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Danny Boyle’s
127 Hours

Opens Friday, November 5, 2010


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy, based on the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston.

Starring: James Franco, Kata Mara, Amber Tamblyn, Clemence Poesy, Treat Williams, Kate Burton.

Danny Boyle has taken an unfilmable book with no real plot and done the impossible: he has created 90-minutes of compelling, tension-driven cinema almost inventing a new way to tell a story onscreen.

And to be fair, James Franco must be given equal credit.

To call 127 Hours a visceral experience is accurate but it is much more than that. It’s an assault on all the sense, in the best of ways. Boyle, his fellow screenwriters and Franco allow us into the mind, body and spirit of the vibrant and energetic Aron Ralston (he truly is a marvel) as we witness his all-encompassing will to live in the face of the worst odds a person can have heaped on them.

It would be highly unusual for most people going to see 127 Hours to not know the outcome of the film, simply because it is based on the book written by Ralston himself. I, however, did not know exactly how the guy survived, so to say I was on the edge of my seat is actually quite accurate. I almost fell once or twice.

The film opens with split screen effects showing Ralston prepping for his trip set to Free Blood’s “Never Hear Surf Music Again.’ We are immediately visually assaulted by images giving us a good idea of who this adrenaline junkie is and the visual dazzle continues until Ralston falls down a canyon where a large rock crushes his right arm against the cavern wall, lodging him there with no way to get loose.

Boyle then takes us inside the head of Ralston through the grueling, gripping, sometimes amusing 127 hours—all through the use of video diaries (which Ralston really shot), flashbacks and Ralston’s nutty imagination. Throughout Ralston never fully gives up, nor do we.

James Franco is a revelation, completely embodying Ralston and making him so likable that we wait, with intense fascination, on his every move and keep hoping, with anxiety-ridden focus, that someone finds him or he finds a way to break free. When he does, the scene is at once gruesome and exhilarating.

Most of the Slumdog Millionaire tech team reunites with stunning results.

This is Danny Boyle’s best film and most certainly James Franco’s defining performance to date. Look for Franco to justly earn his first Academy Award nomination. The film, Boyle, the screenwriters and the tech team deserve Oscar recognition as well.




Rachel Perkins's
Bran Nue Dae
Opens Friday, September 10, 2010


Written By: Reg Cribb, Rachel Perkins, Jimmy Chi, from the stage musical by Jimmy Chi and Kuckles

Starring: Rocky McKenzie, Jessica Mauboy, Nincali Lawford-Wolf, Georffrey Rush, Tom Budget, Missy Higgins

Roadshow Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

When you go to a musical like Bran Nue Dae (aboriginal for Brand New Day), you don’t expect the sophistication of a Stephen Sondheim or one with the variety of hits of a Lerner and Lowe or Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Brand New Day is about as unpretentious as you can get, with only a single song of the dozen or so imprinted on the brain to last until you tuck yourself in at night. We must assume that director Rachel Perkins, who adapted the show from a stage musical by Jimmi Chi and Kuckles, intended to make the tale feather-light with its dated moral implications which would be easy for a third-grader to follow. There’s some cute dancing, though nothing that would come from the imagination of Bob Fosse, and if producers Robyn Kershaw and Graeme Isaac ever tried to put the show on Broadway at $120 a ticket, it just might last through a performance.

On the screen Brand New Day allows us to leave the theater with fewer problems on our minds and a smile on our faces. This is the happy result of bubbly performances by the mostly aboriginal cast with the towns of Broome and Kununurra and the city of Perth getting some fine lensing from Andrew Lesnie, who delivers the rural look of small towns with their Saturday nights spent dancing instead of watching TV. (The thing about Perth, which may or may not have tourist accommodations and points of interest, is that it’s the farthest city from New York, 12,500 miles. New Yorkers who like to brag about their travels can truthfully say that they’ve been halfway around the world only if they have gone there.)

As choreographed by Stephen Page with songs composed by Cezary Skubiszewski, Brand New Day takes us to the summer of 1967 where Willie (Rocky McKenzie) passes his time chilling with his mates and dreaming of a date with Rosie (Jessica Mauboy). His pious, single mom (Ningali Lawford), however, wants him to be a priest because “everybody respects priests,” and Willie has not yet determined to rebel against her wishes. However chafing under the stern hand of the local padre, Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush), he runs away, turning the movie into a road trip in which he meets a couple of hippies, Annie and Slippery (Tom Budge and Missy Higgins) and comes under the sway of the charismatic, homeless storyteller, Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo). When Rosie’s interest is captured by Lester (Dan Sultan), an assertive, handsome, Elvis-type, and joins him in his act at the local pub—which she seems to prefer to singing in the church choir—a shy Willie must summon up his courage and physical strength to win her back.

Among the quaint customs of the local people is attendance at an outdoor “picture show,” one which is rained-out just after the screen delivers an anthem to Queen Elizabeth. While there are no ‘roos in sight, there’s plenty wide open spaces with room for a car to zoom along without a thought of a potential traffic jam. Geoffrey Rush has fun as the local priest with a German accent (“Villie, I vant you to become a priest”) and Rocky McKenzie as Willie in his first feature film delivers. As in Bollywood pics, the movie ends with a joyous dance as loose ends are tied: an estranged father and son is united and even the priest shows off his steps as a hoofer—as you might do as you leave the theater.

Unrated. 84 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman's
Catfish
Opens Friday, September 17, 2010



Written By: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

Starring: Yaniv Schulman, Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost, Angela Pierce, Vince Pierce, Abby Pierce

Rogue Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

It’s not likely that P. Steiner who drew and captioned the above cartoon for The New Yorker magazine would have guessed that Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost would create a documentary on the subject of Internet scams. By now most people know that some of the pictures that tens of millions of users post on Facebook should not be trusted, just as you’ve got to be a real dork to be taken in by a Nigerian widow who wants you to invest a sum of money for the guarantee that you will reap 50-fold returns when some event like an inheritance takes place.

Or do they? People, especially if they are lonely, will take all sorts of measures to pretend they are something they are not. If they’re forty years old and look like one of the three witches that open the tale of Macbeth, they cyber-transform into nineteen-year-old models who are willing to carry on months, even years of keyboard communication utilizing a false identity. Maybe they’re doing this for fun, to see how many gullible people are out there. Maybe they imagine themselves to be nineteen-year-old models or perhaps an eight-year-old who has a gift for painting and writes, “Wouldn't you love to buy a painting by a child prodigy?”

Catfish, which is labeled a documentary, sometimes comes across as a low-budget picture that pretends to be a doc but is actually a work of fiction. The two filmmakers insist that there is no fiction in their adventure with a couple of women; one, the eight-year-old Abby who paints stunning pictures of dancers with a specialty in converting photographs into works of canvas art; and the nineteen-year-old Megan who carries on months of Internet sex with filmmaker Yaniv “Nev” Schulman. In this cyber/fiction world, the "child art" family live in a small Michigan town, have gallery exhibitions and spend time on their horse farm and Megan is supposedly a gifted singer who cuts albums. But who in the audience is paying attention to music when we’re listening intently to the porn? Megan confesses that she has fallen in love with Nev and tells him graphically what she will do with him if he should visit her.

Something is not right here. The song that Megan has composed and sung sounds strangely like another commercial item on YouTube. This makes the filmmakers and especially Nev wondering just how bogus any of the other messages and voice mails are. Nev and the filmmakers fly to Chicago, then drive to the Michigan community, first inspecting the farm at 2.30 a.m., then on to the modest home of the Pierce family. The filmmakers spend most of their time creating audience tension—who would not wonder what’s up, what they will find? When they knock on the door, there is no answer for a couple of minutes, another device that raises tension (and makes the audience wonder whether any of this was staged with the Pierce family “in” on the joke). Wouldn't it be a gas if the real subtext is that the New Yorkers are putting one over on all of us in the theaters?

The meaning of the documentary's title, Catfish, is saved until the end of the documentary, at which time the title makes good sense.

Nev is in virtually every frame, a twenty-something handsome fellow with a fashionable two-day growth of beard and a huge head of black hair.

Megan, well she is something else.

