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Jake Kasdan's
Bad Teacher
Opens Friday, June 24, 2011

Written By: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky

Starring: Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Jason Segel, Lucy Punch, John Michael Higgins, Molly Shannon

Columbia Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

During my earliest days of teaching high school in New York, our union approved a strike vote. We won the strike, but the turnout was poor in elementary school (supposedly populated by frightened people or women who were simply making extra money for the family and were content), medium effective in high school, and terrific in junior highs. I was told that the junior highs—because of the difficulties of teaching kids that age—would have the hippest, most dedicated teachers, not the kind to accept the low pay that was endemic in school systems pre-union. Now they’re called middle schools, they deal with kids at a difficult time developmentally, and they still have the hippest teachers. Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky want us in the audience to realize this, though what they consider hip is not necessarily what others might. On the one hand the adults in John Adams Middle School in Chicago are an interesting bunch, some organized into a band that plays at bars, but another is an individual who deviates from the norm by being a foul-talking, drug-taking, goof-off who plays movies for the kids throughout the first week of the term. But that’s OK since she’s not in the field because she loves kids but because she’s waiting to get married to a rich guy who will take her away from it all. When the rich guy confronts her and, together with his mother says “it’s over,” she has to look elsewhere for a sugar daddy. She finds one at the school and works on him.

That’s the basic idea of Bad Teacher which is not a Bad Movie but not a terrific one either. Much of the humor, which is directed at us by Jake Kasdan as a series of skits, is forced, though the timing is fine. It’s the old story: life is easy, comedy is hard.

Still there is something here to entertain the audience and prove good for a modest number of chuckles, though there’s nothing at all surprising in the vulgarities which became the norm in movies directed toward the young ever since Cameron Diaz shocked us in the Farrelly Brothers’ There’s Something About Mary. Bad Teacher, which could have come from the genius of the same brothers, finds Diaz teamed up not with Matt Dillon and Ben Stiller but with Justin Timberlake as the rich guy doing sub work for whatever reason and Jason Segel as the gym teacher who announces in advance to the pretty woman that he will be putting the moves on her all year.

Failing to shock viewers and being middle-of-the-road when the audience wants more than it got from previous films of this type are not the best formula, but there is some amusement in the antics of Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) who never bothers to learn the names of her students nor does she have an attendance book or much of paraphernalia of molders of young minds. She has no money, yet her dream after making her first ten thousand bucks is to get herself a pair of boobs from a plastic surgeon (David Paymer)—which she doesn’t need but that tells you something of her values. When she hears that the teacher whose kids score highest on a state exam gets a bonus of $5,700, she announces that there will be changes. She’s all over the students with instruction now, determined to beat Amy Squirrell (Lucy Punch), a redhead eccentric who calls the principal, Wally Snur (John Michael Higgins) “Wall” and who sometimes pals around with Melody (Molly Shannon), a “plain” teacher who is anything but hip who has no objection to listening attentively to Elizabeth’s lessons in vulgarity.

The skits include a car-wash scene that finds Elizabeth in tight denim shorts washing car windows as though posing for Penthouse magazine; Elizabeth doing her best to cause grief to Amy Squirrell; and Elizabeth drugging the man in charge in of state tests and blackmailing him in the only way she knows how. The result is a picture that does not shock, whose jokes fall flat, and who crudities are labored.

Rated R. 92 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Mike Mills's
Opens Friday, June 3, 2011

Written By: Mike Mills
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Cosmo

Focus Features
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Beginners is the kind of film you’d expect to come from the pen and directorial voice of Mike Mills, whose Thumbsucker is about a teenager who must sneak into the school lavatory to suck his thumb, but who, after being prescribed Ritalin, becomes a winning debater on the high-school team. Mills insists that his latest effort, Beginners, is not meant to be quirky or indie-ish but truth-to-tell it’s difficult to reject those labels for such a personal film. Beginners is not simply inspired by the life of the writer-director: it runs virtually parallel to it in that Mills’s parents, like the folks in the movie, were married for forty-five years and the dad, at age seventy-five, “comes out” for the first time, reinventing his life.

What Mills brings across in the film is not thematically original: that life is racing by, and you’d better make the most of it. But the way he develops the theme is, as stated, quirky as all get-out.

Parents and children are played in alternating scenes. Young Oliver (Keegan Boos) is brought up by a mother, Georgia (Mary Page Keller) who, in her own way, is a sort of Auntie Mame. In one scene she lets the ten-year-old drive the family car. She is also in the habit of playing cops and robbers, “shooting” the lad with her finger and judging the way he plays dead. At one point, eager to leave an engagement with the boy, she makes the excuse that his appendix had just ruptured. Georgia is married to Hal (Christopher Plummer) and has remained with him until her death knowing from the earliest that he was gay, though in the closet to everyone else. An older Oliver (Ewan McGregor) has taken on the responsibility for raising dad’s Jack Russell Terrier, Arthur (Cosmo), conversing with the loving dog as though with an adult. He has also met a French actress in L.A., Anna (Mélanie Laurent), falls in love, but given the confusion that he seems to have inherited from his dad, he has a penchant for finding his way out of love—as does Anna, about whom we know little and never do learn much about her.

Mills connects the family story to a greater history with a series of portraits of past presidents and snapshots of life many years back. His focus remains, however, on the unexpected feelings that resonate in the young man and are given greater life upon finding out that his dad is not only gay but is determined at the age of seventy-five to live the gay life by finding a young partner, Andy (Goran Visnjic), attending rousing parties with the men in their circle, by buying magazines about the gay life, and stocking up on a wide selection of books. From time to time father and son have a bonding session, meetings that should have taken place decades earlier. The advice comes across to the middle-aged Oliver: life is passing by, running ahead at an ever-increasing pace. As Auntie Mame’s Gouch would say, “Live, live, live!”

Among the precious scenes in the movie are all involving the bond between Oliver and Arthur, the dog, the views of Oliver at work as a graphic artist tracing the history of “sad,” the conversations between Oliver and Anna particularly at a costume party where he dresses as a bearded psychoanalyst who reads note that laryngitis-affected Anne pens (which include her insight that he is sad). As for me, I much preferred the role that Mélanie Laurent took in my favorite movie of 2009, Inglourious Basterds.

Beginners is both comedy and drama, playful and sentimental, serene and agitated, a story of love between father and son, son and dog, and son and girlfriend. The film played at the Toronto Festival and appeared targeted to an audience that can relate to Mills’s originality of presentation. The writer-director takes the very risks that Hal, Oliver, and Anna must take, because life is not forever. In other words, as composers Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn have said, “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”

Rated R. 104 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Shawn Ku's
Beautiful Boy
Opens Friday, June 3, 2011

Written By: Michael Armbruster, Shawn Ku

Starring: Maria Bello, Michael Sheen, Alan Tudyk, Moon Bloodgood, Kyle Gallner, Meat Loaf

Anchor Bay Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

What causes young people like that student at Virginia Tech in 2007 to kill 10, 15, 20 or more people he may not even know? Is it possible for you, dear reader, to harbor enough rage to ever kill somebody, since, after all, some psychologists believe that we are all capable of murder? In the low-key, snail-paced film Beautiful Boy, scripters Michael Armbruster and Shawn Ku never find out why a (fictional) college freshman one day shot and killed twenty-one people before putting a bullet into his own head. But under director Shawn Ku’s examination, one that is deliberately claustrophobic as it is laden with close-ups shots by Michael Fimognari’s handheld camera and an inclination to leave backgrounds out of the frames, we do learn quite a bit about how the killing changes the lives of the young man’s parents. Given that the parents, Bill Carroll and Kate Carroll are played by Michael Sheen (The Queen) and Maria Bellow (A History of Violence), the movie transcends its home-vid feel to present an intimate portrayal of family dynamics.

