. But Robert's life permanently changes when he meets and falls in love with Branko’s lovely mother, Olga (Mirjana Karanovic, the film’s heart). The movie crosscuts the back and forth (here and there) of Branko’s difficulties in the U.S. with Robert and Olga’s atypical courtship in Serbia.

What would normally be seen as predictable material is transformed into a fascinating character study by writer/director Lungulov and the actors take it to an even greater level of originality.

Lauper’s character is only seen briefly at the beginning of the film which is a shame because she’s makes an indelible impression. We do get to hear her sing the terrific title song as the end credits roll.

Quad Cinema | 34 West 13th Street | New York, NY 10011
(212) 255-8800



Kevin Asch's
Holy Rollers
Opens Friday, May 21, 2010

Written By: Antonio Macia
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg; Justin Bartha; Ari Graynor; Danny A. Abeckaser; Mark Ivanir; and Elizabeth Marvel

First Independent Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

People of Middle-Eastern descent have regularly protested racial profiling at airports; they are stopped by customs authorities as though they were all members of Al Queda. As a result and to compensate for the perception of racial profiling, customs authorities now stop little old ladies in tennis sneakers as though these grandmothers have sinister plans for Grand Central Station or the Empire State Building. Maybe stopping the least likely suspects is a good idea. After all, what’s to stop our enemies from sneaking explosives into the luggage of the most innocent looking people, or even masquerading themselves as 90-year-olds with canes? And not so long ago, this idea was put into play when a group involved in smuggling Ecstasy pills from Amsterdam to New York, hired Hasidic men to carry contraband in their fur hats and large sums of money in their luggage.

The dramatization that Kevin Asch gives to this actual event with a partly fictionalized script is a trip, so to speak. Holy Rollers features an astonishingly good performance from Jesse Eisenberg as a Hasid-turned-rogue, an innocent who is corrupted by the mean world outside the traditional Hasidic Brooklyn nabes of Boro Park, Williamsburg and the Lower East Side. If you live in Brooklyn as I do, the movie takes on even more emotional resonance, but you certainly don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the humor, the haimishness of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, and ultimately the tragic paths that some young people take because they are more interested in money than in “being close in God’s presence.” (The term “Hashem” is frequently used by the rabbi as the actual Hebrew word for God is not used except in a synagogue service or in prayer at home; never in a movie.)

Jesse Eisenberg is a wise choice to play Sam Gold, a role calls him to move from the innocence of Eden to the evils of Sodom. He chalked up a similar role in Solitary Man, which opens on the same day. In Solitary, Eisenberg plays a nerdy college sophomore who is mentored by Michael Douglas’s character in the ways to get women.

Holy Rollers
takes place in 1998, with Eisenberg’s role anchoring the picture as the son of the owner (Mark Ivanir) of a wholesale fabric store, a boss who is not particularly interested in money but is very much concerned about doing the right thing by God. Young Sam Gold, a shy fellow who is introduced to a prospective bride (in an excellent depiction of what happens on a “first date”), is to part ways with his dad and with the Jewish community when he is seduced into a drug smuggling ring by an Israeli dealer who uses Hasidim as mules. Sam is brought into the racket by his older brother, Yosef (Justin Bartha), then introduced to Jackie Solomon (Danny A. Abeckaser) who is the rep in Amsterdam and to the latter’s party-loving girl, Rachel (Ari Graynor), who resembles a young Barbra Streisand. Sam also brings his best friend, Leon (Jason Fuchs), into the scheme.

As Sam becomes more worldly, going from refusing to shake Rachel’s hand to kissing her passionately, later cutting his payes to resemble the look of a secular Jew, the tightly-knit community spreads rumors, resulting in the young man’s ostracism.

Photographer Ben Kutchins contrasts the open society of Amsterdam with its legal prostitution trade against the scruffy New York neighborhood that is home to the Hasidic community. Cosmopolitan Europe, the party scene, the Ecstasy pills, all drag Sammy into the rat-race but not without causing a battle royal within Sam’s mind. Like Piper Kerman, the principal character in the memoir Orange is the New Black, a woman who is not aware that she has crossed the line into illegal money laundering, Sam is pulled step by step into the underworld, gaining a small fortune in a short time but losing his soul.

See the movie: it’s is a mitzvah.
Rated R. 89 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Luca Guadagnino'a
I Am Love (Io sono l’amore)
Opens Friday, June 18, 2010



Written By: Luca Guadagnino, Barbara Alberti, Ivan Cotroneo, Walter Fasano, from Guadagnino’s story
Starring: Tilda Swinton; Flavio Parenti; Edoardo Gabbriellini; Alba Rohrwacher; Pippo Delbono

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Food takes a prominent role in I Am Love, Sicilian-born Luca Guadagnino’s film that highlights his favorite actress, Tilda Swinton. Guadagnino is not well known in these parts, though he did make an English-language movie eleven years ago entitled The Protagonists, which told the story of an Italian film crew that goes to London and is led to a story about a murder that took place years earlier. This time he contributes an Italian melodrama that is impressive more for its photography than its spare dialogue. Pictures of elaborately-prepared food such as a Russian fish soup are not only mouth-watering for the audience: they lead the principal character into a convention-subverting romance with a man a quarter century younger than she.

More significant than food, however, is that I Am Love (with almost all dialogue in Italian with a smattering of English and Russian) is about cages, albeit luxurious cages. The film tells the story of a woman with a mid-life crisis. She has traveled from one cage, pre-Brezhnev Soviet Union, entering another cage where she now lives as an outsider in an upper-middle-class household in Milan.

Tilda Swinton in the role of Emma Recchi is living the life of an aristocrat, having been swept off her Russian feet by her rich industrialist husband, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), who has just received title to the textile firm from his aging father, Edoardo Recchi Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti). He is to share the running of the business with his son, Edoardo (Flavio Parenti). The conversation at a formal dinner involves teasing Edoardo’s loss in an athletic competition to a chef, Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), with whom Edoardo is to open a restaurant in Sanremo.

In the melodramatic style best captured by the works of Douglas Sirk (whose All That Heaven Allows deals with a love between an upper-class widow and a much younger nurseryman), Emma, stifling under the roof of her Italian businessman husband who has no time for her, becomes attracted to her son’s would-be partner, the much younger Antonio. The affair causes her husband to be disgusted: the family disapproves as well, with the exception of her daughter, Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher). In fact I Am Love posits the influence that a daughter can have with her mother, since Elisabetta is a free-spirited woman who comes out of the closet, telling her fully-accepting mother that she is in love with a woman.

Cinephiles are not surprised to hear that Tilda Swinton gives an excellent performance, as she did so exquisitely in Sally Potter’s Orlando, a film in which she is commanded by Queen Elizabeth I to stay young forever and does just that, moving through the centuries, even changing her sex. In this film, Swinton captures the dialect of a Russian living in Italy, the British-born actress giving a stunning job pronouncing Italian with a Russian accent.

Photographer Yorick Le Saux is inventive with his cameras, alternating long shots with extreme close-ups including photographs of bees, a bird, a grasshopper, and during the scenes of lovemaking between Emma and Antonio. Real-life chef Carlo Cracco is the behind-the-scenes alter-ego of Antonio, producing the food that in one scene appears early orgasmic to Emma, while American-born composer John Adams provides a mostly jazzy score that elevates the fast-moving, obligatory climax.

I Am Love played at Sundance, unusual for a film that does not deal with BlackBerry-addicted American twenty-somethings; it is more the kind of production that would fit in well with the New York Film Festival. Slow-moving, I Am Love is not for everyone, as despite its melodramatic flourishes it is delivered with class, patiently building its characters to give us a solid understanding of who they are.

Unrated. 120 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

 



Christopher Nolan's
Inception
Opens Friday, July 16, 2010


Written By: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cottillard, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Caine, Lukas Haas

Warner Bros.
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Anyone who doesn’t think dreams are one of the most mysterious and thrilling aspects of life must be on Provigil. The most exciting element of dreams is that they are not put into your head by an outside force: You write the script, you do the filming, the editing, and chances are you have a knack for the surreal. It’s no wonder that much of art, literature, the movies and theater are motivated by the dreams of artists. And who better to illustrate the drama of the dream than the director of Memento, a film that tells the story of a man with short-term memory loss who tries to to find his wife’s killer while relying on notes and tattoos?

Inception is both an actioner and a picture eager to mess with our brains—in the same way that our own brains do when we’re asleep. Since a dream that actually lasts five minutes could involve an hour’s worth of activity, Christopher Nolan affords us sufficient time, almost two and one-half hours, challenging us to play close attention because…blink…and you’ve lost the thread.

The trouble with Inception is that there is scarcely a thread involved. In other words Inception violates the fundamental precept of visual and print entertainment, the “tell-me-a-story” idea that has fascinated us ever since mommy or daddy read from the Golden Book or, even better, made up a tale with a consistent piece of yarn running through it—which may just be why they sometimes call a story a yarn.

Nolan is so busy putting forth up to four separate yarns that he hopes to weave into a whole that at least some in the audience are prompted to wonder: “What is that there for? Why are people shooting at each other in Canada’s snow-capped mountains? Why the car crashes?”