At least one ‘net critic called the movie a case of deceptive advertising by the studio - talk about coming full circle! He objects that the trailer gave the impression that this was a thriller when it was nothing like that. I didn’t bother watching the trailer, but I’m guessing that any deception by the studio serves the valid purpose of keeping audience expectations fresh. The Sundance premiere allegedly had a standing ovation and the crowd for this doc is bound to reflect the age of the typical Sundancer, mostly twenty-somethings, some younger. I am not part of the targeted demographic, but I appreciate the way the marketing team may have fooled us. Nevertheless, I did not find the movie as captivating as the Sundance crowd. Once the mystery is solved by Nev and his associates, the movie turns sentimental, even mawkish. The design of the film, principally the logo that fills the big screen with Facebook entries and Google Maps, is inventive, and Nev’s character borders on the charismatic. But the big thrills were not there for me. It was a case of expecting too much and getting just good.

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


 

Chris Morris’
Four Lions
Opens Friday, November 5, 2010


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain, Christopher Morris, Simon Blackwell.

Starring: Ahmed, Arsher Ali, Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak, Adeel Akhtar, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julia Davis, Craig Parkinson, Preeya Kalidas, Wasim Zakir, Mohammad Aqil.

Last year, In the Loop was the audacious, brazen British import that had me laughing so hard my ribs ached while I was happily bombarded with some of the most insane and insightful, Oliver Stone-worthy political satire.

This year’s candidate is certainly Chris Morris’ bold, hilarious jihadist-comedy, Four Lions. That Morris has the chutzpah to make such a lunatic send-up about the misguided nature of religious zealotry and confused ideology is enough to command respect. That he proves to be a seriously funny and fearless filmmaker is reason for rejoicing!

The film follows a bumbling group of Muslim jihadist-wannabes through a series of ridiculous sequences that I will not reveal here since each one has a surprise that will (if you have any sense of humor) have you reeling—including my personal favorite horrific moment that involves a crow.

Riz Ahmed plays Omar, the least idiotic terrorist. He leads: Nigel Lindsay as Barry, the Brit-convert who is as dumb as he is vociferous; Adeel Akhtar as Faisal, the crow trainer and Kayvan Novak as Waj my personal clueless favorite.

Morris’ film dares to tear through the pathetically political correct notions of how we must treat anything that has to do with Islam and decides Muslim extremists are as worthy of the black comedy treatment as any other ill-conceived group. The results are exhilarating.

All tech credits are first-rate, with major kudos going to the editing (Billy Sneddon) and camera-work (Lol Crawley).

With razor sharp In-the-Loop-like dialogue, Four Lions is raucous, nasty and, ultimately, poignant. And the ending miraculously shakes us awake to the realities the film has been cleverly shouting about.


 


Katie Aselton's
The Freebie
Opens Friday, September 17, 2010


Written By: Katie Aselton

Starring: Katie Aselton, Dax Shepard, Frankie Shaw, Ross Patridge, Sean Nelson, Bellamy Young

Phase 4 Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Love may last forever, but lust has an expiration date that perhaps depends on your age and the number of years you’re married to the same person. The idea was given hilarious life by Billy Wilder in his movie The Seven Year Itch, though today you’ve would be cheered at the implication that you can keep lust alive for seven years from the time you met the one. The Freebie cannot be compared to Billy Wilder’s film: it’s a low-budget job shot by Benjamin Kasulke on the West Coast in eleven days mostly in the home of the film's director, Kate Aselton. Aselton also serves as the story’s star and writer. The premise of the story, which could have been performed off-Broadway as a two-character play, is cheating on one's spouse. The story is driven forward by an agreement between Annie (Katie Aselton) and her husband Darren (Dax Shepard) that each should take off for a single night of sex with a relative stranger.

The story, though improbable, is that the Annie and Darren’s agreement is the result of the fact that this attractive couple has not had sex for months, though they’re both in their thirties and have professed their love for each other countless times. Every time the mood is right and the foreplay begins, the two protagonists (for reasons unknown) retreat to doing crossword puzzles, side by side. The freebie of the title would allegedly rekindle their attraction for each other.

Is this a stupid idea, or what?

The Freebie begins as a version of Friends and winds down to a replay of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The dialogue is occasionally witty, giving the impression, though, that much of it is improvised—not an unusual guess since Dax Shepard began his acting career with an improv comedy group. The scene opens on a dinner party of people in their late twenties/early thirties, the focus of their rollicking discussion - a woman who had broken up with her last boyfriend and is on a quest to find Mr. Right. She is encouraged by the group to first sow her wild oats. Back home, Darren and Annie continue to kiss and ensure each other of their love, while avoiding sex. Again: why would they want to have one-night stands when they’re right there, next to each other in bed and caressing, but refusing to consummate their affection?

The talk is natural, filled with pauses, the performers taking their time to discuss their options, just as people in real life would do. The piano music in the soundtrack is not intrusive, shutting down at key points in the conversations. The actors are attractive, intelligent and funny, the very attributes that everyone wants in the ideal partner. The narrative is not chronological, ending with their initial agreement to have their nights out. The supporting actors, Frankie Shaw in the role of the barista that hooks up with Darren and Ross Partridge as the bartender chosen by Annie, provide credible support. The final scene would make the audience wonder whether the entire setup is in the couple’s imagination or whether the scenes with the relative strangers are real.

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



Jeff Reichert's
Gerrymandering
Opens Friday, October 15, 2010


Written By: Jeff Reichert
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gray Davis, Howard Dean, Ed Rollins, Bob Graham, Kathy Feng, Hakeem Jeffries

Green Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

As part of my Poli Sci major at Tufts in 1956 I took a course in State Government, spending a few sessions on the subject of gerrymandering. This is when we learned that the word should be pronounced with a hard “g” because Elbridge Gerry’s name is pronounced in that way. Gerry was a member of the Constitutional Convention who voted against the document’s adoption because it did not include a bill of rights. Yet he gave the public the name gerrymander because the Massachusetts Legislature redrew district lines in the state to favor Gerry’s political party—the Democratic-Republicans. Since 1956 I heard not a single discussion about gerrymandering—which doubtless is an unknown term to most Americans since it seems so “special interest,” but Jeff Reichert, who wrote and directed this documentary, appears truly excited and steamed about what he considers one of the many examples of undemocratic practices in our purportedly democratic country.

Don’t expect the Michael Moore treatment. The film, however factual, is dull, repetitious, and affords so much time to Arnold Schwarzenegger that it could be accused of giving him free publicity, should he campaign for an amendment to allow this foreign born terminator to run for U.S. President. Dullness aside, the film nonetheless emits knowledge of the uses of gerrymandering, which is a form of boundary delimitation (redistricting) in which electoral district or constituency boundaries are deliberately modified for electoral purposes, thereby producing a contorted or unusual shape. Gerrymandering may be used to achieve desired electoral results for a particular party, or may be used to help or hinder a particular group of constituents, such as a political, racial, linguistic, or religious group.

In April of next year new congressional districts will be formed based on the results of the 2010 census. Some states will lose representative in the House, others will gain, until each state has proportional representation of the 435 members of that legislative body. But gerrymandering goes on regularly—no census needed—at the state and local level to deprive one party of representation. To take an extreme example given in the movie, if Harvey Karten ran for the New York State Assembly and the state legislature divided his district so that he shares the space with a federal prison, he would win unless he (wisely) voted against himself. This is because the prisoners cannot vote. Let’s say the Republicans, knowing that the vast majority of African-Americans are Democrats, wanted to win in a particular district. The state legislature, if controlled by Republicans, can put 1/3 of an African-American district in another section that is mostly Republican, another 1/3 in yet another district that has a majority of Republicans, and the final third in yet another. African-Americans would be deprived of any majority, and Democrats would suffer defeat.

The one example that Reichert uses deals with the year 2008 California Proposition 11, which would prevent politicians from redistricting in favor of an independent panel. The prop passed, but what’s with the 49% who voted against it? (The California governor explained that given a lack of knowledge about a referendum or initiative issue, people would vote “no” to keep the status quo. This 49% bit reinforces the idea that gerrymandering is considered too esoteric a topic for the mass public to consider.) The film should have presented a few state legislators to defend the redistricting, but did not. Isn’t it important for us to consider a justifiable reason for the division of territory?

There are some good animations, as the map of the U.S. gets lines drawn one way, then another when the gerrymander takes effect. Besides the governor, we hear from Howard Dean, the left-leaning former chair of the Democratic National Committee, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine Law School, Gray Davis, former California governor, Kathay Feng, executive director of California’s Common Cause, and many others.