As the picture opens we look on Bill, a workaholic with restrained emotions and Kate, a proofreader who is more effusive, sleeping in separate bedrooms, contemplating divorce. Their emotional dissimilarities are apparent even as they talk by phone with their son, Sam (Kyle Gallner), a college freshman who sounds depressed. Kate is more concerned than her husband with the sound of their boy’s voice. When they do not hear from him after an explosion of violence on the lad’s campus that leaves twenty-one students and faculty dead, they fear for their son’s life. The news is worse than either could have thought: Sam is the perpetrator.

We in the audience will probably wonder whether the tragedy will bring the couple closer or whether it will tear their marriage apart, as they shift first to the home of her brother Eric (Alan Tudyk) and sister-in-law Trish (Moon Bloodgood). Bill takes time off from work and Kate continues spell-checking a manuscript of an author (Austin Nichols). They later move to a flophouse motel where a new affection is displayed between them, but the lovemaking is the calm before the storm. When the two argue heatedly at full volume—Kate accusing her husband of “not being there” for their son while Bill complains that his wife had relentlessly picked on the boy’s flaws—the fury of the battle stands out against the restraint shown by director Ku in keeping the mood low-key.

A rabble-rousing announcer on TV declaims that the murderous rampage on campus is all the fault of the killer’s parents. Others who have dealings with the couple are more sympathetic, particularly the motel manager (Meat Loaf) and Bill’s boss, who had agreed to let Bill take as much time off as needed. We witness, in the end, a film that is not so much didactic—we haven’t the foggiest notion whether the parents are at least partially at fault—so much as a look at a bleak story respectful enough of the audience to avoid the trappings of soap opera. This is to the credit of two excellent actors in the principal roles whose chemistry is credible whether that chemistry serves to drive them apart or rekindle their love.

Rated R. 100 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Ben Sombogaart's
Bride Flight
Opens Friday, June 10, 2011

Written By: Marieke van der Pol

Starring: Karina Smulders, Elise Schaap, Anna Drijver, Waldemar Torenstra, Rutger Hauer, Pleuni Touw, Petra Laseur

Reviewed by Harvey Karten

Sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence. Such is the case with the three women in Bride Flight, all of whom are leaving post-World War II Holland, a depressing place with unemployment, floods, and a devastated housing stock. Where better to go than to a land not touched by war, a place where it is said the sun always shines and one in which even in our own day is spared threats from Al Queda and its fellow travelers?

Ben Sombogaart’s film Bride Flight, from a script by Marieke van der Pol, is a romantic epic which could fairly be called a chick flick—though the background involving an air race could provide interest for a male audience as well. This expensive Dutch film which includes a modicum of English and bears English subtitles crosses not only 13,000 miles from Holland to New Zealand, but switches regularly from 1953 to 1963 and right up to the present day. Sombogaart and van der Pol are in their métier: their 2002 film, De Tweeling (Twin Sisters), focuses on a pair of German sisters in the 1920’s who are torn apart. One works on her German uncle’s farm while the other heads for life with her upper-middle-class Dutch aunt. They are brought together in old age.

In a similar trajectory, three women who do not know one another are heading out of Holland to New Zealand aboard a plane involved in an actual 1953 race that the Dutch win by easily breaking the previous record (archival film is shown). All are joining their fiancés, all get together via their acquaintance with a passenger who is quite the ladies man, Frank (Waldemar Torenstra), though the women are different from one another in personality. The shy Ada (Karina Smulders) has a farm background, Esther (Anna Drijver) is a bubbly fashion designer, and Marjorie (Elise Schaap) is a down-to-earth woman with plans to have lots of babies—an indication, of course, that she will not. A pregnant Ada falls for Frank, but she is promised to a religious nut in NZ who got her pregnant. Because of complications, Marjorie is unable to have children while Esther, who has dumped her boyfriend because he wants to raise a family in a traditionally Jewish manner, is burdened with an unwanted pregnancy with an undisclosed father. The solution for Marjorie and Esther should be obvious.

The audience can watch the characters as they act out their marital and other problems as young people and also as folks in their early seventies as they meet at Frank’s funeral. (The older characters are played by Rutger Hauer as Frank, Pleuni Touw as Ada, Willeke van Ammelrooy as Esther and Petra Laseur as Marjorie.) As for the men who were waiting for the women in Christchurch, I have no idea of the actors’ names as the press notes seem to consider them unimportant. In other words: chick flick. Which woman would I have picked for my bride? Marjorie seems most likable: she’s cute, down-to-earth, and shows her dark side only when she believes she must go through life without children of her own. Esther is out: she’s a chain-smoker, domineering, the sort who’d do fine and does just great without a husband. Ada is too shy and insular as the farm-raised woman of the bunch.

Past and present flow together at the funeral scene when the 70-year-old Esther runs into the child she gave up to Marjorie. For a Dutch picture, the attention paid to period design and to costuming must have been budget-breaking, filmed by Piotr Kukla on location in New Zealand and in Luxembourg. If I had my choice, though, and I felt like going Dutch, I’d much prefer Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, which features a stunning Carice van Houten as a singer who infiltrates the Nazi occupiers for the Dutch resistance, but that’s another story.

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


Paul Feig's
Opens Friday, May 13, 2011

Written By: Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo

Starring: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Who knew that Bridesmaids would be the first laugh-out-loud comedy this year? Bridesmaids is not a formulaic wedding picture or a romantic comedy; Paul Feig’s film sports clever dialogue written by star Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, her pal from The Groundlings comedy troupe. Bridesmaids, as the title implies, is an ensemble piece, but Wiig, a comic breath of fresh air, anchors the story as a cute, perky mid-thirty-ish woman who feels sorry for herself and takes her self pity out for a ride with a series of riotous activities on a plane, in her beat-up car, in a Brazilian restaurant, in an emporium of wedding dresses, and by engaging in a rivalry with another woman who claims to be the best friend of the bride. The pace is quick, the comic repartee exquisitely timed. Don’t be put off by the unfortunate poster that the studio is using to market the film, one which situates the group of woman in a slutty pose. While sluttiness is not quite absent (it’s present, really, only in one humorous role), these women share distinct personalities and personal complexities. If the character portrayed by Rose Byrne is the prettiest of the group, Wiit’s is the cutest and acts the most neurotic of the bunch.

Wiit’s character, Annie, is recovering from the demise of her Milwaukee-based bakery business. Her relationships with guys is not what she’d like: we see her initially as a shag-buddy of the rich but sleazy cad (Jon Hamm), who, in the morning, finds nothing wrong with telling her that he would like her to leave. Her childhood friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) asks her to be maid of honor at her wedding. This sets up a rivalry between Annie and Helen (Rose Byrne), trophy wife of the groom’s dad, as Helen—a take-charge compulsive—tries to one-up Annie at a lavish pre-wedding party.

Though Bridesmaids employs a satisfying narrative as whole, it is also replete with clever skits, the type you might enjoy while watching Saturday Night Love. The gem involves Annie’s plan to get Nathan (Chris O’Dowd), a Wisconsin state trooper who had been dumped by Annie, to help her and Helen to find a missing friend. O’Dowd has a delightful role issuing commands with a faint Irish lilt, serving as well to bring out much of Annie’s frustrations as Annie deliberately violates just about every rule of highway traffic to get him to follow her in his patrol car. An outrageously funny skit finds Annie who is fearful of flying, on a plane with the bridesmaids to Las Vegas for a bachelorette party - she throws the passengers into a deep fright. Another scene that has all the earmarks of Judd Apatow (who has a producing credit), is located in a swank wedding dress studio where the women proceed to barf and poop on the rug and in the bathroom sink.