The plot revolves around a job that a major corporate businessman, Saito (Ken Watanabe) gives to Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), the latter known as an extricator, one who can peer into the Freudian unconscious (here called subconscious) and know what the person is thinking. This time he must use his talent for the first time at inception. He must actually put ideas into the dream world of one Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), the putative heir to a major corporation run by Fischer's father, Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite). The goal is to break up the company which is competing with Saito’s. After giving Cobb a test, which is thrown at the audience immediately without even a roll of the credits or the title, he hires Cobb who then picks staff including Ariadne (Ellen Page), a brilliant student of architecture; Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger; and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist to provide the drug to enable multiple people to share different dream states. In return for planting lethal ideas into the head of the competition, Saito promises to smooth the way for Cobb, a fugitive thought to have murdered his wife, to return home to the United States. Cobb’s principal motive is to get back to his two small children and, in fact, while carrying out his job, he is regularly interrupted—that is, his dreams are interrupted—by memories of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard).

This film can be compared to The Thirteenth Floor, a film which tells the story of the murder of the owner of a multi-billion dollar computer enterprise, the inventor of a virtual reality simulator. The difference is that Floor's director, Josef Rusnak, never loses sight of the need for a comprehensible story, one that can be figured out by the time the end credits come up. What gives Inception its status as the movie to see this summer is not its story, certainly not its silly dialogue, but rather its visual effects, stunts, production design and view of the world on four continents including locations in Japan, Morocco, England, Los Angeles, and Calgary, Canada. The view of the city of Paris folding in on itself is perhaps the most awe-inspiring effect, an event that finds Cobb telling his sidekick architect, Ariadne, that there’s nothing to worry about: t’s all part of our dream.

Some original concepts are thrown at us, like the idea of limbo, into which a dreamer can be caught and remain for decades if he doesn’t take care, and the power of memory of a loved one who has died and who intrudes on dreams that have been designed strictly for business. The romantic scenes between Mal and Cobb are barely comprehensible as are those depicting the repetitive gunfights and explosions on the snowy mountains. Joseph Gordon-Levitt enjoys his role as Arthur, the point man who takes care of details and enjoys floating around hallways as if he were the second man on the moon.

Calderón de la Barca, the great Spanish playwright, may be smiling in his grave. His classic play, Life is a Dream, expresses this idea: “What is life? A frenzy. What is life? A fiction. A shadow, an illusion…For all of life is a dream, And dreams are nothing but dreams.” However, simply issuing up one dream after another, with dreams OF dreams, may be carried out successfully if you have enough money to throw at the screen. What’s most important, though, is narrative: the production team appears to have forgotten the mandate, “Tell me a story.”

Rated PG-13. 148 minutes. © 201

 



Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg's
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Opens Friday, June 11, 2010

Starring: Joan Rivers

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival

Joan Rivers is a comic icon; at the age of seventy six, she is still working with the same determination that drove her from a childhood in Westchester through college at Barnard to becoming the first female guest host of The Tonight Show.

I did not say that Rivers was a beloved comic icon. That would be impossible. Rivers has tried too hard, fighting her way to the top by clawing up the backs of anyone who was in her way. Rivers has worked like a dog to develop her act. She can be excruciatingly funny but IMO looses the ability to be beloved when she attacks Elizabeth Taylor and jokes that if her daughter had shown the full monty when she posed for Playboy, she would have made more money, money they supposedly needed.

Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg's Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work show all sides of Rivers. We see a lady who willingly flies to the midwest at the crack of dawn to perform at an Indian Reservation casino that I have never heard of. We see her feverish desire to win Donald Trump's The Celebrity Apprentice (she did). The film also shows Joan's love of glamour with scenes set in her palace-like apartment. (Supporting her apartment alone, will mandate that Rivers never retire.)

There are many poignant scenes such as the one where Rivers states that since the sixties, someone has always sent a limousine to pick her up. The scenes where Rivers is working with her makeup artists are especially evocative. Rivers is the product and the product must be polished to perfection. (She looks damn good.)

Stephen Sondheim was thinking about women like Rivers when he wrote "I'm Still Here": "Good times and bum times, I've seen them all and, my dear
I'm still here. Plush velvet sometimes, Sometimes just pretzels and beer, But I'm here..."

A Piece of Work shows Rivers in all her warts and glory, aptly depicting River's obsession with all things superficial like celebrity and beauty but also inspiring the viewer with Rivers determination and drive. And when she isn't throwing someone under the bus, the lady is f'ing funny.

breakthrufilms.org



Lisa Cholodenko
The Kids Are All Right
Opens Friday, July 9, 2010


Written By: Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg

Cast: Julianne Moore; Annette Bening; Mark Ruffalo; Mia Wasikowska; and Josh Hutcherson

Focus Features
Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Many film journalists are blogging about what a dearth of Oscar contenders there are so far in 2010. They argue that The Hurt Locker had already been released by this time last year. So, in their limited minds, it will be nearly impossible for the Academy to select 10 worthy Best Picture nominations, blah-blah-blah!

Shut up is what I want to shout.

We’ve had a couple of terrific films already released: Shutter Island and Winter’s Bone with Get Low and Nowhere Boy on the horizon (both feature great acting performances). Mid-month we get Inception, which has amazing word-of-mouth.

And now, finally, we have the best film of 2010 so far -- sure to nab a spot in the coveted AMPAS top 10, not to mention at least three acting nods, a directing nod (to another female) and a script mention – Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right.

Universal without compromising it’s story and characters, real without being exclusionary, Kids is that rarity, a master blend of comedy and drama that makes you laugh hysterically right before you’re sucker punched into feeling anger and sadness.

Cholodenko’s previous credits include the indie hit High Art and the underrated Laurel Canyon. Here she collaborates with a writer of good studio fare, Stuart Blumberg (Keeping the Faith, The Girl Next Door) and the results are impressive indeed. And, yes, it even has a message for the politically correct, even gays can fuck up in a marriage. The film is landing at the perfect time.

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) have the perfect lesbian relationship and the perfect family—on the surface. The women have been together almost twenty years and have two children, by the same sperm donor. Joni (Mia Wasikowska), Nic’s child, is sweet, obliging and slightly repressed. She has just turned 18. Her brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson), Jules’ son, is a rebellious 15-year old who has been urging Joni to contact their biological father.

Enter Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a cool, laid-back, single restaurant owner who is, at first, apprehensive, but soon, very excited about meeting his biological children. Everyone seems to take to Paul, except Nic.

Things get hairy (see the film to get the pun) when Jules is hired by Paul to landscape his messy backyard and the two embark on a sexual affair. The results are the stuff of terrific cinema as Cholendenko and Blumberg map out a path that is compelling yet true to its extraordinary characters.

I personally love how whenever a character says: “Fuck you,” to another character in the film, the person saying it is always leaving the room immediately afterwards. It’s such a cowardly thing to do, ergo so realistic.

Bening and Moore have awesome chemistry and are so believable as a couple you actually get angry when Moore and Ruffalo first kiss.

Bening has been doing smashing work onscreen for two decades. This year she seared the screen with an indelible portrayal of a mother haunted by the child she gave up for adoption in Mother and Child. And now she is at the top of her game with her intelligent and mesmerizing work here. Bening’s Nic is a flawed woman who tries her best but, often, flaunts her feelings of superiority and uses alcohol (vino, to be precise) to anesthetize her feelings of inadequacy and disconnect. Bening’s Joni Mitchell moment is a perfect blend of nostalgia and joy. And watching her face as she realizes she’s been betrayed makes you feel like you’ve invaded someone’s privacy and should leave the room immediately. It’s quite possible this great actress will finally win her long overdue Oscar.

Moore is treat to watch as Jules, the self-admitted “fuck-up” who is much smarter than anyone, including herself, gives her credit for being. The way she deals with her sexual urges is howlingly hilarious as well as heartbreaking. Since her bottomless nude scene in Robert Altman’s brilliant Short Cuts, Moore, more than any other actress of her generation, has been fearless in probing her character’s sexuality. The results here are complex and moving. And her poignant eleventh hour monologue about marriage brought me to tears. This film could win her a long overdue Oscar.

Wait. How can they both win Oscars? They’re both lead actresses, aren’t they? Yes. But if there were any justice in the world, the Academy would find a way!

Ruffalo does some of his best work as the manwhore Paul who finally feels something for someone and has no clue what to do about it. You can’t help but feel for this cad.

Hutcherson and Wasikowska are terrific young actors with bright futures ahead of them. Each do commendable work here.

Production values, including the wonderful score, help the film soar.

The Kids Are All Right is about love and family and the day-to-day struggles parents and children face with each other. The film comes sans bullshit contrivances. It’s relatable. It’s timely. It’s revelatory.

And Cholendenko should join that shortlist of women nominated for Best Director. She’s given us a gem, certain to be one of the most celebrated films of 2010.




Lisa Cholodenko
The Kids Are All Right
Opens Friday, July 9, 2010


Written By: Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg

Cast: Julianne Moore; Annette Bening; Mark Ruffalo; Mia Wasikowska; and Josh Hutcherson

Focus Features
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Hell hath no fury like a woman whose lesbian partner may be going straight. That’s just one of the involving themes in The Kids Are All Right, which features a terrific cast directed with verve and fire by Lisa Cholodenko with sharp dialogue by the director and her co-writer, Stuart Blumberg. Cholodenko, who is credited with a script for the TV series The L Word, knows whereof she speaks in giving us a view of a family whose existence might have been unknown forty years ago. But this is a family whose two decades together might be coming to an end as the result of a plea made by their children.