Unrated. 77 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Daniel Alfredson's
The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest (Luftslottet som sprängdes)
Opens Friday, October 29, 2010

Written By: Ulf Ryberg, from Stieg Larsson’s novel of the same name
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Erika Berger

Music Box Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

One of the saddest ironies in the world of books is that Stieg Larsson, who penned all three thrillers known as The Millennium Trilogy, died in 2004 at the age of fifty, unaware that his work would not only be published and made into movies but that all three translated novels would remain on New York Times’ best-seller lists for months. The screenwriters—Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg who scripted The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Jonas Frykberg who took writing responsibility for The Girl Who Played With Fire, and now Ulf Ryberg from The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest— have all managed to retain a good deal of the complexity of the plot even. Everyone associated with the trilogy has respect for the presumed audience members. One cannot even dream that planned Hollywood versions would be likewise respectful.

In this third and final section, the three films are brought together as expected with a blazing climax, restoring justice and giving the audience the feeling that despite the evils committed by criminal sociopaths—one of whom has a body that literally cannot feel physical pain, much less remorse—all is ultimately right with the world.

This is not to say that Hornet’s Nest can be favorably compared to my favorite, the opening segment, Dragon Tattoo. There’s nothing like novelty to evoke special interest. When you first see the punk-Mohawk haired-biker-clothed Noomi Rapace in the role of the title girl, Lisbeth Salander, you’ve seen something original on the screen. After that, we become so accustomed to her close-mouthed defiance and dogged determination to get revenge on those who wronged her during her formative years, that she appears like the conforming American in the ads for Brooks Brothers suits, with closely-cropped hair, and spacious suburban homes. (Well, almost.)

All three Swedish films were originally made for TV, but profit from the larger exposure of the big screen. Hornet’s Nest—the title embracing merely a generic metaphor—begins at the conclusion of the second film. Though a quick look at some of the earlier scenes can refresh the memory, those who come to the audience with this one initially cannot be blamed for feeling lost.

Director Daniel Alfredson opens his film with Lisbeth Salander at death’s door from a bullet in the head. Despite her physician’s charming bedside manner, Lisbeth trusts no man and cannot warm up to him. Not all men are villains, as Lisbeth will eventually learn, at least intellectually. Surely not a man whom she initially rejects, crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) who works unstintingly to clear her name as she has been charged with the attempted murder of her father—for which she claims self-defense. Rogue members of the intelligence service work to eliminate all who might testify about their treasonable activities, in one case shooting a hospitalized man lying next door to Lisbeth, then attempting to enter her room to finish the job.

Director Alfredson takes us patiently, step by step during the two and one-half hour film, Jacob Broth’s effectively creepy music helping to ratchet up the suspense while outdoor scenes of a decidedly non-touristic Stockholm are filmed by Peter Mokrosinski. The villains never come close to matching Lisbeth’s personality, one described by psychiatrist Dr. Peter Teleborian (Anders Ahlbom Rosendahl) as being paranoid schizophrenic. But while the pain-challenged, white-haired, granite-built psycho butcher Niedermann (Mikael Spreitz) kills two or three people this time, one by breaking her neck, the other by bashing with a stone, these folks are contrasted with the normal-seeming, button-down arch-villains seeking to eliminate all who might endanger their liberty. While some of the novelty has worn off by now, all Swedish works will be a challenge for David Fincher, currently working on the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Rated R. 148 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 


Pascal Chaumeil
Heartbreaker (L'arnacoeur)
Opens Friday, September 10, 2010



Written By: Laurent Zeitoun, Jeremy Doner
Starring: Romain Duris, Vanessa Paradis, Julie Ferrier, François Damiens

IFC Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

“There are three kinds of women,” says Alex Lippi (Romain Duris), a man who’d easily have found a place on Bennett Cerf’s long-departed TV show “What’s My Line?” “There are women who are happy; there are women who are unhappy; and there are women who are unhappy but don’t know it.” Alex would go primarily after that last group, in effect acting as a would-be psychoanalyst who would step in and play Don Juan to get the unhappy women to fall in love with him and thereby dump the men who are making them miserable. This is the high concept that fuels Pascal Chaumeil’s Heartbreaker, a jet-paced French romantic comedy, the kind that Americans and British are incapable of making (think of bores like Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant, for example).

Heartbreaker, which is doubtless going to be ruined by a Hollywood version in the near future, must be caught before that because it is one of the fastest, funniest, feel-goodish, romantic comedies that have come our way in ages.

Laurent Zeitoun and Jeremy Doner’s script certainly helps, providing one gag after another; Thierry Argobast’s breathtaking photography in Monaco doesn’t hurt either, but top prize goes to Romain Duris, (De battre mon coeur s'est arête, Molière), as a charismatic lover, heavily in debt, who collects large sums from family members intent on breaking up their young un’s romances.

Alex works together with his sister, Mélanie (Julie Ferrier) and her husband, Marc (François Damiens), the latter couple utilized well by director Chaumeil for more broadly comic effects. Marc operates the technical end, listening in on the victims’ conversation as though he were Henry Caul in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. Mélanie shows up in various guises, in one case taking the roles of hotel chambermaid, bartender, and reservations agent. After breaking up a couple in Morocco and even becoming a singer in an all-Black female gospel choir to wrest a member from her lover, he is prepared to tackle his biggest job, one that would pay 50,000 euros which he desperately needs to pay his debt under the threat of physical destruction from a seven-foot-tall Serb thug. To get the job, he must break a rule, which is never to undercut a romance when the two people are obviously in love.

It’s no great secret where the story is going: of course Alex is going to suffer a heartbreak of his own even when his usual techniques—pretending to cry with the kind of emotion that women love, acting as a doctor caring for hundreds of poor kids in North Africa, reciting Brazilian poems in perfect Portuguese—are finding success. Hired by the father of prospective bride Juliette Van Der Becq (Vanessa Paradis), scheduled to marry her rich, British boyfriend Jonathan (Andrew Lincoln) in ten days, Alex faces a setup that might bring him down in utter failure.

Some of the side roles go overboard with slapstick, particularly of Mélanie’s best friend Sophie (Heléna Noguerra), a coarse nymphomaniac, and brother-in-law Marc, who serves not only to photograph and listen in on the lovers’ conversations but to act as faux repairman of hotel air conditioners. Nothing, though, serves to distract us from the concentrated efforts Alex must take to win the bride over.

Vanessa Paradis is terrific as a gap-toothed beauty who is deeply in love with her fiancé but may have reservations about whether a tightass Brit would make her happy, while Romain Duris is incredibly winning as the heartbroken heartbreaker. When the couple perform a rendition of Frances Houseman and Johnny Castle’s footwork from Emile Ardolino’s 1987 Dirty Dancing, the moments are unadulterated magic.

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



Philip Ridley’s
Heartless
Opening November 19, 2010


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by Philip Ridley.

With: Jim Sturgess, Clémence Poésy, Noel Clarke, Luke Treadaway, Ruth Sheen, Eddie Marsan, Joseph Mawle.

This British import boasts a cornucopia of themes, messages--even genres it wants to explore. The first half is a gripping, disturbing and pretty original story about a 25-year old self-conscious photographer named Jamie (Jim Sturgess) who’s been branded with a heart-shaped birthmark on his face. Jamie may or may not be seeing actual demons on the London streets and on a particularly defining day, these demons confront the boy and his mother (the always good Ruth Sheen) and the results are bone-chilling.

In it’s first half, Heartless provides a fascinating commentary on the world we live in and Sturgess proves he’s one of our best young actors.

In the second hour, Jamie has made a deal with Papa B (a perfectly nasty Joseph Mawles)—the B probably standing for Beelzebub. The film then becomes a wholly different animal midstream—actually a few animals and the viewer is taken on a hellride that is always mesmerizing but sometimes murky and overdone.

I wish writer/director Philip Ridley had cleaned things up just a bit in the second half and I did not appreciate what I saw as blatant homophobia in a particular scene.

Still Sturgess and the creative team do a great job of making certain we are always interested in what happens next and Happy-Go-Lucky’s Eddie Marsan adds to his fast growing library of impressive performances.




François Ozon's
Hideway (Le Refuge)
Opens Friday, September 10, 2010


Written By: François Ozon, Mathieu Hippeau

Starring: Isabelle Carré, Louis-Ronan Choisy, Pierre Louis-Calixte, Melvil Poupaud

Strand Releasing
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Everyone wants to touch the belly of a pregnant woman. There is something altogether mysterious, even other-worldly about the creation of life, a feeling well known, I’m told, by the woman herself. She might alternate betweem the lows of throwing up and the restrictions against alcohol and drugs with a quiet ecstasy that Leonardo da Vinci may have had in mind in giving an allegedly pregnant Mona Lisa her world-famous smile.