Among the women, Melissa McCarthy wins the vulgarity contest as the buxom, oversexed, in-your-face friend while Jill Clayburgh, as Annie’s mom, looking pale in her final role, shares a few sentimental laughs with her daughter. Bridesmaids does find a balance among its signature virtues: vulgarity, comedy, and sentimentality, and features women proving that they can play characters who are more typically portrayed (in Apatow films) by the mle of the species.

Rated R. 120 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Todd Phillips's
The Hangover Part II
Opens May 26, 2011

Written By: Todd Phillips, Craig Mazin, Scot Armstrong

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Jamie Chung, Ken Jeong, Paul Giamatti, Mike Tyson

Warner Bros.
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

You can’t blame the production company for investing in a sequel to the enormously profitable The Hangover, made for just thirty-five million and cashing in at four hundred sixty-seven million at the box office. Would Part II be special or just same ol’ same ol’ with Bangkok substituting for Vegas?

Middle-aged guys Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis)—with Justin Bartha thrown in as the neat-and-clean Doug--anchor the action this time around. The verdict: it’s obvious that these fellows like one another. That’s was perhaps the biggest selling point in the 2009 version, which was directed as well by Todd Phillips, whose résumé includes School for Scoundrels (a young guy enrolls in a class to win the girl of his dreams) and Road Trip (four guys go on an 1800 mile trip to recover an illicit tape mailed mistakenly to a girlfriend). Phillips knows his audience, presumably twenty- to forty-year-olds, both men and women, but odds are that many others will take a pass.

The problem with The Hangover Part II is not the vulgarity. Vulgarity is the sine qua non of pictures like this. What’s wrong is that the fellows in the movie who are having a less-than-ideal vacation after spending sixteen hours flying coach is that they appear to be improvising, making dialogue up as they go along rather than following a script composed by the director and two co-writers. The result is that Part II is just plain not funny, yielding just a few sporadic laughs. Not even a chain-smoking capuchin monkey is able to elicit more than a smile—though of course I’m speaking for myself only.

After the insanity that engulfed the Vegas bachelor party of Doug (Justin Bartha) two years earlier, Stu (Ed Helms), a dentist is his mid-thirties, is about to tie the knot with the gorgeous Lauren (Jamie Chung) at the Thailand home of her parents. (The home is photographed in Krabi, whose river opens to the Andaman Sea, while most of the picture takes place in Thailand’s capital, Bangkok.) Stu invites his two best friends, Doug (Justin Bartha) and Phil (Bradley Cooper), and only later agrees to add the nutty, stay-at-home-with parents Alan (Zach Galifianakis) to the guest list. After toasting the groom, bad things happen. The young men, who cannot remember a thing, land in a Bangkok fleabag hotel, their roommate a capuchin monkey (Crystal). Even more strange is that Alan emerges with a shaved head, Stu with a Mike Tyson tattoo on the left side of his face, and Teddy (Mason Lee), the bride’s sixteen-year-old brother gets lost leaving his ring finger behind in a dish of water—which ultimately seems not to bother him or his stuffy dad despite Teddy’s ambition to become a surgeon and his considerable ability on the cello. Further, they run into a manic, wisecracking local gangster, Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) who appears to die suddenly, is buried in a refrigerator, and comes to life with no harm done except for his body temperature.

What passes for energy in this version include a motorcycle-riding Russian gangster who, in the obligatory chase through the streets of Bangkok’s Chinatown, fires shots at the fleeing young Americans; a lively conversation in a posh restaurant with Kingsley (Paul Giamatti), a man interested in getting funds transferred electronically to his account; and an exposé in photos explaining the tattoo, the shaved head, and in the picture’s major gross-out, a shot of Stu relating to a Thai trannie.

Still, Lawrence Sher’s photography captures te contrast of Bangkok from the Chinatown market with foods steaming on block after block against the business area replete with skyscrapers and the kinds of restaurants that you’d find in any American city’s affluent areas. The songs on the soundtrack are cool. Aside from a few product placements for Singha beer (it’s good, try it) and a questionable placement for Bangkok in general, this is yet another sequel that cannot match the original. If you’re looking for comedy during this long weekend and you can see only one movie, opt for Midnight in Paris instead.

Rated R. 105 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Jill Andresevic's
Love, Etc.
Opens Friday, July 1, 2011

Written By: Jill Andresevic|

Starring: Gabriel, Danielle, Albert, Marion, Ethan, Scott, Chitra, Mahendra

Reviewed by Harvey Karten

Jill Andresevic is in love with New York, both the city’s physical attributes and the demographics. Her photographer, Luke Geissbuhler, trains his camera on a variety of neighborhoods including Soho, Forest Hills, Jamaica Hills, Coney Island, Canarsie, Midtown Manhattan and Broadway He implicitly shows that these various sections are inhabited by a wide range of people, living—as WNYC used to say—in peace and harmony and enjoying the benefits of democracy. Andresevic knows how to avoid the bane of documentaries that make the genre the least popular among regular moviegoers. Instead of launching a round robin of talking heads facing one another and sharing philosophies to shaky, hand-held cameras, she unfolds the work as though it were a work of fiction, helped by Alex Israel’s editing which switches us from one couple to another and back again—though unlike fictional dramas, the people in the cast do not meet one another toward the conclusion, but remain separate entities with distinct problems of their own.

This is not a Hallmark Hall of Fame type of presentation. The folks in Love, Etc. who demonstrate their attraction, do not all wind up happily ever after, living like youthful and beautiful princes and princesses. In fact even the happiest of the couples, the two who have been married for 48 years (she 89, he 79) has to cope with the woman’s progressing dementia which prevents her at times from even recognizing her husband.

The long-lasting marriage of Albert and Marion takes center stage. He is s songwriter who plays simple tunes on the piano and gives occasional lessons, but he has apparently no success on or off-Broadway. “They don’t want the songs like they used to,” he mourns, thinking highly of sentimental works of Cole Porter and implicity criticizing the cynicism that’s de rigeuer in musical theater today. He did, however, catch the public eye with a song celebrating Brooklyn. A rendition of the song by a soloist outdoors with Brooklyn Borough President Mary Markowitz presiding draws applause, but the enterprise looks pretty banal in my view. He cuts up the food for his wife Marion, who appears to have no teeth, a deficiency that contrasts with her husband’s use of oversized, round glasses, giving him a passing resemblance to Woody Allen.

Ethan, a forty-one year old divorced man whose ex-wife granted him full custody of two handsome young boys, is the most vigorous person on display. He admits that he smokes and drinks too much, perhaps because of his anxiety: despite his good looks and articulate presence, he has met few women with whom he clicked, having enjoyed the company of one Argentinian-American woman who is not identified. She apparently flew the coop by movie’s end.

Chitra, a 28-year-old paralegal and Mahendra, a lawyer who has passed the bar but cannot find a job, are from Jamaica Hills in Queens. Someone in her ethnic Indian family has money because they had a wedding with 350 guests, elaborate costumes, hired musicians, the works. Alas: why spend so much on nuptials when 50% of such celebrations will end in divorce? The two cannot get their act together, they separated, and now they’re together trying to make a go, but he appears unwilling to wash dishes and do laundry. He refuses to be at what he considers the beck-and-call of his bride. Things will go downhill, methinks.

Scott, a gay fifty-two years old who looks a decade younger in his baseball cap and informal demeanor, is a successful theater director who in one scene got the actress Debra Monk to join in an original song about his plight. Unusual for someone who does not have a lot of time on his hands, he chose fatherhood by using a surrogate—who delivered twins for the lad. He seems to have found a guy, but who knows? And how will he have time to give to his pair of infant twins?

