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Andrew Jarecki's
All Good Things
Opens Friday, December 3, 2010

Written By: Andrew Jarecki, Marc Smerling, Marcus Hinchev

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst, Frank Langella, Philip Baker Hall, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kristen Wiig, Zoe Lister Jones

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

The title of the film comes from the name of a Vermont health food store owned by a couple of young, happy people. At least these young people were happy during the time they worked at the store, but that was before they moved back to the pressures of New York City. It’s also, methinks, an implicit statement, “All good things come to an end.” And so does the film. The first half is lively, adventurous, varied and upbeat; the second half is slow, fitful, melodramatic, and melancholy. The acting is fine across the board, the makeup on the principal actor deserves awards, in fact if Saddam Hussein had hired Judy Chin’s department to redesign his face, the evil dictator could now be living in up in Martha’s Vineyard as Steven Hackford.

All Good Things is inspired by the true story of a triple murder, or more accurately two murders that produced actual corpses and one involving a missing person who was almost certainly hacked up and fed to the fish. Nobody was convicted of murder, though one fellow was jailed for a far lesser charge, while the D.A. seemed to have been bought off from re-opening what is now a cold case. Writer-director Andrew Jarecki unfolds the action with enough respect for his audience to avoid overly melodramatic flourishes. There are no spurts of blood on the walls, cars do not explode, but in more than fair compensation we do see Kirsten Dunst’s breasts in the shower.

Andrew Jarecki, who has garnered a reputation from his Oscar-nominated doc Capturing the Friedmans (which like All Good Things is about a Jewish upper-middle-class father and son involved in crimes), dramatizes a New York real estate dynasty beginning in the 1980s. Inspired by the story of the Durst family, All Good Things looks first upon Sanford Marks (Frank Langella), who owns a chain of seedy hotels and bordellos in the Times Square area before those blocks were gentrified into theaters. Handsome David Marks (Ryan Gosling) has no intention of going into the business when he meets beautiful Katie McCarthy (Kirsten Dunst) and marries her against the advice of his father, (“She’ll never be one of us”). But when David perceives that Katie may want more for their lives than a grocery store in the sticks, he sells out and joins his dad’s business, showing his wife off as a trophy.

David’s character takes an about-face during the latter part of the story, as secrets from his past begin to dominate his life. His mother’s suicide many years earlier prove to be a dominant black mark on his psyche, crushing his wife’s desire for a child. Katie’s wish for a more independent life as a medical student causes a rift in the relationship. And when David’s best friend, Lily Rabe (Deborah Lehrman), makes demands, David’s life unravels further.

Much of the tale is told as a back story at a trial in which David is accused of the murder of Malvern Bump (Philip Baker Hall), an lonely old man whom he had saved from eviction but who had turned against him after considering himself betrayed. At that point David is a much older man, made up so expertly with freckles, with a soft voice that would convince any jury, that we in the audience might almost be convinced that Jarecki had substituted a second performer. Ontario-born Gosling at 30 turned out a more dynamic role this , crosscutting time periods as the husband of Michelle Williams, in a rocky marriage portrayed in Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. He’s a pleasure to watch as is Kirsten Dunst, or course, in this mature examination of the role of class and caste and how easily crimes can be covered up when you know the right people.

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



Richard J. Lewis's
Barney's Version
Opens Friday, December 17, 2010 (limited)

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Written By: Michael Konyves, from Mordecai Richler’s novel
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver


Paul Giamatti’s monumental performance as a cantankerous, self-destructive TV producer anchors this epic tale of a man and his three wives. The film is based on a fictitious memoir of Barney Panofsky penned by the late Mordecai Richler, to whom the film is dedicated.

Barney's Version finds the title character filled with a sense of inferiority, a Jewish man who believes he cannot “fit in” to the overwhelmingly Christian Quebec. Barney strives to overcome his fears by pushing himself—not so much for money but for the woman of his dreams. The film shows us Barney over a period of forty years, shown in his more youthful years with a brownish-red, curly rug on his head and a glass of Scotch virtually affixed to his hand. To some extent Barney is a mirror reflection of the novelist, who had turned his back on political correctness to accuse the Quebec Separatist Movement of anti-Semitism—thereby making his prophesy come true as critics of his articles in such magazines at the Atlantic Monthly declared that Richler is not “a real Quebecer.” (Sound familiar, fellow Americans?)

Paul Giamatti takes us into the mind of Barney, who appears to have spent his entire adult life covering up his insecurities and even his cuddly aspects which are hidden under a gruff exterior. Michael Konyves’s script takes us first to Rome, where a young Barney meets and marries the first and very pregnant Mrs. Panofsky, a freewheeling Clara played by Rachelle Lefevre as a woman who may have slept with everyone who made eye contact with her—thereby making Barney justly skeptical that the bride is carrying his baby.

During the second phase of the story, he has a job at a TV production company in Montreal where he meets and marries into a fabulously rich family, wedding a Jewish princess (an amusing Minnie Driver) despite the opposition of her father. Why so? Barney meets the beautiful Miriam (Rosamund Pike) at his wedding, takes off before the lavish afternoon is over, and runs to the train in pursuit of Mariam who is on her way to New York. Barney pushes and tugs, whines and cajoles until the elegant radio interviewer, both astonished and puzzled by his weekly gifts of flowers and sincere professions of amore, loses all resistance and becomes the third Mrs. P.

The story is motivated by a police detective whose crime novel accuses Barney of murdering his best friend, Boogie (Scott Speedman), with whom he shared a love for the bottle. No body turns up for thirty years, frustrating the detective who is certain that Barney is a killer, but in the title character’s own version, allowing for long lapses of whiskey-filled memory, he shot Boogie by accident with a the gun given to Barney by his loving dad and now-retired cop, Izzy (Dustin Hoffman).

Emerging from this two hours and twelve minutes’ production is a fleshed-out, complex figure, a man who could have spent his adult life as the husband of a wealthy Jewish woman and who later screwed up an alliance with the love of his life. Despite his periodic drunkenness, Barney was self-aware, yet unable to stop himself from feeling second-rate despite the sincere, loving feelings toward him of the second and third Mrs. Panofsky. This is the kind of movie that brings up the standard cliche, “I laughed, I cried,” given the broad and deep characterization of a man who is at various times comical, tragic and full of life.

Barney’s Version is virtually guaranteed to be among the ten movies considered for Best Picture not only at Oscar time but among the various awards groups, with Giamatti on the short list for best actor and Pike joining in the fun as Best Supporting Actress.

Not Yet Rated. 132 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara's
Bhutto
Opens Friday, December 3, 2010

Written By: Johnny O’Hara

Starring: Asif Ali Zardari, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari, Assefa Bhutto Zardari, Mark Siegel, Pervez Musharraf

First Run Features
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


Quick: What is the most dangerous country in the world? No small number of the world’s citizens name the U.S., given our awesome numbers of nukes, our interventions in foreign countries, our status as the world’s only superpower. China? Large,a nuclear power, and able to bankrupt the U.S. by calling in its loans to us. North Korea? Nuclear, isolated, paranoid, and unstable. Iran: not a bad guess, if that republic, led by an unbalanced president who takes orders from a bearded ayatollah, is allowed to get the bomb.

