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Jason Winer's
Arthur
Opens Friday, April 8, 2011



Written By: Peter Baynham, story by Steve Gordon

Starring: Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Garner

Warner Bros
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

What a week of openings! The big dilemma is trying to decide which is less funny: Arthur or Your Highness. This questions may have to be settled by a coin toss. Here’s what the team that made Arthur might have been thinking in remaking the terrific 1981 version of Arthur which starred Dudley Moore and John Gielgud: Our society has become more vulgar, less literate, more attuned to comedy that’s shoved on them rather than to the wit and gentle humor that presumably fit in better with bygone days, like the seventies and early eighties.

As a result of this thinking, who better to play a vulgarian, infantile billionaire without the least bit of charm and wit but with lots of pushiness and coarseness than Russell Brand, who looks so greasy that he should be confined to doing voice-over's for movies like Hop. On second thought, Brand, just as obnoxious as the time he played Aldous Snow in Nicholas Stoller’s Get Him to the Greek, may be just what our contemporary public is looking for.

But let’s hope I’m wrong.

The story is similar to the Dudley Moore version which was directed with whimsy and charm by Steve Gordon. Like Gordon’s Arthur, Jason Winer’s is a drunk, the kind of drunk you want to stay away from. He looks threatening, he appears dangerous, while Dudley Moore's character never did. One of the chief differences between the two versions is that Arthur 2 has a magnetic bed that floats without apparent support, an actual $1.5 million dollar item that is said to be the only one of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. The bed does make for a reasonable bit of physical comedy when Arthur’s drunk fiance become attracted to it, which is good for her because she is not particularly attracted to Arthur, but to his status with his mother’s company.

Arthur’s mother (Geraldine James) wants to further her business by convincing investors that her son is not the clown the press makes him out to be. She insists that he marry the wealthy Susan (Jennifer Garner) or face disinheritance, specifically the loss of $950 million. Will love conquer all when Arthur, resisting these nuptials, falls for girl-next-door-type Naomi Quinn (Greta Gerwig), whose job as an unlicensed tour guide is insufficiently lucrative to allow her to move out of her pre-war apartment overlooking the New York elevated transit system?

A memorable frame for the picture shows Arthur driving his Batmobile, flames spewing out of the exhaust which lead to the inevitable chase by police cars. The dialogue is less memorable. When he emerges from the vehicle dressed as Batman and his chauffeur (Luis Guzmán) joins as Robin, the chauffeur warns that they’re going to a black-tie function. Arthur looks as his Bat costume and replies, “This is black.” And there is some class to the picture, all of which provided by Helen Mirren as Hobson, the nanny, in a role that makes you wonder why this incredible talent who embraced the role of the current British monarch in Peter Morgan’s vastly more delicate and impressive The Queen, would stoop to being the woman who tries to keep Arthur on some semblance of an adult track. Thinking nothing of popping in while he is having sex or in the bathtub, insisting that he wash his “winkie,” is simply beneath contempt. When Hobson falls ill with a disease that’s not explored or prepared for, she and Arthur switch roles, the billionaire taking care of her and acting like an adult for the first time. However these moments are more Hallmark than honestly sympathetic. Nor is there a line of Peter Baynham’s dialogue that’s likely to be remembered.

Rated PG-13. 110 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 

 

Jonathan Liebesman's
Battle: Los Angeles
Opens Friday, March 11, 2011


Written By: Christopher Bertolini
Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Ramon Rodriguez, Will Rothhaar, Cory Hardrict, Jim Parrack

Columbia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

“I’ve got that sticky stuff all over my mouth,” complains Elena Santos, a Marine played by Michelle Rodriguez. No, Battle: Los Angeles is not that kind of movie, though more’s the pity. There would have been more human interest if it were. This expensive video game does not even have the advantage of allowing the audience to have any control over the gunfire and explosions, and therefore does nothing good that computer games do such as providing better mind-hand coordination. There is almost as much humanity in the special effects aliens as in the U.S. Marines fighting in SoCal, and what’s more the aliens do not make silly dialogue like, “Your father was a brave man,” which Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) tells to a sobbing boy whose father, a civilian, was killed by a few rounds from an alien. Nor do aliens have to say over and over, “What the hell is going on?” or “Let’s get the hell outta here!” And how come Michael Nantz is only a staff sergeant after spending twenty years in the service?

The heavily marketed feature posits a world-wide war going on in major cities such as Tokyo, London and L.A., a war that appears to be caused by the enemy’s need for fuel, not for oil but for water because of a special combination of chemicals that they need and which is found only on our planet. The enemy zaps around in some cool saucers, each equipped with a barrage of guns and protected by drones against missiles fired to take them out. The only hope of the Marines is to knock out the big communications saucer. If they succeed, the humans win, though the big cities of the world have a lot of rebuilding to do.

Jonathan Liebesman’s story opens on action, straight-out, not to bore anyone with conversation, then heads back twenty-four hours to allow us to eavesdrop on the Marines jive-talking and gossiping about how Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz lost a platoon unnecessarily in previous combat. The movie is filmed by Lukas Ettlin who treats us to more than we need of grainy, dizzying, hand-held images, Brian Tyler’s music competing with the deafening explosions—by now a cliché to which we’ve been accustomed by any number of apocalyptic pics. There is some differentiation among the soldiers particularly showing Lt. William Martinez (Ramón Rodriguez as a young officer with little experience like a deer caught in the headlights and with the older Staff Sergeant Nantz challenging him, almost passively aggressive, to give the men some orders. Jason Lockett (Cory Hardrict) takes the role of the cynic who blames the sergeant for the death of the former’s brother, but this is hardly developed, while Michele Martinez (Bridget Moynahan) performs in the role of a veterinarian who dissects a fallen alien to determined which part of the body must be hit to score a kill. (Hint: it’s to the left of where our own heart would be.)

Strangely enough, the creators fail to ground the film in some reality: that in February 1942, there was a genuine battle lasting several hours between the American military in California and unidentified flying objects, none of which were hit. Many accuse the U.S. government of a cover-up: the flying objects were never identified.

It would be unfortunate if the audience for this movie were not aware of the fine work of Aaron Eckhart, who had far better scripts, such as in Jason Reitman’s brilliant satire, Thank You for Smoking and John Cameron Mitchell’s recent Rabbit Hole, both of which take aim on thoroughly human dilemmas. The market for popcorn will always be greater than the desire for caviar.

Rated PG-13. 116 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Richard Press’s
Bill Cunningham New York

Opens Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Film Forum



Reviewed by Arlene McKanic

If you hang around Manhattan you’ve probably seen Bill Cunningham, an eccentric elderly man in a blue jacket, with an old fashioned camera riding a beat up old bicycle. Moreover, he’s probably seen you; whether he took your picture or not depends on what you wore. As he says, it’s not the person, it’s the clothes, which everyone can see in the New York Times’ On the Street section. Once, in Paris, Cunningham declined to take a picture of Catherine Deneuve because she looked a bit dowdy.

Cunningham’s peculiar ascetic charm is explored with great love and tenderness in Richard Press’s film, Bill Cunningham New York, which will premiere at the Film Forum on March 16, Cunningham’s 82nd birthday. The filmmaker writes it took him ten years to get the photog to agree to document his comings and goings, and from then on it was all a bit delicate. For Cunningham is the most unworldly man there is, though his subjects are often folks for whom the world and status and money and entitlement are everything. And they admit it, too.

Till February 2010 Cunningham lived in a rent controlled storage room -- that’s the only word for it. -- in Carnegie Hall. Through Press’s and Tony Cenicola’s cameras we see a forest of file cabinets full of every negative of every photo Cunningham ever took. He slept on a cot among his cabinets, went to a nearby deli for meals, used a bathroom and shower down the hall. This is contrasted, violently, with the pads of some of his best friends: Anna Wintour, Annette de la Renta with her labradoodle ever snoozing in the elegant background, the fantastic Iris Apfel with her insane glittery bangles and glasses that look like they were made for a scuba diving owl. Cunningham’s blue jacket, perfect for a photographer in that it has many pockets, is iconic. He patches up his rain ponchos with duct tape. Contrast that with the silks and satins and frippery of the people he photographs, even “ordinary” people on the streets of New York. And he’s an egalitarian, as apt to take a shot of a young African American boy with his baggy jeans half way down his behind as the ridiculous looking fashionista Anna Piaggi, with her bee stung lips and dabs of orange makeup on her cheeks. His long time friend Edditta Sherman, another character, is with Cunningham one of the few tenants who still lived in Carnegie Hall. Ninety six years old, she’s shown modeling one of his more dubious hats -- Cunningham was a milliner before he took up the camera.

Speaking of camera, his is not only an old fashioned analog type, but he has a certain place where he goes to get the film developed. What, the Gray Lady has no dark room?

The film is straightforward. Press follows Cunningham on his bike, watches him lay out pages with his sometimes exasperated assistant John Kurdewan, watches him work a room full of mucky mucks at a Lincoln Center gala where, he swears, he never even accepts a glass of water and eats good deli grub at the Times before he goes out. (But, oh my God, the food and the booze are the only reasons to go to those things!) Press gets Cunningham to admit that he's never been in a romantic relationship and even gets him to choke up when asking about his religious feeling; Cunningham, raised Catholic, goes to church every Sunday. Near the end we see him leap with boyish glee at a surprise 80th birthday party where most everyone’s dressed in blue and holding up a grinning Bill Cunningham face mask. He likes to refer to everyone as “kids” or even “child.” At his age, he has the right.

By the way, when the greedy landlord finally kicked him out of Carnegie Hall, Cunningham moved into a light filled apartment overlooking Central Park. With his files.


 


Christopher Smith's
Black Death
Opens Friday, March 11, 2011



Written By: Dario Poloni
Cast: Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, David Warner, Carice van Houten, Kimberly Nixon

Magnet Releasing
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Dario Poloni, who wrote the script for Black Death, tells us one thing that many of us already know: that the greatest cause of violent death on a global scale aside from disease is religion. The knights and one monk who ride into a village in this equine road movie, all bear the cross on their chests, all have sworn fealty to God, and all end up killing in His name. But wait! Poloni does not “have it in” only for bible-thumping fanatics, but as well for those who do not believe at all. The atheists, or pagans as they are called by the Christians, are at least as crazed and violent as the pious. In fact, the movie is saying that all extremes are bad, whether absolute believers or absolute non-believers, a point that can be stretched into modern times as a condemnation of Nazis, Communists and Fascists of all stripes, all the people who believe that humankind can be molded into some ideal image while the ones who cannot conform to that ideal are vermin to be eradicated.

That’s a heady point, but not all broadly philosophic themes are translated into great movies. Black Death is no Seventh Seal and Christopher Smith is hardly another Ingmar Bergman. Director Smith, whose Creep in 2004 dealt with a woman pursued by an attacker in London’s Underground, whose Severance in 2006 took us to a sales meeting in the mountains of Eastern Europe that goes wrong , and whose Triangle in 2009 brought scenes of havoc on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean, is in his métier with Black Death.