Somewhat like two lesbian neighbors of my own who live upstairs and have raised a pair of adopted kids, Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) each has a kid of her own by artificial insemination from the same man, Paul (Mark Ruffalo). But nobody knows who donated the sperm and nobody appears to care until the two children, eighteen-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska—who could pass for a young Gwyneth Paltrow) and the fifteen-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) plot secretly to locate the biological father whom they both share. When Paul agrees to meet the pair of youngsters, it doesn’t hurt that he’s a handsome, cool guy who rides a motorcycle and runs a restaurant featuring organic food that he grows in his lush garden. The entire family gets acquainted over a meal that goes well. The kids begin hanging out with their dad while Jules takes on a job working in the man’s garden.

Watching Paul and Jules exchange ideas, we in the audience can see where the relationship is going. As improbable as it may seem to some, the two exchange the bed of plants for the mattress in the spacious house. Of course Jules commits an error that opens their secret to her lover, Nic.

If the plot centers on the sexual theme, the two young people are given ample opportunities to strut their acting credentials. Laser turns out more seemingly nonchalant about his biological father, though he regularly queries, “Can I ask you something?” while Joni, who is already privy to non-stop sexual banter from a girlfriend her own age, would not be too opposed to the intimate bonding of Jules and Paul, even at the risk of breaking up the two-decades’ affair.

A subtext of the comedy-drama emerges from the title. These kids have been brought up without a male model in the household, but are turning out just fine. Joni is entering an out-of-town college and Laser is appropriately sensitive, even landing in a fight with a male friend who wants to hurt a stray dog. The sun always shines in the southern California of the movie’s location, the darkness coming only in spurts as the lesbian relationship is threatened perhaps for the first time in the two lovers’ lives.

The film won the Teddy Award for Best Feature at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival.

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


 


Michael Winterbottom's
The Killer Inside Me
Friday, June 18, 2010


Written By: John Curran, from Jim Thompson’s novel
Cast: Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba, Simon Baker, Bill Pullman, Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas

IFC Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

There’s an expression: “Watch out for the quiet ones.” This can be interpreted as: you should not trust anyone, but you should be particularly wary of people who are so nice that you can’t help considering them to be harmless. The Killer Inside Me focuses on one such a nice guy, a man who does not raise his voice, has boyish good looks, and is a deputy sheriff to boot. But this fellow’s childhood has made him capable of psychotic, murderous rages, and sure enough he is responsible both directly and indirectly for the violent deaths of six people in a small West Texas town in the 1950’s.

Michael Winterbottom’s first wholly American made movie, this one filmed in Oklahoma, can be recommended only marginally in that the pacing is listless, the suspense nowhere near cutting-edge, and some of the dialogue is muffled. But it gives the public a taste of the reason that novelist Jim Thompson is held in high esteem by his fans, who can’t get enough noir from their paperbacks. Though a movie of the same title, adapted from the same novel, was made in 1976, scarcely anyone screened it. (Rotten Tomatoes lists only three reviews.)

The Killer Inside Me has a few things going for it, not the least of which is that it not only takes place in the fifties, with an Oldsmobile 98 prominent in several scenes and the folks appropriately costumed, but is done in the style of 1950’s films, even with a credit “The End” at the finale.

Casey Affleck inhabits the role of Lou Ford, a lawman who is trusted completely by his boss, Sheriff Bob Maples (Tom Bower) who appears to consider the lad like a son. When ordered to run Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), the local hooker, out of town, not least because millionaire Chester Conway (Ned Beatty) wants her out of the life of his son, Elmer (Jay R. Ferguson), the deputy instead falls for the woman, conducting a passionate affair, driving each night to her humble abode for her now-complimentary services. At the same time, Lou has a girlfriend, Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson), who believes that she will become his wife. What is particularly interesting about Lou Ford is that he is a psychotic in remission, so to speak. He pretends to be just folks, a local hick who has never been out of West Texas or on a plane, but secretly listens to opera and reads Freud—all part of his dead father’s legacy.

The most talked-about aspect of the film when it played this year at Sundance and Tribeca, is the violence. When Lou is seized with a psychotic break, he inflicts brutal harm on women. Had he done so in the normal way, by shooting them, there would be no critical scandal. But he literally beats them to death, punching them in the face, in the stomach, then kicking them when they’re down. At the screening I attended there were no walkouts, but at the same time there was no shortage of groans.

Winterbottom, whose 24-hour Party People looks as though it came from the imagination of a different director, is sparing about the flashbacks to Lou’s days as a twelve-year-old, nothing there that would lead him to become so violent that in one early scene he gratuitously burns the palm of the local bum (Brent Boscoe), though he’s as angelic as Ted Bundy when in polite company. He is frequently questioned by Joe Rothman (Elias Koteas), a local union leader, and county prosecuting attorney Howard Hendricks (Simon Baker in a role that could be taken from his regular gig as The Mentalist), showing no emotion that might make them even more suspicious of him than they are.

Casey Affleck is known mostly for roles as Virgil Malloy in the Ocean’s series, but he can play outlaws as he did when re-enacting the life of John Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James. Affleck has a voice too high and raspy to appear like a bumpkin, but he is not really miscast, given that he is supposed to be the last person you’d suspect of hurting a fly. While Shame On You is on the soundtrack at the conclusion, given Lou’s love for opera a more fitting choice would be an aria by Siegfried and Brunnhilde in Wagner’s Götterdämerung.

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



Agnès Jaoui's
Let It Rain (Parlez-moi de la pluie)
Opens Friday, June 18, 2010

Written By: Agnès Jaou and, Jean-Pierre Bacri

Starring: Jean-Pierre Bacri; Jamel Debbouze; Agnès Villanova; and Pascale Arbillot

IFC Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Ask any sixth-grader for the definition of “politics” and if you’re lucky you’ll get the one-word answer, “government.” However the term has much broader usage, which we know, since every time we wonder how Mr. X got a job in the Y corporation though he is clearly unqualified, the answer is “politics.” The definition I like to use is “politics deals with social relations with a particular focus on authority.” Some have authority and others are subordinated. It’s no wonder that Agnès Jaoui, the director and co-writer of Let It Rain, anchors the story with her own role as Agathe. Agathe is a political officeholder in a French city three hours outside Paris who, like other characters in the story, has a relationship of some authority with her boyfriend. She does not employ the man: she gains her authority over him by being so busy using her phone and devoting herself to the next campaign that he feels emotionally abandoned, therefore a victim. In a similar vein, Agathe’s sister, Florence (Pascale Arbillot), is married to a fellow who is so dependent upon her that he resents her even reading in bed, admitting openly that he too feels abandoned. Perhaps the greatest example of victimhood resides in the character of Karim (Jamel Debbouze), an French-Algerian working in a small hotel as a receptionist, but wanting a career as a filmmaker. He believes that his ethnicity makes people think that he is stupid.

Let It Rain is within Agnès Jaoui’s métier. Her film, The Taste of Others, treats the relationship between three men and three women. In Taste as in Let It Rain, there are no Hollywood-style climactic moments, no thrusts and parries of one-liners. Jaoui’s Let It Rain deals with an obese woman in her twenties who is dependent on her father’s attention but is ignored by him even though she is a gifted singer. Again: no thunderous showdowns.

Let It Rain is tailor-made for an audience that can appreciate a slice-of-life, a look at a number of people who have problems of dependence and feelings of victimhood. The story takes off when Agathe Villanova (Agnès Jaoui) a feminist writer and political officeholder, visits her childhood home in the south of France to help her sister Florence to deal with their dead mother’s affairs. Karim (Jamel Debbouze), the son of Mimouna (Mimouna Hadji) who is Florence’s long-unpaid housekeeper, asks Agathe to take part in a TV documentary about her career and her feminist views. Together with a self-described reporter, Michel (Jean-Pierre Bacri, who is Jaoui’s regular scripter), they shoot film, but their incompetence in the roles of filmmakers cause them to miss one appointment with Agathe and, in a more serious incident, prevent her from taking part in a rally as their car becomes overturned ten miles from town during a rainstorm.

For his part Michel considers himself a victim because he has lost custody of his son. Michel uses the camera to ask Agathe whether she believes it fair that divorced women almost always win battles for the children. Florence is victimized by her view that her mother favored Agathe. As the film progresses, the relationships deepen, the characters mesh with one another, and the dialogue feels unforced, making the film a naturalistic product. The performing ensemble is well-cast, the scenes having the kind of relevance that many in the audience will relate to. If there is any fault in the enterprise, that would be the complete lack of climactic moments, of a narrative that brings things to a vivid head. In the role of Algerian hotel reception, Debbouze stands out as the most interesting personage, a man with strong motivations toward a career as a filmmaker who resents the way he is generally treated by French society. The attempt at seduction by his co-receptionist and the man’s reaction to this attention is a small part of the movie, but the one that is most memorable.

Unrated. 99 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Gary Winick's
Letters to Juliet
Opens Friday, May 14, 2010



Written By: Tim Sullivan and Jose Rivera
Starring: Amanda Seyfried; Vanessa Redgrave; Gael Garcia Bernal; Franco Nero

Summit Entertainment
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Tony Bennett’s version pf, “Because of you, there’s a song, in my heart; Because of you, my romance, had its start…” slipped from the Billboard top 200 some time ago. Ditto for Frank Sinatra’s “Holding hands in the movie show, when all the lights are low, may not be new, but I like it, how about you?” “Because of You” and “How About You?” were perfect for the sexually repressed, pre-pill 1950’s. They do not reflect mainstream U.S. today. Yet Letters to Juliet, based on a play that was written somewhere between 1591 and 1595, reflects the ‘50’s era in America more than our own time. This is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on your outlook on romance. For example, Caitlin Flanagan writes a critical book review in the June 2010 Atlantic magazine “How girls reluctantly endure the hookup culture.” Hookup. There’s a word that used to mean simply getting together. Today it means something far more intimate.