Still, a case could be made for Pakistan, America’s ally. So why should one of our allies be considered the world’s most dangerous state? For one thing, if you’re reading the NY Times or other noted journal about the latest in the WikiLeaks, that country has some nuclear material relatively unguarded that could fall into the hands of terrorists. Another is that tens of millions of that state’s 180 million citizens—50% of whom are under the age of 18 and a majority of whom are illiterate—are believed to be loyal to the Taliban or other anti-Western forces. As evidence that all is not right, a shining force for democracy in Pakistan was assassinated while campaigning for a third term as prime minister, a most unusual person, the first woman in the Muslim world to be elected to the highest office.

Duane Baghman and Johnny O’Hara’s Bhutto is a documentary about the life of Benazir Bhutto, favored by her statesman father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, over his eldest son, to run for the top job thereby breaking the Islamic glass ceiling. The doc is informative enough, briefly scanning the history of Pakistan from 1947 when it broke away from India, then split into two countries—East Pakistan begetting Bangladesh—though if you’re looking for Michael Moore you won’t find a trace in this humorless film. You will find a number of talking heads such as former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, President Asif Ali Zardari, who is Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Pervez Musharraf, a former president accused in advance by the title character of being behind her assassination, and assorted western journalists and Pakistani family members.

Benezir Bhutto can be compared to the Kennedys in that she came from a wealthy family that appears to have suffered from a curse. Her father was hanged, her kid brother was poisoned in the south of France where he died horribly, her older brother was shot dead, and she was herself imprisoned by evil General Zia, who ruled after a coup, for so long in the worst of the country’s jails that she temporarily lost the power of speech. This sounds more like a Jacobean revenge play than a Shakespearean tragedy.

For the most part the interviewees do not speak against a drab background but filmmakers Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara, working with O’Hara’s script, are supported by cinematic footage that never fails to show that every street in Karachi, a representative large city, looks like Grand Central Station at 5:10 p.m. on Friday. Some women wear burqas like just about all Afghan adult women even to this day. No woman appears so westernized as to wear nothing on her head: Benazir Bhutto herself covers her head while her eyes are shaded by oversized glasses. Her English is fluent, while in just one instance, she rouses the crowd to a fury in Urdu. Otherwise she is soft-spoken, enjoying an enthusiastic, massive following of men and women. Still, the military are not entirely comfortable with taking orders from a woman suggesting that a male surrogate be appointed, but Benazir’s gender appears the least of her problems. What made her hated in some circles was that in her first term of office she lifted the veil metaphorically, even more important than physically, by extending education to young women and ushering in Western-style democracy which she considered the best revenge against the unjust hanging of her father by Zia, her military enemy.

Had Bhutto lived and won an expected third term it would have been impossible for Sharia law to be imposed on this still-unstable U.S. ally. The documentary through historical footage and interviews with apparachiks and journalists both Western and Eastern, captures the importance of a nation that sits in a strategic area squeezed between India and Afghanistan and the brilliance and idealism of the title character. Let’s hope that the U.S. is not going down the same erroneous path it trod when it armed the mujahedeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan, or now, when our country is funneling billions in foreign aid to a Pakistan whose populace may not always be depended on to fight the forces of Taliban within its borders.

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

 


Darren Aronofsky's
Black Swan
Opens Friday, December 3, 2010



Written By: Mark Heyman, Andrew Heinz, John McLaughlin, from Andrew Heinz’s story

Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

One scene in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan finds two dancers, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) and Lily (Mila Kunia) chatting with a couple of young yahoos about the performance they are about to give of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”at New York’s Lincoln Center. Predictably enough, the two good-looking but vacant guys had never heard of it. You could probably wager that the next day they’d be watching the Packers or the Steelers on their sixty-inch TV, thinking that ballet is kind of prissy. Football is the real deal, a rough, tough game, not something for the ladies in tutus who might spend their holidays playing badminton, netting butterflies or hauling out their binoculars for some bird watching. Who knew that the backstage politics of the ballet theater could make Michael Vick quiver.

You learn quite a bit from watching Black Swan, but the learning part is secondary to the visceral. Black Swan is a Darren Aronofsky project. If you’ve seen the director’s Pi (a paranoid mathematician seeks a key number that will unlock universal patterns found in nature) and Requiem for a Dream (the drug addictions of four ambitious people spin out of control), you know that the man is not about to be hired to make anything for the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV episodes. Aronofsky makes cinema, not TV. His Black Swan effectively weaves genres of horror, melodrama, classical music, dance, comedy, eroticism, repression, neurosis, and psychosis so seamlessly that—if you react in any way as I did—he will shake you to the core.

It doesn’t hurt that he has brought forth a performance to die for from Natalie Portman, already an accomplished dancer, one who has studied for ten months to deliver an effective performance for the key scenes shown in the Tchaikovsky ballet.

Using a script by Mark Heyman, Andrew Heinz and John McLaughlin from Andrew Heinz’s story and, of course, with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s familiar music, director Aronofsky sets up several conflicts. One is between Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), who has become too old for the key role and is being retired, and Nina, who seeks the key role. Another is between Nina and Lila, both competing for the lead. Still a third involves Nina and her mother, Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey), the latter laying a guilt trip on her daughter for having been forced to give up her own career in the dance after becoming pregnant with Nina. But by far the largest conflict is between Nina and Nina: in fact Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the director of the company, has already told Nina that she is her own worst enemy. You see, Nina, still living with her mother despite having a job with a prestigious New York ballet company, is a neurotic perfectionist, at times borderline psychotic: a virgin who is sexually repressed and whose frigidity works mightily against her ability to portray a highly emotional, evil Black Swan.

There is no romance in the conventional sense in Black Swan, save for the scenes from the ballet. But there are ample shots of pure horror coming from the Nina’s vivid hallucinations such as her projections of grotesque characters and body doubles, and scenes that evoke the disintegration of the soul exhibited physically by Nina’s picking of the skin of her shoulders and her fingers. The masturbation scene and one of Sapphic love have guaranteed the picture its R rating if nothing else does, two elements that will doubtless add to an audience that just might be turned away thinking that it’s primarily about the ballet.

Portman for a Best Actress nomination? Why not? Aronofsky for Director? Could well be.

Rated R. 108 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten


 


Steve Antin's
Burlesque
Opens Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Written By: Steve Antin

Cast: Cher, Christina Aguilera, Kristen Bell, Stanley Tucci, Peter Gallagher, Alan Cumming, Cam Gigandet, Julianne Hough, Eric Dane,

Screen Gems
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


Burlesque is this year’s movie answer to Rob Marshall’s 2002 film Chicago, to Bill Condon’s 2006 movie Dreamgirls, and to Rob Marshall’s film, Nine. Burlesque is additional evidence that you don’t have to pay Broadway prices to see razzle-dazzle musicals. Remember: even if you’re sitting in the $120 seats on The Great White Way, you could be watching the equivalent of TV. Unless you’re around fifth row center, you could be paying top price for row R seat 29, where you’ll see only half the stage or be obstructed by a pole. Watch a show on the big screen and it matters not where you’re sitting. You’ll see everything loud and clear.

Then again, Burlesque is no Chicago or Nine for a couple of reasons: The first is that it lacks the complexity of plot that made the other two independent of music for quality; the second is that the music and song of Nine and Chicago had variety rather than being for the most part a one-note, mostly shrill affair. Nonetheless, to paraphrase the most notable comment that President Obama made about Secretary of State Clinton during the campaign, Burlesque is entertaining enough.