In Hideaway, Mousse (Isabelle Carré), the woman whose pregnancy advances from two months to the birth of a baby girl, seems to have the maternal feeling evoked by her physical condition, though she is conflicted not only about bringing the baby to term, but about her ability to live and love once Louis (Melvil Poupaud), her charismatic, musician boyfriend, falls dead from a heroin overdose that she miraculously survives.

Louis’s aristocratic mother (Claire Vernet) suggests that Mousse abort the fetus because she “does not want any descendants of her dead son.” Perhaps more important to her is the older woman’s belief that the irresponsible Mousse will deliver a defective baby given her voluminous use of methadone, her smoking, and as we see midway through the story, the dancing at a club. Mousse refuses to terminate her pregnancy. She has not developed the necessary maternal urge, but we surmise that she wants the baby as a reminder of her lost love.

Hideway, or Le Refuge in its original French title, is directed by François Ozon, whose Swimming Pool told the story of a a reserved British author who is unnerved when her publisher’s reckless and socially energetic daughter upsets her need for peace and quiet. His current drama also takes place in an area far from Paris overlooking a beach, where Mousse, like Charlotte Rampling’s character in Swimming Pool, finds herself awakened by unforeseen events. Having invited Louis’s gay brother Paul (French singer Louis-Ronan Choisy) to share the lodge with her, Mousse is at first irritated by her guest’s interrogation, but gradually falls under his spell. Though moral issues are involved, not only in Mousse’s continued smoking, beer-drinking and methadone-taking, but in the abrupt decision she makes at the film’s conclusion, Ozon is more interested in putting two people within a confined space learning to connect and discover a new ripeness. Though Mousse is undergoing an identity crisis, Paul is likewise questioning his sexuality despite the time in which he indulges his sexuality with Serge (Pierre Louis-Calixte), Mousse’s helper and delivery-man.

The opening scenes of the film looks like something out of Otto Preminger’s 1955 movie The Man With the Golden Arm, so be prepared to look away if you wish. The remainder of the film is more sedate, allowing Paul and Mousse to effect changes in their lives. Hideaway insists that we cannot take refuge for long: death, grieving, and most important, life must be dealt with. The beautiful Isabelle Carré, thirty-nine years old and pregnant in real life, but with the face of a young woman who looks as though she had just graduated from college, is a stunner, well worth looking at whether you can touch her belly or not.

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




Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman’s
Howl

Opened Friday, September 24, 2010

Written by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Starring: James Franco, Mary-Louise Parker, Jon Hamm, Jeff Daniels, David Strathairn, Alessandro Nivola, Treat Williams, Aaron Tveit, Bob Balaban

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 2010 QFEST

James Franco effectively embodies poet Allen Ginsberg in the cinematically ambitious Howl, a new film by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Franco’s performance is absolutely compelling as he immerses himself into the time, the place, the man and the man’s groundbreaking poem.

Franco’s readings from the then-infamous, now-landmark, work are powerful and I would often close my eyes to let the words truly resonate with me. The other reason I’d close my eyes was to not have to view the surreal yet often too literal animated scenes that accompanied many of the readings. This is a misstep in an otherwise terrific film.

Ginsberg’s poem is a highly personal yet transcendent piece. It speaks to each person differently (although that can be argued about any literary work but poetry, in particular is pretty intimate) and Franco’s interpretation is so commanding that it might have been more effective to just put the camera on the actor and have him speak (as in done in several fab coffeehouse segments).

Besides the underwhelming animated sequences, the only criticism I can toss at Howl is that I wanted more; more of the potent courtroom moments; more background on Ginsberg and his relationships with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and, especially, his lover Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit), who is seen too briefly. But if Howl inspires viewers to do some research on their own, that is always a good thing.

The film is edited by interspersing four specific segments-- interviews with Ginsberg as played by Franco, the trial, readings via Franco in a coffeehouse and animated sequences and moments from Ginsberg’s life shot in a home movie style. The look of the film is wonderful across the boards, with splendid camerawork by Edward Lachman.

Howl is about how language can rattle people. It was the honest, explicit nature of the poem that shocked people when it was first published in 1956. That led to an obscenity trial (this was the 1950s where everything needed to stay surface squeaky clean), which is depicted here, via intercut segments, with dialogue taken from the real court transcripts. The trial section features many a familiar face such as Jon Hamm (dapperly at home in a suit and tie), David Strathairn (ditto), Treat Williams, Jeff Daniels, Bob Balaban and Mary Louise-Parker—all very good.

But in the end it’s Franco’s becoming Ginsberg so effectively that anchors the pic and gives it it’s soul. Ginsberg was an openly gay man at a time when EVERYONE was in the closet. You had to be. At the time he wrote Howl, homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder and, too often, those with queer tendencies were forced to undergo electro-shock and sometimes lobotomies, to “cure” their disease. Ginsberg, himself, spent time in a mental hospital until he promised he would change.

His work captured the loneliness and alienation of a generation of artists and people who were told they were lesser humans because they were different. This appealed to both gay and straight alike. He captured the anger and restlessness of a group that felt their voices weren’t being heard; that felt they were being condemned because they didn’t fit what was considered “normal.” Ginsberg was at the forefront of a literary movement that would eventually explode into the social movements of the 1960s that would change this country forever.

 


Baltasar Kormákur's
Inhale
Opens Friday, October 22, 2010

Written By: Walter A. Doty, John Clafin, story by Christian Escarío

Starring: Dermot Mulroney, Diane Kruger, Sam Shepard, Vincent Perez, Rosanna Arquette, Jordi Mollá

IFC Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

In the bad old days, New Yorkers seeking divorces had to fudge an adultery situation; there were few other options. One other such option would be to go to Reno, Nevada, and spend six weeks there establishing “residency.” Another was to go to Juarez, Mexico, just over the border from El Paso, Texas, and get a decree the following day that would be recognized throughout the U.S.

There was considerable divorce-driven traffic then from the U.S. to Mexico, but now the situation is reversed. Americans avoid Juarez, because of a plague of drug-related murders and now the traffic goes the other way. A brisk commerce in drugs runs from Juarez to the U.S. While we in the U.S. condemn rampant murder in places like Juarez, we fail to blame ourselves. It is we, the Americans who are fond of hard drugs, who are in effect causing the bleak situation south of the border.

There is another way that Americans with money are using Mexico illegally to sustain our lifestyles, though this applies to relatively few of us, the ones who need organ transplants. If you’re on a list for a donor organ, you may have to wait months or years and will likely die before your name comes to the top of the list.

One moneyed couple in Baltasar Kormákur’s Inhale, a well-known prosecutor in Santa Fe named Paul Stanton (Dermot Mulroney) and his wife Diane (Diane Kruger), have a young daughter, Chloe (Mia Stallard) who has a rare, degenerative disease requiring a double-lung transplant, pronto, as Chloe is in Stage IV. The organ donor list is long: too few organs, too many sick people. Paul, with the full cooperation of his wife Diane, travels from Santa Fe to Juarez looking for a Dr. Navarro who has a reputation for providing organs to Americans who can scrounge up $200,000, or so he hears from his friend James Harrison (Sam Shepard), a candidate for New Mexico governor. Though aware that the city is dangerous, he could not have anticipated being beaten to a pulp and held at gunpoint, not only by adults, but by a street-wise twelve-year-old kid who turns out (for money, of course), to help him reach this Dr. Navarro, who seems never to be around.

Inhale is that rare crime thriller that raises moral questions, questions that Paul and Diane have to sift through in making decisions about their daughter’s treatment. When Paul discovers that the organs he seeks and for which he is willing to pay will cost him big, but more important will involve a moral choice—one that would put his daughter’s life in the balance—we in the audience will likely ponder what we would do if we were put into the same situation.

Dermot Mulroney looks particularly manly with his close-cut, graying hair, a fellow with enough charisma that we in the theater seats will hang on every word. He receives able assistance from a cast of Spanish-speaking Americans.

The film is grainy, presumably to give the feeling of a documentary shot with hidden cameras, though this style, however relevant to the scene, becomes annoying.

Director Kormákur’s best-known previous work, Reykjavik 101, is from another world; Reykjavik tells the story of a 30-year-old man who lives with his mother on welfare, watches porn, and has an affair with a lesbian.

Inhale is the kind of effective thriller that will have its audience talking not necessarily about the movie but about the entire subject of organ transplantation, a discussion that could branch out to our thinking about the ways that rich countries exploit the poor by buying their organs, by using them as surrogate mothers, even on the way stem cells can be acquired in the shady business of embryo sales.