But I digress. Letters to Juliet is the kind of movie that would go over during the days of Doris Day pictures, when the Hollywood code did not sanction anything about men and women in bed unless at least one leg of each person was on the floor. Today, it’s a dinosaur, but again: that’s not a bad thing especially when Marco Pontecorvo, director Gary Winick’s cameraman, gives us gorgeous views of Tuscany, the area most tourist-visited in Italy where the building are sepia brown, the food is beyond words, and vineyards are vast with the promise of vintage outputs for consumption when the time is ripe.

Tuscany is also the primary location for Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and Victor (Gael García Bernal), who have gone there for a pre-honeymoon. They’re in Verona, the city of love made popular by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where lovelord tourists put notes on the wall under Juliet’s balcony albeit with different prayers from the ones inserted through the cracks of Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Sophie is a fact-checker for The New Yorker magazine, reporting to Bobby (Oliver Platt), her editor. But she wants to be a writer, not a fact-checker, and gets her chance in and around Verona as she pens a short story based on her personal experience with an older woman, Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) and Claire’s devoted grandson, Charlie (Christopher Egan).

Claire at sixty-five years of age is a romantic as well as Claire, having traveled to Verona at the behest of Sophie, who had written her a reply to a note written in 1957 by Claire at the age of fifteen expressing her love for Lorenzo Bartolini (Franco Nero). Believing in destiny, Sophie hopes, upon meeting Claire, that she can track down the Lorenzo Bartolini fifty years later, which is a problem when there are seventy-four guys with that name in the area.

Some of the comedy is mined by the strange characters who have that name, with Claire’s praying that each one is not the Mr. Right of her dreams. No doubt, she hopes that real Lorenzo is still alive and that he owns a large vineyard and will meet her while riding right up to her on his horse. The central theme, though, is the mismatch between Sophie and her fiancé, the latter so enthusiastic about his plan to open a New York restaurant that he ignores her in Verona while he traipses around the area on his own looking for supplies to take back to his restaurant. In fact, when Victor disappears to look for truffles and wine auctions, Sophie spends a good deal of time with Claire and Charlie. We know that a new love is blooming when we watch the snobbish Charlie—who can’t believe that a young woman who says “awesome” and Omigod” in the same sentence—is a college graduate.

One critic sniffs that the movie “lacks [a] credible relationship with the real world.” In wonder what he’d think of a play that presents a woman who is given a drug by a man of the cloth to put her into a coma for 42 hours. When her main squeeze sees her, he thinks she is dead and takes poison himself. The girl wakes up and, seeing her lover really dead, she stabs herself with his dagger.

Shakespeare’s reputation is safe. Letters to Juliet does not threaten the Bard, and may even encourage people to read the play on their Kindles. (Yeah, right.) Instead, Gary Winick’s rom-com is solid TV fare with a pleasant enough script by Tim Sullivan and Jose Rivera and a great product placement for both The New Yorker and Tuscany.

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




 


Taylor Hackford
Love Ranch
Opens June 30, 2010

Written By: Mark Jacobson
Starring: Helen Mirren; Joe Pesci; and Sergio Peris-Mancheta


E1 Entertainment
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

The most precious physical demonstration of love is probably a kiss. In fact unless you pay extra, hookers will likely deny you the privilege. So to call a bordello a “love ranch,” is a stretch. But as a viewer watches watch Taylor Hackford’s film and see the celebratory spirits of customers and hookers on one New Year’s Eve during the 1970s, you may get the idea that maybe there is some real love between customers and their human toys after all.

The picture itself, which is said to be inspired by a true story, is situated in Reno, Nevada at the first legal brothel in state, one which is so new that a Bible-thumping church group has put a referendum on the ballot to make the love nest once again illegal. Hackford and scripter Mark Jacobson treat the picket-carrying men and women outside the gate like a bunch a killjoys (which they are). But all is not rosy in this tale, which begins as a high-spirited comedy, but concludes on the dark side.

Hackford, well-known for such films as An Officer and a Gentleman starring Richard Gere and Devil’s Advocate starring Al Pacino, cast Helen Mirren (Hackford's wife) and Joe Pesci in the roles of Love Ranch co-owners Grace Botempo and Charlie Botempo, with Grace in the role of the Madam and Charlie as the businessman who gets some action on the side with his staff.

Charlie seems to have the town of Reno sewed up, fooling the IRS with a false set of books and keeping the town sheriff on his informal payroll. We don’t wonder that he smokes a hundred-dollar bill at the ranch’s New Year’s party and hands over a tidy sum to Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), an Argentinian boxer for whom Charlie is trying to arrange a fight with Muhammad Ali. Though Bruza is a celebrity in his native Buenos Aires, he settles into the love ranch to train for an upcoming fight. Bruza is a man whose looks and South-American charm bring the weary Gloria back to life. What’s surprising is that Bruza, though considerably younger than Gloria, has fallen for her and wants to take her away from her corrupt ranch and undeserving husband.

Joe Pesci, under an Oliver-Platt-like rug that looks like a motorcycle helmet, displays magnetism as a crooked, ex-con businessman with dealings in prostitution and prizefighting. He is the kind of man who uses his wife for material gain without showing the kind of love she is now getting from the pugilist.

For her part Helen Mirren (a London-born academy award winner and an accomplished performer in such films as her title role in The Queen) is radiant, displaying more class than any of her hooker employees—some of whom we get to know as individuals.

The prizefight scene looks authentic in a movie that appears to spare no expense, not surprising since E1 Entertainment, Formerly Koch Entertainment, is the largest indie music, TV and film distributor in North America.

Look for the Madrid-born Sergio Peris-Mancheta to compete, perhaps with Mickey Rourke, for future roles for he is an actor with thirty-two films and TV episodes on his résumé.

Not Yet Rated R. 117 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 



Stéphane Brizé's
Mademoiselle Chambon
Opens Friday, May 28, 2010

Written By: Stéphane Brizé and Florence Vignon, from Eric Holder’s novel
Starring: Vincent Lindon; Sandrine Kiberlain; Aure Atika; Jean-Marc Thibault; and Arthur Le Houérou


Lorber Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

The thing that elevates this simple story of normal people living in a small French town is exceptional acting, a beautiful music score, and dialogue that we can believe in. The director's respect for the audiences is evidenced by the long takes and halting conversations. But if you saw director Stéphane Brizé’s 2005 feature Je ne suis pas là pas là pour être aimé, you would expect no more.

Jean (Vincent Lindon) anchors the story, playing the role of a construction worker about fifty years old (Lindon is 49 in real life) who lives a conventional life with his polite and studious young son, Jérémy (Arthur Le Houérou), his wife, Anne Marie (Aure Atika) who works in a factory, and his eighty-year-old dad (Jean-Marc Thibault) whom he visits regularly, washing the man’s feet while he’s there. In other words Jean is a responsible, hard-working guy, but one who has missed out on a liberal education. He’s about to discover what’s missing in his life when he confers with his boy’s primary school teacher, Véronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain), is encouraged by her to come to her apartment to fix her defective windows, and after requesting that she play a “tune” on her violin, he hears her play a piece by the Hungarian composer Ferenc von Vecsey. Music hath charm: if the less-educated Jean finds it difficult to converse with the cultured young woman with words, the strains of the violin become the universal language. Overcome by emotion and ill-equipped to express it, he finds excuses to visit her, even to invite Véronique to his home to play for his extended family at his dad’s eightieth birthday party.

If the character of Jean (who, entre nous looks like a borscht-belt comedian) is explored by Brizé and Florence Vignon’s script from Eric Holder’s novel, the title character is likewise considered, though happily Brizé allows us in the audience to do much of the work. Chambon is a disappointed woman, resisting the possibility of romance with a married man because she believes that will be yet another failed attempt at happiness. She plays the violin well, but is not good enough to make a career of it, which is why she is teaching primary school and quite successful at her job. For his part Jean is content enough as a builder, though once he sees what is missing in his life, he is like a weak swimmer who finds himself in the deep end of a swimming pool.

Hesitations abound on both sides; both are good people. Jean has an argument with his wife over nothing much, the only time he raises his voice, as though seeking an excuse to leave her and run away with Chambon. Chambon seems unable to settle down anywhere, seeking teaching jobs for only a year at a stretch, leaving schools even where she’s happy. Ultimately Jean must decide whether to throw away his conventional life and take a big risk, one which would involve leaving his wife, his son, and his soon-to-be-born child for an adventure that might afford him a less limited role in life. The ensemble is tops, though there is little chance that a movie of this nature would find a large audience that would include construction workers as well as those who are privileged with a broad, liberal education.