This time Smith takes us way back to the Fourteenth Century, obviously one in which the Adjustment Bureau autocrats must have left to free will for human beings to act as they will, and they’re up to no good as usual. Bad enough that rats brought Bubonic Plague, or Black Death, to Europe in 1348, leading to the death of up to sixty percent of the continent’s population. To help the rats and fleas along, people bearing swords, axes, hammers and spears galloped in response to the call of the Church to do something about those pesky witches and necromancers whose Black Magic was the real cause of the decimation.

There must be witches in at least one village, according to the local bishop in England, since that town is completely free of plague. Osmund (Eddie Redmauyne) a young novice monk who loves both God and his girlfriend agrees to lead a “holy warrior,” Ulric (Sean Bean) and his band of merry murderers to that pristine village that knows no plague. What they find there is a group of people who are surprisingly cordial to them, welcoming them to stay the night and eat of their table. But things are seldom what they seen, particularly in the guise of Langiva (Carice van Houten), who looks like a witch and who appears to be the leader of the community.

Black Death is part horror, part historical fiction, and all dark. There’s not a human being, at least in the principal cast, who can be called “good.” The film is dark photographically as well, cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid swirling his camera hither and thither to make the audience seasick while Stuart Gazzard supports the project by editing the fight scenes so you never really get to see who’s battling whom. Regrettably when one individual is drawn and quartered — one horse pulling his left arm and leg in one direction and another pullining the right arm and leg in the other—we hear bones crack and sense that limbs are leaving the torso, but we’re never allowed to see this lovely scene close-up.

It’s a reasonably entertaining pic, one that might frustrate horror fans by the limitations on torture while having all of us wonder whether the whole project is camp or serious.

Rated R. 97 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Werner Herzog's
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Opens Thursday, April 28, 2011



Written By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes, Jean-Michel Geneste, Carole Fritz, Gilles Tosello, Michel Philippe, Julien Monney.

Sundance Selects
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

When high-school students would enter my history class, inevitably one of them will say, “I think history is boring. Can we talk about current events?” My answer would be: “OK, let’s. We’ll start with Egyptian pharoahs.”

“Huh?”

“You’ve got to realize that Thutmose III was on the throne just 3,000 years ago. Human beings were on this planet two million years (sorry, Ms. Palin). If we drew a time line representing all our time on earth, prehistoric people would take up 99% of the line. From Pharoah Thutmose to President Obama would be 1%. Or, another way, on a twenty-four clock, Thumose began his rule just one minute to midnight.

In high-school history class, we spend only one lesson on Stone Age people, even though they were around for almost all of humankind’s existence. Why? Because they didn’t write anything, they didn’t keep a record of their culture like the Egyptians did with hieroglyphics. But wait! Didn’t they tell us much about their lives by their drawings on cave walls? Yes indeed, though they never did get to write The Book of the Dead or Agamemnon. They drew horses and bison in particular, which means that they were obsessed with them the way we today think about Mickey D’s. And who better than Werner Herzog to tell us more about this, concentrating on a cave in southern France which was "painted" 30,000 years ago. Thirty-thousand years? That’s nothing. Just think of how dull lives must have been before people discovered that they could communicate about their culture by drawing.

The particular cave that Herzog examines was sealed some time ago by a landslide and because of the carbon dioxide present, archeologists and paleontologists and the like could not spend too much time inside. What’s more the French government seems to have turned down every request to film inside the Chauvet Cave containing the oldest pictures known to have been made by human beings. Herzog brags that he was the first to convince the Minister of Culture to let him inside to film together with three scientists, then voilà— Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Most of the French people interviewed on camera speak English, and Herzog, who was born in Munich, narrates the tale with his well-known Teutonic accent. The film is in 3-D which is a shame because the glasses continue to be a drag. They’re heavy, they turn daylight into dusk, and the ones we received had rubber earpieces that meant we could not fold them and put them in our pockets when we were fed up with wearing them after ten minutes. Nor was there any need to transcend the regular two-dimensions except for a brief moment that finds a French scholar throwing a spear at us in the audience, a spear that was used by Neolithic folks to kill horses. And they say that the French are getting friendlier to Americans?

Whether the paintings on the walls are “awe-inspiring” as one critic states is debatable. If you ask me, some of the stuff looks so threadbare that you’d think a bunch of Neanderthals drew them. At the conclusion of the movie, Herzog does deliver the best moments by shutting down his pretentious narration to allow us to look silently at a collage of drawings.

For me the best parts of the film are the exhibits of non-drawn material such as a flute on which one scientist played the Star Spangled Banner (hoping for a nice, American box office?) and, once again, another with a dandy, thick white mustache threw a spear at us.

I would have had the filmmaker re-enact a scene of cave people drawing, particularly since Herzog never tells us exactly what materials the artists used. Still, the film is unique, the only one of its kind I’m aware of. Maybe some colleges will set up departments of art prehistory.

Unrated. 95 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 



Robert Redford's
The Conspirator
Opens Friday, April 15, 2011



Written By: James D. Solomon
Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, Justin Long, Evan Rachel Wood, Alexis Bledel

The American Film Company/ Roadside Attractions
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

There’s little doubt where Robert Redford, who directs The Conspirator, stands on current politics. He’s in favor of civilian trials of the people captured and imprisoned in Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay. We can deduce this by seeing his latest movie as allegorical. The alleged conspirator in the film, researched and scripted by James D. Solomon, is a civilian, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a 42-year-old Roman Catholic who ran a boardinghouse at which men met to plot the kidnapping of President Abraham Lincoln. She is a widow trying to eke out a living by taking in boarders and, if we trust her testimony, she had no idea that her guests or her son, John Surratt (Johnny Simmons), were involved in a nefarious conspiracy. It’s easy enough for us in the twenty-first century to look back at the trial and become disgusted with the prejudicial actions of the military court, determined to find her guilty though by all rights they should not have even had jurisdiction over the case. But these were tough times; the war between the states had just wound down, and folks up North were eager for revenge against anyone even suspected of harboring evil thoughts and committing dastardly deeds against not only our president, but Vice President Andrew Johnson and some members of the cabinet. To paraphrase what Roman statesman Cicero once said, when you’re at war the law goes out the window.

Redford directs The Conspirator in a solid, traditional manner, though to remind us that we’re in the Nineteenth Century it’s not enough to show that nobody was looking at a BlackBerry or looking up the latest Facebook pages. Thus the background is kept in soft focus by Newton Thomas Sigel who stands behind the lens in lovely and historic Savannah, Georgia, filming most of the scenes in the rickety courtroom.

The film opens at Ford’s Theater in the nation’s capital. We watch John Wilkes Booth sneaking about, emerging at the back door of the box seat in which the president is sitting to enjoy a comedy. (One wonders how the country’s chief executive is guarded by just a single person who is reading a book while the play is performed, particularly considering that a large segment of the U.S. hated Mr. Lincoln.) Booth makes his well-known jump to the floor, injuring his leg and shouting sic temper tyrannis (thus always to tyrants), is tracked down to a barn, where soldiers set fire to the building, shoot Booth dead, and capture others. Some conspirators are ultimately found guilty and hanged but the film deals with the conflict between Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a 28-year-old Union soldier who shuns recruitment to the War Department under Secretary Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) in favor of continuing his law practice, and Joseph Hult (Danny Huston, the prosecutor, over the fate of Mary Surratt. While Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) has the experience and is determined that Surratt have every chance to defend herself, he turns the job to Aiken, his young colleague because Johnson is a southerner, less likely to have credibility with a military tribunal under General David Hunter (Colm Meaney). (History buffs and those motivated to follow up a screening of the film with a look at details will note that while Aiken fought for the Union, he had enough sympathies for the other side to consider joining with the Confederates. Maryland, though southern, was not one of the secessionist states.)

The courtroom scene, which forms the bulk of the film, bears comparison with similar scenes in the halls of justice such as Herman Wouk’s play The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, though the outcome of the Surratt trial seems obvious given the prejudices of the War Secretary and the military commission, determined to give the American public a whiff of strong actions taken against rebels. Aiken plays the role of a man who had never before defended anyone in a capital case, a hesitant, callow attorney who frequently raises his voice “The prosecution will stop at nothing!” while the far more experienced prosecutor remains confident, relaxed, certain of the victory that will be his. There is little particularly riveting about McAvoy’s performance—he did better in roles more suited such as Dr. Nicholas Garrigan in Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland, as a personal physician imported from Scotland by Uganda’s dictator Idi Amin. He is overshadowed by a powerful job from Robin Wright, as a woman who at one point goes on a hunger strike, who professes her innocence throughout, and protests even as her lawyer tries to implicate her son, who had escaped to Egypt, as the true conspirator. Surratt’s daughter, Anna (Evan Rachel Wood), is tentative at first about providing the defense with evidence that would implicate her undoubtedly guilty brother but Mary Surratt consistently objects to legal action that would implicate her son, John. Yet Mary is no martyr: she is fearful of the gallows, and though she ascends the wooden platform with dignity, history indicates that she wept profusely. This may not be Wright’s movie, but she is character to watch as she transcends the material, elevating a traditional legal battle into an epic tale.

For more information or to watch the trailer please go to: www.theamericanfilmcompany.com

Rated PG-13. 122 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Jordan Scot's
Cracks
Opens Friday, March 18, 2011



Written By: Ben Court, Caroline Ip, Jordan Scott from Sheila Kohler’s novel

Starring: Eva Green, Juno Temple, Ellie Nunn, Imogen Poots, Adele Mccann, Zoe Carroll, Clemmie Dugdale, Eva Green

IFC Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

This arty chick-flick about high-school girls who navigate through the storms of adolescence in a remote setting puts us in mind of such movies as Lord of the Flies (kids on their own without adult supervision get mischievous), Picnic at Hanging Rock (three students and a teacher disappear on an excursion), and especially The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (a headstrong teacher in a private girls’ school in Edinburgh gives her charges an over-romanticized world view). Cracks is based on Sheila Kohler’s atmospheric novel of the same name about an 1960's era all-girls South African swimming team, who of whom are all in love with their teacher (the term “cracks” means “crush, “ as in “to have a crush on”). Scripters Ben Court, Caroline Ip and director Jordan Scott push the time back to 1934 in England, giving John Mathieson the honors of photographing the picture in lavish areas of rural Ireland, concentrating on the period and accentuating the beauty of the pristine lake.

Though the young women under the leadership of the diving team captain, the appropriately named Di (Juno Temple) do turn out to be the little devils portrayed by novelist William Golding in Lord of the Flies, they are generally a restrained lot, albeit too willing to fall under the influence of their diabolical captain. Di may have evil intentions—after all, she, like the others, is going through life changes —the real loser is the teacher they admire so dearly. Miss G (Eva Green) is a free-spirited woman, a young teacher amid frumpy colleagues who include the school's headmistress, Miss Nieven (Sinead Cusack). Miss G believes it is her duty to teach the kids the ways of the world, frequently entrancing them with stories about her worldly travels. Though Miss Nieven cautions the young instructor not to play favorites, Miss G is fondest of Di, who looks up to Miss G as though she were a rock star.