Unrated. 83 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 

Lixin Fan's
Last Train Home
Opens Friday, September 3, 2010


Written By: Lixin Fan

Starring: Zhang Changhua, Zhang Qin, Chen Suqin

Zeitgeist Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten



“How ya gonna keep ‘em/Down on the Farm/ After they’ve seen Shanghai, Ai” Somehow those lyrics do not sound as mellifluous as the ones penned about Paree in 1918 by Joe Young and Sam L. Lewis, but they make this point: China may have gone (shh) capitalist, allowing that country’s economy to top Japan’s in prosperity. However, this prosperity did not reach China’s rural communities. Lixin Fan’s documentary, Last Train Home, captures that unfortunate fact most graphically. The particular family covered by Lixin Fan, who both directs and serves a photographer, did not go to Shanghai but rather to Guangzhou to work in the rag trade in a dismal factory where they make five bucks a day for sixteen hours’ work, making jeans for export for Americans “with their 40-inch waists,” as one worker jokes. It’s no wonder that Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin keep pestering their two children to study hard, as does the youngsters’ grandmother back home in the country. But try to give advice to a teen!

The rebellious 16-year-old daughter, Zhang Qin is conflicted. On the one hand she resents the way her parents deserted her to work the year ‘round in the factory, save for the New Year’s holiday when they revisit the scrawny family farm. On the other hand, she wants to be free, to earn her own money—which is why, like so many American teens, she dropped out of school. It’s a small world after all.

Last Train Home is about the greatest migration in history: 130 million migrant workers head back home from bleak garment factories in the big, polluted cities for the homecoming holiday. They struggle to buy train tickets for the 1400 mile trip home—some standing the entire way. Life is hard.

The family apparently got so used to Lixin Fan’s camera that they shucked any self-consciousness. In one scene the daughter curses. Her dad thinks she is disrespecting him directly so he slaps her. She hits him back. Production notes that the director did not know whether to break through his journalistic role to urge the family to calm down. The camera remained dispassionate, allowing us in the audience to look at a moment of effective soap opera.

Family estrangement is not purely a Western concept, Confucian ideals notwithstanding. When the daughter gets a job in a Shenzhen, spending time as well in a discotheque, the family ties are as good as severed. Maybe grandma and mom should have eased up on their incessant counsel to “study hard or you’ll wind up like us,” giving the teen an opening to do the opposite, as teens are wont to do. Some of the particularly dramatic shots are at the railway station that has so much pushing and shoving humanity that it makes Grand Central look like New York’s Tower Records store after the MP3 with free and cheap music downloads became popular.

Lixin Fan, whose previous movie, Up the Yangtze, took the audience on a cruise up the Yangtze River, once again impresses with yet another doc which thankfully eschews voiceover narration and talking heads. The director is a Montreal resident, a Chinese-Canadian citizen whose film received a dollop of awards such as Best Feature Documentary at the International Documentary Film Festival at Amsterdam, the Golden Gate Award at the 2010 San Francisco International Film Festival, and was selected by the 2010 Sundance Festival and New Directors/New Films gathering.

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



Matt Reeves’s
Let Me In

Opens Friday, October 1, 2010

 

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by Matt Reeves; based on the novel Lat den Ratte Komma In by John Ajvide Lindqvist.

Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz (Abby), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Owen), Richard Jenkins (the Father) and Elias Koteas (the Policeman).

Film remakes are usually a bad idea. American reworkings of good foreign movies are often terrible.

Let Me In is the exception. Not only is it quite faithful to the original Swedish film Let the Right One In (directed by Tomas Alfredson), writer/director Matt Reeves actually improves on it, substantially and effectively.

Reeves (Cloverfield) manages to retain everything good in the Swedish film (the eerie mood, the chilling and stark landscape and the delightful shocks) but develops the two central characters more so we have a lot invested in their well-being and that makes us care more about their respective journeys.

He also sets the film in the Reagan 80s (with Ronnie appearing on the telly), peppers it with peripheral environmental bits of religious zealotry and chooses New Mexico, one of the weirdest states in the US (sorry, but I’ve visited and it just is!)—all strokes of genius.

The main story remains the same: Owen, an awkward yet lovable 12-year old boy constantly bullied at school meets a strange and vexing yet fascinating young girl, Abby, outside his building. But she is not what she appears to be.

Kodi Smit-McPhee, so affecting in last years most underrated gem The Road, is a revelation as Owen, giving us all the adolescent confusion that comes from being a child of divorce and not feeling he fits in at school or anywhere, for that matter. Smit-McPhee has a lovely, gentle quality but also shows a potential darker side. I’m not usually a fan of child actors but I cannot wait to see what this kid does next.

Equally good is Chloë Grace Moretz. Her Abby is a poignant, creepy monster wanting desperately to just be a teenager.

These two elevate the film to a level rarely approached by horror movies, much less vampire flicks.

Reeves sometimes fills in too many blanks but, for the most part, strikes the right balance. And his handling of the more gruesome scenes gives it an edge as well. Let Me In may be a bit more graphic in it’s depiction of the violence than the earlier film but it’s almost always more effective-- specifically, a compelling car crash scene, a hospital bed scene (my favorite from the earlier film is better here) as well as the famous pool scene at the end.

The production values are key in setting the mood and Michael Giacchino’s haunting score is simply perfect as is Greig Fraser’s chilling and enveloping camerawork.

Let Me In examines loneliness and alienation--the kind that begins in childhood—and the ignorance that allows it to fester. Despite the supernatural elements, it shows just how bullying is learned at home and how destructive any type of bigotry can be. In a week where we are trying to understand how intolerance and hatred has led to another teen suicide, a film like this one is essential.



Greg Berlanti's
Life As We Know It
Opens Friday, October 8, 2010


Written By: Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson

Starring: Katherine Heigl, Josh Duhamel, Josh Lucas, Christina Hendricks, Hayes MacArthur

Warner Bros
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

In one scene toward the conclusion of this movie, Sam (Josh Lucas), a mild-mannered, if stiff, pediatrician overhears a deafening argument between Holly (Katherine Heigl) and Messer (Josh Duhamel), two singles who are living together. “If my ex-wife and I argued like that, we’d still be married, the doctor notes. There’s a point worth thinking about: if the rest of the film had such bon mots, Life As We Know It would be a dream. However, the script by Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson, breaks no new ground, leads the two principal characters down the same line as every other romantic comedy, and allows us in the audience to be well ahead of the performers in figuring out the predictable conclusion. It’s no spoiler to say that the standard rom-com puts two people together, people who are either indifferent to each other or actively hostile, sends them through the mill, including a few make-up sessions, and has them emerge ultimately as lovers. Now that’s rom-com life as we know it.

Katherine Heigl is said to have made $15 million for her role, which is extraordinary, heading into Julia Roberts territory. Does she earn her pay? Not by my accounting. She does what she can with the lame script and the conventional direction by Greg Berlanti which affords the viewer a few laughs, but there’s nothing here that wouldn’t fit together on the tube as a 5 p.m. sitcom.

The story pits Eric Messer, a good-looking stay-loose fellow with a job as technical director to the cameras at sporting events, against Holly Berenson, a list-making, obsessive-compulsive owner of a bakery who despite her good looks comes across as having gone on too few dates. When Holly and Messer become temporary godparents to a baby when their two best friends, Alison Novak (Christina Hendricks) and Peter (Hayes MacArthur) are killed in an auto accident, the tale follows the usual fish-out-of-water subgenre of such movies as Charles Shyer’s 1987 Baby Boom (a yuppie, played by Diane Keaton, is thrown into disarray when she inherits a baby from a relative) and Leonard’s Nimoy’s offering of the same year, 3 Men and a Baby (three bachelors are forced to take care of a baby left by one guy’s girlfriend).

The two new godparents have a rough start: a blind date ends after ten minutes to allow Messer to head over to a booty call already made for that evening. They tolerate each other, however, when they accept responsibility for the care of their friends’ baby. To get back to the aforementioned bon mot, their nasty arguments are merely disguises for sexual tension, and guess which psychological trait wins out?

Heigl and Duhamel are OK for the roles but would have been better off with a finer script, though the best actors are the twins playing the baby whose crying turns to smiles as though on cue from the director. Andrew Dunn’s photography in Atlanta is professional, Blake Neely’s music is always apropos, and Sarah Burns does well as a social worker who checks up on the baby’s caregivers at inopportune, allegedly comic moments.