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


 


Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s
Micmacs
Opens Friday, June 4, 2010


Written By: Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant
Starring: Dany Boon; André Dussollier; Nicolas Marie; Jean-Pierre Marielle; Yolande Moreau; Julie Ferrier; Omar Sy; Dominique Pinon; and Michel Cremades

Sony Pictures Classics

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella a the 9th Tribeca Film Festival

Fresh from the insanely delightful and maddeningly wonky head of French film director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who is responsible for Amélie, A Very Long Engagement, Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children as well as Alien: Resurrection, this brazen satire takes aim at the arms industry and, mostly, blows it to smithereens!

This typically surreal Jeunet gem does not have the intensely frenetic narrative of some of his other films and is a bit more confusing but the payoff is worth the wait.

Dany Boon splendidly embodies our loon of a hero, Bazil, who has the worst luck with weapons. First his dad is blown to bits by a land mine and then he is shot in the head with a bullet meant for someone else. The latter plot twist renders him homeless and he is taken in by a group of lunatic misfits. The ensuing comedy is admirably black and true to Jeunet form.

As with all Jeunet flicks, the production design is top-notch within the bizarre milieu created.

Micmacs is a bit convoluted, the characters are a bit too broadly drawn and the politics can bit slightly didactic, but the world he creates is remarkably riveting.


 

Reed Cowan & Steven Greenstreet's
8: The Mormon Proposition
Opens Friday, May 18, 2010

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 2010 Newfest Film Festival

So many documentaries are made lately that take on so many just and worthy causes (as well as subject matter that isn’t all that interesting or important), but sometimes the filmmaking can be shoddy and the presentation didactic and preachy.

The best documentaries inform, educate and attempt to illuminate. Occasionally, one comes along that exposes hard truths and has the potential to galvanize its audience and urge change.

8: The Mormon Proposition is a vital and important film for anyone who cares about civil rights (specifically, gay rights) and the separation of church and state.

Reed Cowan (along with co-director Steven Greenstreet) painstakingly depicts the David vs. Goliath (self-ironically the production company’s name) story of the ongoing fight to legalize gay marriage vs. the tremendous power of the Mormon Church—financial and otherwise.

Narrated by Dustin Lance Black, the film examines Prop 8--the California measure that basically decimates the California Supreme Court decision giving gays the right to marry, in essence taking the right away—and how early polls showed Californians opposed to the measure but, because of a meticulous and calculated $22 million campaign by the LDS Church, Prop 8 passed.

Thanks in large part to political consultant Fred Karger; the filmmakers were able to view a slew of internal Mormon documents that clearly show their carefully planned and executed homophobic agenda. Knowing the unpopular LDS behemoth needed to maintain very low visibility, they brought in the Catholics and other Christian groups to help do their dirty work. LDS leaders indoctrinated their Bishops to solicit donations from parishioners based on their salaries—sometimes handing over all their children’s college monies for the cause—since Mormons are taught obedience first.

Instead of preaching the gospel, the Mormon Church “prophets” took it upon themselves to promote hatred and intolerance, which resulted in so many Mormon youth taking their own lives. This is where the film truly disturbs, incenses and should motivate many to action.

I could see how religious conservatives would view elements of this film as propaganda—certainly the LDS Church although they were asked to take part in the docu (their refusal speaks volumes to their integrity, or lack thereof). If you are mired in a hatred-based faith, not much is going to change your mind about gay rights. What I can’t imagine is how any human could see and hear the stories in the pic of young men and women being told that suicide is a better option to being gay or lesbian and not thinking there is something fundamentally wrong with that kind of Church teaching.

This is not a perfect film. It’s filled with manipulation techniques (the score and the way certain Elders are filmed in a very ominous and evil manner to name just a few flaws) and I wanted more information, more stories and a little more Mormon history. But its definitely an important film, an important beginning to making certain religious institutions cease playing politics or deal with the consequences when they do.

 




Neil Jordan’s
Ondine

Written By: Neil Jordan

Starring: Colin Farrell; Stephen Rea; Alicja Bachleda; Derva Kirwan; Alison Barry

Magnolia Pictures

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 9th Tribeca Film Festival

Ever since his extraordinary performance in Tigerland in 2000, I have rooted for Colin Farrell. And he has stumbled quite a few times since then, mostly in typical Hollywood action fodder like The Recruit, S.W.A.T. and Miami Vice. I’m one of the very few who refuse to place Alexander among his missteps because the director’s cut of that much maligned Oliver Stone film (available on DVD and Blu-Ray) is actually very good and Farrell is more than respectable in it.

In the midst of the ordinary and mediocre and in between his own personal substance-abuse crises, Farrell has etched fantastic portrayals in indie gems like Intermission, A Home at the End of the World, Cassandra’s Dream and most recently, In Bruges (for which he won the Best Actor Golden Globe) and Crazy Heart.

Add Ondine to his that ever-growing list, proving Farrell isn’t just another trouble-making, talentless pretty boy but is actually an actor of substance.

That said, the latest Neil Jordan film is a mixed bag at best--an Irish version of Ron Howard’s mixed bag, Splash.

Farrell portrays Syracuse, a gruff, alcoholic fisherman in Ireland who nets (literally) a mysterious woman and breathes life back into her still body. It’s a pretty ambitious opening scene. Syracuse’s sickly daughter Annie thinks Ondine is a selkie (a mythological creature who begins life as a seal before they become human). I won’t give the plot away, suffice to say the joy is mostly in watching Farrell’s relationship with Alison Barry who plays his daughter. The reveals, while interesting, never quite gel with the spirit created in the film’s first reel.

Ondine is often too muddled—script-wise as well as cinematography-wise. For a film that wants to charm (and does so on occasion), the photography is quite murky and depressing.

Alicja Bachleda (who in real life recently had Farrell’s baby) is endearing enough as the title character, but doesn’t have the charisma needed to take the story to the mythically soaring levels it so obviously desires to reach.



9th Tribeca Film Festival
Nicole Holofcener’s
Please Give
Opens Friday, April 30, 2010



Written by Nicole Holofcener
Starring: Catherine Keener; Amanda Peet; Rebecca Hall; Oliver Platt; Ann Morgan Guilbert; Sarah Steele; Lois Smith and Thomas Ian Nicholas.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival

Nicole Holofcener has previously helmed the endearing Lovely and Amazing, Friends with Money and Walking and Talking—all excellent works. Her filmic output is less than prolific. Her latest, Please Give, is her best effort yet.

Holofcener is a clever and incisive writer who creates quirky and flawed characters who don’t necessarily behave the way we expect them to (thank God!) She also casts her films impeccably well.

Please Give centers on a married couple, Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) who run an antique store. They mostly find their furniture and chachkes by preying on the loved ones of the recently deceased.

Kate and Alex have recently purchased the apartment of a 91-year old woman, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), who is about as crotchety, caustic and negative as they come.

Andra has two very different nieces: Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a sweet if shy gal who is devoted to her grandmother; and Mary (Amanda Peet) an obnoxious, self-centered woman who cannot wait for Andra to die.

Keener’s Kate is a hilarious comment on those well-off women with money who feel the need to constantly give to the needy. Yet we believe Kate’s pain and sadness as she encounters those she sees as less fortunate than she and her family are. Keener plays Kate from such a real place that we feel for her more than we judge her—even when her sympathies are misguided, as they often are.
Rebecca Hall is becoming one of my favorite actresses. Watching this introverted and complex character blossom as she begins to date a potential Mr. Right (the adorable Thomas Ian Nicholas) is a delight. Hall is simply (forgive me) lovely and amazing!

And who knew Amanda Peet could play bitch so well! “"Things don't get better. They only get worse," she barks at her grandmother. Peet tosses inhibitions into Hollywood’s face and gets nasty. And it’s freaking refreshing.

Peet and Hall play sisters who’s mother committed suicide and both show the lasting results of such a tragedy—in two very different females, in two very different ways.

So many of the laughs and, ultimately, the sadness in Please Give are the result of Guilbert’s Andra. She’s quite the horror of a grandmother, filled with bitterness and anger—and yet there’s a hint at a woman who may have once been happy that we only get a glimpse of. It’s a terrific performance and one we can all relate to because we’ve all met an Andra.

Holofcener’s wit and perspicacious way of looking at the lives of well-to-do Manhattanites remind me of a female Woody Allen. And that’s the best compliment I can give ANY filmmaker.


Jaume Belagueró, Paco Plaza's
REC]2
Opens Friday, July 9, 2010


Written By: Jaume Balagueró and Manu Diez
Starring: Jonathan Mellor; Manuela Velasco; Oscar Zafra; Ariel Casas; and Alejandro Casaseca

Magnet
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Dr. Owen (Jonathan Mellor), the lead character of [Rec]2, is confident. In the midst of anarchy, he declares, “God will protect me.” This may be true, but a question he might have asked is, “Will God protect the audience from the sludge that emanates from this genre-clichéd horror picture?” This sequel to [Rec], which was remade in the U.S. as Quarantine (which I called “a vertiginous mess” in my review), starts off a quarter-hour from where the original left off. Almost all of the action takes place within a quarantined house with only a modicum of footage in the street, where crowds are huddled and a SWAT team prepares to invade and rid the place of evil.

There’s nothing wrong with this sequel that could not be helped with some character development, a more literate script that does not depend on incessant cries of “mierda” and “puta madre,” some pauses between its attacks for variety, more credible actors, a steadier camera, a less claustrophobic atmosphere, some light, and humor. Even some unintentional laughter would have been welcome. The picture does have virtues, one being that it ends,the other that it clues those of us in the audience that the five years of Spanish we took in high school and college are worth nothing. (There are English subtitles.)