Gabriel, an 18-year-old émigré from Brazil now fluent in English, is enjoying his first love, Danielle, same age. But Danielle is about to go to Dartmouth, and we know how such a separation at their age can lead to a final split. Ultimately they remain “friends,” or so the epilogue states.

Andresevic must have presided over a few hundred hours of filming, taken over the course of a year, because the couples act natural, even publicly playing out their arguments—particularly the South Asian folks who, according to him, got married because she pressured him to do so even though he had not found work. She resents that she is the one who “brings home the bacon” and therefore, in his mind, claims more authority over the household than he.

Love, Etc. is endearing because of its naturalness, its seeming use of a camera more sophisticated than a hand-held unit, and its feeling of optimism. As God says in Genesis 2:18 says, it is not right for a man to be alone. Jill Andresevic has no problem with that.

Unrated. 94 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Woody Allen's
Midnight in Paris
Opens Friday, May 20, 2011

Written By: Woody Allen

Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Carla Bruni

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

It would be quite a stretch to say that Midnight in Paris is the best Woody Allen movie since What’s New Pussycat. Allen has done some magnificent work in his long career; he is one of America’s greatest directors, albeit with a few flops when he fell into a Kafka-esque mood. Besides, the adjectives that come to mind in judging his latest entry are “light,” “fluffy,” “effervescent,” and what’s more—to the horror of some of journalism’s more pedantic critics—it has no real dark side.

Thematically, Midnight in Paris takes on the feeling that “things are always better on the other side of the fence.” As we watch the initial parts we get the impression that some time periods are better than our own, the golden ages are somewhere back then and a nagging suspicion that we’ve been born at the wrong time.

Geographically speaking: New York is Allen's first choice, Paris a close second. Watch how cinematographer Darius Khondji opens the movie before the credits roll with superbly photographed shots of the City of Light: the Montmartre, Moulin Rouge, Notre Dame Cathedral, the park, the cobblestone streets, the sidewalks cafés. Later Mr. Khondji will take you through the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors, Monet’s Gardens at Giverny, Musée de l’Orangerie, Musée Rodin, Musée des Arts Forains, the flea market, Place Dauphin, Maxim’s, Quai de la Tournelle, and Pont Alexandre III. When you see the restaurants Le Grand Véfour, Les Lyonnais, and Lapérouse you’ll wonder why you ever settled on McDonald’s. The French National Tourist Department if the beneficiary of one of the best product placements of this year.

Midnight in Paris is saturated with a European flavor as seen through American eyes, the eyes of an idealistic, naïve writer, the fellow who epitomizes the idea that life is better somewhere else and at a more propitious time. He’s young enough to grow out of his fantasy, alas, and will probably come back home to California in a few months and say, "Hey, what’s so bad about living in Beverly Hills?" Gil (Owen Wilson) has made a bundle knocking out hack screenplays for Hollywood but he wants to cross over and become an artist. He’s working on a novel, but currently on vacation in Paris with his fiancée Inez (a smashing Rachel McAdams with blond hair), a high-maintenance woman. The two are escorted by Inez’s bourgeois parents, John (Kurt Fuller) and Helen (Mimi Kennedy) who are on a business trip to discuss a merger with a French company. Gil becomes disillusioned with Inez, but trouble comes in pairs. The group runs into a friend of Inez, Paul (the always excellent Michael Sheen) and his wife Carol (Nina Arianda). Paul is both an intellectual and a pseudo-intellectual, charming at times but hugely pedantic as he lectures on just about every statue and painting in the city.

Disgusted with the tall, dark stranger and his own fiancée for wanting to spend more time with the pedant, Gil takes a solitary walk, gets lost, sits on some steps, and when midnight chimes go off, a 1920’s Porsche rides by, the party-goers encouraging him to get in and join the fun. Lo and behold, Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo imagination is released: Gil is transported to Paris’ Golden Age where he meets and converses with the likes of Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill) and Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). He flirts with Adriana (Marion Cotillard) who has been the mistress of several artists of the time but who who would rather live in the Belle Epoque of the 1890s, while some of the other celebs like Toulouse-Lautrec express a preference for the Renaissance. Yes, the grass is always greener and no-one (except for the bourgeois fiancée and her folks who love living in our own century) is content with the status quo.

Pre-marital conflict is mined by Woody Allen. Gil is a Democrat, his future father-in-law is a conservative Republican who thinks that Gil is a Communist for always siding with “the help” like the maid—who is wrongfully accused by future mom-in-law with stealing a pair of earrings. Anyone who has fallen in love but has to put up with the in-laws (you’re marrying a whole family, as they say) will identify strongly with the comic elements, and those who have a reasonable background in France’s and America’s artistic contributions to humankind will revel in the references to everyone from Hemingway to Degas. Owen Wilson shines as an performer who happily does not come off as an actor but as a regular human being. The film is beautifully composed, and in fact one wonders how Mr. Allen was able to clear out some of the city’s leading tourist attractions to make room for his imaginative collage of first-rate artists. The dialogue is sharp, the acting superb, and the movie is a gem. Why else would France’s First Lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy (wife of the current president), be willing to take a role as a tour guide?

Rated PG-13. 94 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Andrew Rossi's
Page One: Inside The New York Times
Opens Friday, June 17, 2011

Written By: Kate Novack, Andrew Rossi

Starring: David Carr, Bruce Headlam, Brian Stelter, Tim Arango

Magnolia Pictures/ Participant Media

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

I can see it now. On page 3 of the Washington Post, a headline: “Nuclear weapon detonated over D.C. Five square miles wiped out.” Then on the front page: “New York Times’ final issue hits the streets.” Both potential news items are devastating, and one hopes that neither will ever take place. Yet, in 2009 and in 2010 the prospect of The Gray Lady’s folding or at least going into Chapter 11 was one of the most discussed items among media bloggers. The Times Company, founded by Henry Jarvis Raymond and George Jones in New York City, issued its first edition September 18, 1851, with the statement: "We publish today the first issue of the New-York Daily Times, and we intend to issue it every morning (Sundays excepted) for an indefinite number of years to come." Perhaps not even Raymond and Jones could have projected that their paper would survive its own century, but the paper of record—as it’s called since it’s available on microfilm and on NexisLexis where you can read all about the daily doings of the Civil War—may no longer be sold for two cents an issue but you can count on seeing it on the New York newsstands or right at your front door 365 days a year.

Page One: Inside the New York Times, is Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack’s love letter to the world’s greatest newspaper, one that sends some forty copies to the White House and an almost equal number to the Kremlin each day. To its credit, the powers that be at the Times allowed Rossi and Novak and their crew to serve as fly-on-the-wall observers for one year, which is not in itself surprising, but the paper has obviously had no problem allowing the documentary to focus on the potential for its demise. With the rise of the Internet, giving anyone with a computer and a modem access to countless news media around the world including the New York Times itself, the print edition would seem to some to be an anachronism, an elderly gray lady at this point and at this stage in technology when thousands of newspapers have gone to out of business or have tried to survive by laying off all too many loyal workers. As the doc points out, the Tribune Company is kaput as is the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the Boston Globe is bankrupt among others that fill the pages of media obituaries.

While commentators include writers and execs at The New Yorker, The Nation, Atlantic, and other print media, most of the picture is taken up by four journalists who work out of mid-town Manhattan: David Carr, the outspoken columnist treating the nexus of media with business, culture and government; Brian Stelter, a Times reporter since he was twenty-one and thereby one wholly at ease with Twitter, YouTube and Facebook with an assignment to write about WikiLeaks’ leaked footage from the Iraq War; Bruce Headlam, Media Desk editor who tries to keep the fat-boys’ atmosphere disciplined; and Tim Arango, a young man who volunteers to report under fire in Iraq and quickly rises to be chief of the Baghdad desk.