Then Fiamma (Maria Valverde), registers as a new student. Fiamma is far more worldly than the rest of the youngsters in that she is from Madrid and is considered an aristocrat. The stage is then set for a triangular conflict. As the teacher shifts her attention from Di onto Fiamma, “adopting” her as her “pet” because she seems to actually want to be as worldly as the young girl, Di is enraged, marshalling support from her team to get this new kid out of the school. The bullying that takes place is reminiscent of recent tragedies that have led to at least one suicide of a victim of Internet attacks.

As you may have guessed from the outline of the story, the thrust of the plot seems predictable, and it is, up to a point. The twist that occurs toward the conclusion is a steamy one, the whole tale serving to make us realize that perhaps living in big cities is not as dangerous as being effectively shut up in a small, isolated location. Eva Green turns in a fine performance, smoking like a fiend because that looks oh-so-cool to the children, but looking Mephistophelean when she becomes increasing trapped by an action of her own making. As the visiting Spanish student, Maria Valverde, who sounds like Penelope Cruz, is credible as a worldly figure who is nonetheless quite vulnerable. Some of the dives performed by the kids are splendid, making us wonder—as do the children themselves—why they have never competed against another school.

Unrated. 107 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Sherry Horman's
Desert Flower
Opens Friday, March 18, 2011

National Geographic Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Written By: Smita Bride, from Waris Dirie’s novel

Starring: Liya Kebede, Sally Hawkins, Craig Parkinson, Meera Syal, Anthony Mackie, Juliet Stevenson, Timothy Spall


In his latest book, The Moral Landscape, atheist Sam Harris brushes aside the leftist idea of moral relativism. He says that there are universal values that can be determined scientifically. Moral relativism, or the belief that each culture’s values should be respected however odious some of these values may be to other cultures, is hogwash, he says. Simply put, whatever contributes to the well-being of a people is probably morally correct.

Sherry Horman’s Desert Flower deals centrally with the practice in some regions of Africa of female genital mutilation or FGM. (You may hardly realize that this is the principal issue since she adds quite a bit of sugar to make the medicine go down). Some people in the West say we should respect this FGM, as we have our values, they have theirs. Sam Harris would doubtless say that genital mutilation would make heaven weep (if he believed in God). As depicted in this National Geographic film, in rural areas of Somalia, a three-year-old female child is taken by her mother to an old woman who is “gifted” in the art of slicing off the clitoris of the infant girl, for good measure removing the inner vulva and outer vulva, then sewing up the skin so tightly that serious pain results, and urination is difficult. She will be married off at the age of thirteen to a fellow old enough to be her grandfather, who will remove the sutures with a knife and forcibly enter her. For the rest of her life, she will feel nothing from the sexual act, no pain and no gain, and that’s if she’s lucky. If she’s not lucky, she will be in pain for the rest of her life, even if the guy dies or succumbs to erectile dysfunction.

Desert Flower may be fiction, but is closely based on the life of Waris Dirie, novelized by this gorgeous Ethiopian woman whose life changed more than that of most of us. After all, how many of us are like Dirie: brought up in the sticks of Somalia tending to sheep and goats, running away on bare feet with no money and nothing to eat until she got to the bustling city of Mogadishu, taken under the wing by her grandmother, who arranged to put her on a flight to some relatives working for the Somali embassy in London? Never mind that Dirie had to work like a slave for these uppity people at the embassy, at least until a revolution in Mogadishu meant that they were out on their butts, leaving Dirie to fend for herself.

In what becomes part comedy, Dirie runs away to escape deportation, gets caught shoplifting at a London department store (she meant well, just did not know what it means to pay money for things), gets a job mopping at a Mickey D’s, meets a fashion photographer, gets a job as a model, becomes a top model covered by major magazines, winds up speaking at the UN against genital mutilation, and inspires fourteen African countries to ban the practice. That doesn’t mean that the practice has gone away. Rural areas have a way of not knowing about those pesky laws made up by big cities and Western elites. Six thousand girls are mutilated every day.

The acting is spot-on with Ethiopian-born Liya Kebede in the role of Waris Dirie; Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky) as Marilyn, the woman who wants at first to call security on the shoplifter but later befriends her and shares her digs; Timothy Spall as Donaldson, the photographer; Juliet Stevenson as over-the-top Lucinda, who maps out Dirie’s life as a top model, sending her all over the West to dazzle the crowds; Craig Parkinson as Neil, who fake-marries her for her citizenship; Anthony Mackie as Harold, a New Yorker who picks her up in London at a bar and scares her off by trying to dance with her; Meera Syal as Pushpa, the friendly motel owner; and Soraya Omar-Scogo as the young Waris, who promises her brother never to leave him. A lie, but one that gave her a life.

Comical moments includes Kebede walking on high heels for the first time; Parkinson trying to make it with his “wife;” Stevenson rapid-talking to convince the model to do her bidding. But when Kebede’s character, Waris Dirie, is interviewed about “what most changed my life,” it’s not getting the job as a model but the day that she was genitally mutilated. The journalist could not hold back her tears, nor would the audience be expected to do so either.

Since this is a National Geographic release, photography is lush. Ken Kelsch does not disappoint. The scenes he shoots in Djibouti’s desert captures the heat (122F in the shade), the remoteness and desolation, the hopelessness. Consider Desert Flower a potential awards candidate for pictures opening in the U.S. in 2011 for cinematography and for humanity awards as well.

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



Giuseppe Capotondi’s
The Double Hour
Opens Friday, April 8, 2011

Reviewed by Arlene McKanic

Giuseppe Capotondi’s riveting crime/romance puzzler The Double Hour couldn’t start off any sadder or simpler. Two people meet in a restaurant hosting one of those ghastly speed dating non-events. They’re Sonia and Guido, both there to ease their loneliness and the frustrations of their lives. She’s a Slovenian born chambermaid in a hotel, he’s a security guard and fairly recent widower to boot. They hit it off, and one day he takes her to the guardhouse of a great mansion he’s been hired to protect. He turns off the security system -- the better for them to go walking through the woods without being spied on -- and a robbery happens. When one of the robbers turns his scuzzy attention to Sonia while she and Guido are tied up, Guido attacks him, and is shot.

Next Sonia is shown back at work, too quickly, you think. She’s understandably shattered. The bullet that hit Guido went through him and grazed her skull. She can just about hide the scar with her bangs. Then, she begins to hear and even see Guido, everywhere. How can this be? Didn’t she see him killed? Didn’t she visit his grave? Is he really dead? Is she being gaslighted? If she is, who’s doing it? And why?

Then, when something happens that you don’t expect, some but not all of what’s going on is explained. You spend the rest of the movie waiting for the other shoes -- there are a closet full of them -- to drop.

Though the action is fairly low key, the film’s little mysteries and the twist and turns that attend them keep you paying attention. Ksenia Rappoport and Filippo Timi are soulful and endearing as the two lonely people who find each other. Capotondi and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe often shoot them in extreme close-up, which is fine because Rappoport and Timi are seriously pretty people. Rappoport has the steely, wistful, open-faced beauty that recalls a young Helen Mirren. Timi’s huge sad eyes make you think of a forlorn street dog who’s seen better days and has almost resigned himself to his lousy life. The supporting characters are also good, and also confounding. Who is that creep in the hotel who keeps leering at Sonia, and why, since she finds him so creepy, does she allow him to drive her away from a funeral? Antonia Truppo sparkles as Margherita, the good time girl who’s Sonia’s fellow chambermaid and pal. What seems to happen to Margherita is what convinces Sonia that life is really not making sense anymore.

In the end you long for everyone to do the right thing; no one does. Is this the difference between European noir and American noir? An American film wouldn’t tolerate The Double Hour’s sad and rather sordid ending. The title, by the way, refers to those times when you look at your clock or watch or airplane ticket and notice the number repeats: 12:12, 11:11, or in Europe, 20:20. Something uncanny is supposed to happen, like meeting your soulmate, or getting away with something you’re not supposed to get away with.

Capotondi, in tandem with creators and screenwriters Alessandro Fabbri, Ludovica Rampoldi and Stefano Sardo, have put together a crafty little film.



Chris Ordal's
Earthwork
Opens Friday, April 29, 2011

Starring: John Hawkes, Laura Kirk, James McDaniel, Zach Grenier, Chris Bachand, Brandon Glad, Sam Greeenlee

Shadow Distribution
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Crop art is the creation of images on large areas of land, known as Earthworks: open country such as Montana comes to mind. One crop artist, Stan Herd (played by John Hawkes of Winter's Bone) from Kansas, created such art in his home state on over 160 acres with portraits of Kiowa War Chief Satanta and Will Rogers in 1981 and 1983 respectively. Associated with the Prairie Renaissance Movement Stan Herd got some media coverage in the Smithsonian Magazine in 1988. In Havana, Cuba, he created the Rosa Blanca in 2001. His work was seen on CBS, Fox, NBC, ABC and CNN.

On 1994 Herd completed Countryside, which included images of pastoral Kansas landscape. There is one catch though. This time the work was done on a property owned by Donald Trump, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, NY, as distant as you can get physically and culturally from Kansas. This project is the subject of an unusual film, directed by Chris Ordal, and photographed by Bruce Francis Cole (who appears to be a fan of dramatic close-ups as well as long aerial shots), all beating to the rhythm of David Goodrich’s loud, intrusive music.

The plot takes us through Herd’s financial and familial troubles throughout 1994. His friend Peter “Cap” Kaplan (Bruce MacVittie) encouraged him to go to NYC and pitch his plan to Donald Trump’s assistant. Looking like a fish-out-water in the city, Stan offered to do the project without pay, accepting only the contribution of land. This put him under further financial stress and a need to take a second mortgage without the permission of his wife, Jan (Laura Kirk) and lead to dissolution of his marriage. Back in the worksite the field was full of garbage, weeds and some quirky homeless people with mental problems. Lone Wolf (James McDaniel), for example, is afflicted with schizophrenia and would not talk to anyone. He would take the food offered without so much as an acknowledgment, Mayor (Zach Grenier) looks like an office worker with his ubiquitous umbrella and neatly-pressed jacket. El-Trac (Sam Greenlee) sits on a bench and serves as the group home-spun philosopher. These people became Stan’s assistants and helped him through the physically challenging project. Even the promised television national exposure did not materialize, since O.J. Simpson took all TV time with his famous Ford Bronco SUV chase to evade police capture.

Alone after his wife left him and bereft of the attention he deserved, Stan Herd ultimately wins out as he becomes recognized throughout the world for his crop art. Filmed on location in Kansas and Manhattan, Earthwork has been featured at eighteen film festivals garnering major awards. Still, the project comes across low-key for the big screen—perhaps why the music is needed for emotional involvement--and might play better as a TV movie.