Directors Jaume Belagueró and Paco Plaza take us inside a house in which a virus has contaminated the blood of its inhabitants, turning them into vicious beasts. Not content with focusing on one genre the scripters, Jaume Belagueró and Manu Diez borrow from Night of the Living Dead for zombie action, The Blair Witch Project for minimalism, and The Exorcist for demonic possession. But comparing [Rec]2 with The Exorcist is like judging Rob Schneider as an equal of Sir Laurence Olivier.

What’s important to The Boss (Oscar Sánchez Zafra), who crashes into the house with his fellow SWAT team members, Larra (Ariel Casas) and Rosso (Pablo Rosso), is that everything gets recorded, which gives the directors the excuse for grainy, shaky photography, some of which is covered with a patina of sickly green. The gore comes to us courtesy of a few zombies, each of whose faces are exposed for a second or so, folks who are covered in blood and are hungry for SWAT bodies. The priest, who had come under the guise of a virus specialist from the Ministry of Health, wants to capture a test tube of demonic blood which can be analyzed and from which an antidote can be developed. By contrast, The Demonic One wants only to get outside where she can infect lots more people; she's an agent of terrorism if ever there was one. But the priest is so eager to get a sample or blood or, better, to capture the Possessed One, that he refuses to give the order to leave the building. And only he is authorized to do so but refuses though his order can save at least some of the victims.

As though coming from another movie, half-way into the “plot” appear three idiotic teens (Andrea Ros, Alex Batllori, Pau Poch) who are on the roof trying to get a robot to fly into space and who plead with the SWAT team to get them out of there because “we weren’t doing anything.” The soundtrack is awash in hysteria, some seemingly designed to add to the coffers of otolaryngologists. [Rec]2 is about as scary as the Haunted Car ride at Coney Island.

Not Yet Rated. 84 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 



Ridley Scott's
Robin Hood
Opens Friday, May 14, 2010


Written By: Brian Helgeland, story by Brian Helgeland, Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris.
Starring: Russell Crowe: Cate Blanchett; Mark Strong; Matthew Macfadyen; Kevin Durand; Danny Huston; Max von Sydow; and William Hurt

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

As a former high-school teacher of European history, I can feel for the instructors behind their desks facing thirty-five students each period with only a piece of chalk, a chalkboard, maybe an overhead projector with some slides. “Yo, teach, we saw Robin Hood at the movies last weekend, and you’re booooring.” True enough. Chalk cannot match high-priced motion picture projectors, and teachers generally cannot afford to take their students on field trips to England and France. Most of us did not look like Russell Crowe or talk with his sexy Australian accent, nor do I recall women pedagogues who could match Cate Blanchett for beauty or the king’s English.

The only thing we could give them, which director Ridley Scott (Hannibal, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down), does not, is the truth, at least as far as we can know a great deal about a time just before King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. But Mr. Scott never needed to worry: Robin Hood is himself a legend, one that has scholars disagreeing as they are wont to do about an ordinary guy, a yeoman (commoner) in fact, who in some myths, stole from the rich and gave to the poor. There’s not too much of that in this Robin Hood, though in one scene Robin does give a fervent speech to his fellow commoners about the need for a country more or less to have equality of income if it is to survive with honor intact. Any relation of that theory to modern societies is as fictional as the title character.

Robin Hood is to be seen for visuals. Its dialogue is not particularly witty or humorous, with bold speeches coming from King Richard, King John, Godfrey, and Mr. Hood. These talks do not quite come up to the magnetism of of those given by Kenneth Branagh as King Henry V in the movie of the same name.

Quite a similar plot is on hand for this movie now as well, which surprisingly enough was the opening feature at the Cannes Festival. Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe), who fires a mean arrow in the army of the doomed King Richard (Danny Huston), returns from the Crusades only to see the monarch felled by the arrow from a castle. He takes on the responsibility of carrying the sword of a felled noble back to the man’s relations in Nottingham, treating the big knife as though it were Excalibur. There he meets the departed’s blind father, Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow) and daughter-in-law, Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett), who is assuming the role of the dead man in order to preserve the family’s 5,000 acres of land. (Women were not allowed to inherit property.)

France is on the cusp of invading England at the turn of the 13th Century (which the movie erroneously calls the turn of the 12th Century), the French taking advantage of an England that is divided because of what is considered unfair taxation. (sound familiar?) The new English king, John (Oscar Isaac), is no Richard, which encourages Godrey (Mark Strong), a bilingual spy in the service of France, to prepare his French for battle. When the obligatory climactic battle takes place, we’re treated to a microcosm of the D-Day invasion. Since romance is as required as battles in the sword-and-sandals subgenre, Ridley Scott gives us the slowly simmering hots between Robin and Marion, the latter being hostile at first to the stranger whom she must marry to protect her land.

The movie is a hodgepodge, its value as a history lesson more than questionable, but it does give its demographics—the battle-loving males and the romantic young women—their due. This Robin Hood does not conform to any of the many legends about the man just as the film Sherlock Holmes featured a detective quite unlike Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s images of an intellectual pipe smoker who did not need to bludgeon the bad guys. But that’s OK: movies can make the mistake of being too literal. Trust Ridley Scott to come up with an expensive feature loaded with battle scenes (though none of them is particularly original) and a Russell Crowe who still has the charisma he enjoyed as Maximus in Gladiator.

Rated PG-13. 140 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 

Brian Koppelman, David Levien's
Solitary Man
Opens Friday May 21, 2010


Written By: Brian Koppelman and David Levien
Cast: Michael Douglas, Danny DeVito, Jesse Eisenberg, Jenna Fischer

Anchor Bay Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

For college students who feel miserable that they are only freshmen, envying seniors who get all the girls and who are soon to graduate into the real world, Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) has the right advice. He states that it’s better to be sophomore than a senior “Look at all the fun that’s ahead of you.”

In Solitary Man, Douglas plays the role of a man in about to turn 60 (he is 65 in real life) who had been diagnosed with a heart problem six and one-half years earlier but refuses to get a CAT-scan that would reveal the extent of his condition. The way he acts in Solitary Man, he appears to be a man with a mid-life crisis. But we suspect he has always been the way he is: a compulsive womanizer, heavy drinker and a man who does not show an appropriate sense of responsibility to his own daughter and former wife.

What makes this dramedy a delight is, pure and simple, Douglas’s performance, one of the best of his career and one that should be looked at when end-year awards are considered. He is in virtually every scene, displaying a wide range of emotions in scenes such as when he acts as a mentor to a nerdy college sophomore, and as a terrific grandfather to a kid who adores him, as a womanizer who pushes his wife out of their relationship and as a man who makes a terrible mistake by commiting an act of deceit against his steady girlfriend. To top it off, despite his character’s ability to sell cars at a dealership that he owns, he is found guilty of a crime of fraud that destroys his entire fortune just at the time when his wife and daughter appear to want him out of their lives.

In short this is a Douglas performance to die for.

The comedy is on the dry side, which is good—anything that distances movies from TV sitcoms is to be welcomed. Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) had been considered a modern American entrepreneur, on the cover of Forbes magazine, establishing a number of auto dealerships based on his gift to sell as “New York’s honest car dealer.” A criminal act not explored by the script liquidates his ownership, his womanizing has terminated his marriage to Nancy (Susan Sarandon), his laissez-faire attitude toward his daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer) causes him to be estranged from her as well. When he escorts Allyson (Imogen Poots) the eighteen-year-old daughter of his rich and influential girlfriend Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker) to his alma mater for an interview, he gives the young woman pointers on what to ask for sexually—which leads to a catastrophic move on his part. While on the campus he also mentors sophomore Daniel Cheston (Jesse Eisenberg) on the ways to seduce women and at the same time pays a visit to a classmate (Danny DeVito) that he had not seen for thirty years and who is engaged in a modest, safe business rather than engage in the risks that Kalmen has taken.

Throughout the movie, Kalmen has a series of conversations with the people in his circle, talks that will cause him to alienate most of them. Because of his loose talk and a fly that cannot stay zipped, he paradoxically ends up as the titular solitary man.

The ensemble cast play their roles just fine, each bouncing dialogue off Douglas with credibility and emotional resonance. It’s always a pleasure to see Jenna Fischer, the sweet girl-next-door type from the TV series The Office. Solitary Man is a mature movie with patient editing, allowing silences to penetrate audience emotions even more than the dialogue in a clever script.

Rated: R 99 minutes. © Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Oliver Stone's
South of the Border
Opens Friday, June 25, 2010


Written by Tariq Ali & Mark Weisbrot.

(USA, 78 min.)

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Click Here for the South of the Border Roundtable
With Director Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone, one of our greatest living narrative filmmakers who is responsible for some of the greatest cinematic achievements of the last three decades (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Natural Born Killers), has now made one of the most important documentaries of recent years--perhaps--of the decade.

A bold statement?
Yes.

Yet with so many documentaries peppering the cine-circuit with so little to say or nothing new to offer, South of the Border dares to challenge the United States’s foothold as World superpower by exposing exactly how we hold onto said power and the lengths we will (and some would argue, must) go to in order to do so with Latin American usually seen as either collateral damage or an experiment where we can force our own forms of “democracy” on indigenous people who couldn’t possibly be smart enough to govern themselves. Or so we thought.