Despite having not a single song that remains in memory an hour after the show is over, this is Christina Aguilera’s show. Like Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street,one of the great musicals of all time, Ali (Christina Aguilera), like so many small town gals (in her case from Iowa), asks how much for a ticket to L.A. She responds to the clerk’s question, “One way or round trip?” with “You must be kidding!” Impressed by the eye candy at the Burlesque Lounge on Sunset Boulevard, especially by co-owner Tess (Cher) whose “Welcome to Burlesque” is backed up by a sensational chorus line, she ignores the usual “Leave us your name” and has the chutzpa to grab a tray from Jack (Cam Gigandet), the bartender, hiring herself as a waitress to get her foot in the door.

Demanding to be seen on the stage, she impresses both Tess and the club’s gay costume designer, Sean (Stanley Tucci), gets hired to the rage of a jealous leading woman, Nikki (Kristen Bell), not realizing that the club faces bankruptcy. Tess’s ex-husband, Vince (Peter Gallagher) urges Tess to sell the club to real estate magnate Marcus (Eric Dane), but Tess loves the place and refuses to sell, pinning her hopes on the remarkable new star, Ali, who is now sharing digs with the (straight) bartender—who is in turn engaged to a woman spending most of her time away in New York.

If the plot sounds superficial and old-hat, it certainly is. And if the tentative romance between Ali and Jack looks as though it will bear fruit, or the club sounds as though it might get saved, stay tuned. The songs are booming, the costumes and make-up look like shoo-ins for awards. This is Aguilera’s first exposure in a feature film: she has a solid résumé of TV appearances. Cher appears throughout with an audience-pleasing song toward the conclusion, with a fireworks finale that doesn’t quite bring down the house. Chalk this up to a solid effort at camp, a songfest without much plot, a costume-cum-makeup affair that will please audiences well beyond the major gay-targeted community.

Rated PG-13. 116 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



George Hickenlooper’s
Casino Jack
Opens Friday, December 17th

Reviewed by Alejandra Serret

Casino Jack tells the true story of infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff and of his con-artist antics that resulted in one of the biggest scandals of the Bush Administration. On January 3, 2006 Ambramoff plead guilty to three felony counts: conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion. At the outset, this tale of greed, corruption, and struggle for power is one we’ve seen before, but Director George Hickenlooper (most known for Factory Girl and The Man from Elysian Fields) approaches it in a fresh way, exposing all of its complexities and humanizing Ambramoff while damning him.

During Abramoff’s six year sentence, Hickenlooper met with him six times and had approximately thirty hours of interview time. All of this research allowed Hickenlooper to get inside Abramoff’s head and to tell his story from an interesting perspective. We see that he is ambitious and driven and how this turns to greed and corruption. We see that he is a family man, a father, someone who supports his community, while also being manipulative, callous, and villainous. Very few actors could have mastered this role, but Kevin Spacey gives it such nuance and depth. Not surprisingly, this performance has earned him his sixth Golden Globe nomination. Barry Pepper plays the role of Michael Scanlon (Abramoff’s accomplice and partner in crime) and Kelly Preston of Pam Abramoff. Both give strong performances.

Casino Jack opens with a dramatic monologue delivered by Spacey with such passion and sarcasm that it sets the tone from the beginning. What follows is, the often hard to believe story, of Abramoff and Scanlon’s corruption. From the defrauding of several Native American tribes (who hired them to lobby on their behalf), to partnering up with TV mattress king and small time crook to run a floating casino (who then enlists the help of the mob and puts a hit out on the previous casino owner), to trading political favors for financial gain. Eventually (and how were they able to get away with it for so long?) their illegal antics catch up with them.

While Hickenlooper and Norman Snider (screenwriter) adequately tackle the deciphering of Abramoff’s operation, it is at times, hard to follow. With so many cons going on at once, the intricacies of each become convoluted. Where the movie is at its strongest is in the balance of seriousness and humor. In a particularly riveting scene, Spacey jumps up during his hearing and rants to the men who are indicting him. One by one he tears these powerful men down, accusing them of the same crimes he is being punished for, and then you realize it’s all happening in his head. And you start to wonder if these thoughts can be trusted when coming from a man who built a career on the art of manipulation. It’s a fascinating story and well told by the director and cast.


 



John Wells's
The Company Men
Opens Friday, December 10, 2010

The Weinstein Company
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Written By: John Wells
Starring: Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, Rosemarie De Witt, Maria Bello, Craig T. Nelson


Is America headed for the toilet economically while China is on a roll? Time will tell. The public is none too optimistic if you go by the recent midterm elections that sent sixty sitting members of the House packing and drove the Democratic majority in the Senate from fifty-nine to fifty-one. The recession is over. Tell that to the 9.6% of workers who are unemployed and the 17% of workers who are either unemployed, taking part-time jobs or not bothering to look any more. So what does the American public do in early November to show its disappointment with the Democratic administration in the White House? It votes Republican, for the guys who want to privatize Social Security, downsize Medicare, send jobs overseas and maybe end the minimum wage. Smart thinking.

The Company Men doesn’t deal with macroeconomics, with national or international politics. John Wells, who wrote and directs this feature torn from today’s headlines, does something more impressive. Wells hones in on a handful of highly paid executives who are living the good life, the American dream, driving the Porsches, sending their kids to private schools, enjoying the corporate jets, enjoying the golf club memberships, grilling the steaks in their backyard barbecues, wearing the thousand-dollar threads, owning their second homes in the Bahamas, relishing the conviviality of conversations with their peers. There’s just one problem. They think they own their jobs for life, so they don’t save: in fact they go into debt with the understanding that next year the bonuses will come through, the salaries will climb, the stock options will soar. What happens when through no fault of their own, the general public become fearful, pull in their belts a notch or two, stop spending to pay off their debts? Company revenues are flat or worse, executives are laid off, dominoes fall. In the company under John Wells’s microscope, one top executive after another gets the axe. The younger ones have some hope. Those who are old, and old means over forty (and how many top executives are under forty?), well, they’re in serious trouble.

Thus Wells turns his attention not to the teeming millions who have recently lost their jobs during the 2008 recession, but to the higher-ups, or at least to those making six-figure and seven-figure incomes in corporate suites, the suits who work for GTX, a manufacturing conglomerate with 60,000 workers. Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), is head of sales and marketing, earning $160,000, enjoying a Porsche, a loving wife Maggie (Rosemarie De Witt), and a nice kid Eamonn (Danny Mills) who shoots hoops in the back yard. The last thing he expects to get is the axe when he reports to a meeting bragging about his latest low score on the golf range where he has an expensive membership. Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), co-founder of the company with James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson), has put in decades of work with the company, now having trouble raising its stock price and in talks for a prospective merger which would threaten the employment of tens of thousands, including most of those in the corporate suite. Herein lies a major conflict over the ethical role of the corporation. Salinger believes that the bottom line should be the sole concern of companies. McClary considers that ethically a company is responsible for the well-being of its work force. An unspoken premise is this: Why should the CEO have a yearly salary of $22 million and a corporate jet while thousands of workers get laid off, losing their homes, their families, their status? Among the creeps painted as villains is Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello), head of human resources and girlfriend of a married Gene McClary; among the desperadoes, Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), a 60-year-old who dyes his hair and is willing to take any job. If you’re a betting man, you can wager which of the laid-off fellows will be first to commit suicide.