Rated PG-13. 113 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics


 

Esben Sandberg, Jochim Roenning's
Max Manus
Opens Friday, September 3, 2010



Written By: Thomas Nordseth-Tiller, based on Manus’s own books, Det vil helst ga godt and Det blir alvor plus other accounts and historical documentation.

Starring: Aksel Hennie, Ken Duken, Nicolai Cleve Broch, Knut Joner, Agnes Kittelsen

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


One can imagine it now. A test is given by the Norwegian school system that would set up this word analogy: “Light is to dark as x is to Quisling.” Many Americans have heard of Quisling but few here in the States could fill in the “x”. Worries over. The answer is Max Manus. Vidkun Quisling, as any kid from an American charter school can tell you, was Norway’s biggest traitor, collaborating with the forces of Nazi darkness in order to rule Norway himself. Max Manus, on the other hand, is a hero, a resistance fighter who, as Esben Sandberg and Jochim Roenning’s film graphically illustrates, helped to liberate his country from German rule.

As a biopic, Max Manus is thoroughly conventional film, lacking in great passion whether dealing with Manus’s relationship with his pals (Oh, he cries, all right, when they are wounded or killed) and or dealing with his unrequited love affair with a woman he would eventually marry. However given the need for as much cinematic knowledge as we can acquire about heroic resistance fighters of the early 1940s, Sandberg and Roenning’s film fits the bill nicely.

Compared widely to Flame and Citron, Ole Christian Madsen’s great movie about two fighters in the Holger Danske resistance in Denmark, Max Manus projects Manus (Aksel Hennie) as a flawed hero, though his principal flaws—heavy drinking and, of course, smoking—is nothing compared to the womanizing attributed to Oskar Schindler. (In fact we could have used more of that in this picture, but affairs simply do not exist in this hero’s life.) His chief adversary, Siegfried Fehmer (Ken Duken), who commands the Gestapo and speaks fluent Norwegian, comes across as just a human being doing a job. In one scene, Fehmer tries to appease the Norwegian beauty he is trying to seduce by dressing as a native of that country, telling her that he has great admiration for her country and wants to live there after the war. (He does live there for several years after 1945, but as a prisoner until his execution by firing square in 1948.)

Manus, by contrast, is an adventurer who is seen fighting in heavy snow against the Russian forces in Finland—though he might have picked a better country to fight for than one that lost the last fifteen out of fifteen wars. Returning to his home country, he takes on a leadership role in Oslo, distributing propaganda sheets, getting caught, and escaping from the Germans by crashing through a second floor window and landing in a hospital, closely guarded by the enemy. After making his way out of the hospital bed, he travels to Scotland where his group is sent for training as a separate Norwegian unit. With his best friend, Gregers (Nicolai Cleve Broch), he becomes skillful at blowing up Nazi storehouses with a most dramatic feat being the destruction of the Donau, a slave ship in Oslo harbor used to transport Soviet prisoners of war.

While most of the Oslo group do not make it out of the war to see Norwegian flags flying again on May 8, 1945, Manus’s only predicament is his feeling of guilt for having survived despite the recklessness of his actions. Ultimately, as the epilogue brings out, he is to found a successful office equipment business, in 1947 marrying Tikken Lindebraekke (Agnes Kittelsen), the woman of his dreams.

For his role as the title figure, Aksel Hennie took home several Amanda Awards for best actor. The picture cost the equivalent if eight million dollars, high for a small country, using 1800 extras. This is the kind of film that you’d expect to generate more enthusiasm in its home country than abroad and, indeed, one million Norwegians caught it during the first six weeks of its run.

Unrated. 117 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's
Mother's Courage: Talking Back to Autism (Sólskinsdrengurinn)
Opens Friday, September 24, 2010 On HBO



Written By: Fridrik Thor Fridriksson

Starring: Kate Winslet, David G. Amaral, Simon Baron-Cohen, Geraldine Dawson, Temple Grandin, Joseph E. Morrow, Soma Mukhopadhyay, Portia Iverson, Jonathan Shestack

First Run Features
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


Some documentaries are national, even universal, catering to a wide variety of audiences. Michael Moore’s are a good example, treating issues like the meltdown in Detroit, the shootings at Columbine, the health care crisis in America. Other docs are aimed at a more limited audience; at those families with special interests in narrower subject matter. Sound and Fury is an example, which considers the debate between the deaf who want to remain deaf, and the deaf who prefer to be helped by cochlear implants.

Fridrik Thor Fridiksson’s A Mother’s Courage is the latter type of story, virtually bereft of Michael Moore’s irony and humor, dealing strictly with the autistic. This doc would be targeted principally to families coping with the one out of one hundred fifty people who are born with a range of the handicap, from the mildly autistic to those severely afflicted. What Fridriksson clears up right off is the difference between autism and Downs’ Syndrome, the latter involving people who might cope better in society because of their ability to imitate the behavior of the mainstream.

The autistic people featured here are different from one another in several ways. Some of them are bright enough to get Ph.D. degrees and teach in universities. Dr. Temple Grandin is a good example: a professor of animal science at Colorado State who did not speak until she was three but in this film appears to make up for all that with long, tiresome monologues when she is not dealing with her collegiate duties or designing livestock handling equipment. Several specialists in autism include Dr. Catherine Lord who directs an autism center at the University of Michigan and Soma Mukhopadhyay, who gets lots of film time as director of education for Helping Autism Through Learning. Ms. Mikhopadhyay wears traditional Indian garb, sports a red dot on her forehead, and is shown working tirelessly to get autistic children to spell words—quite an achievement since these youngsters cannot speak and usually cannot focus.

The key person is a cute kid from Iceland whose parents must have money. Amid a soundtrack of tunes from Sigur Rós and Björk, the film hones in on Keli, the eleven-year-old son of Margret Dagmar Ericsdottir. Since Iceland lacks centers to treat the handicap, Keli and his parents traveled at least twice to the U.S. with filmmaker Jon Karl Helgason to document Keli’s progress toward coping as a normal kid. With narration by Kate Winslet, who dubs the voices of the parents, the film shows how Keli, apparently a nice kid who doesn’t cry or rebel, bonding with his principal teacher Soma Mukhopadhyay. Using the Rapid Prompting Method, the educator gets autistic children to become better at communication. There is no explanation of Keli’s ability to use his pencil to poke at letters, spelling out words in English—even understanding the teacher, who speaks English to him as well. One wonders whether Keli’s mom, possibly lingual only in Icelandic, could do the same.

Much of what we see in this film, which to me lacks much entertainment value but is, of course, a good resource for people whose own children are afflicted, is available on the web. The Wikipedia, for example, notes that autism is a disorder of neural development characterized by impaired social interaction and communication and by restricted and repetitive behavior. We do see how Keli waves a few twigs back and forth while he is being coaxed by Mukhopadhyay, how he focuses his attention on the ceiling rather than on the stencil with the letters.

Some people grow up to be afflicted with this non-curable problem but have exploited their problem by making great strides and contributing much to society. Examples given by the livestock professor include famous folks with Asperger Syndrome, which prevents them from empathizing with others, including (though this should be researched further) Albert Einstein, Wolfgang A. Mozart, and Thomas Jefferson.

This is not the first attempt to explicate the problems of autism. A recent film, Michel O. Scott’s The Horse Boy, took the audience to Mongolia where the Isaacson family believed their child could be cured by a shaman and by riding horses. Again, if you’re going to have someone in the family with this problem, it pays to have money.

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

 


 


Mark Romanek’s
Never Let Me Go
Opens Friday, September 17, 2010

Screenplay by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Never Let Me Go marks the beginning of the Fall season and therefore, the Oscar season. The film is haunting, creepy and absolutely engrossing.

Based on the sci-fi horror novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, the adaptation (by Alex Garland) is genuinely scary and conveys a sense of mystery throughout.

Kathy, Tommy and Ruth live in a type of alternate universe. They attend Hailsham, a seemingly normal English boarding school, yet they are there for very specific and arguably horrific reasons. When they turn eighteen their lives will change forever because of who they are and why they exist in the first place. I would rather not go into more detail because one of the joys (if that word can even be used here) of the movie is discovering the frightful reality of the trio’s situation as the story unfolds.

Director Mark Romanek, whose previous major film credit was the tepid One Hour Photo, shows remarkable talent here, especially when it comes to keeping the story fascinating to viewers by presenting this particular world in such a bleak yet mesmerizing way.

As she does in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Carey Mulligan manages to convey so much by doing so little. She is the current queen of cinema understatement. And that works perfectly here since we need to understand Kathy’s capitulation despite her love for Tommy. It’s a terrific performance. Equally good are her co-stars: Andrew Garfield, who has a heartbreaking scene near the end that is simply devastating to watch and Keira Knightley who manages to make a difficult character sympathetic.