Bill Keller, the executive editor whose job has just days ago been taken over by Jill Abramson, admits that the news media have an uncertain future. And no wonder, As with Amazon’s conclusion that e-books are now selling more than hard covers and paperbacks, we need not wonder that the Internet has already surpassed print as our main news source. When I was a kid, everyone, but everyone in the New York subway cars was reading a newspaper—the Times, the Herald Tribune, the Daily News, the Post, the Sun, The World, The Telegram, PM, the Daily Mirror, the Journal American. If you’re from New York and take the subway, look around now: more often than not, nobody but nobody is reading anything more titillating than the BlackBerry or other Smart Phone. It’s a new age, a revolution that has not changed the media world since Gutenberg’s printing press, and the Times has suffered a drastic loss of income from advertisers who will not pay money when people are not reading print!

Page One covers a few major blows to the paper’s integrity as when Judith Miller, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, filed reports on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, reports proven false; and Jayson Blair was found to be reporting news events that he fabricated. Generally, however, the occasional faux pas has not contributed to the paper’s prestige: it’s all about the technology which allows readers to download from such news sources as,, and With such competition, does the Times have any hope of garnering enough increased revenue by charging us for digital articles?

The documentary comes most to life when David Carr speaks. Carr, a former crack addict who has written a memoir, The Night of the Gun, which Arianna Huffington has called “the fierce, funny, disturbing, brutally honest, and ultimately uplifting story of Carr's decent into a self-inflicted hell and a bumpy return to life,” shows that people of his caliber are among the resources that the Times can use to morph into the financially successful paper it once was.

Unrated. 90 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Nick Tomnay's
The Perfect Host
Opens Friday, July 2, 2011

Written By: Nick Tomnay, Krishna Jones

Starring: David Hyde Pierce, Clayne Crawford, Nathaniel Parker, Megahn Perry, Helen Reddy, George Cheung

Magnolia Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

It’s every law-abiding, criminal-hating American’s fantasy, isn’t it? Guy comes to burgle your house, overcomes you, threatens to kill you, puts serious crimps in your dignity. In a weak moment, the intruder is overcome by the owner of the residence, is tied up, and is made sport of. An eye for an eye. We saw this theme in action in David Slade’s movie Hard Candy, wherein Hayley Stark, played by Ellen Page, is a fourteen-year-old girl who meets a charming thirty-two year old photographer on the ‘net. She suspects that he’s a pedophile, goes to his house, slips him a vodka-and-orange drink, ties him up, and tortures him. In a case that resembles this revenge scenario, Warwick Wilson (David Hyde Pierce) opens the door to John Taylor (Clayne Crawford), a bank robber who seeks to treat his bleeding foot. His life threatened, Warwick charms the fellow into accepting a glass of red wine which is drugged. Robber passes out, gets tied up, and the obligatory game of cat-and-mouse begins.

The Perfect Host may be similar to the Ellen Page vehicle but it’s more complex, involving interchanges of more than two characters and thereby is not simply a photographed play. Writer-director Nick Tomnay and co-writer Krishna Jones have fashioned superb dialogue affording homeowner and intruder witty repartee during the latter’s captivity. What’s more the movie is filled with so many unexpected twists that any attempt to write a thorough synopsis would spoil the film for prospective viewers, so…suffice to say that we see the bank robbery only as momentary flashbacks, choppily edited, while Tomnay present a full cast of characters who attend the eight o’clock dinner that in Warwick’s smashing West Coast residence (credit Ricardo Jattan’s excellent production design). You may wonder how Warwick can afford digs such as these, particularly when his profession is revealed, but everything is tied up neatly and professionally by the crew operating on a low budget and shooting the whole caboodle in just three weeks.

Clayne Crawford as the bank robber who resembles Tony Curtis and Ray Liotta is up to David Hyde Pierce’s challenging performance, while Pierce is at least as witty here as he had been on TV’s Frasier, in his 1982 Broadway debut in Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy and in the unfortunately short-lived Moliere-esque La Bete which if I recall correctly closed within a week. A Shakespearean actor as well, Pierce anchors the movie as the guy who turns out to be other than who you think he is. Clever script, fine ensemble acting, sharp direction.

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

Rob Marshall's
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Opens Friday, May 20, 2011

Written By: Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio

Starring: Johnny Depp. Ian McShane, Geoffrey Rush, Penelope Cruz, Astrid Bergés-Frisbey, Kevin McNally

Walt Disney Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

There must be a better way to spend $200 million. Think of all the fine independent movies that can be made: Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is a real gem and must have come in at a fraction of the cost, big stars like Owen Wilson notwithstanding. It’s not that we don’t see why Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides cost so much, it's just that the interminable swashing and buckling, Deppish-swishing and chuckling, are repetitive, choreographed as though mayhem rather than grace were the desired result, and who cares? What we look for in an action movie is, of course, action, but is it too much to ask for clever repartee when a budget can command top writers? Instead, we get such obvious double-entendres as Angelica’s (Penelope Cruz) comment to her still simmering love interest, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), “Why is it that you always have something pointing at me?”

The plot revolves around a search for the fountain of youth which Ponce de Leon was unable to locate. One character helpfully mentions that the Spanish explorer had been dead for two hundred years—1521 to be exact, as the time period of this film is during the reign of Britain’s King George II, whose claim to fame is that he was the last British monarch to lead his people into battle—in 1743. Still George II is portrayed in the most cartoonish manner on apparent orders of Rob Marshall, who was brought on to direct, and who has seen better days at the helm of such moderate charmers as Nine and one wholehearted winner, Chicago.

An A-list director and prominent performers like Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and Geoffrey Rush can do little to bring some soul into a movie that’s not only confusing in its plot, empty of clever dialogue, and insufferable in its battles. Yet the film is adapted from Tim Powers well-regarded 1987 novel, On Stranger Tides, which finds puppeteer John Chandagnac, bound for Jamaica to recover stolen money from his uncle. John Chandagnac becomes Jack Shandy after pirates attack his ship and force him to join their crew. In the film, Angelica, a woman from Captain Jack Sparrow’s past, tries to use him to find the fabled fountain of youth. Sparrow boards the ship under the rule of Edward Blackbeard (Ian McShane) to find adventure and conflict as he tackles both mermaids who act like mythological sirens beckoning sailors into watery graves, and buccaneers from Her Majesty’s Government in London and from Spain.

The picture starts well; under cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s lens we watch Jack Sparrow in a judge’s disguise save Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally) from the gallows, race from assailants in London, taking refuge in a carriage inhabited by a noblewoman (Judi Dench), then being judged by a foppish King George II. He is later to encounter Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), a peg-legged mate on expedition for the king (Richard Griffiths). His principal antagonist turns out to be Blackbeard, the captain of the Queen Anne’s Revenge and allegedly the father of the sexy Angelica.

If only the film had the depth enjoyed by the mermaids, who attack sailors they inveigle and chew up with Jaws-like canines, the one “good” mermaid being Syrena (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), who is to fall in love with the hunky ship’s chaplain, Philip Swift (Sam Claflin)! As the Spaniards, the British and Blackbeard pursue the location of the fountain of youth, the plot barely thickens while the action proliferates, leaving us to wait albeit without baited breath for Part Five in 2015.

Rated PG-13. 133 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Richard Ayoade's
Opens Friday, June 2, 2011

Written By: Richard Ayoade, from the novel by Joe Dunthorne

Starring: Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine, Sally Hawkins

The Weinstein Company
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

There have been so many coming of age tales in the movies that one can’t help wondering whether everything about teens has already been said. Submarine deals with a fifteen-year-old at the cusp of something or other, maybe adulthood, maybe insight, but probably neither. At the end of the movie, which is based on a novel by Joe Dunthorne and adapted for the screen by director Richard Ayoade, the intelligent, imaginative, but sometimes cruel Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) has not changed much. He is self-absorbed like every other teen, but so much into himself and his presumed ability to change the world around him that he succeeds only in making thing worse.