The ballsy auteur, kicked to the curb too often for underrated, underappreciated work (Alexander anyone?), journeyed down south to expose the truths about exactly what is happening to South American right now; a unification of sorts (most of the countries, anyway) that began with the wickedly demonized leader Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Stone’s film is a counterpoint to the right-wing political (under the Bush regime) and media laceration of Chavez and his supporters. But what starts as an exoneration and celebration of all the good Chavez has done for his country becomes an historical road trip of sorts as Stone visits with six other South American leaders who have adopted similar leadership methods as Chavez and see him as a hero.

Stone’s film rallies against the media as he shows how footage of the coup d’etat against Chavez was altered to vilify Chavez supporters, when in actuality the opposite was the case. He goes on to depict how the Bush administration offered support for the new government, while claiming they had nothing to do with the coup. A few days later, Chavez’s own soldiers and people physically placed him back into power and Bush had egg on his Alfred E. Neuman face.

South of the Border takes the viewer on a frighteningly real freedom ride where we see how the U.S. has been using South America as its own guinea pig for decades and just how much oil and defiance had everything to do with Bush and his cronies deciding that Chavez was an enemy of America—basically because he refused to do exactly what he was told.

Stone shows Chavez as a man who grew up in poverty and now fights to make sure his people can eat.

Stone, via his interviews, enlightens us on how these world leaders simply want to be treated as equals. How dare they want to rule their own countries their own way and not have to rely on the International Monetary Fund and U.S. economic control? But they dare. They are doing it.

Cristina Kirchner, President of Argentina, honestly offers: “To me it seems that for the first time in the region, the leaders look like the people they govern.”

Her husband, Néstor Carlos Kirchner, Ex-President of Argentina, said that at a meeting with then President Bush, “He (Bush) said the best way to revitalize the economy is war and that the United States has grown stronger with war.”

But no one captured the truth more succinctly than Chavez who looked directly into the camera, at one point and happily said:
“You are a donkey, Mr. Bush!”

How dare he? How dare he criticize us? He dare.
And why not?

Until the U.S. begins treating its Latin American neighbors with respect instead of forcibly ousting them when they don’t do exactly what the supreme power dictates, he’s allowed.

Until the U.S. stops labeling any leader that doesn’t fall into line a dictator and dangerous enemy, he’s allowed.

Until the media learns to do its job and actually checks its facts instead of pupetting for an administration that is trying to sway the rest of the world against those that do not completely concur with them, he’s allowed.

Until they start treating these leaders as equals—Chavez and his unified group of maverick descendents of Che Guevara is allowed to dare criticize the U.S.

And Stone may dare continue to expose the hypocrisy within our government, for that is the only way to affect change.




David Slade's
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
Opens Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Written By: Melissa Rosenberg from Stephenie Meyer’s novel
Starring: Xavier Samuel; Kristen Stewart; Robert Pattinson; Billy Burke; Justin Chon; and Anna Kendrick

Summit Entertainment
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Several things went through my mind as the film rolled on.

How are the wolves and vampires in human form able to wear the big brown eyes of their contact lenses without blinking?

When the wolves attack in the blockbuster-action ending, why didn’t the Newborns who opposed them call on Sarah Palin for backup?

Anna Kendrick’s character gave the valedictory address at the high school graduation at Forks, Washington. If Robert Pattison’s character had been through high school eighty-four times, why couldn’t he get the straight-A average to stand behind the podium and deliver the address?

Aren’t the teachers suspicious when so many boys and girls have the same color brown eyes with the big black pupils?

If Kristen Stewart’s character marries the Robert Pattinson’s character without turning into a vampire herself, would her kids have only one big canine tooth each instead of two? On which side of the mouth, and wouldn’t the imbalance necessitate orthodontia?

A poster for the movie states “Her heart is torn between a vampire and a werewolf.” Did the studios mean that to be campy, or a honest bid for the hearts and souls of the teen target audience?

Should “werewolf” and “vampire” be two new career options for the rest of us, given the current economy, or will those job choices be exported to India?

To the movie’s literary credit, the huge youthful audience will get some knowledge of foreign policy. In this case, we’re dealing with a treaty between the werewolves, whose spokeswolf is Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), and the vampire followers of Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), an agreement which seems as fragile as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of the late 1930s. The two hostile units stay together out of fear of a powerful common enemy, the Newborns: a sinister group of extra-powerful vampires led as though puppets by the vindictive Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose lover was killed by Edward Cullen. Thus Edward’s s.o., Bella (Kristen Stewart), is in danger, falling under the protection of both Edward and Jake, who compete for her love, though it’s obvious throughout that Bella, in her words, digs both but loves Edward more. Never mind that Jake, being a wolf, is literally hot though figuratively cool, while Edward, being undead, is literally icy-cold but figuratively hot.

Most of the movie is yada yada, all building up to the mother of all battles, and since Edward, the cad, refuses to “go to bed” with an eager Bella, director David Slade wins a PG-13 rating. (Slade knows whereof he directs, having given us 30 Days of Night, with its attack by vampires in Alaska. He is now working on The Shadow). Special effects are top-notch: the wolves look really really real as they fight tooth and nail with the vampires, and the scenery in British Columbia is stunning, particularly vivid from Javier Aguirresaraboe’s aerial shots. But unlike the Harry Potter series, the dialogue which has been adapted from the novel by Melissa Rosenberg, is as stiff as the performers.

Rated PG-13. 121 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Nicolas Winding Refn's
Valhalla Rising
Opens Friday July 16, 2010

IFC Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Written By: Roy Jacobsen, Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Maarten Stevenson, Gary Lewis, Jamie Sives, Ewan Stewart, Alexander Morton

The term “Crusaders” has been used in a pejorative way during the past few years, so we can’t say that Valhalla Rising, which takes place in the year 1000A.D., is dated. But the Crusades, as depicted by Nicolas Winding Refn, are a bleak, muddy, gory affair, not the event we visualize we read about knights traveling on stately horses to conquer or re-conquer Jerusalem. (Jerusalem, if you skipped your high-school World History class during the fifteen minutes that the event was discussed, was intermittently held by Christians and Muslims who battled one another time and again until the city finally landed with the right people three-score years ago.) The picture is also far more spartan than what we’ve come to expect from Refn, whose Pusher trilogy concluded when one of the characters, Milo, tries to sell 10,000 Ecstasy pills and all hell breaks loose.

You’d have to search far and wide to find a film more pretentious than this one. By comparison, Ingmar Bergman’s works might come off like something Judd Apatow might produce, with The Virgin Spring looking more like The 40-Year Old Virgin than a bleak, 14th Century tale of Swedish rape and murder. This is obviously not a chick-flick and surely not a blockbuster action-adventure tale, so who might be the audience target other than insomniacs?

Valhalla Rising slogs along with occasional announcements on the screen telling us “Part I” and continuing to “Part VI.” The film could be called a road-and-buddy movie if there were any roads and if any two people could be buddies for more than a couple of days. It’s written by the director and Roy Jacobsen. What: two people are needed to write dialogue that might take up three or four pages of note paper, the lead person not saying a single word? Hmm.

The mute, optically challenged One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen—who should have rested on his laurels after Casino Royale) is a Norse warrior show somehow ends up in the Scottish Highlands. One-Eye is a man to be feared by mankind. Caged and treated like a pit bull by people even crueler than Michael Vick, he is forced to fight gladiator-style, the spectators taking bets on the outcome. Though fed only a bowl of watery soup each day from a boy, Are (Maarten Stevenson), he overcomes his captors, nominates himself as the lad’s protector, and because of a fog that never lifts, winds up with a small party of Christians walking to the Holy Land. We know that they’re good Christians because they’re able to cover the distance from Western Europe to where they suspect is the location of Jerusalem with nothing to eat and only sea water to drink.

The only virtue of this movie is the visuals. A good portion of the pic comes off like a dream filled with One-Eye’s hallucinations—he literally sees red when he’s dozing or meditating and that’s long before anyone thought of putting weed into brownies. There is no character development, virtually no dialogue, no jump cuts, no pacing, scarcely a narrative. Who needs all that baggage when you can show our hero disemboweling one of his tormentors (guts pour out), smashing another’s head with a big rock and cutting into their backs with an axe. One critic noted a plus: there are no Viking stereotypes: Nobody’s wearing a helmet with a pair of horns. At least we did not have to suffer through a duet by Siegfried and Brunnhild from Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelungs.

Unrated. 93 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 

Ben Steinbauer
Winnebago Man
Opens Friday, July 9, 2010


Written By: Ben Steinbauer and Malcolm Pullinger

Starring:Jack Rebney; Ben Steinbauer; Keith Gordon; Ghyslain Raza; Alexsey Vayner; Douglas Rushkoff; Nick Prueher; Joe Pickett; Charlie Sotelo; Cinco Barnes; Alan Berliner; Tony Dahle; Nick Dangeur; Tom Jandric; Kevin Schmitt; Mike Welckle; and Buddha

Kino International
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


Why do you think the movie studios leave most of what they film on the cutting room floor? Could it be that what they discard is so funny that Hollywood is afraid the audience might die laughing and sue? Probably not, but imagine gathering up all the refuse left behind because it would make the films too long or because it “doesn’t work” and judge for yourself. You may well find that what was discarded (later recovered) of a Winnebago sales video in 1989 is among the most spirited and profane and comical scrap from anywhere. The celluloid on exhibit in Ben Steinbauer’s Winnebago Man may be only a small percentage of what photographers Bradley Beesley and Berndt Mader actually caught, but the 1989 video, which was picked up and copied thousands of times and is now featured for the world on YouTube, is 100% outtakes. It’s outtakes not because its of poor quality, but because it is filled with obscenities that the Winnebago Corporation would obviously not want to project to the public in its commercials.