The most interesting guy to watch is Ben Affleck in the role of the 37-year-old Bobby Walker. He takes his measly 12 weeks’ severance, goes to the outsource course where the instructor fills the group including a Ph.D. with pep talks, but after being beaten back despite a promising interview, he takes a job as a carpenter with his brother-in-law, Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner).

Don’t expect The Company Men to be as much fun as Up in the Air, last year’s gem that allowed George Clooney to exude so much charm that he actually made the people he fired feel almost happy to go. One guy left his desk job thinking that he could follow his dream to become a master chef! The Company Men gives the audience a thorough understanding of the mess we’re in. We leave the theater wondering just how safe we are, after all, since somehow we in the U.S. have been told that the dirtiest word in the English language is “socialism.” No, we’re not going to allow government to guarantee us a job, to grant us a five-week’s vacation with pay, to require that employees have a damn good reason to dump us as the French government requires its bosses to do after a probationary period. With unionisn down to just eight percent of the work force in America, with teachers threatened with a loss of tenure, it’s root, hog, or die. Let’s hope that The Company Men provides a wake-up call to anyone who is still too comatose to see where our country is heading, but then, such folks may not be ready for a picture as serious as this one.

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


 

Doug Liman's
Fair Game
Opens Friday, November 5, 2010



Written By: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, based on Joseph Wilson’s The Politics of Truth and Valerie Plame Wilson’s Fair Game

Starring: Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Sam Shepard, Ty Burrell, Bruce McGill, Michael Kelly, Brooke Smith, David Denman

Summit Entertainment
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

A key scene in this political thriller takes place in a taxi in Washington, DC. The cabby, whose name is Joe, chats with Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn), noting that he was brought up in Freetown, Sierra Leone, a place awash in corruption. He praises the USA, the country of his choosing, stating that we live in “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” a land which the cabby and third-grade students thinks is untainted. Joe Wilson, who knows more than a third-grader, informs the driver, “I wouldn’t be too sure of that.”

This is a truth that comes to most of us, or at least to those who spend more time reading the New York Times than sexting on a BlackBerry or watching TV’s Entertainment Tonight show. Yes, to be sure, we’re a great country, warts and all, but it’s easier for literature, theater and movies to entice a crowd when uncovering dirt than when waving the flag. Doug Liman, the director of Fair Game, knows this well. Liman, the director of The Bourne Identity, is in his metiér with Fair Game. Though amnesia is clearly not the problem faced by Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson (Naomi Watts). In fact a little amnesia could have prevented the trouble that came close to breaking their marriage apart.

One gets the idea that to put this movie over at the box office, Liman and scripters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth decided to stress the family drama even over the international politics surrounding a scandal that erupted in 2002-03, a scandal that could have toppled the government but instead let the perpetrators off almost scot-free. Some background in the actual events of those years would help to understand the film, particularly given that the dialogue which unfolds as fast as the conversation during the first five minutes of David Fincher’s The Social Network. The film has a rah-rah conclusion, made stunningly effective by a speech given to a group of young people by Joe Wilson. Sean Penn, and actor known for stories of his tirades against the paparazzi, is cast as a man who is not willing to take crap sitting down.

Though more talky than many political thrillers and with fewer literal explosions, Fair Game takes us a few years back to 2002 when the Bush administration was contemplating war with Iraq, or dare I say, looking for an excuse to wage a war already decided upon. The White House is told that Saddam Hussein is buying substantial quantities of aluminum tubes of yellowcake uranium from Niger, an African country rated by one group as the world’s most unlivable place—but apparently one rich in yellowcake. That and the correlated idea that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction became the justification for shock-and-awe, the bombing of Baghdad, a war that at least one adviser told President Bush would be “a slam dunk.”

Joe Wilson, a former ambassador to Niger (an appointment that would seem more like a punishment than a reward for service), is an expert on West African affairs charged with discovering the truth or falsity of the yellowcake rumor. When he challenged the story of the Niger sale on yellowcake in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, stating that the sale never took place and that thereby the war with Iraq was being fought under false pretenses, the administration sought revenge by going after Wilson’s wife, Valerie. A high-up official informed the New York Times that Valerie Plame, an eighteen-year veteran of the C.I.A., was a secret agent who disguises her role by pretending to be a venture capitalist. Her cover blown, she is summarily dismissed by the organization, shunned by her friends, and on the receiving end of death threats. Plame is determined to spend her life quietly when the fuss blows over. Not so her husband, who seeks to retaliate against the administration on talk shows and on college campuses, seeking the culprit who exposed his wife. Given the opposite temperaments of the couple, the marriage heads for the rocks.

At times the film races by so swiftly that important details that might have connected some dots get lost, not unlike the condition of Valerie Plame’s own book, Fair Game, which is filled with redacted words and sentences, courtesy of the C.I.A. With performers as agile as Penn and Watts, the electricity comes more from the shouting of the couple and the fury with which Joe goes against the administration than with the usual conventions of the thriller such as car crashes, gun fights, and explosions. Liman, who stands behind the camera when not seated in the director’s chair, moves the lenses swiftly. Editor Christopher Tellefsen rarely concentrates long on a single stationary shot—a technique which, while sometimes vertiginous, helps rivet the drama as does John Powell’s thumping music. Side roles are spot-on, particularly those of Bruce McGill as agent Jim Pavitt, Noah Emmerich as Bill, a C.I.A. supervising officer, and David Andrews as Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney's lackey and the stooge who takes the fall for exposing Plame.

Technical credits are tops, giving the look of an expensive film shot on location in Kuala Lumpur, Amman, Baghdad, Cairo, and with the IBM building in White Plains substituting for C.I.A. headquarters in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Rated PG-13 104 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



David O. Russell's
The Fighter
Opens Friday, December 10, 2010


Written By: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson

Starring: Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo

Paramount Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


This is probably the only film you’ll see outside of outrageous satire that finds tough male prison inmates clamoring to see an HBO documentary. The Fighter, closely based on the true story of former welterweight boxing champion Micky “Irish” Ward and executive produced by The Wrestler director Darren Aronofsky, spends a few exciting moments inside the ring, but director David O. Russell is far more interested in showing us what goes on inside what might be considered the typical working-class families of those who take up the pugilistic sport of boxing.

Mark Wahlberg, in terrific shape as the title character, Micky Ward, and Christian Bale as Dicky (his crack-addicted, gaunt half-brother), share a rocky upbringing in Lowell, Massachusetts under domineering mother Alice (Melissa Leo), whose brood of nine includes a stable of young women who, when lined up on the sofa look as though they’re waiting for customers in a brothel. Though Wahlberg’s Micky Ward lucks out not only by gaining a shot at a title bout in London but also by becoming the steady of Charlene (played by Amy Adams, arguably the cutest young woman in Hollywood), the more challenging and dramatic role belongs to Dicky, who serves as Micky’s idol and mentor but whose drug addiction causes Micky’s girlfriend, mother, sisters, and just about anyone else with an interest in Micky’s career to want Dicky out of the picture.