Submarine will remind movie buffs of the French New Wave (400 Blows comes only somewhat to mind) and will refresh the memory of others about films like Rushmore, in which Max Fischer, a precocious fifteen-year-old, tries to court his teacher. Others will stretch their imaginations to compare Oliver to J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, a cynical preppie who makes wry observations about everybody around him.

Ultimately, Submarine, however its imaginative and occasionally surreal observations about strange goings-on in Swansea, Wales, does not break new ground. However Craig Roberts’s performance makes the going worthwhile.

Craig Roberts is Oliver Tate, who attends a Welsh school that requires boys to wear blazers and ties and who are well behaved in class unless you think passing notes is too disruptive. But boys will be boys outside the classroom as when one overweight girl has her school bag thrown around and she herself falls into a big puddle. Oliver is concerned about two events in his life: his parents’ failing marriage, and (surprise!) his desire to lose his virginity. He tells the story with voiceovers that can become irritating as a means of disclosing information, as he relates how his parents, who have always dimmed the ceiling lights when having sex, have kept the lamps on full illumination now for seven months. He believes his mom, Jill Tate (Sally Hawkins) is conducting an affair with Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine) an old friend and new-agey charlatan, and is determined by spying on them to save his folks’ marriage. The lad may have also inherited the depression that afflicts his dad, Lloyd Tate (Noah Taylor).

Most of the story finds Oliver winning the affection of a high-spirited Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), though he teases her about hers eczema and finds her hands scaly (a possible fish metaphor since Oliver is often surrounded by water with a dad who is a marine biologist). Director Richard Ayoade wants us to admire how quirky he can make his movie but quirky has been overdone in indies for quite a while.

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

Errol Morris's
Opens Friday July 15, 2011

Written By: Errol Morris

Starring: Joyce McKinney, Jackson Shaw, Peter Tory, Troy Williams, Kent Gavin, Dr. Hong

Sundance Selects
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Just one week before the opening of Tabloid, we read that Rupert Murdoch, the media tycoon, is closing Britain’s largest-circulating paper, News of the World, as a scandal has uncovered that the paper’s editor has made illegal payments to police not only for tips but for sensitive, confidential documents. The editor is also implicated in hacking into phones of murder victims, an outrage which itself might trump some of the sex scandals that the tabloid had allegedly uncovered. At the same time in America, years ago, our most notorious tabloid The National Enquirer had decided to abandon coverage of alien landings on our shores and stick to stuff that’s more credible--about Hollywood and notable personalities in general.

All this hardly means that tabloids are on the way out and that everyone will subscribe to the New York Times and the Washington Post to get information. There is something about our human nature that urges us to eavesdrop on titillating gossip, no matter that the scuttlebutt is simply recycled with only the names being different.

One such item which was salacious enough to influence noted documentarian Errol Morris to create a documentary centers on the activities of Joyce McKinney, once hailed as Miss Wyoming, a woman with a 168 IQ who at the very least eccentric. Morris gained a rep as one of the most influential documentarians with such fare as The Fog of War (lessons learned by former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara about the nature of war), Standard Operating Procedure (torture of alleged militants by the U.S. at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison) and Gates of Heaven (a pet cemetery in California). Now he delves into the bizarre story about an alleged sex scandal that appears to trump anything done by Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and John Edwards, one given print by such British tabloids as the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express.

What emerges is either a passionate story of unrequited love or a sordid mess involving McKinney’s kidnapping of her Mormon boyfriend, Kirk Anderson, handcuffing him and tying him spread-eagled to a British bed in the English countryside, and raping him. The tabloids had a field day as you can imagine, allowing readers to guess which story to believe, with some probably deciding that truth lies somewhere in the middle. In either case, McKinney’s aim was to rescue her b.f. from Mormonism, which she considers a cult, one which promises a swift journey to heaven for all good Mormons who remain sexually pure and don’t drink coffee.

The tabloids went further than Scotland Yard, digging up as much dirt as they could about the woman, even coming up with at least one nude photo—which McKinney claims was doctored by placing her head atop the body of a naked woman. Chances are if McKinney were just another person or a “working girl,” the papers would ignore the entire case, but there’s a double standard. If you’re a celebrity, you’re fair game for paparazzi and journalists, as we all know that readers, particularly of tabloids, want to bring these people down from their high horses.

The last we hear about this bonkers character McKinney deals with her trip to South Korea to get her deceased, beloved pit bull, Booger, to be cloned. The operation was successful, so much so that she received five pups, all of which looked like Booger and what’s more acted as though they were already trained to do everything that Booger had been schooled in doing.

Errol Morris’s animation is a highlight of this picture, whether he shows robed Mormons ascending swiftly to heaven, or repeating words uttered by the interviewees in big, bold letters as though to subvert what they say, or animating the plane trips that McKinney made to London and back. (She was allowed to be free on bail in England and fled to America.)

Morris never tries to influence us in the audience about which story is true: the pure, albeit stalking love, or the sexual bondage. In either case McKinney had a thing for this guy because she vowed never to marry. She remains single, still writing a book about her life which will probably never be completed. The down side of the movie is that talking heads dominate the action. McKinney herself is given too much time to chat on and on about her romantic dreams. She does not appear mentally ill, but is on her best behavior, denying everything the Brit tabloids said about her. The most interesting character giving testimony is Jackson Shaw, the pilot of a private plane that took McKinney from London to the countryside. Shaw, a strikingly handsome man in his younger days, still remembers his meeting with Miss Wisconsin, who was wearing a see-through blouse, no bra. He seems to have expected more from the trip than a simple payment of his fee. So whom do we believe? Is she a rapist or a naïve lover? She herself admits that “you can tell a lie long enough that you believe it,” as though hinting that she may herself be deceived about the facts. But no matter: whether she’s just an incurable romantic or a perv, either story is interesting enough for the tabloids, and so is this film.

Rated R. 88 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Azazel Jacobs's
Opens Friday, July 1, 2011

Written By: Patrick deWitt

Starring: Jacob Wysocki, John C. Reilly, Creed Bratton, Bridger Zadina, Olivia Crocicchia

ATO Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

We’ve all been through high school. Some of us have seen movies about those trying days and read novels like Catcher in the Rye. We gather from the media that high school kids break themselves up into cliques: the jocks, the Einsteins, the hot girls, the cool guys. But nobody wants to hear about the outcasts, the untouchables, those who are not brainy or athletic or cool or hot and therefore suffer on the margins of what could be some of the best times of their lives. Terri is about an outcast who is morbidly obese, and rather than do something about his physical problem, he simply decides to accept himself to such an extent that he wears pajamas to school because they’re comfortable. He has given up and no longer tries to gain the acceptance of others. Things change when the vice-principal takes an interest in him, scheduling him and others of that ilk or outright troublemakers for weekly sessions in his small office. The chats that Terri has with the adult, with this authority figure who, we find out later, has his own vulnerabilities, may not help him in high school or in life, but they make for some intriguing, if slow-moving comedy-drama.

The title role of the 15-year-old with the unfortunately androgynous name is played by Jacob Wysocki, twenty years old in real life. This is his breakthrough feature film, one which has promise of future casting in roles that call for obese men. The pace is slow, some would say tediously so, but there are rewards, and Terri serves as a movie that will find a particular audience among those who believe they could have done better in the social areas of high school, whether their deficiencies were due to their weight or to some aspect of personality.