Never Let Me Go is disturbing in a way that some of the best films that explore human nature are. The only real flaw in the film is the fact that it never deals with any resistance to the inevitability in the narrative. Such an element would have enriched an already rich work. Still, it’s an amazing picture and a great start to what I hope is an exciting Fall film slate.




Darren Flaxstone’s
Release
Opens Friday, October 1, 2010

Written by Darren Flaxstone and Christian Martin

Starring: Daniel Brocklebank, Wayne Virgo,; Bernie Hodges,; Garry Summers, and Simon Pearce

(U.K. 87 min.)

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

Darren Flaxstone & Christian Martin wrote last year’s harrowing festival entry, Shank. And although I admired its audacity, I wondered whom exactly were these filmmakers making films for? That question came up again as I watched the brutal and unendingly bleak world these artists created onscreen in their new feature, Release.

Most of the gritty narrative is set in prison and surrounds Father Jack (Daniel Brocklebank in a towering performance), who is incarcerated for a crime he has committed. Most of the inmates assume it’s pedophilia and they taunt him about it. Father Jack has embarked on a gay affair with a prison guard but, because of his past sins, feels he does not deserve love.

In addition, Father Jack comes to the defense of his cellmate, Rook (Wayne Virgo, star of Shank), who is almost beaten to death by other prisoners.

The film is most powerful when it focuses on the intense relationships between Father Jack and the guard as well as Father Jack and Rook. But when the film meanders and veers from these intense scenes, the results are uneven.

Flaxstone's blend of the nasty realism of prison life with otherworldly and supernatural elements never fully gel. Also, there’s a moment near the end that is almost laughably reminiscent of the Prom scene in Carrie and the denouement is contrived (although poetic).

The villainous leader is an ambiguous and one-dimensional character and simply frustrates the viewer since there is never any payback.

Like Shank, Release presents a singularly pessimistic view of the world. But it is also refreshingly original in parts. Release sees redemption as a possibility but not a tangible reality. And in a medium saturated with films designed to please and entertain, there is certainly room for…a different vision.



Randall Wallace's
Secretariat
Opens Friday, October 8, 2010


Written By: Mike Rich from William Nack’s book

Starring: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Scott Glenn, James Cromwell, Dylan Walsh, Dylan Baker, Margo Martindale

Walt Disney Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


I don’t “get” horses. Dogs show affection for human companions. Even cats, known for independence, curl up on people’s laps. But while it is said that horses love to be groomed and can respond to voices, arms and legs when training for the races, they seem wholly nonchalant when petted or spoken to softly by people they know. But in the film Secretariat, even the trainer can’t figure this out. John Malkovich plays Lucien Laurin, the trainer who is famous for preparing Secretariat for the Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes).

Considered by some to be the greatest race horse of all time, Secretariat won the Big Three for the first time in twenty-five years (Everyone’s Champion achieved this in ’48).

Secretariat is the title character of the film, but Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), the horse’s owner, is the real subject. Diane Lane appears in virtually every frame; she is called a “housewife” by the loud-mouthed owner of Secretariat’s leading competition, but in truth, she is a woman who spends more time with her equestrian charges than with her own kids. There is little doubt that this family-friendly movie will be taken as a symbol of female empowerment: Chenery makes bold choices in the financial area which few men would risk.

If you like Hallmark Hall of Fame tales on TV, as I do, you’ll go big for Secretariat. The movie in no way talks down to the small fry who will be a big part of the projected crowd, nor will adults find the conventional narrative beneath their intelligence. Two funerals are shown, which may disturb some of the folks under the age of ten, but without those images it would be difficult to feel the problems that Ms. Chenery confronts. The first problem is money. Though she and her husband, Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh), have a stunning ranch home in Denver, they discover—after attending the funeral of her dad (Scott Glenn)—that they will not be able to pay the seven million dollar inheritance tax on the farm and horses that she inherits. When Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell) offers to buy a foal for eight million, which would cover the taxes, Penny refuses--to the dismay of her more practical husband, Jack, and her brother (Dylan Baker).

The inevitable races follow, including one that is lost by the foal, now named Secretariat, and then the others, like the Kentucky Derby, The Preakness and The Belmont Stakes which he wins. (Not a spoiler. The horse’s career is part of racing history easily available on the Wikipedia under Secretariat). Secretariat, called Big Red by fans who cannot pronounce the name, was a horse who loved to run. If Greyhounds need the mechanical rabbit to motivate them, horses apparently have intrinsic motivation to compete. The neck-and-neck competitions of the first two races, the horses loudly kicking up dirt and breathing heavily (should there be an awards category for foley?), are dramatically photographed by Dean Semmler whose close-ups show us the horses from the side, from underneath, and in the stands.

Gary Ross’s movie Seabiscuit, with its Depression era setting, affords more of a period flavor than Secretariat; only cars with big fins and a few shots of hippies indicate the 1970’s. A few expressions are prochronistic, but “I’m outta here,” “cool,” and “I’m down with that,” do not destroy the flavor of the times for a film that is more about a woman’s victories in what had been a man’s profession. Side roles by Eric Lange as a reporter who covers the races despite his usual beat on politicians, because he “wants to see the horse from the front end,” by Otto Thorwarth as the diminutive jockey, and Nelsan Ellis as the trainer are spot-on. John Malkovich is especially fine as both comic relief and solid professionalism. Top credit goes to Diane Lane, who is tough without wearing her macho on her sleeve, easily charming the audience as much as she does her favorite thoroughbred.

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


 


David Fincher
The Social Network
Opens Friday, October 1, 2010


Written By: Aaron Sorkin adapted from Ben Mezrich’s “The Accidental Billionaires”
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella

Columbia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


Some movies (think James Bond) start with explosions. The Social Network starts explosively, but with talk, and the two people who are conversing are Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend, Elaine (Rooney Mara). If dynamite blows up buildings at the openings of some movies, conversation breaks up a long-term relationships during the first five minutes. David Fincher (Fight Club), using a immensely witty script from Aaron Sorkin, which is adapted loosely from Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, looks at the Facebook phenomenon, honing in on Mark, its founder. But it’s no biopic. The Social Network looks at the lives of some nineteen-year-old sophomores at Harvard, friends of Mark, who by the conclusion of the story are buddies no longer. One of the great ironies in cinema history is that the young man who gave the world a network that now has five hundred million subscribers who call one another “friends,” is a person who is marginally afflicted with Asperger’s and ends up without a single friend in the world. Still it’s OK to be lonely if you’re in charge of a company that is now worth twenty-five billion dollars.

Mark Zuckerberg is the sort of character who suppresses his rage against the classmates who are more at ease socially, better able to seduce the women. While they’re out partying, he is hunched over his computer. While Cameron Winklevoss and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) represent the WASPs of the old capitalist order, Zuckerberg is the Jewish anarchist successfully rebelling against people against whom he cannot compete except by focusing on what he does best. At first he shows us in the audience how easy it is to hack into the Harvard University files, leading to his initial troubles. He makes a huge mistake by sending a message over the Internet proclaiming his now ex-girlfriend to be “a bitch,” yet is surprised when she later refuses even to step outside for a private talk aimed at reconciliation. He gets the algorithm for a new network from the Winklevoss brothers, who will later sue claiming that Zuckerberg stole their idea, then works with his only true friend, a timid, over-cautious Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), whom he assigns the job of CFO to raise money for the large venture that fills his imagination. With Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), a fellow who is as smooth and comfortable as Zuckerberg is awkward, he launches “the Facebook” which, on Parker’s suggestion, becomes simply “Facebook.”

Saverin is to join the Winklevosses in suing, and in fact much of the film takes place during a long deposition before highly-paid lawyers who cite emails that appear to indicate that Zuckerberg shafted both of his co-workers: one for stealing their idea, the other for converting his share of the company into virtually nothing. Director Fincher, who is said to have tired out the performers by demanding seventy or eighty takes of some scenes, cuts the action between the legal proceedings and the goings-on at Harvard, the college scene coming off like something the average person can’t imagine happening with the joyful participation of the brilliant students, whose parties include dates who perform like pole dancers and whose morals are far different from the ones held by the women of the fifties. The party scenes are accompanied by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s deafening music, all filmed in widescreen by Jeff Cronenweth. All is in the service of showing the great irony: that a kid with virtually no social finesse winds up winning the “friendship” of five hundred million people in two-hundred seven countries.