The opening segments of the movie belong to Bale, almost unrecognizable with sunken cheeks and crackhead teeth as he saunters down the blocks of the town of Lowell promoting himself to the locals as the man ready for a comeback. He cites his knockdown of Sugar Ray Leonard—who, some believe had merely tripped—but now, at the age of 40 with a pronounced bald spot is over-the-hill for any dimension save as his half-brother’s trainer. Most of the humor is physical. There is one gem of verbal humor: when Micky takes Charlene to a movie, to La Belle Epoque, of all choices, he falls asleep, head back, likely snoring. On the way out, she sniffs, “Why did you take me to that show? All I did was read!”

The two strong women are Charlene, a college dropout who has worked a number or bars and who is in her main man’s corner even to the extent of challenging his half-brother’s influence; and Alice, a mother whose maternal instinct is purely cartoonish working-class though one may wonder whether her autocratic manner might be the only way to keep discipline over a household of harpies.

The film is being pushed for awards, though The Fighter is as conventional as its producer Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is quirky.

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



Robert Letterman's
Gulliver's Travels
Opens Friday, December 24, 2010

Written By: Joe Stillman, Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Jack Black, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly

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


Don’t look for Menippean satire in this kid-friendly version of the great classic of 1735, the kind of biting wit that Jonathan Swift used to attack mental attitudes rather than specific individuals. Swift, whose A Modest Proposal suggested (ironically, of course), that the impoverished Irish could alleviate their condition by selling their children for food to the rich, took aim against the corruption of European governments, examined whether humankind is by nature corrupt or is made corrupt by institutions, and peered into the pettiness of religious institutions. All this is shaved away by director Robert Letterman in a brief, 85-minute classic-comic version depending on the slapstick abilities of Jack Black in the title role of Lemuel Gulliver.

Strange to say, the opening segment is the funniest, the part that represents a smidgen of reality. Jack Black plays the role of a loser, Lemuel Gulliver, employed in the mail room of a Manhattan magazine nursing a crush on Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet), its travel editor. He is so little thought of that a guy he hires as his assistant is promoted the next day as his boss, and thinks so little of himself that he is afraid to ask Darcy out on a date. Launching the first of a set of lies—that he is a world traveler—he plagiarizes articles from Frommer on Oaxaca and a few from Time Out, impressing Darcy enough to send him on a trip to Bermuda where, falling into the Bermuda Triangle he lands in an alternative universe of Lilliliput. He is bound and held captive by little people under King Theodore (Billy Connolly), but actually ruled by villainous General Edward (Chris O’Dowd). Edward is betrothed to Princess Mary (Emily Blunt), courting her daily at the official courting hour, but Horatio (Jason Segel), a commoner in the dungeon for daring to pronounce his love for her, is freed by the good will of Gulliver who becomes what he had been unable to become in his own world - a genuine hero. Gulliver, a Mutt in a land of Jeffs, takes on Lilliput’s rivals, is soon featured on all billboards, even playing Cyrano to allow Horatio to say all the right romantic things to his beloved.

Billy Connolly, one of the great comedians of the screen, is sadly underutilized as his little people’s monarch. Nor does Emily Blunt, another comic gem, get to strut much of her stuff. But Jack Black, though not given as good a script as he had with his best role as Sid in Tim Robbins’s Cradle Will Rock, is (surprise!) Jack Black, and when he drops his shorts to urinate on a fire, that’s not contemporary sleaze: it’s in Jonathan Swift’s classic as well.

The 3D does not call undue attention to itself, illuminating Lilliput especially allowing photographer David Tattersall’s long shots to keep the gigantic Black from charging right out of the screen. Gulliver’s Travels may not tell us a thing about petty differences in religion and zilch about corruption in Europe, but it’s a decent entertainment despite its Jack Blackian predictability.

Rated PG. 85 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 


John Irvin's
Hemingway's Garden of Eden
Opens Friday, December 10, 2010

Roadside Attractions
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Written By: James Scott Linville from Ernest Hemingway’s short novel

Starring: Jack Huston, Mena Suvari, Richard E. Grant, Caterina Murino, Carmen Maura, Matthew Modine

We in the U.S. know Ernest Hemingway as not only one of our finest writers but a macho guy whom we introduce to high-school kids to show that writers are not all a prissy bunch wed to solitary rooms pecking away at typewriters and computers. Hemingway was not only a womanizer and a fan of bullfighting (the latter to his discredit, however) but an adventurer who joined his father, a big-game hunter in Africa; an ambulance driver during World War I; a reporter during the Spanish Civil War; a heavy drinker; and that’s just for starters.

Yet watching him during his twenties in this semi-autobiographical dramatization of his first marriage, you’ve got to wonder. How come he’s such a wimp, wrapped around the little finger of a beautiful but neurotic woman, catering to her because she’s filthy rich? She plays sexual games, perhaps testing his love for her, or maybe just awash with the boredom of the people in the wealthiest upper one percent of the population. We’re back in the 1920s, before the Great Depression (that’s the first one, not the one that started in 2008), the jazz age, when David Bourne (Jack Huston), living as an American expatriate in Paris, meets and marries Catherine Bourne (Mena Suvari) after a whirlwind romance. She buys him a car, and they’re off on an extended honeymoon in Europe, covering Cannes, Paris, Madrid and surrounding areas while we in the audience are made privy to areas in Africa that are recalled by David from his childhood experiences with his big-game hunting father (Matthew Modine).

Ashley Rowe, who serves as director John Irvin’s photographer, films the action in various locations in Spain to stand in for France and also in Amboseli National Park in Maasi land in Kenya to reflect David’s childhood memories. The script by James Scott Linville, adapted from Hemingway’s novel, is largely wooden and pretentious, not particularly credible even considering how neurotic Catherine Bourne turns out to be. We can understand the need that Catherine has for diversion since, after all, she has never had to work, has no professional challenges in her life except for the erotic one that forms the spine of this film. The sexual game she plays is to introduce the beautiful Marita (Caterina Murino) into the villa owned by Madame Aurol (Carmen Maura), turning that bi-sexual woman into a ménage-a-trois, though we’re not sure whether Catherine is testing her husband’s devotion to the marriage or simply enjoying a game without worrying extensively whether the marriage will survive the months of honeymoon.

From the beginning of the film, the authentic period feel of the drama is enjoyable. The car, which looks something never before seen (it’s nothing like the Model-T Ford), the re-creation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s party scene at least in miniature, is involving. As the erotic play continues, the plot becomes wearisome, David’s passivity, particularly when harassed by his wife’s insistence that he stop writing and join her in holiday fun. makes one want to shake him up. And you can’t be blamed for wanting to throw both Catherine and Marita into the Mediterranean. Then again, maybe that’s what the director wants us to feel.

In any case society would be better off if more people were like this early Hemingway dude and everyone sat at the typewriter and refused to attend those god-awful bullfights.

Not Yet Rated. 111 minutes.

© 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Tom Hooper's
The King's Speech
Opens Friday, November 26, 2010


Written By: David Seidler

Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall, Derek Jacobi, Claire Bloom, Michael Gambon

The Weinstein Company
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Attention must be paid, as Mrs. Willy Loman would say, to a movie whose climactic scene—the one that has the audience at the edge of their seats with bated breath—involves a stationary man behind a microphone who, we pray, will deliver a talk without stammering. Everything that has happened during this splendid two-hour drama in which everyone speaks the language of Milton and Shakespeare, leads up to those thrilling moments. The King’s Speech, blessed by David Seidler’s intelligent but never toffee-nosed script, benefits from its delivery by its two principal performers, Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, who play a proper Englishman and an Australian respectively. Firth assumies the roles of Prince Albert (later King George VI) and Rush the far more casual role of a failed actor who becomes a successful elocution teacher.