Though Terri in introverted, he takes care of his Uncle James (Creed Bratton), after presumably having been dumped into the older man’s care by Terri’s parents. James, for his part, treats the boy well, but he is even more fragile than Terri. Terri has to make sure that his ailing uncle takes a pharmacy’s worth of pills. When Terri has the fortune of making two friends from the school, the pretty Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) and Chad (Bridger Zadina), he becomes happier than he had been for a while, though one wonders whether the brief friendship would carry over into later life. What is left unspoken in the movie is: What is the boy doing to shed that excess weight, which has been not only responsible for his being shunted aside by his classmates but will impinge on his health—if it has not already done so?

While Wysocki is in virtually every frame, far more than the more celebrated actor John C. Reilly in the role of Mr. Fitzgerald, the conferences between the school official and Terri are the anchor. Reilly, an accomplished comedian who could make people laugh by our simply looking at his expressions, plays vice principal in charge of discipline in a small-town California school. When he interviews a troublemaker, he speaks so loudly that his elderly secretary, who sits just outside, revels in listening in, putting her ear to the window. But Fitzgerald's all bluff, really, a man who is genuinely interested in the kids who are on the margins, even taking them on trips as when he grabs Terri and Chad to go to the funeral of the secretary as the woman had no friends or family.

Mr. Fitzgerald is the authority figure I wish I had and maybe you would too. As for Terri, he is at least noticed by a pretty girl, Heather, when Heather is blacklisted by the rest of the kids for performing a small sexual act during a Home Economics class. Given the bores that director Azazel Jacobs uses as teacher models—the home ec. woman, the home room teacher, the gym coach who throws Terri out because the boy would not perform the needed drills—who could blame Heather for looking for a moment of secret fun?

Terri scores despite its tendency to become tedious because it eschews the sit-com mood that other filmmakers might employ, while humanizing a boy who is lucky to have made three friends in school.

Rated R. 105 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Julie Bertucelli's
The Tree
Opens Friday, July 15, 2011

Written By: Julie Bertucelli, from the novel by July Pascoe (Our Father Who Art in the Tree)

Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Morgana Davies, Marton Csokas, Christian Byers, Tom Russell

Zeitgeist Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

It’s an old story. A woman gets divorced or her husband dies. The woman takes up with another man. The children are furious. Julie Betucelli in her second film feature gives the story her personal slant, in line with her first film, Since Otar Left. That 2003 movie deals with letters sent to a mother and daughter from an adored son in Paris. When the daughter learns that Otar has died, she conceals the truth from her mother. The Tree is likewise about a mother-daughter relationship and how the death of the little girl’s father impacts on the family. The pace is smooth, though the only razzle-dazzle takes place in the climactic conclusion when nature casts a mean additional blow on a grieving woman and her children.

Bertucelli adapted the story from July Pascoe’s short novel Our Father Who Art in the Tree—a book whose thematic sentence is uttered by a ten-year-old girl “It was simple for me, the saints were in heaven and guardian angels had extendable wings like batman and my dad had died and gone to live in the tree in the back yard.” The novel, unlike the movie, finds the eight-year-old girl rather than the mother most unwilling to give up the tree, which the youngster believes harbors the ghost of her father.

The switch, giving more weight the eight-year-old, is a fortuitous one, because Morgana Davies, who is seven and one-half years old during the nine weeks’ filming in the Australian Outback, delivers a stunning performance, one of the best in years for kids about her age.

The first moments establish the relationship between young Simone O’Neil (Morgana Davies) and her father, the little girl certain that she is her dad’s favorite rather than Tim (Christian Bayers), Lou (Tom Russell), or Charlie (Gabriel Gotting). When the father (played by Aden Young) dies suddenly in his truck, the scene witnessed by Simone who is riding with him, the girl is convinced that her dad speaks to her from the big fig tree, a belief that finds the skeptical mom, Dawn O’Neil (Charlotte Gainsbourg), joining. Soon both Simone and Dawn are seen sleeping in the branches. Symbolically the tree helps to heal the two while at the same time prevents them from moving ahead in life, though eight months past the death of the family breadwinner, Dawn takes up with the owner of a plumbing store, George (Marton Csokas). The daughter in particular must choose whether to let go and stop George from cutting it down—which is not likely since the rustling of the leaves convinces her that her dad is whispering—or whether to allow the tree to destroy the family’s rickety house as the roots push against the shack causing frogs to emerge from the toilet.

Nature will make the decision in a shocking conclusion. Charlotte Gainsbourg acts her heart out in grief and at the same time knows how to step back and allow the gifted Morgana Davies to challenge both her and the man she hooks up with. “Oh, really!” is a typical rejoinder from the eight-year-old when the mother tries to deny her growing involvement with a potential stepdad for the child.

Nigel Bluck’s camera affords a supernatural patina to the fig tree with solid tech achievements all around. Morgana Davies will soon be seen with Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill in David Nettheim’s The Hunter, about a mercenary sent from Europe to Tasmania to hunt for the last Tasmanian tiger

Unrated. 100 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Terrence Malick's
The Tree of Life
Opens Friday, May 27, 2011

Written By: Terrence Malick

Starring: Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Fiona Shaw

Fox Searchlight
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

In the Beginning, God Created Terrence Malick. And Terrence Malick begat Emmanuel Lubezki and named him cinematographer. And together they composed visions of the beginnings of the universe, beginning with a bright, colorful spectrum of light followed by a primordial ooze. Cells expand and jellyfish are created, ultimately a pair of dinosaurs, one lying on the ground as though dying while a curious young fellow prances about the watery rocks, places a foot on the fallen creature as though to assert dominance, then matter-of-factly walks off to locate new discoveries. The Creation of the Universe does not take place at the beginning of the film, which would be the logical point, but using cinema’s magical alterations of time and space, The Tree of Life asserts the awe-inspiring Creation as a sudden departure from the reality of life in a Texas town during the 1950’s.

Terrence Malick, whose 1978 Days of Heaven finds a farm worker’s accepting the proposal of her employer because it was thought that he would die within the year thereby yielding benefits to the woman and her brother, and whose The New World dramatizes the clash between Native Americans and English explorers in the 17th Century, now holds forth with a film that would appear to be the culmination of his career. In this venture, Malick uses a Texas family in mid-century writ small to develop a thesis of the universe as a glorious creation albeit one filled with the grief and pain that can extend throughout life as a result of one’s early years and the tragedies that befall a family—all ostensibly a mythic look at the loss of innocence and the fall of humankind.

The story centers on eleven-year-old Jack (a terrific performance by Hunter McCracken allegedly chosen from among 10,000 boys) living in a state of innocence and wonder among nature in a suburban town, his mother, Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) a mostly silent representative of sweetnees and grace, his father, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), a stand-in for the natural world with its combination of love and harsh discipline. Into this family which consists of a father, a mother, and three brothers comes a telegram indicating the death of the O’Brien’s 19-year-old son presumably in a war, and the grief which follows this cursorily explained event.

Brad Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien is the story’s most complex person, full of contradictions. He is angry with his boys, yet he loves them. He plays Bach on the organ at church but considers himself a failure in his goal of becoming a serious musician. He accepts the discipline of the church while simultaneously desiring wealth and position, looking up to a rich neighbor (“Of course he inherited his money”) while taking out a bevy of patents in the aeronautical industry. He demands that his sons address him not as “dad,” but as either “father” or “sir.” Young Jack at one point opines that his father wants to kill him, a feeling imprinted upon him throughout life as we see him decades later when he has morphed into an washed-out executive (Sean Penn) no longer playing in a state of nature but overwhelmed by big-city skyscrapers.