Rated PG. 93 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Justin Lin's
Fast Five
Opens Friday, April 29, 2011


Written By: Chris Morgan, characters by Gary Scott Thompson

Starring: Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Ludcris, Matt Schulze, Sung Kang

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

You could travel to Rio, but it would be a hassle. If you’re leaving from New York, you’d be in the air for eleven hours and landing not in Rio but in São Paulo, then taking a connecting flight to your vacation spot. You wold also limit yourself to Ipanema or the other beaches because you’re not about to tour the favelas (slums), are you?

There’s a solution. Go see Fast Five and you’ll see the slums close-up, you’ll see the entire city from the air, you’ll observe the famous Christ statue for which the city is famous, and it will cost you twelve bucks more or less. What’s more you might even live in a town that has a big IMAX screen, and Fast Five is just the kind of movie that can benefit from a tall screen. Thankfully it’s in 2-D as well. So what are you waiting for?

Only trouble is, as one critic has stated, the movie has about as much brain as the bucket of popcorn for which you paid ten times as much as the theater owners did. But you already knew that: you’re not looking for Shakespeare this weekend, and you get what you came for: action, action, action—plus a few good zingers from scripter Chris Morgan and a whole bunch of stunts skillfully directed by Justin Lin, the Taiwan-born director who profited greatly from attending UCLA Film School—though not as much as Vin Diesel who shows that you can drop out of Hunter College and still make a fortune.

Fast Five opens, well, fast. Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) looks unhappy in a bus on the way to start his 25 to life sentence in a California max prison. But he is not unhappy for long as Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) and Mia (Jordana Brewster) arrange for a massive bus turnover on the highway. Next thing you know Dominic, Brian and Mia are off to Rio—though one wonders how they got out of the country or, for that matter, how they will eventually get out of Brazil. Vince (Matt Schulze) relates the job he has for them, but Dominic and Brian are intercepted by Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), the drug king, who “owns” the favelas as he provides the inhabitants with electricity and other goodies. Reyes wants to know the location of some stolen cars, one of which contains a computer chip with the names and addresses of scores of drug drop-off centers. When FBI agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson—who looks more like a tank than a rock) teams up with Elena (Elsa Pataky), who is looking for revenge as her dad was killed by Reyes’ men, the action builds up leading to the inevitable, brutal, hand to hand combat between Hobbes and Dominic. And that’s not even the climax.

The plan is to rob Reyes of $100 million in cash which he has in a ten-ton vault, one which requires Reyes’ handprint to open, but that’s not a formidable problem for the team of Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Han (Sung Kang), Gisele (Gal Gadot) and others, who will divide the loot equally.

Two stunts stand out. One involves jumping into the water from a height that would scare off even the divers at Acapulco’s La Quebrada, though the more exciting one (exciting because it involves wholesale destruction and we all like to see things destroyed), driving the ten-ton safe through the street of downtown Rio. As the safe hit cars on the street, vehicles are totaled. As the safe hits walls and poles, same idea. The race with the safe is the one item that may have never before been tried in the movies, standing out as the picture’s most original idea. The movie is fast-paced, suspenseful, has some romance particularly between Dominic and the now-pregnant Mia, and enjoys the top-notch casting of Joaquim de Almeida as chief villain who has every cop in town in his payroll. And did I mention that the picture is sans brain?

Summing up, then, you can go to Rio paying a lot more than $12 for the experience, you can swim in the waters and dine on feijoada, acarajé and Coxinha, but you’ll never pick up anything like the thrills you can witness at your neighborhood theater’s screening of Fast Five.

Rated PG-13. 130 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Philip Rosenthal's
Exporting Raymond
Opens Friday, April 29, 2011

 

Starring: Philip Rosenthal

Samuel Goldwyn Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Dying is easy: comedy is hard. American sitcom producers may not yet experience dying, but all know how hard it is to keep a comedy show afloat when a fickle audience (via Nielsen ratings) can cancel a show as early as the conclusion of the first pilot—or later on even for a hit show if an actor like Charlie Sheen rubs the studio the wrong way. Phil Rosenthal, who wrote and directs the documentary Exporting Raymond, thought he had it made when his TV show Everybody Loves Raymond, starring and based loosely on the life of its principal performer, Ray Romano, became a bit hit in the U.S., surviving for nine seasons. Not content to slide by on his reputation, Rosenthal took his idea to Moscow, hoping to make the sitcom a hit in a place whose language is not based on our own alphabet and whose sense of humor is said to be somewhat different from ours, the successful recreation of The Nanny in Russia notwithstanding. If Everybody Loves Raymond is about families and families are the basis of Russian society as well, shouldn’t the transfer be easy?

Happily for us in the audience, the export did not cross the ocean well, because if it did we would have been denied the many laughs that Rosenthal’s new film delivers. Exporting Raymond works as comedy not because of Ray Romano or anyone in Moscow who replaces him, but because Rosenthal himself is a mighty funny fellow. If a marketeer were asked to name the very best audience for this movie it would be those who like early Woody Allen. Producers are not generally known as people who make us laugh, but Rosenthal is Aces and for my rubles he could have successfully played one of the roles himself if he had been cast in the American show, which ran on CBS from September 13, 1996 to May 16, 2005.

The American show revolves around the life of a newspaper sportswriter from Lynbrook, Long Island whose arguments with his family are the source of the knowing smiles and laughter of the audience. Perhaps the biggest problem in translating his character is that this Raymond Barone is the butt of jokes, particularly by his wife and other women in his household, while the more macho Russian culture would feel uncomfortable watching a milquetoast. Still another problem is that what we consider funny is looked upon in Russia as trivial as in, well, not funny. One example shown from the American show is of a suitcase that Ray leaves on the stairs, coming home from a vacation tired and in no mood to move it. He thinks his wife will do the honors, which is not entirely unbelievable, but she leaves the big pack on the stairs insisting that he move it. The dialogue, entered into with large gestures of the arms, is what makes the exchange comical, while the Russians simply see this as so unimportant that they wonder why it’s even part of the skit.

Rosenthal, remaining the funniest guy in this doc, is obviously exaggerating his facial gestures for the motion picture camera. He meets the bodyguard when he arrives at the airport, thinking that only in his presence would he be safe from kidnappers and ransom-seekers. When the bodyguard steps out of the car without explanation, Rosenthal is [mock?] terrified. What if this guy is part of the plot himself? He wonders why his security agent is so eager to take him to a huge World War II museum which glorifies Russian tanks and aircraft while showing a wrecked jumble of metal from the Luftwaffe.

The Russian audience does not get Everybody Loves Raymond, partly because the title figure chosen for the role acts out the part as melodrama rather than comedy. Some of the individuals take severe exception to the deal. The severe-looking costumer wants the women to dress fashionably even when they’re cleaning the house. “Russians like to dress up,” she insists, adding that the clothes should be trendy as well. The head of comedy looks like the sort of person who’d scare the kids. The director of the Moscow Arts Theatre refuses to allow the man chosen for the lead role to leave the show. The Russian director for a while refuses eye contact with Rosenthal. A building that represents Hollywood looks more like the place where Saw was filmed than like a professional building, opines Rosenthal—one of the scenes in which Rick Marotta’s original horror-themed music punctuates the scare.

Geoffrey O’Connor’s lensing is judiciously edited by Brian Singbiel and David Zieff to enhance the comic timing, but without Rosenthal as leading character, Exporting Raymond would not be the fun that it is. Special kudos to the team for chucking the usual tendency of documentaries to give full measure to boring talking heads. There are no talking heads here, thank goodness, a doc that runs at a swift pace like a fine narrative, Michael Moore style.

Rated PG. 86 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten, Member, NY Film Critics Online


 

Joe Wright’s
Hanna
Opens Friday, April 8, 2011


Screenplay by Seth Lochhead, David Farr. Story by Seth Lochhead.

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng, Jessica Barden.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella
Focus Features

Certain to be divisive, Joe Wright’s provocative Hanna is an audacious thriller that stands as one of the best films of 2011 to date. Sure, it’s early in the year but no English language film has truly excited me the way this one has.

This gripping suspense flick unfolds in such a precise manner that it dispenses just enough information to the audience to keep them transfixed but saves the startling jaw-dropper for the final reel.

Wright is responsible for two of the best ‘period’ pictures of the last few years, Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. Here he deviates completely in an almost defiant manner and presents a most-unconventional, truly fucked-up coming of age film.

The movie opens with 16-year old Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) hunting a deer with a bow and arrow and then taking a knife and hacking into it as if the setting was a century or so ago and she some female jungle girl.

We soon learn that Hanna lives with her father (Eric Bana) in a remote forest area in Finland. There she has been trained to survive in a harsh and violent world. She is quite intelligent, but her knowledge is limited to what dad has chosen to teach her. Yet there is more to the story, much more. Hanna decides she is ready to enter civilization and that sets her on a dizzyingly frenetic journey that involves homicidal henchmen, the CIA and an overly talkative Brit teen obsessed with popular culture (Jessica Barden).

I choose not to give any more plot away since one of the beaucoup joys here is to watch the riveting tale unfold without any real notion as to what is going to happen. Suffice to say who is being pursued and who is doing the pursuing as well as the numerous ‘whys’ behind the pursuits are all in question. There, confused enough? But hopefully intrigued as well?

The script, by Seth Lochhead and David Farr, is incredibly well- structured and Wright gives it the kind of pulsing life that keeps the viewer in a constant state of wonder.

Hanna is a visual and aural feast with startling and mesmerizing camerawork by Alwin Kuchler as well as an appropriately over-the-top score by The Chemical Brothers.

Saoirse Ronan anchors the film, as she must for it to succeed, in a way not many young actresses today would be capable of doing. She’s a fearless marvel adding layers to the mystery that is Hanna as we watch this uncultured yet strong and adaptable girl learn about life and slowly piece together who she is.

When queried by the Olivia Williams character about the death of her mother, Hanna’s naively candid response is at once chilling and refreshing thanks to Ronan’s keen ability to make us believe she really doesn’t know any better.

Eric Bana, one of the most underrated actors in film (how was he not Oscar nominated for Munich?) gives a gentle and ferocious performance, depending on the dictates of the scene.

Chameleon extraordinaire Cate Blanchett puts on her mean and nasty cap (this time the hair color is red) and steeps herself in a relentless and brutal portrait of unwavering evil. It’s a risky turn, but Blanchett, as usual, destroys each and every boundary—sometimes skating dangerously between comic caricature and villainous one-dimensionality—and in the end strikes the right balance. Blanchett and Kate Winslet stand alone as the best among all current cinema actresses under fifty.

Finally, and surprisingly, Jessica Barden steals every scene she is in as the Brit-gal yakfest Sophie. It’s a dead-on take on today’s typical teen--never grating, always amusing and sometimes poignant.