One might find a precedent in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, turned into the musical My Fair Lady, which posits a romance of sorts between speech professor Henry Higgins and reluctant pupil Eliza Doolittle, but the only romance in The King’s Speech is with our remarkable language, spoken by the entire cast with the beauty we rarely hear in the movies. There’s but one exception to this fluent delivery: the King has a stammer that makes him wonder whether he can execute one of the main requirements of his office - rallying the people during a time of war with the fervor and charisma that—given the non-existence of television at the time—only the human voice through a microphone can bring.

Granted, the movie could be criticized as being merely a photographed play, since not many scenes are shot outdoors. Most of the action takes place within the walls of the palace and in the shabby rooms of the teacher. Yet, given the regal costumes, the parade of staff and officials sucking up to royalty, The King’s Speech transcends this limitation.

From the time he was four years old, the man who because King George VI (Colin Firth) was afflicted with a stammer. When trying to utter a sentence, he would hesitate before some words, sometimes in the beginning of a sentence, occasionally in the middle. He would not repeat a letter like P-P-P-P-Porky P-P-P-Pig, but his hesitations could prove deadly as the head of state for the British Empire, which even as late as 1936 covered a large portion of the globe. Supported by his wife, who became Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), he failed at therapy with a doctor who filled his mouth with ice cubes and got even worse when his father, George V (Michael Gambon), yelled at him to get over his affliction. After being pushed by his wife to try a course of study with one Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a man who later became his best friend for the remainder of his life, he entertained the love-hate relationship of Higgins and Doolittle, Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, and no small number of reluctant kids and their history teachers. Logue insisted on tutoring His Royal Highness in his own modest flat, on calling him by his nickname, Bertie. After a number of sessions in which Prince Albert stormed out red-faced with anger, the student learned to overcome his flaw by singing the words, by cursing (thereby earning the picture’s R rating), and by coming to terms with the psychological roots of his dilemma (demanding father, teasing brother).

Side roles are aces. Derek Jacobi as Archbishop Cosmo Lang, who looked down his nose at the commoner therapist, Guy Pearce as King Edward VIII who gave up his throne to marry the twice-divorced Baltimorean Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), Michael Gambon as the ailing King George V, and Claire Bloom as the aging Queen Mary. What idiot said that British history is just a bunch of boring names of kings and dates?

Rated R. 118 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Paul Weitz's
Little Fockers
Opens December 22, 2010

:
Written By: Larry Stuckey, John Hamburg, Victoria Strouse

Starring: Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Blythe Danner, Jessica Alba, Laura Dern, Harvey Keitel, Teri Polo, Barbra Streisand

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

The test of wills that defines the Focker series of movies has never been able to surpass or equal the first of the series when director Jay Roach introduced the audience to the comedy in Meet the Parents. Now, using many of the same stars that were present in that hilarious entry, Paul Weitz keeps Larry Stuckey, John Hamburg and Victoria Strouse’s script running at a swift pace with nary a moment’s rest, but this zaniness serves only as an attempt to distract us from the staleness of the humor, the cheapness of the jests, the absurd falsity of one of its premises as well as the strange motivation of one of its principal (and beautiful) characters.

The movie is named for a pair of twins, Henry and Samantha Focker (Colin Baiocchi and Daisy Tahan), not quite the adorable kids we’re accustomed to on the screen. The boy is lactose intolerant (we know because he pukes up a spoonful of lasagna onto his dad’s face, ha ha) and the girl refuses to speak to her old man. The central premise is that Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro), who is the father of Pamela Byrnes-Focker (Teri Polo) and father-in-law of Greg Focker (Ben Stiller), has a heart condition and needs someone to become the family leader when he is no longer with us. Virtually certain that Greg is too weak for the role, Jack toys with the idea of subverting his daughter’s marriage and substituting her ex, Kevin Rawley (Owen Wilson), a rich investment banker. His suspicions seem to ring true when, spying on Greg, he appears to catch the younger man in a sexual embrace with Andi Garcia (Jessica Alba), a gorgeous marketer of a drug for erectile dysfunction, who beyond any stretch of imagination wants Greg to act as chief spokesperson for the drug.

The drug Suspengo, which in every way acts like Cialis, results in considerable embarrassment for Jack Byrnes. In the movie’s one solid moment of successful physical humor, we watch as Greg gets on the better side of his dad-in-law by rescuing him from a situation which otherwise would have resulted in a trip to the hospital. But how to explain that Andi Garcia, getting Greg alone, deliberately swallows a Suspengo tablet, which turns her on, then boldly attacks the man sexually? First, a Cialis-type drug does nothing for the libido. Second, if Greg does not turn her on without the drug, why would she want him at all?

The movie can hardly be saved by Dustin Hoffman in the role of Greg’s dad, Bernie, who is taking flamenco lessons in Seville; by Barbra Streisand as Greg’s mom, Rozalin, whose TV show is all about sex and may be inspired by the career of Ruth Westheimer; or by Laura Dern as the headmistress of a posh, progressive school for which the twins are being interviewed. Some class is provided, however, by Blythe Danner as Dina Bynes, who would never in real life survive a year of marriage to someone like Jack Byrnes. Obligatory, tasteless Jewish jokes conclude the show.

Rated PG-13 98 minutes. ©2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 

 

 


Roger Michell's
Morning Glory
Opens November 10, 2010


Written By: Aline Brosh McKenna

Starring: Rachel McAdams, Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton, Patrick Wilson, Jeff Goldblum

Paramount Pictures
Reviewed for New York Review by Harvey Karten

Aside from being an almost laughter-free albeit chuckle-worthy comedy, Morning Glory has an ironic ending attached to its overlong pabulum plot. While appearing to glorify an anchorman’s dream of returning a fluffy morning entertainment show to a serious new format, Morning Glory subverts the fantasy by having the anchorman undercut himself, making him his own worst enemy. That’s not the most serious fault: the movie’s flaws lie primarily in its overly caffeinated characters, making one wonder about this: if the voters of California have just rejected legalization of marijuana, perhaps the people of New York State have made the possession and sale of methamphetamine lawful. Though Jeff Goldblum and Harrison Ford come across as the only lead actors who speak in an intelligible manner with enough pauses to realize that their partners will not interrupt, such an icon of the film industry like Diane Keaton and youthful presence such as Rachel McAdams act so hyper that we wonder what they’re on.

Morning Glory looks like a parody of a number of morning TV shows, anything from quiz shows like Meredith Vieira’s Millionaire to Martha Stewart’s Living to the fluff on The Today Show, but the backstage dialogue consisting of gruff bickering between Harrison Ford’s character Mike Pomeroy and Rachel McAdams’s perpetual motion persona Becky Fuller is interminable and grating, while Diane Keaton’s anchorwoman, Colleen Peck turns in an embarassing performance, particularly when trying to compete in a hip-hop exhibition with 50 Cent, who performs as himself. Nor is there the slightest spark of credibility in a romance between Patrick Wilson’s Adam Bennett and Becky Fuller, as though Becky would have more than a moment even to remove her pants (she does, but barely).