With his blue eyes and brown curly hair, the twenty-seven-year-old Jesse Eisenberg (Holy Rollers, Solitary Man)dominates the proceedings, a fellow whose character will probably be neither condemned nor greatly eulogized by the audience. Despite the social errors he continually makes because of his awkwardness, I could feel for him. Yet for a guy who is allegedly not in it for the money, he appears to have no compunctions about intellectual theft and financial manipulations. He represents the typical view that most of us are neither all good nor completely evil: we’re flawed people, we often seek redemption when it’s too late. Rashida Jones is splendid is a sympathetic member of Mark’s legal team, Armie Hammer nicely represents the outdoorsy types destined for the Olympics and seen here in a crew race at England’s Henly-on-Thames.

The picture is lavishly photographed, the indoor scenes that find the men and women dancing or trying to talk over the din of the music, the Harvard campus resembling the dream that the vast majority of Americans attending local colleges or not going at all for higher education would certainly envy. Social Network makes no overt judgments on the Internet or Facebook, but those of us who believe the answer to all problems lies in moderation will come away with the notion that virtual meetings may have a place, but they’re far from a substitute for real-life contact.

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




Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin and Michael Douglas
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Oliver Stone’s
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Opens Friday, September 24, 2010

Starring: Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Eli Wallach, Susan Sarandon, Frank Langella.

Screenwriters: Allan Loeb, Stephen Schiff
Based on characters created by: Stanley Weiser, Oliver Stone

(131 min.)

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

It’s turning into a banner year for filmmaker Oliver Stone. A few months ago his fearless documentary, South of the Border, was released and now, twenty-three years after Wall Street hit the screens, Stone returns to the world where “Greed is Good,” and discovers that greed has managed to muck up our entire financial system. This dazzling and dynamic film could not have come at a more fitting time.

The original Wall Street gave us a glimpse inside the high-speed milieu where money-hungry traders devoured one another so they could live out the American dream: basically making more money. Chief among them was Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas, in a slick turn that won him a Best Actor Oscar for 1987).

Wall Street perfectly represented the Reagan 80s where indulgence and excess ruled the day. The type of greed that ran rampant into the 90s would inevitably cause a crash that would be felt around the world. Ironically, after the 2008 disaster, the current administration has spent a buttload of money bailing out the arrogant, avaricious banker bigwigs who caused the mess in the first place. Gekko in 2010: “Greed is good. Now, it seems, it’s legal.”

The movie opens with Gekko’s release from prison in 2001. Fast-forward seven years and the story’s main focus is introduced: Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan) is dating a young trader named Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf). Despite his financial success, Jake believes in alternative energy. Winnie authors a liberal blog (very 2008!). Jake is mentored by Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) who is set up for a fall by a rival (James Brolin) and Zabel steps in front of an oncoming subway train (to which someone insightfully remarks: “No one else in the market had the balls to commit suicide.”)

Meanwhile, Jake has met Gekko at a book signing (the title of his masterwork: “Is Greed Good?”) Jake offers to try to smooth things between him and his daughter. Gekko gives Jake some keen advice on how to get revenge for his mentor’s demise. And the plot twists and turns as a worn but eager Gekko gets his moxie back and begins his return.

Oliver Stone (never a man to shy away from anything controversial) along with Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, have designed a screenplay that percolates with all the current goings-on in the economic news, while weaving a compelling tale of ethics and morals gone to hell.

As director, Stone is on fire using his funky style to explore what is happening just outside the main focus. This is Stone’s best directorial work in quite a while. I was fascinated by his attention to expensive ladies earrings commenting on the paradoxical ways people live their lives. The camera work (by Rodrigo Prieto) is fantastic as is David Brenner and Julie Monroe’s fulgurated editing.

Shia LaBeouf nicely balances his characters ambition with his desire for revenge as well as his truly wanting to make a difference.

Carey Mulligan is so real, even in an underwritten role. Her talents are never more evident than in the final moment with Douglas where she conveys so much without saying one word.

Michael Douglas is seemingly relegated to a supporting turn, but what a performance! He gets to do what few actors are ever able to do, reflect on the decisions his character made two decades ago and proceed accordingly. Douglas is the star of this film regardless of screen time and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was nominated for his second acting Oscar (it’ll either be for this or Solitary Man, OR if Fox decides to campaign for him in Supporting, both!).

Josh Brolin is wonderfully slimy and nasty. Susan Sarandon, Frank Langella, Eli Wallach and John Buffalo Mailer are all uniformly terrific as is Charlie Sheen in a clever cameo.

Kudos to Stone for crafting an provocative film that isn’t afraid to show us who the real villains of the 2008 crash really are.


Lucy Walker's
Waste Land
Opens Friday, October 29, 2010


Starring: Vik Muniz, assorted catedores

Arthouse Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Next time one of your Philistine friends tells you that art is garbage, feel free to agree with him. For that matter, the converse is true as well: garbage is art. That’s what art is—the taking of a random number of musical notes or a number of colors on a painter’s palatte or words in a dictionary, and by rearranging them, you create…art! To illustrate the point by what will probably be the most original documentary this year, Lucy Walker’s Waste Land takes us to the world’s largest landfill, a.k.a. garbage dump situated in Rio.

Waste Land deals with converting literal garbage to art. Director Lucy Walker, whose Countdown to Zero warns of an escalating nuclear race which, unleashed, would turn actual cities to trash, makes a hero of artist Vik Muniz. You can emerge from the film thinking that he should be Time magazine’s Person of the Year or at least pick up a Nobel or two.

Muniz, born in São Paulo and now living in a Brooklyn loft with books stacked from floor to ceiling, is the ideal person for changing the lives of a few residents of Rio living in abject poverty. How so? Well, Muniz made a replica of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” out of jelly and another out of peanut butter. He also knocked out a creation of “The Last Supper” out of Bosco Chocolate Syrup while reinterpretating some of Monet’s paintings such as the cathedral at Rouen, with clumps of pigment sprinkled on a flat surface. He brought Sigmund Freud to life with chocolate and recreated some of Ed Ruscha’s paintings from the 1960s out of auto parts. This background is not brought out by the film, which instead focuses on even more dramatic creations.

In this incredible project, the artist went to the garbage dump where photographer Dudu Miranda focused on scores of people living in the most basic wooden shacks imaginable (at $8 a week rent). The folks get to work when a garbage truck arrives, dumping mountains of trash into the landfill. Like useful environmentalists, the inhabitants of the favela (slum) believe that a large percentage of the trash can be recycled rather than left strewn around the dump. They comb through the refuse, intent on filling the orders of wholesalers, who may be willing to buy clothing, food, bottles, glass, plastic, whatever, paying the workers by the piece. These people, literally dirt poor, are surprisingly resilient, some saying that after working the trash for 20 or 30 years they are happy doing this job while mixing socially with their friends. Presumably they don’t know any better.

Here at the Jardim Gramacho (a.k.a. landfill), the catadores, as the women and men picking through the garbage are called, capture what they call recyclables. In one of the most surprising moments of the movie, a couple of the men briefly discuss the philosophies of Nietzsche, another commenting eagerly that among the books he recovered was a damp, soiled copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince, which he dried out and read. One of the women has a background as a restaurant cook, a skill she uses to feed the workers with produce from the dump.

That’s where Muniz comes in. Here's the way he works: He takes a picture of an “environmentalist.” He magnifies the picture with a projector, puts it on the floor, and lets the pickers decorate it with bottle caps, hair, dust, whatever. He shrinks the picture to museum size, takes another photo, and puts it up in a London auction for collectors. Example: To replicate French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat who was stabbed to death while in his bathtub, a resident plopped himself into a tub, eyes closed, slouched over like the assassinated radical. In this case, most impressive is the pickers’ use of dust to simulate skin. Muniz took a small group of workers to London, giving one entry to an auction and others to a museum exhibit of their work. Rich people at the auction bid on one of his creations, which Muniz believes is akin to the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat, an American artist who died at the age of twenty-seven of a heroin overdose. One mosaic brought a price of $50,000. Muniz takes nothing, donating the entire proceeds to the Garbage Pickers Association.

From there, lives change. People exposed to a better world no longer say that they want to remain in the ironically named Jardim. One gets a job in a restaurant, another goes to secretarial school. A little girl announces that she wants to be a psychologist. Not all of the workers graced by Muniz are likely to better their lives. An eighteen-year-old woman with a pretty face, a chronic smile, and a sad tale of abandonment had just produced her third child and may never escape her gig at the Jardim.

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




 


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