Hanna is captivating stuff that will disturb and entertain you, sometimes in the same moment.



Denis Villeneuve's
Incendies
Opens April 22, 2011


Written By: Denis Villeneuve, from the play by Wajdi Mouawad

Starring: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Rémy Girard, Abdelghafour Elaaziz, Mohamed Majd

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Most of us know something about our parents—after all, we’ve been with them 20, 30, 40 years or more. But how many of us know about the dramatic events in our parents’ lives before we were born? Some studies among Americans say we don’t know much, perhaps because we’re not all that interested or because parents have reasons to keep some of their backgrounds private. One mother, known to her twin children as a secretary to a notary in Montreal, had lived a far more perilous life in Lebanon during that country’s civil war between Christians and Moslems. Wajdi Mouawad composed a play about her experience and its effect on the young people, and now writer-director Denis Villeneuve opens it from the small stage that gave it birth into a glorious cinematic experience.

Filmed primarily in Jordan to stand in for Lebanon, Incendies tells parallel tales in which the narrative bounces back and forth with ease, but the presentation on the big screen is lucid, the connections self-explanatory, all in service of melodramatically making for one cathartic moment that shatters the world of the twins, Jeanne Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and her brother, Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette). Upon the death of Nawal their mother (Lubna Azabal), a notary (Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard) presents Jeanne and Simon with two letters, informing them that their father and their brother are alive. Only when the letters are successfully delivered does the departed mother authorize the carving of a stone on her grave. Right off, Incendies (which means “Fire”), sounds reminiscent of the twelve trials of Hercules.

A sense of history is helpful here. Nawal, the mother, lived an unenviable life during the civil war between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon that lasted 1975-1991, a complex conflagration that saw alliances changing, groups betrayed. Nawal, a Christian who lived in Lebanon before immigrating to Canada, had reason to hate the right-wing Nationalist party extremists of her own religion, a political view that leads her to commit an act that drew for her a 15-year sentence in the bleakest prison you can imagine. During that time she was raped and tortured, particularly in the final year or so by one Abou Tarek (Abdelghafour Elaaziz) who is called in as a specialist.

You’ve got to wonder how some scenes can effectively be presented on the stage. One is a horrific shoot-out, Christians bearing machine guns, creating havoc on a bus filled with Muslims, captured in all of its intensity by photographer André Turpin. Much of the running time of the film is devoted to close-ups of the principals, in some cases with long takes to allow the audience to capture the tense emotions of those caught up in this long, senseless war that left 250,000 civilians dead, 350,000 displaced, and prompted a million to leave their country. (Lebanon today is one of those countries that find a majority of their people living outside their birthplaces.)

Performances are spot-on, Lubna Azabal’s demanding rendition worthy of awards. Her characterization of a prim, clean-cut secretary in Montreal belies the hard life she had led, a life of which her twin children seem oblivious. We see how her son, Simon, grows emotionally from the callow youth who appears uninterested in traveling to Lebanon to look for his father and brother to a fellow who becomes as committed as his sister, Jeanne, to perform the task dictated posthumously by his mother.

Incendies is one of the five final nominees for Best Foreign Picture opening in 2010. The film is in (Canadian) French with English subtitles and a smattering of un-translated Arabic.

Rated R. 130 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 


James Wan's
Insidious
Opens Friday, April 1, 2011


Written By: Leigh Whannell
Starringt: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye

Film District
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

When I was ten years old I took the famous Spook-a-Rama ride in Coney Island, located not far from the Wonder Wheel. You get into a car that fits two people and are taken on a track into a dark, haunted house. From time to time a skeleton would pop up to lunge at the riders. A couple of witches and a goblin or two would check in and some eerie noises would emanate from the throat of the aforementioned house. That was scary. Today it would not be. Why not? Anyone who is older than ten has probably seen enough horror movies that go through the motions, the usual tropes, to be immune to threats from anybody who looks different from you and me.

Therefore, when a horror film goes through these tropes (defined here as a common, overdone expression, word or theme), a kind critic would write that such-and-such movie pays homage to the devices used in the past, perhaps challenging the viewer to name the film to which homage. A more serious and honest critic would say that the movie is “been-there-done-that.” Consider me in the latter camp.

Insidious means “something that is dangerous though it seems to be harmless.” The something in the latest work of James Wan is a boy named Dalton (played by 10-year-old Ty Simpkins), sometimes called Honey by his parents, Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne), sometimes called Honey by her husband. The film itself is in the director’s métier, considering his previous works that include Dead Silence (a widower returns to his hometown to search for answers to his wife's murder, which may be linked to the ghost of a murdered ventriloquist) and Saw (two men wake up in the lair of a serial killer, a dead body between them: they must figure out a way to escape).

Unlike the gory Saw, Insidious attempts to frighten its audience by bangs on the door, which opens and closes; horrible but colorful, diabolical images appearing just outside the house; an hallucinatory child laughing and disappearing from view before the residents can catch him; a creepy old woman with a candle (Philip Friedman); a long-haired fiend (J. La Rose); a lipstick-faced demon (Joseph Bishara); general and sundry things that go bump in the night.

The real scares, such as they are, are elicited by Joseph Bishara’s music—deafening in volume, replete with shrieks generated by the strings of a violin determined to scare all the dogs in the neighborhood. Absent the music, Insidious would probably be classified as a comedy.

The story finds Josh and Renai in their new house, boxes still unpacked, three kids in bed sleeping, husband snoring. As boxes are being unpacked the next morning, a ghostly figure appears which young Dalton draws as “a man with fire in his face.” Now and then, Renai becomes petrified when she sees more ghouls and ghosts. The family moves immediately to a new house, hoping for the best. The trouble is the ghosts move in with them. When Dalton is found by his dad comatose, presumably caused by a fall from a ladder, the hospital tests indicate no brain damage, yet the kid remains seemingly dead to the world. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” reports Dr. Sercarz (Ruben Pla) helpfully. Father Martin (John Henry Binder), a priest, is called in. (Paying homage to you-know what.) A geek squad arrives to check for radiation and unusual lighting, a pair called “a dog and pony show” by dad. Finally Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), a real expert makes the scene, a woman well known by Josh’s mom, Lorraine Lambert (Barbara Hershey). She solves the problem but at great cost.

Nothing really makes sense, and only a few genuine chills go up and down the spine (the same sensation I’d get from my dentist’s drill). All this does not mean that I’m opposed to the horror genre. For a far better use of scares, one featuring the aforementioned Barbara Hershey as the mother of a ballet dancer who sees hallucinations galore, you’ll want to check out Black Swan, for my money the best picture of 2010. Also, The Exorcist is a classic largely because it was the first of its kind. Tobe Hooper’s 1982 film Poltergeist is a better pic, similar in theme to this one (ghosts take over a home, first friendly, then kidnapping the daughter). Then again Poltergeist was written by Steven Spielberg.

Rated PG-13. 102 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 


Tony Gatlif's
Korkoro (Liberté or Freedom)
Opens Friday, March 25, 2011


Written By: Tony Gatlif
Starring: Marc Lavoine, Marie Josée Croze, James Thiérée, Rufus


Lorber Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


I’d like ten bucks for every time a U.S. president has used the term “freedom” in an address. No one uttered that magic word more than George W. Bush, who never defined it to my knowledge, but it appears that he meant liberating the people of Iraq and Afghanistan from oppressive governments. To the gypsies, or Romani people (the latter being the politically correct term), freedom means being able to keep in motion—the journey, not the destination, is the reward. In Tony Gatlif’s graphic drama about the fate of the gypsies under the Nazis, freedom means so much to the Romani that one of them turns on a bathroom sink and, concerned that the water is being held back against its will, simply turns the two handles clockwise allowing the water to seep over the sink, onto the bathroom, and down the stairs. While Gatlif’s movie is not a comedy, it has comic touches such as this one, even showing the liberator of the water sliding down the stairs as though on a Disney ride in L.A. from a sliding pond into the water.

Gatlif’s film is entitled Korkoro, which means “freedom” in one of the Romani dialects, and deals with the holocaust of gypsies during World War II. Though the holocaust of Jews is quite well known by people who read (exception: Iranian president Ahmadinejad), the world is relatively ignorant of a tragedy that befell between 250,000 to 500,000 of this nomadic people, murdered by the Nazis out of the Europe’s Romani population of two million. The ignorance brings to mind what Hitler said when pushing for the extermination of Europe’s Jewry: “Go ahead. Kill without mercy. After all, who remembers the Armenians?” (Any moviegoer who has seen Atom Egoyan’s 2002 film Ararat surely does.)

Korkoro may deal with the murder of gypsies by Nazis in Europe, but the film limits its thrust to a single small village and specifically to how the French gendarme cooperated with the occupiers to rid the land of Romani—presumably because a large segment of the French population considered them “vermin.” The film is filled with lively music from the violin and guitar, though some in the audience may feel uneasy that perhaps Gatlif is stereotyping. Stereotyping or not, music is one of the great contributions of the Romani people, inspiring the compositions of the Rumanian composer George Enescu and the Hungarian Franz Liszt. Though “Korkoro” omits a broader history of the Romani, we know that they arrived in Western Europe during the 15th century and were persecuted often, most notably by the oppression of the Spanish Romanies in 1749—wherein Spain separated families and put able-bodied men into forced labor camps. Even the U.S. in 1885 outlawed the entry of the Roma. In 1935 the Nuremberg laws stripped these people of citizenship, subjecting them to violence, imprisonment in concentration camps, and later genocide.

Korkoro opens in 1943, following a large family heading for Burgundy, France, seeking seasonal work harvesting grapes. Their occupation, indeed their very safety, is threatened by laws forbidding them to wander, The French police, at least those shown in the film, cooperated with the Nazis, working side by side to enforce the anti-gypsy laws, with only the local veterinarian/mayor, Théodor Rosier (Marc Lavoine) and the town teacher and assistant mayor, Mademoiselle Lundi (Marie-Josée Croze), actively helping. In an action of great generosity, Rosier sells a solid house he owned together with some land to the family for ten francs since the law allowed gypsies who remained put and could show a deed to be unmolested—for a while. Pierre Pentecôte (Carlo Brandt) is the villain, the leader of the French group itching to rid the land of the Romani.

The story finds a lively runaway orphan, P’tit Claude (Mathias Laliberté), running from home and joining the gypsies, whom he gets to love and has that feeling reciprocated. The gypsies are as afraid of ghosts as they are of Nazis, one particularly manic individual, Félix Lavil dit Talouche (James Thiérrée) occasionally running for his life from the scepters and, for all we know, from other demons of his own unstable mind. Mademoiselle Lundi tries to bring the young gypsies into her one-room school to teach them to read and write, but to no avail—in fact the reason we know so little about the holocaust of gypsies is that they lacked the writers to record that history.