Director Roger Michell created better work with Notting Hill, the film story that asked whether the world’s most famous film star could fall in love with the owner of a book shop. But then, Notting Hill was not a sitcom, and the performers did not take speed or drink ten cups of coffee daily.

In the side roles Matt Malloy does fine work as a weatherman until he has to sit in a roller coaster to boost ratings at which point he acts like an idiot, and John Pankow is given considerable time onscreen as an adviser to the freshman producer. As a normal person Pankow’s Lenny Bergman does not act outrageous, which seems too much to ask of most of the others.

Rated PG-13. 110 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Paul Haggis's
The Next Three Days
Opens Friday, November 19, 2010


Written By: Paul Haggis from the film Anything for Her (Pour elle) by Fred Cavayé, written by Fred Cavayé, Guillaume Lemans

Cast: Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Neeson, Brian Dennehy
Paul Haggis

Lionsgate
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


When a loved one is imprisoned for life, whether you think that person guilty or not, you might decide to take radical action to get him or her out of jail. You can go the route that Betty Anne Waters utilized to get her husband, Kenny, out of prison in Tony Goldwyn’s Conviction. Rather than do the normal thing and hire a lawyer, Betty Anne, who had barely a high-school education, put herself through college and then law school, without even a thought of practicing the legal trade except for a single case: to go through the appeals process which she believes would get her man released after nineteen years behind bars. Whew! That’s the patience of a saint. Then there’s the method that John Brennan (Russell Crowe) chose. John is a college teacher (OK community college), whose lawyer has been unable to do much for his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks), who is accused and convicted of the murder of her boss—by a blow to the latter’s head with a fire extinguisher (ouch). This looked like an open-and-shut case: Lara had a grudge against her superior, her fingerprints were found on the murder weapon, and the victim’s blood was on her coat. What jury could resist? John cared not a whit whether she was guilty. Their seven-year-old son Luke (Ty Simpkins) may not have much of a personality, but the boy was their blood, thicker than water, and a boy needs a mom, so it looks like jailbreak is the order of the day.

Some people, mainly critics, have a problem with the film's plot holes. It just doesn’t seem right to them that a guy can thumb his nose at the authorities at innumerable check points; that he could frustrate the local police, the FBI, Interpol, Homeland Security, and who knows what else. But for me that’s no problem. It’s a movie, and we expect people we sympathize with to do more than CPA’s and fifth-grade teachers to get over the usual frustrating barriers to self-expression, and that’s exactly what John is planning to do.

Russell Crowe, in virtually every scene, whether battered or clean-faced (with a two-day beard, of course), has women lusting for him, as one Erit (Moran Atías) does in the opening scene, a humorous one and one of the best in the movie. While John and Lara are dining together with Mick Brennan (Michael Buie) and Erit, Erit launches some obvious double entendre, stating that she would have no problem working “under” John. Lara demonstrates her temper—and therefore her capacity to commit murder, presumably—by going ballistic, disgusted that her friend could hit on her husband in public. End of dinner.

Later, when police break into John and Lara’s home, arresting Lara for the murder of Lara’s boss, Lara is apparently sentenced to jail for life, though we in the audience see nothing of the trial. Appeals fail; we are told that the U.S. Supreme Court has not heard an appeal of a murder case for the past thirty years. The obvious solution? John must sacrifice his job at the local Pittsburgh community college to break his wife out of jail without her permission, using the occasion of her transport to the hospital for insulin shock. To prepare for the jailbreak he goes underground, consulting Damon Pennington (Liam Nesson), an expert on jailbreaks since he had done just that himself (though one wonders why Pennington was consulted since he had given himself up as a man tired of running); he gets beaten to a pulp trying to get false passports, a fake driver’s license and social security i.d.’s; he invades a meth-house, hearing that the place has bags full of money, at which point two people die. He fends off a hit from another woman. He deals with parents who do not entirely approve of him.

The film is a remake of Fred Cavayé’s Anything for Her, which starred Diane Kruger, made in 2008. Nobody apparently saw the French work, which came across in only ninety-six minutes, but which has been bloated into one hundred thirty-six in this American version.

Paul Haggis has done more convincing work with Crash, a complex Los Angeles drama interweaving diverse stories; and with In the Valley of Elah (a retired military investigator works with a police detective to uncover the truth behind his son’s disappearance following his return from a tour of duty in Iraq). Still, Haggis gets good performances from Crowe and Banks (the latter changing hair color from blonde to brunette to red. The movie is good enough to attract both a blockbuster audience and fans of Mr. Crowe.

Rated PG-13. 133 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Rachid Bouchareb's
Outside The Law (Hors-la-loi)
Opens Friday, November 5, 2010


Written By: Rachid Bouchareb

Starring:: Jamel Debouze, Roschdy Zem, Bernard Blancan, Sami Bouajila, Thibault de Montalembert, Samir Guesmi, Sabrina Seyvesou

Studio Canal
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


Director/scripter Rachid Bouchareb's Outside the Law tell the story of the Algerian nationalists who rebelled against the French government, resulting in Algeria's independence in 1962. The film illustrates the hoary expression, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” An audience, even one of Europeans and Americans, could not today be blamed for rooting for the Algerians fighting to free their country from French colonialism. But the very people who cheer the the film's “freedom fighters” would charecterize such an uprizing as terroristic if it occured today.

This is not to say that the violence inflicted by the Algerian nationalists was justified, or that the end justified the means. But ideas aside, Outside the Law is far from a dull history lesson. If parts of the film employ stiff dialogue, that’s all in the service of educating an audience that may not know much about the events. For example, in the opening scene, an Algerian family in 1925 is thrown off its land in favor of a French settler, the head of household telling the police, “I’ve lived here always. My ancestors lived here. How can I feed my family if I am forced off the land?”

Bouchareb provides plenty of visceral excitement that will remind the audience of police dramas like Bonnie and Clyde but which will be compared by those hip to history with Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterwork The Battle of Algiers. Virtually all of Bouchareb’s film, though, take place in Paris, as the war for Algerian Independence was fought not only in the colonies but in the home country as well.

No sooner had the French been tossed out of Indochina in 1954—with quite a few Algerians fighting on the French side—than they now had to contend with the potential loss of another colony. So sensitive are the French even today about those defeats that, word is, when Outside the Law was shown at the Palais during the Cannes Festival, the French posted gendarmes around the theater for fear of a riot by French, who don’t want to be reminded of the tragic events.

In Bouchareb’s tale, an Arab family is thrown off their ancestral land in the wide open Algerian spaces in 1925 because the law allowed French settlers to take possession. Three brothers from the family, Saïd (Jamel Debouze), Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), and Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) work out their relationships with the colonial power in their own ways. Saïd is interested mostly in money. He hangs around the Place Pigalle, pimps some women, runs a prospering casino and manages an Algerian fighter whom he wants to set up in a heavyweight title bout with a Frenchman. (By Frenchman I’m referring throughout as non-Muslim French). He smokes cigars and drinks, both violations of the code of the FLN, the Algerian National Liberation Front. By contrast Messaoud and Abdelkader, the latter more than the former, are bent on violence to wear down the morale of the French, the shootings and explosions to take place in France rather than Algeria. Struggling against the FLN are the army and police, the local police force being led by Colonel Faivre (Bernard Blancan), an officer in France’s war with Indochina and now a top detective.