In fact the Winnebago outtakes, featuring the obscene broadsides of one Jack Rebney, the titular Winnebago man, are probably among the most famous, or notorious such motion picture documents anywhere. What we in the audience might debate after seeing this documentary is whether we think those who view the outtakes are laughing with the character, or at him. Ultimately we may conclude that there is a thin line between the two kinds of amusement.

One wonders, though: how many of the hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people who have watched the end-to-end profanity uttered by Jack Rebney give a fiddler about the man himself? Anyone with a smidgen of curiosity cannot be blamed for wondering whether Rebney is really an unhappy, lonely man; or a full-time curmudgeon like Andy Rooney or H.L. Mencken; or a showman who is putting on an act for the amusement of the camera crew; or whatever. What’s interesting about Steinbauer’s doc is that we wind up without a definitive answer. Sometimes he’s unhappy with the world to such an extent that he winds up a recluse; sometimes he is overjoyed by the laughter and cheers of people such as those who hear him at a live film festival.

Kudos to clean-cut, 30-year-old Steinbauer for hiring a private eye to search out this man, who leaves no address but only a series of post office boxes, but which is the current one? Simple: write to all of them proposing a film to be made about the man and maybe he’ll come forward. Rebney, who has aged seventeen years since the outtakes (this well-made, expensive and wholly professional documentary took three years to complete), is living a reclusive life with only his dog Buddha for company. In a touch-and-go discussion between the film-maker and the Winnebago man, in which the latter is ready to back out of the project if when he takes issue with something that Steinbauer says or suggests, he agrees to be the star but has no idea that anyone would be interested in someone who is not much different from Joe the Plumber—aside from being articulate and educated and politically motivated.

Rebney, then, comes across with aces, a man who is ticked off with much going on in America. For the production notes he states that language is about to disappear as youthful users text each other so much that, like Morse code, eventually three clicks might mean “let’s go to the movies” and two would mean “nah.” He’s a more complex dude than that, a well-rounded man who comes across as poignant as well as laughable, articulate and not just profane. All this is projected despite Rebney’s refusal to say a word about his childhood or anything about his life, though he is eager to talk about politics, including what he would do with a hot pocker if he ran into Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld.

Short as the doc is at 87 minutes, the chatter does become repetitious, nor can I say that I am the ideal candidate for the movie. I’m guessing that the target audience is under 35 years of age, one clue being the crowd that appears at a hip San Francisco film festival to see the outtakes. As for the connection of this clown-like man to us in the audience, as one critic says, “Keep in mind that we’re all that guy or girl. Most of us were just lucky enough to not get caught on camera.”

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



 

 


Alain Resnais's
Wild Grass (Les herbes folles)
Opens Friday, June 25 2010


Written By: Alex Reval, Laurent Herbiert, from the novel L’Incident by Christian Gailly

Starring: Sabine Azéma; André Dussollier; Anne Consigny; Emmanuelle Devos; Mathieu Amalric; Michel Vuillermoz; Edouard Baer; Annie Cordy; Sara Forestier; Nicolas Duvauchelle; and Vladimir Consigny

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Moviegoers who tell you that they understood Hiroshima Mon Amour or Last Year at Marienbad after a single screening are lying, or geniuses, or missing the point. You don’t go to an Alain Resnais pic with popcorn and Coca-Cola in your hands, throwing off the focus you need for the 87-year-old director’s output. Wild Grass, by both comparison and contrast to Hiroshima or Marienbad, is a light comedy with heavy resonance, meaning that once again a typical film-goer may want to see the work a second time to discover which scenes are surreal--in the principal character’s imagination--and which scenes represent reality.

The film is based on Christian Gailly’s 1996 novel L’Incident, not yet available in English, adapted by scripters Alex Reval and Laurent Herbiert. Resnais, with the help of two of his favorite actors, deals with a condition that probably has affected most of us, although the desperation of unrequited love is thought to be restricted to those under the age of 35. Not so with Georges (André Dussollier), said to be in his fifties (he’s 64 in real life), married to the lovely Suzanne (Anne Consigny), enjoying the comforts of a middle-class home in or near Paris together with their two children. When Georges finds the wallet of a woman, Marguerite (Sabine Azéma), the victim of a mugging while shopping for red shoes, he becomes enamored not only of her photograph but of her pilot’s license—as he has long had a passion for small planes. Not the picture of a typical dentist, Marguerite possesses a shock of flaming red hair that makes her look as though she were standing on the New York subway’s third rail and also not the person you’d want to sit directly behind in a movie theater.

Georges reports his finding to a couple of cops of the Keystone variety (Mathieu Amalric, Michel Vuillermoz) but goes well beyond the boundaries of ordinary stalking when he not only tries to phone and write constantly to Marguerite, but even slashes all four of her tires outside her home.

Or does he? Resnais’s game is to challenge us in the audience to guess which parts of the film are Georges’ imagination and which represent reality. Early on he relies on long periods of narration by the central character, a technique often thought to be lazy, but in this case representing the ways that Georges rehearses ways to communicate with his new love as though he were a fifteen-year-old trying to date a cheerleader. Presumably the more audacious dialogue is his fertile imagination while the actual palaver is repressed. The comedy relies on the miscommunications, the frustrations that occur when plans are not fulfilled. One cannot understand that Marguerite would ultimately connect with Georges to the extent of inviting him and his wife for a spin in her Spitfire.

The picture is, granted, full of imagination, but for me is marginal on entertainment value. It’s a pleasure to see people who don’t look like George Clooney or Gwyneth Paltrow act the parts of romantic leads, but André Dussollier just doesn’t have the éclat that I’d hoped for nor does one see how Sabine Azéma as a neurotic dentist could motivate a happily married man. For a better picture in a similar vein, take another look at the director’s Private Fears and Public Places, which finds six strangers looking for love in the City of Lights—more engaging, perhaps, in that it is based on a play by the great Alan Ayckbourn.

Rated PG. 113 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 


Debra Granik's
Winter's Bone
Opens Friday, June 11, 2010

Written By: Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, from Daniel Woodrell’s novel

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence; John Hawkes; Lauren Sweetser; Shelley Waggener; Kevin Greznahan

Roadside Attractions
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Sarah Palin would consider the people in the Ozark hill country of Southern Missouri to be the real Americans. But if your love for nature comes from shopping at Whole Foods and the closest you’ve got to hunting is the deli counter of Zabar’s, you’d do well to stay a fake American. Debra Granik’s characters in Winter’s Bone (which won the Grand Jury price at Sundance 2010) don’t look or act anything like Al Capp’s L’iL Abner, though a case can be made that most of ‘em could relate to Pappy Yokum, an illiterate parasite. The people here range from just callus to unselfconsciously brutal, with the implication that some have been involved in a murder that not even the sheriff is going to risk his life to investigate. They snort, they spit, and presumably the closest they’ve been to a chemistry class is the meth lab. In short there’s nothing going on in this unremittingly bleak picture of hill people in Southern Missouri to upset the conventional stereotypes. There are only two citizens who are open and unspoiled, but they’re only six and four years old. Give them time.

Granik has accomplished two things pretty well in her picture. She shows the fierce determination of a 17-year-old who risks being beaten to a pulp if not killed by persevering in her search for her daddy. She exhibits the culture of the hill people, though I suspect the crew and the professional actors are walking on eggs to avoid insulting them, because anything they say or do could be misconstrued.

The movie stays close to Daniel Woodrell’s novel which, despite the “R” rating on the film would be acceptable for high-school age viewers with its spare, direct prose representing the harsh lives of these poor southerners. Jennifer Lawrence, a 19-year-old Kentucky-born beauty whose looks are pared down to resemble someone lacking in nutrition and money for makeup, anchors the tale as Ree Dolly. Ree is desperately looking for her father, not necessarily because she has much affection for him, but because he has jumped bail on a meth charge. If he does not show up in court on a particular day and if there is no proof that he is dead, her family will lose the house and its adjoining 300 acres of timberland, turning her, her drug-addicted catatonic mother, and her small brother and sister into the Ozark woods.

If you go along with the notion that the people of a given section of hill country are related by blood, you’d think that the whole town would join her in hunting down her dad. But the folks ‘round here have other ideas, threatening to beat her up if she continues to search for him. We see why toward the conclusion.

Jennifer Lawrence turns in a fleshed-out role as the persevering young woman focused in one task: to save the family that she cares for since there are no responsible adult figures to do so. John Hawkes, an anarchistic criminal who is her uncle, does a U-turn in character, shrugging off his niece for half of the story, then finding something in his heart to care. One poignant scene finds Ree trying to enlist in the army strictly because she needs the $40,000 that the U.S. promises to enlistees. For a change of pace, we get a look as well at a cattle market, the auctioneer accepting bids in a lingo that only the locals can parse. The film may remind some of John Boorman’s Deliverance, which likewise takes us into a dangerous back-country. The civilization illustrated here is such that even the Sopranos would stay away. But there’s no reason for you to avoid this hard-hitting, realistic trip into a land unknown by most of us.

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

 

 


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