Taloche’s manic antics are both the comic center of the film and a representation of the tragedy. James Thiérrée (Charlie Chaplin’s grandson and Eugene O’Neill’s great grandson) in that role does his own stunts, even falling a great distance from a tree he climbes, later jumping into the river. Taloche and his family are ultimately arrested, of course, their fate representing the ill-fortune of the European Romani. Julien Hirsch’s lenses bring out the primitive conditions of the small Burgundy town, Catherine Rigault dresses the gypsies in appropriate costumes, and the director together with Delphine Mantoulet provide the music. If you see this informative, spirited movie, you will not hesitate to reply affirmatively when asked, “Who remembers the gypsy holocaust?” The film is in French and Romani with English subtitles. Non-gypsy French actors studied the latter language, effectively becoming as ethnic as the Romanis themselves.

Unrated. 111 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 


Neil Burger's
Limitless
Opens Friday, March 18, 2011


Written By: Leslie Dixon, from Alan Glynn’s novel “The Dark Fields”

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Abbie Cornish, Andrew Howard, Anna Friel, Johnny Whitworth

Relativity Media
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

The notion that we’re using only five percent to ten percent of our brains is a myth, though you would be likely to believe this if you note the test scores of our schoolchildren in reading and math. We want to imagine this myth, perhaps, because we hope that in the near future, Pfizer will come up with a pill that will liberate our brains, allowing us to use all of their potential. Then again, if everyone is as smart as you, how will you be able to outguess your fellow Americans on which companies are about to merge, sending their stocks ski-high and handing you a fortune just for being able to get the jump on your fellows? In adapting Alan Glynn’s (now out of print) novel The Dark Fields, Leslie Dixon feeds into the fantasy that by swallowing a pill a day we could have beaten Bobby Fischer at chess, understand Darwin’s The Origin of Species and Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, and have more sex—though not necessarily in that order. What emerges in the movie under the direction of Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Interview with the Assassin) is a tale that is partly imaginative sci-fi and mostly a chase-and-kill melodrama. If you’re using that full ten percent of your brain, you’ll probably conclude that the first part, which is more cerebral, even satirical, is superior to the later gun-and-knife play that appeals more to the action-adventure crowd.

The concept that medical science can increase our intelligence is not new, but in fact was given a glowing accommodation by Ralph Nelson’s movie Charly, which, based on Daniel Keyes’s novel Flowers for Algernon, tells the story of a surgery that gives a retarded sweeper in a neighborhood bakery a spectacular boost in intelligence—albeit without giving Charly a coincident increase in emotional maturity. There is something about Charly in Neil Burger’s hero, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), who though surely not retarded acts like an irresponsible kid unable to hold on to a marriage (it lasted “five minutes” according to his ex brother-in-law) or remain in the iPhone database of Lindy (Abbie Cornish), his later squeeze.

Given the charm of Bradley Cooper in the primary role of Eddie Morra—a fellow who plays most of the movie with a stylish three-day beard and a mop of greasy unkempt hair —Limitless is energetic, sometimes humorous, for the most part a battle of wits with some bad guys and for the rest some food for pharmaceutical thought. Much of Leslie Dixon’s dialogue for Eddie is sharp, affording him a motor-mouth ability to discuss high finance with some of the Fortune 500 when he’s not spending three days learning how to play a piano concerto or five days becoming fluent in Italian and Mandarin Chinese.

Filmed by Jo Willems in New York with a Maserati-fueled chase scene in Mexico’s Puerto Vallarta, Limitless finds Eddie suffering from writer’s block, unable to meet a deadline on a book contract, living in a walk-up tenement without the funds to pay the rent, and losing his girlfriend who considers him a loser, a layabout, a shirker. When his former brother-in-law hands him a new drug, still years away from FDA approval because of yet-unknown side effects, he pops a pill and finds himself transformed. He doesn’t have the luxury of Bill Murphy’s character, Phil, in Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day since time goes by as expected, forcing him to lose days in order to learn classical piano. But there are deadly side effects in addition to the headaches and dizziness that overtake him when he is off the pill. Gangsters like Russian mafia loan-shark Gennady (Andrew Howard) want a piece of the action, specifically to force Eddie to reveal the location of his stash, while corporate giant Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro) pressures him to get the right info on a big merger being planned with another company. When Van Loon’s expected business partner turns up in a coma, one of Eddie’s one-night stands is found murdered, and Russian thugs are breaking down the door, Eddie realizes that being rich and powerful is not enough. He stands on the ledge of his eight-million dollar apartment mere inches from taking his final leap.

Limitless is bold, loaded with action and, even better, some dialogue that could have come from the mouth of Michael Douglas’s character Gordon Gekko though spit out at a much faster pace. Though the (limited) Shia LaBeouf was originally tapped for the leading role, Relativity Media lucked out by choosing Bradley Cooper, best known for 20-something romantic larks like Valentine’s Day and He’s Just Not That Into You. He is credible in the midst of absurdity, charming when not running for his life. And Robert De Niro wears a rug to die for.

Rated PG-13. 105 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Brad Furman's
The Lincoln Lawyer
Open Friday, March 18, 2011


Written By: John Romano, from Michael Connelly’s novel

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe, Josh Lucas, John Leguizamo

Lionsgate
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

One problem with this movie is that young people in the audience may want to become lawyers, and that’s about the last thing we need now: more paper pushers instead of engineers. That’s not to say that the legal profession is useless, but believing all lawyers are like Matthew McConaughey’s character, Mickey Haller, will likely get you, after three years of graduate study, looking over mounds of the dullest corporate documents. To be an effective criminal lawyer you have to be able to get in front of a judge, jury and spectators, think fast on your feet, and deliver nuanced speech that will tug at the heartstrings of the assemblage. This is what Michael “Mick” Haller does, his skill earning him more condemnation that accolades from people who say “For defending this scum, how can you look at yourself in the mirror?” Yes, he gets guilty people back out on the street, by his own admission rarely if ever defending an innocent person, but that’s the way the system works. And the system works to give rich people, such as his latest client, Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a huge advantage over those like poor Jesus Martinez (Michael Peña) who receives a fifteen-to-life sentence for a murder he may not have committed. Never mind that Haller defended Martinez: the hotshot lawyer’s cynical belief in the guilt of his clients combined with Martinez’s poverty lead to a suggestion that the client take a plea.

The Lincoln Lawyer is good enough to ruin some people’s taste for routine, simple, TV crime stories like L.A. Law and NCIS. The plot is complex, yet ultimately logical, John Romano’s dialogue in adapting Michael Connelly’s novel is sharp. McConaughey, who is blessed with a great supporting cast and directed actively by Brad Furman, puts in what is likely his best role to date.

Furman, whose only previous full-length directing role is with The Take (about an armored car driver shot in East L.A. determined to find the perp), is in his métier gain, the title coming from Halley’s penchant to use his Lincoln car, chauffeured by a helpful and loyal Earl (Laurence Mason), instead of an office. Haller is pals with bikers and bailiffs, with his ex-wife, Margaret (Marisa Tomei), who is a D.A., with oppressed people like Martinez and rich families like the Windsors. He uses the famous Haller charm on his connections, relying as well on the services of his assistant, Frank Levin (William H. Macy), who serves as his investigator (the last similar to the role exercised by Kalinda on the top-rated TV show The Good Wife).

Eager to serve a client for big bucks--$100,000 up front plus $500 an hour excluding the special expenses for his investigator—he takes on the defense of Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a wealthy playboy who has been indicted for beating up a hooker. When not drinking or engaged in romantic interludes with his ex, Margaret (Marisa Tomei), the mother of his child, he is driven by a conviction, so to speak, that his rich client is the only innocent person he has ever defended. In a case made for the big screen, given the good looks of lawyer, defendant, and now the prosecuting attorney, Ted Minton (Josh Lucas), Haller engages in every weapon at his command, though he is himself a suspect in a killing since his own weapon, a gun that is a collector’s item and had been used in a murder, is missing.

The Lincoln Lawyer is marred only by a sudden, unexpected climactic ending—a Deus ex machine if you will—but every minute of its two hours’ running time is filled with a healthy complexity, expository occurrences piling up to respect and challenge audience attention.

Rated R. 118 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Keith Bearden’s
Meet Monica Velour
Opens Friday, April 8, 2011

Screenplay by Keith Bearden

Starring: Kim Cattrall, Dustin Ingram, Brian Dennehy, Keith David, Sam McMurray, Tony Cox.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

There is one reason to see Meet Monica Velour--Kim Cattrall. Otherwise this tale of odd friendship has been done before and writer/director Keith Bearden doesn't really have anything new to say.

Dustin Ingram plays Tobe, an awkward, kinda-creepy seventeen year old who lives with his cantankerous grandfather (Brian Dennehy who has a nude scene that still sends shivers up my spine). Tobe is obsessed with 70s/80s porn star Monica Velour and has collected all the memorabilia he can get his hands on. When he reads online that she will be appearing at a strip club in Indiana, he leaves his Washington town, hops into the Weenie Wiz van he owns and heads off to meet his beloved porn heroine.

Monica has fallen on hard times: "You screw a few hundred guys and the whole world turns against you." She can't hold onto a job and is on the verge of losing her daughter. Enter Tobe who wants to change all that. The problem is this virginal boy is just a boy and Monica is all grown up and has become somewhat harsh and bitter.

The two embark on an odd courtship of sorts and the campfire scene where she deflowers him is a genuinely sweet moment--the best moment in the movie.

Meet Monica Velour builds to a predictable and disappointing climax, which is a shame because there was potential for it to rise above the obvious and say something different and potentially provocative about this boy/woman relationship.

Ingram does a decent job conveying teen angst and confusion as well as awe when he meets his goddess.

But it is Cattrall's film and she proves that she can do more than lob Samantha Jones' one-liners. Her Monica is a real woman barely getting by and shunned by practitioners of the faux-morality that pervades Middle America. Cattrall is amazing at conveying her pain without resorting to the obvious. Monica's tough on the outside but hurting like crazy on the inside. And a part of her wants to believe in Tobe. Cattrall shows depth and range here that she hasn't displayed in anything she's done beyond Sex and the City.

I wish the film lived up to the high standards she set.



 



Jim Kohlberg's
The Music Never Stopped
Opens Friday, March 18, 2011



Written By: Gwyn Lurie, Gary Marks, from the essay “The Last Hippie” by Oliver Sacks

Starring: Simmons, Lou Taylor Pucci, Cara Seymour, Julia Ormond, Tammy Blanchard

Roadside Attractions
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

William Congreve must be smiling in his grave, knowing somehow that The Music Never Stopped enunciates a theme of which he spoke in The Mourning Bride in 1697:

“Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I've read, that things inanimate have mov'd,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform'd,
By Magic Numbers and persuasive Sound.”

You don’t have to convince people of this nowadays as you watch youths glued to their I-Pods while simultaneously texting their friends. Music brings people together, not always to sooth, as Congreve said, but even better, to do the opposite: to excite.