While women play a passive role for the most part, one blonde is in love with Messaoud and joins the FLN cause, while an Algerian woman is married off to Messaoud but has nothing to say. Christophe Beaucarne’s camera is spot-on, taking in the action without resorting to the hackneyed use of grainy cinema-verité treatment.

The film earns its 138 minutes’ length, the time passing swiftly given director Bouhareb’s view to give the audience a lavish, cinematic treatment of a period in French and Algerian history probably unknown for the most part outside those countries and not at all by those born after the war for independence. As a former teacher of Social Studies, I’m thinking: Wouldn’t it be grand if European history teachers could use both historical fiction and cinematic treatments like this to bring history to life? Outside the Law is Algeria's entry into the Oscar competition for best foreign movie of 2010.

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



John Cameron Mitchell's
Rabbit Hole
Opens December 17, 2010


Written By: David Lindsay-Abaire from his play

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Miles Teller, Tammy Blanchard, Sandra Oh, Giancarlo Esposito, Jon Tenney

Lionsgate
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


I would like ten bucks for every couple whose otherwise happy marriage broke up because of the death of their young children. Recently in my Brooklyn building alone, one such family was torn apart when their fourteen-year-old daughter passed on after suffering from leukemia for years. The father moved to Manhattan, the mother to somewhere in Queens. This seemed puzzling: wouldn’t a catastrophic event like this, arguably the most stressful one that could occur to any person or couple, cement a family together? For a further understanding of the phenomenon—and an answer to my question—you can’t go wrong by looking into John Cameron Mitchell’s film Rabbit Hole. The film is scripted by David Lindsay-Abarie from his Pulitzer-prize winning play, which garnered a Tony for Cynthia Nixon for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Drama. Rabbit Hole, a film which includes moments of humor and melodrama, proceeds for the most part as a straight narrative that focuses primarily on the ways that dad and mom think in different ways about the four-year-old child they lost as a result of a car accident eight months previously.

With Aaron Eckhart as Howie and Nicole Kidman in the Cynthia Nixon role as Becca, director John Cameron Mitchell takes us to a (pun unintended) drop-dead home purportedly in a Yonkers ‘burb situated right by a lake where Howie earns an excellent living doing something we don’t know about while Becca stays home for the most part using an exercise machine when she’s not warding off dinner invitations from her next-door neighbor or, in one case, sneaking off to Manhattan to look up some old friends. As Becca, Kidman, who looks frumpy in some scenes, dashing in others, even like a teenager in a few (imagination running wild), takes the view of “no sex please, we’re grieving,” but that’s not her real motive. Becca wants to start afresh, to forget the disaster of eight months previous, to sell the house they love, to move on, and while the husband does not yet have a clue, he may be on his way to the dumpster. By contrast, Howie grieves: he and Becca join a therapy group which he will continue to attend though Becca has had it after one session (in one of the movie’s humorous moments, a group member notes that her daughter died because God wanted another angel, to which Becca replies, snapping her finger, “Why can’t God just create another angel, just like that! After all! He’s God!”) Howie holds on to the child seat in the car. He cherishes a video of Danny, their four-year-old. He keeps the teddy bears in the child’s room. He wants another baby. In other words, he sounds like the psychologically healthier person.

Performing in a supportive, supporting role, Dianne Wiest has sage counsel as Nat, Becca’s mom, while Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), who is Becca’s immature, heroin-addicted and pregnant sister in a relationship with Auggie (a thinly sketched Giancarlo Esposito), has a role that should have been deleted. One wonders whether the play even bothered with them. A mysterious relationship develops between Becca and a high-school senior, Rick (Jon Tenney), a bond which should not be given away by critics but probably will, thereby ruining part of the drama for those who read reviews in advance.

Aaron Eckhart was born for satire. He’s terrific in anything by Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors) and astonishing as part of a three-part Mod Squad in one of the great satires of modern times, Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking. He’s fine in the role of a husband whose view of fatherhood and husbanding contrasts with those of his wife’s, but the script is missing the edge of these previous films. Nicole Kidman has the gravitas for this role, perhaps more than Cynthia Nixon notwithstanding the latter’s Tony-award performance in the stage play. All in all, less than shattering, more than just interesting.

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


 

Patrick Hughes'
Red Hill
Opens Friday, November 5, 2010

Written By: Patrick Hughes
Starring: Ryan Kwanten, Steve Bisley, Tom E. Lewis, Claire Van Der Boom

Strand Releasing/ Arclight Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


It’s no secret that we all harbor revenge fantasies. Your mother refused to get you that puppy, your dad did not take you to a hooker when you were 15. Your girlfriend dumped you for the neurologist with the Beemer, etc. etc. If we can’t get revenge on any of these villains, we’ll bully someone else. If we can’t take it out on someone else, we’ll go to movies that feature victims getting back with the perps who did them wrong. And wrong they did in Patrick Hughes’s freshman entry, Red Hill. Red Hil was filmed in a rural area of Australia’s Victoria province and tells the story of an aboriginal citizen in jail for murder, a scary-looking guy with half of his face scarred from a fire. This aboriginal is a native Australian who seeks revenge not just on people who may have harmed him when he was a kid, but from sleazy folks rounded up by a mean sheriff who would no doubt vote Tea Party if he were an American.

Hill is quite an effective freshman feature! Dmitri Golovko and Charlie Parr’s music on the soundtrack excites the emotions. Tim Hudson has nailed a number of terrific shots, including one of the aboriginal vengeance seeker whose scarred features stand out under the pale moon; an extreme close-up of a horse’s eye; a realistic capture of nature’s mood during a pouring rain; a cow with his insides ripped out by a feral animal; and a panther who stalks two men, one dead, one incapacitated, deciding which fellow to have for dinner and which to come back to for breakfast.

The story is not as effective as the special cinematic features, borrowing as it does from John Ford’s sketchbook, this one dealing with a young cop, Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) who is transferred from the city to the rural wasteland because in one incident he refuses to pull the trigger when confronted with a gun pointed directly at him. The great irony in the tale is that, Alice (Claire Van Der Boom), his pregnant wife who had suffered one miscarriage, believes the small town to be a place for peace and quiet where she can follow her doctor’s orders to lower her blood pressure to avoid another mishap. “How was your day?” is her query, the one statement that should elicit a smile or a laugh from the audience.

Bill (Steve Bisley), the head sheriff, has little besides contempt from the city guy, even suggesting sarcastically that the latter might be used to wine and cheese parties, which is not de rigueur in the town of Red Hill. Bill, who is enthusiastically applauded by the entire town at a meeting to raise a posse, is hell-bent on killing or recapturing Jimmy Conway (Tom E. Lewis), who has escaped from a maximum security prison and is just as determined to kill every man in the town who took part in an incident he did not care for.

Steve Bisley as the sheriff and Ryan Kwenten as the young constable hold the screen, facing off time and again, the liberal and the conservative if you want to make political science of the movie. The film belongs, however, to Tom E. Lewis (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), who has a way to inflict damage on his adversaries with arrow, boomerang, and shotgun. A pleasure to see another revival of the Western genre: not all cowboys come from Texas.

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



 


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