In his film,The Music Never Stopped, Jim Kohlberg gives cinematic life to Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks’s screenplay, inspired by neurologist-author Oliver Sacks’s essay The Last Hippie. Sacks’s other output includes Awakenings, his 1973 memoir about his use of L-Dopa to awaken encephalitis survivors who were catatonic and then must deal with a new life in a new time.

This theme runs throughout Kohlberg’s movie, one which finds a young man, Gabriel Sawyer (Lou Taylor Pucci) returned to the hearth of his parents after living on the road for twenty years. Having been hospitalized with a benign brain tumor, he survives surgery but is left with a huge memory gap. He may be cognitively present in a room with others, but emotionally he is not able to connect, which reminds some of us of the bad joke:

Joe: “Doctor, doctor, you’ve got to help me. I have a problem. I can’t remember anything.”
Dr. Lev: “When did you first notice this problem, Joe?”
Joe: “What problem, doc?”

Gabriel does sometimes appear that dysfunctional. Often he looking nearly catatonic, particularly when his estranged dad, Henry Sawyer (J.K. Simmons) and his mother Helen (Cara Seymour) visit him in the hospital, shocked at his bearded, emotionally-dead look. Lest we in the audience would need to guess about what brought him to this condition, the movie takes us back to the lad’s early years when he and his emotionally close father would listen to songs and discuss them, the boy’s knowing the titles, the singers, and the years of release. Much of the time we are in the company of Gabriel as a young man, late teens perhaps, when he enjoyed playing with his band and worshipping singers like The Grateful Dead. Young Gabriel refuses his dad’s insistence that he go to college and give up the rock scene which Henry considered addicted to junk music.

When Henry’s research turns up the name of a music therapist, Dianne Daly (Julia Ormand), he persuades her to try her experimental theories of the young man: that memory can be at least partially restored by connecting to the music he loved two decades earlier. Soon enough we get the idea that equally important for the handicapped fellow is the connection he is able to re-establish with his formerly gruff, rigid father.

The narrative plays like a docudrama when concentrating on the therapy sessions, but we are privy to a great deal of music. If you’re from the generation that adored Bing Crosby, you’ll get an education about the songs of the sixties and artists like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Grateful Dead. If you’ve never heard of Bing Crosby, your own mind will be refreshed and entertained with records (yes, they had vinyl records in those days) including segments of songs like Steppenwolf’s "Magic Carpet Ride,” Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Judy Blue Eyes,” Bob Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away,” and a score or more of others.

The scenes are well-acted particularly by veteran performer J.K. Simmons, known to us largely as Juno’s dad, and by Lou Taylor Pucci’s enacting a personality transformation. Sometimes a neurosurgeon can be too pessimistic: a music therapist here is the saving grace. Still, the project rings too much of a Hallmark Hall of Fame ambiance, a feel-good piece granting that it is based on a true story. The transformation really took place. Getting into the story, I found what saddened me most was to think that young Gabriel, with a ton of hair resting on his excited brow, would be pretty bald in thirty years. (Sorry, J.K.)

Rated: PG, 105 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

http://themusicneverstopped-movie.com/?source=gaw



François Ozon's
Potiche
Opens Friday, March 25, 2011



Written By: François Ozon from the play by Barillet & Grédy
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini, Karin Viard, Judith Godreche, Jérémie Renier


Music Box Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


The expression, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” appears uppermost in the mind of director François Ozon, whose previous efforts include Swimming Pool, about the visit of a British mystery author to her publisher’s home in the South of France leading to dynamics between her and his daughter, and Under the Sand, in which a professor becomes deranged when she refuses to accept the disappearance of her husband. Potiche, or Trophy Wife, is lighter fare, more like Ozon’s 8 Women—one murdered man and eight women seeking the truth—in fact Potiche is too flippant for comfort. This is the kind of movie that might prompt its audience to wonder, “All this froth? Where’s the beer?” Taking place during the l970s when feminism began to take a firm hold on Western societies, Ozon’s film is designed more for fans of Catherine Deneuve than for those whose spirits soar whenever women get the better of men. Given the star’s many changes of costume, each representing a step toward liberation, Potiche could also stand for a semiotic study of costumes, ripe perhaps for a doctoral student in Sociology.

The movie, which was featured at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival last year, finds Suzanne (Catherine Deneuve) jogging down a path (filmed in Belgium by Yorick Le Saux), wearing a track suit that could be de rigeuer even by today’s standards. Yet when she closes the door to her kitchen, her apron gives away her domesticity, a trophy wife who begins to tire of being put on the shelf for appearance with nothing useful to do beyond her own quarters. Nor is she thrilled by her husband, Robert (Fabrice Luchini), who gives her all she needs materially but is disliked by the workers in the umbrella factory that he runs. Suzanne frequently asks advice of the town mayor and member of Parliament, Babin (Gérard Depardieu) with whom she apparently had a torrid fling way way back. This "asking for advice from the ex-lover" particularly happens when her husband is hospitalized by yet another heart attack leading her to take over the operation of the factory at a fragile time. Workers are striking, Robert refuses to negotiate, so it is up to Suzanne to try a warmer approach much to the dismay of her reactionary daughter, who consider her mom naïve to think she can reach out to workers who are far below her in class.

Potiche allows Catherine Deneuve yet another opportunity to strut her stuff which she does admirably, as usual. We can well imagine her as both a socially useless woman tied to her husband’s material goods while still feeling something for Depardieu (who has become fat as a house) and one who awakes to the challenges of a new time when a woman can challenge two powerful men—both her own husband and the provincial mayor/member of Parliament—by running for office, promising warm attention to everyone’s problems. Still, the pastel framing of the story in the style of Jacques Demi’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, needs to be put to rest.

© Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Benjamin Heisenberg's
The Robber (Der Räuber)
Opens Friday, April 29, 2011


Written By: Benjamin Heisenberg from Martin Prinz’s novel

Starring: Andreas Lust, Franziska Weisz, Florian Wotruba, Johann Bednar, Markus Schleinzer, Peter Vilnai, Max Edelbacher

Kino International
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

It’s almost as if the protagonist would say “The devil made me do it” if he were called upon to explain why he ran marathons and pulled a string of bank robberies. The Robber, filmed in Vienna and directed by Benjamin Heisenberg from a novel by Martin Prinz, is based on the true story of Johann Kastenberger. Kastenberger set national records in running marathons while in his spare time he robbed banks—not because he wanted money but because of a compulsion. His bank robbing and his running are both irrational, nor can society explain the man away by looking at his background. No background information is provided, and none is necessary. The fascination of the movie about Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust) comes from his compulsive physical activity and his affair with Erika (Franziska Weisz), a woman whose lust brings him into contact with someone who is well-educated and formerly from the upper reaches in society, yet who does not mind that the man who shares her house has little personality.

This is not to say that the pace of the film itself is swift; in fact, if an American remake were made, no director is likely to tolerate the long pauses of which Heisenberg is fond. Still the people behind the cameras, principally Reinhold Vorschneider, must be athletes themselves to keep up with the title character. This athletic robber is clean-cut, opening the film as he speaks with his probation officer (Markus Schleinzer)—an official whose ambition and whose caring for the robber ironically places the officer in great danger.

Viewers will get an adrenalin-rush when they watches Rettenberger knock off one bank after another and also when they watch him win two marathons (ably filmed by merging archival film of actual sporting events). The Robber is carefully paced during the character’s off-time. His seduction by Erika is anything but hasty: the man looks at first as if he would say “good night” to the woman offering him sanctuary when she wants to sleep. He appears to have no interest in the woman at first. But his growing affection for Erika takes second place as he carries a shotgun, throws a bag to the teller, and uses his great skill at running to evade the polizei or simply steals a car, which he later abandons.

Lorenz Dangel’s music ranges from pop features to an operatic score, with drums simulating the beating of Rettenberg’s heart or the pounding of his running shoes.

The Robber is compelling drama which, if undertaken by an American director would probably be ruined—just as one expects to happen to Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo once director David Fincher’s Rooney Mara takes over the character brilliantly portrayed by the Swedish star, Noomi Rapace.

Unrated. 97 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online





Duncan Jones's
Source Code
Opens Friday, April 1, 2011

Written By: Ben Ripley
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Derek Frost

Summit Entertainment/ Vendôme Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


“What would you do if you knew you had only one minute left to live?” That’s a question that Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) poses to Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), the young woman who sits next to him on a Chicago-bound train. That’s a tough one. It calls for some thought, but she’d better think fast. Now if instead she had eight minutes to think about that, there’s a whole different story. There’s another benefit. Christina has not only a single span of eight minutes to come across with a response: she could have had the same number of minutes several times over, giving her some forty or forty-eight minutes to make her final desire known. These are among the questions posted by Source Code, a cleverly-written, skillfully acted sci-fi tale that goes beyond credibility at times, but with the science fiction genre you don’t have to be as logical, rational and accurate as if you were making a documentary. (Only documentarian Michael Moore has the ability to make claims that could pass for science fiction, such as the way he has a number of Americans treated like first-class citizens by the Cuban medical system in Sicko). Duncan Jones, who penned the script, is in his métier, having written the script for Moon, which finds an astronaut who has resided on the moon with his computer girlfriend Gerty sending back parcels that help diminish our earth’s problems.

Moon director, Duncan Jones, at the helm in his sophomore feature, introduces us to an involving group of people, most of whom are on a train, while Steadicam operator François Archambault manages to keep his focus on one car of the train for most of the time without making the movie appear claustrophobic. Source Code follows an arc similar to that of Harold Ramis’s classic comedy, Groundhog Day, allowing Gyllenhaal’s character to return to the train repeatedly until he gets a directive right. The plan involves a government project run by scientist Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) and his warmer, more sentimental assistant, Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) who act without gaining the permission of Colter Stevens, who is the government’s initially reluctant operative. Stevens has been put into another man’s body. His task is to relive the last eight minutes in the life of a teacher on a train that explodes, killing all aboard. His mission is not to bring the teacher or seat-mate Christina back to life but to run through the eight minutes’ time over and over until he locates the terrorist who has planted the explosive devise and stop him or her from launching a full-scale fireball that will kill millions in downtown Chicago. He questions passengers, even fighting with some whom he believes to be the terrorist, each time getting more clues to the identity of the villain.

The conflict arises not only between the government agent and the terrorist. Rather, the cold, calculating scientist insists that Stevens cannot bring back the past and save the lives of any of the passenger, while for his part, Stevens is intent on doing just that, particularly since he has fallen in love with the passenger whose seat he shares. Not possible, insists the creator of the Source Code project: he is not engaged in time travel, but in “time reassignment.” Now that that’s clear…

Photography is sharp, making the Chicago skyline appear almost as exciting and beautiful as New York’s. We see the train from a distance. We enter the car. We watch as the train barrels into Chicago after making one stop, the stop at which point the bomber will presumably leave. The romance between Colter and Christina proceeds step by step, making the connection believable—or at least more credible than the rest of the complex plot. Michelle Monaghan is particularly intriguing. Her face is expressive, frowning when Colter at first tells her that he has no idea where he is or who she might be, probably because the face that Christina sees is the face of a history teacher and not of a soldier who has been on helicopter missions in Afghanistan. The cutest moment in the movie comes near the beginning when Colter looks in the mirror and sees the face of another man. Gyllenhaal is well cast, making us believe that he is on a delicate mission, soon realizing what the government is up to with him, and at the same time the tension he feels ups his chemistry with Christina.

Whatever suspension of disbelief we indulge ourselves in to allow for a far-fetched project goes out the train window during the feel-good coda, but Americans are suckers for Hallmark conclusions, aren’t we?

Rated PG-13. 93 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online





Kenneth Branagh's
Thor
Opens Friday, May 6, 2011


Written By: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne, from the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard

Paramount Pictures/ Marvel Entertainment
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


Thor, the god of thunder in Norse mythology and in this movie—possessed a magic hammer. He could use it by thrusting it at the enemy and magnetically, magically, it would knock them down, one and all, and then boomerang back to Thor, thereby guaranteeing that justice would rule in his land. As Thor’s dad, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) said, “Whoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” Shakespearean, isn’t it? And why not? The film is directed by Kenneth Branagh, veteran actor of highbrow fare like Henry V, Hamlet, Othello and Much Ado About Nothing. The boomerang effect is apropos since Chris Hemsworth in the title role comes from Downunder, the home of the boomerang; he is a soap-opera sensation in Australia. Handsome and ripped, he will be seen in lots more American cinema after his impressive, godlike performance in Thor. And he speaks English like Shakespeare, or at least the kind of Shakespeare that we in the movie audience can understand, using terms like "realm” when he means the neighborhood, or the country, or Earth.

Ripped though he is, and attractive as is Natalie Portman in the role of Thor’s earthly love interest, Jane Foster (they do have chemistry), the real star of Thor is the marvelous, that is to say the Marvelous special effects. This is one film that truly benefits from 3-D IMAX with 12,000 digital watts. The sound of both human and God speech is bell-clear, the music on the soundtrack is booming and relevant, the visuals are a pure delight.

The only drawback is having to wear those pesky glasses that darken the screen a degree or so and are especially difficult to put on over eyeglasses. If moviemakers can create the incredibly dazzling effects that are present here—even better than what we saw in Iron Man, X-Men, The Fantastic Four, The Ghost Rider—then surely they can invent a way to watch 3-D without glasses.

Branagh may have been picked to direct because of the similarity of the plot lines to Shakespeare’s Henry V. That play is set in England in the early fifteenth century when the political situation in England was tense. King Henry IV has died, and his son, the young King Henry V, has just assumed the throne. Several wars have left the people of England restless and dissatisfied. Furthermore, in order to gain the respect of the English people and the court, Henry must live down his wild adolescent past, when he used to consort with thieves and drunkards at the Boar’s Head Tavern on the seedy side of London.

The wild adolescent in Thor is the title character. If he were alive today he would be considered a hawk in foreign affairs, while his dad, a seeker of peace and a diplomat, would be dovish—a negotiator who’d do everything he could to keep the peace without, of course, surrendering to the enemy. The enemy is an army of Frost Giants, led by the red-eyed reptilian giant Laufey (Colm Feore), who also thinks he’s reciting Shakespeare.

Thor’s homeland, Asgard, is ruled by the aging monarch Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Thor angers his dad (Odin) by attacking Jotunheim, the Frost Giants’ land in a secret commando raid designed to kill the great enemy! Because he defied his father, he is not punished in the way that Greek heroes were punished for disobeying the Gods (like having ones liver pecked at by a big bird), but rather he is sent to Earth (a far greater punishment).

Thor, unconscious and believed to be human in a New Mexico wasteland, is helped by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), an astrophysicist, together with her assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and mentor Sevig (Stellan Skarsgard). As the story continues, Jane and Thor get to know each other and are falling in love, but some characters are not that sentimental about Thor. One is his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who will try to displace him and take the throne—as if Harry would compete with William at Buckingham Palace upon the death of both the Queen and Charles. Another is Coulson (Clark Gregg), a government agent who wants to know what’s going on with the New Mexico disturbances, and yet another is the Destroyer, a huge creation like Iron Man who can fry a small town diner and overturn cars with a look through his armor.

Director Branagh moves seamlessly from the realm of the gods to the town on Earth, easy enough to do when you consider that a Norse god can visit Earth by going through a wormhole, and can even eavesdrop on conversations without special equipment. Fans in the audience may differ on which scenes are better - the ones on Asgard and Jotunheim or those in small-town New Mexico. Truth to tell, both are just dandy. The whole episode is photographed and fx’d in such an eye-popping way that I could not help thinking back to my fifth-grade days when our class visited the Hayden Planetarium in New York and looked in awe at the stars and planets, the latter revolving about the sun. What moviegoing kid nowadays would think anything of the planetarium? We’re spoiled.

Rated PG-13. 113 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 

Tom McCarthy’s
Win Win
Opens Friday, March 18, 2011


Screenplay by Tom McCarthy.
Story by Tom McCarthy & Joe Tiboni.

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey & Alex Shaffer.

Fox Searchlight

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Writer/Director Tom McCarthy’s first two features, The Station Agent and The Visitor, are terrific, character-driven films. His unrelentingly intrusive, always-honest style is refreshing in these painful 3-D comic-book-mired times. Perhaps because he started out as an actor, McCarthy is interested in what makes people do things they wouldn’t ever normally do. This sharp eye continues with his best feature yet, Win Win.

Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a disheveled and financially drowning attorney (and who plays schlubby better) who coaches the Bad News Bears of a wrestling team when he isn’t sitting in his office. Mike is married to a pushy wife (the ridiculously talented Amy Ryan), has two young girls and is surrounded by thundering loons including his best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale) whose wife just left him as well as fellow wrestling coach Stephen (the zany Jeffrey Tambor).

One of Mike’s very-few clients is a curmudgeon named Leo (Burt Young, having a great time) who is slipping into dementia. Mike sees an opportunity and agrees to assume custody of the old man—for the $1500 a month it will bring him. What Mike could not have foreseen is the arrival of Leo’s sixteen-year old grandson Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer), who happens to be a former star wrestler.

What Tom McCarthy does so brilliantly that Hollywood should take a page from (The Blind Side anyone) is how he creates a situation pregnant with oodles of sentimental and cliché’ possibilities and--instead of going in the obvious direction--creates something real and true and moving without ever needing to resort to pandering and manipulation. The script is penetrating and rich, never making fun of its inhabitants, simply trying to understand them.

What can I say about Paul Giamatti? Until John Adams, I was not a big fan (save Cinderella Man), but he has won me over and continues do so here. His embodiment of this loving, flawed, mess-of-a-man made me root for him in a way I would never root for such a character. It’s an absolutely wonderful performance.

Bobby Cannavale is one of the most seriously underrated actors working today. McCarthy gave him his best part in The Station Agent and now he bests his best in a hilarious yet poignant turn. Terry is a guy rich with love to give and when he gives it, look out!

The find of the film is Alex Shaffer who has never acted in features before but is a wrestling champ in his own right. Shaffer delivers a complex and altogether elievable portrayal of an angst-ridden teen, with very little of the contrived bells and whistles that usually accompany these roles. The boy’s a natural.

Win Win challenges the notion of what a family is as well as what winning is all about (hear that Charlie Sheen!). In addition, the film deals with moral and ethical issues without any heavy-handedness. There are no reckonings here—just attempts at compromise and, usually, that’s exactly what happens in real life.

Forgive the obvious but: Win Win wins!



David Gordon Green's
Your Highness
Opens Friday, April 8, 2011


Written By: Danny R. McBride, Ben Best

Starring: Danny McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel, Justin Theroux, Toby Jones, Damian Lewis

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten


“Funny Like a Guy,” an essay in the current The New Yorker magazine about Anna Faris, holds that “Young women lap up nudity and sexual humor. Women over twenty-five are worried about it.” For example in Anna Faris's new
movie What’s Your Number, Anna Faris's character tells her uptight mother, “I’m a jobless slut who’s slept with twenty guys and I want to be with somebody who appreciates that about me.” Anna Faris’s agent thinks “that line’s going to rub older women the wrong way.”

The big idea here is that young women (presumably like young men) will lap up sexual humor while older women (possibly older men) will not. Your Highness looks like a test case for this. The movie, which was scripted by Ben Best and its star, Danny McBride, is loaded with sexual innuendoes and graphic sexuality, a medieval version of what Judd Apatow might have directed or produced. Knights appear in the Middle Ages speaking contemporary American English. Of course they’re not going to be speaking out of Chaucer, but besides articulating the way we would today (though “like” and “you know” and “I mean” are gratefully avoided), most of the guys talk dirty. The best example: when the evil Leezar (Justin Theroux), who has captured the beautiful Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), is about to have sex with her, Belladonna asks whether he is up to it (so to speak). He replies, “If your vagina is like my hand, there will be no problem.” Do you like movies that come up with one-liners like that? As the article in The New Yorker might suggest, if you’re over twenty-five you might or might not be offended, but even worse in my view, you will find the lines falling flat. At least offensiveness has an effect.

Mind you, that shtick by Leezar is the best line in Your Highness. The rest are, to me at least, with no risible effect. To be fair, then, critics who are over twenty-five as I am may give their personal opinions, but they have no right to tell their readers as I would be tempted to do, “Stay away from this movie like the plague.”

Director David Gordon Green’s previous well known film, Pineapple Express, was about a process server and his marijuana dealer who are on the run from hitmen. Pineapple starred Danny McBride and James Franco as well. Green states that most of the dialogue in Your Highness was improvised. Improvisations are not known to make movies better than those which have been carefully thought out and put on paper: it shows.

Your Highness is anchored by Danny McBride as Thadeous, a fish out of water in that he has been ordered by King Tallious (Charles Dance), to follow his brave older brother Fabious (James Franco) on a mission to rescue the latter’s fiance, Belladonna, and save the land from Leezar. Some in the audience who have experienced sibling rivalry can identify with Thadeous, perpetually ignored for his cowardice while his brother gets all the attention. The two brothers, who are joined by Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker) in the troupe, eventually team up with Isabel (Natalie Portman), a warrior with bow-and-arrow who is about the only one in the story who plays it straight. They embark on a road trip to rescue the maiden.

The obligatory penis jokes abound. In one case this apparently hilarious male organ is separated from its owner by a sword. The lines for the most part are of the groan genre, one lame gag after another. A viewer might wonder why James Franco, the co-host of the recent Academy Awards after delivering big in 127 Hours, and Natalie Portman, fresh from a stunning performance in last year’s best movie, Black Swan, would consent to appear in this juvenilia. C’mon: take a guess.

Rated R. 102 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


 

 


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