Employing techniques used by Stanley Kubrick, principally in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Malick situates his characters not only in the big city and in the more innocent suburbs but amid jungles, deserts, a landscape of geometric shapes. Malick is adept in inserting Alexander Desplat’s music, punctuating the film with Bach, Brahms and Smetana all in the service of producing awe at the entire business of creation. A series of voiceovers adds to the mystic qualities of the film, one to which an audience must bring patience for its ponderous and, yes, frequently pretentious imagery.

Brad Pitt, showing age particularly because of his close-cropped hair and occasional use of glasses, has grown and could conceivably pick up an Oscar nomination for his role, while Sean Penn, virtually wordless as the adult Jack, project alienation with his somber look.

The film will divide an audience just as it did in Cannes where word has it that the audience was split between boos and bravos. Only the fifth work of Terrence Malick, it is obviously his most realized, most grandiose, and one that deserves to be seen by the strictly art-house audience that it will attract.

Rated PG-13. 138 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Djo Tunda Wa Munga's
Viva Riva
Opens Friday June 10, 2011

Written By: Djo Tunda Wa Munga

Starring : Patsha Bay, Manie Malone, Hoji Fortuna, Marlene Longange

Music Box Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Take away all white people in Kinshasa, the capital of the (so-called) Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the title of this movie could well have been Shaft or I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka. Viva Riva is at heart a blaxploitation movie, sending up whores and gangsters in the most stereotypical way, the difference between this film and American movies of the genre being that this deals purely with black-on-black crime. The title character can be compared with Gordon Parks’s John Shaft, the ultimate in suave black detectives, who finds himself up against the leader of the black crime mob, then against black nationals, and finally working with both against the White Mafia who are trying to blackmail Bumpy, a criminal, by kidnapping his daughter. Riva is not a detective but rather a fellow who has been abroad in Angola, away from his Congo homeland for a decade, then returns to Kinshasa with a stash of hundred-dollar bills and a truckload of fuel that he stole from Angola gangsters.

Fuel is in heavy demand in Kinshasa, and as Munga’s film progresses we learn that electricity is not in great supply either as blackouts plague the town. Kinshasa, as we might have figured out before seeing it on the screen, is not Woody Allen’s Paris. The most notable quote of this first from the Congo ever released in the United States and the first in our country with characters speaking in the Lingala language, comes from the mouth of an Angola thug, Cesar, who notes “Your country is sh*t. It would have been better to stay colonized.” (Perhaps Cesar did not know about Belgian King Leopold II’s crimes against the Congolese people.)

Riva is a guy we in the audience can like notwithstanding his criminality. As played by Patsha Bay Mukana, he appears to laugh at life, secure in the knowledge that a truckload of hot fuel is stashed in a warehouse while Riva waits for the price per liter to rise beyond $7. Riva just wants to have fun, coming across as almost naïve about how he is affecting the people around him. He likes hookers and falls for a red-haired Nora (Manie Malone), whose passion for sex exceeds that of any male in town. Life would be a breeze for Riva, a ladies’ man, were he not pursued hotly by Angolan crime lord, Cesar (Hoji Fortuna), who makes life unpleasant for those who, he thinks, knows Riva’s whereabouts.

The movie is filled with brutality: shootings, knifings, punching abound all in the service of cashing in on the treasure that would help quench the thirst of Congolese for petrol. Appearances deceive. A woman dressed as a nun is actually The Commandant, an officer in the Congolese army. A priest and a bishop are on the take. The wife of Riva’s best friend is furious about her man’s interest in whores and in one scene emerges after a knockdown fight with her husband that leaves her head bloodied. Scenes of sex are as frank as you’ll find in anything by Judd Apatow, though without the tongue-in-cheek (so to speak) humor of the American producer-director.

Ultimately what is winning about this rare contribution by the Congo is its energy, the entire cast plunging into the free-for-all with abandon. Hoji Fortuna stands out as the Angolan gangster who performs in the role with his usually clean and unbloodied white suit. Viva Riva was awarded Best Feature Film at the Pan African Film Festival this year and took away a slew of African Movie Academy Awards including Best Director, Supporting Actress (Marlene Longange), Supporting Actor (Hoji Fortuna), Production Design and Cinematography. Given that Kinshasa is a musical city, the movie is graced with an appealing soundtrack by Cyril Atef, leader of CongopunQ, employing popular guitarists, singers, and Afro-dance tracks. English subtitles are provided for those of us not familiar with the Langala language.

Rated R. 96 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Matthew Vaughn's
X-Men: First Class
Opens Friday, June 3, 2011

Twentieth Century Fox
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Written By: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, story by Sheldon Turner, Bryan Singer

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Oliver Platt, January Jones, Jason Flemyng, Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Bacon

Terrence Malick wowed the audience at Cannes (well, half of them) with The Tree of Life, with its astonishing visuals and its treatment of the creation of the universe. But forget about how the universe and people were created. The more important story on screen today is the evolution of mutants, human beings who were born with weird alterations in their genes to form a new subset of people with magical powers. So step aside, Mr. Malick, and make way for X-Men. In this first-class production, full of stunning visual effects and, surprisingly enough with some stellar performances especially by Michael Fassbender, Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass) directs this prequel to take us back to the beginnings. In other words to appreciate this, you need not have seen the versions in 2000, 2006 and the 2009 movie that starred Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Consider this the best of the series, a revival that some have already compared to the way Casino Royale revived the flagging 007 series. In fact, the word is that X-Men First Class can be compared generally to early Bond, the Sean Connery renderings, particularly From Russia with Love, and anything that mimics a Bond picture is worth seeing in my book.

However, recall the way that Emperor Joseph II reacted to a composition by Mozart in Amadeus with the expression “too many notes,” well something similar might be said for X-Men First Class, which has four screenwriting credits, and which comes across as overly stuffed with characters and scenes at the expense of coherence. One wonders whether each scripter threw in his or her favorites. But never mind. The production is exciting almost throughout, with the CGI folks throwing in everything but the kitchen sink to beat the audience into joyful submission. What’s more, we learn something our teachers never taught about the Holocaust and about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

For example, gazing at the opening of the story in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland, Auschwitz perhaps or maybe Birkenau, we find out a few things that we already knew. For example, Kevin Bacon takes on the role of Dr. Sebastian Shaw who, like Dr. Mengele is in no mood to cure the inmates. He shoots the mother of young Erik Lehnsher (Bill Milner) because, knowing that Erik has mutant powers that could be used in the future (such as by provoking nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union), he is disappointed that the kid is unable to move a coin across the desk. Erik, who survives the camp, is determined to use his magnetic powers to gain revenge against Shaw.

Years later Erik, now a charismatic adult (Michael Fassbender) meets fellow mutant Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). They decide to work together. Charles, a professor in England, is recruited by the CIA together with his sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) to work in a separate department of mutant powers, while Erik turns Nazi hunter. In the movie’s best scene—superior because it is simple, down-to-earth, and filled with tension--Erik tracks two Nazis to an Argentine tavern and, using his powers to attract and deflect metals does them in.

We in the audience get to meet quite a few of these mutants, each with a special power. Emma Frost (January Jones), a sidekick of the evil Sebastian Shaw, has telepathic ability. She can also morph into a big, beautiful diamond incapable of being destroyed. Under CIA apparatchiks Dr. Moira Mac Taggert (Rose Byrne) and a man in black (Oliver Platt), mutants are trained to further develop their powers, including Hank (Nicholas Hoult), Alex (Lucas Till), Sean (Caleb Landry Jones), Armondo (Edi Gathegi) and Angel (Zoe Kravitz). They get their chance to shine during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the year that the world came closest to nuclear Armageddon, and given the fact that we’re all still here, it would not be a spoiler to say that they succeeded, but not until the visual folks give us some star-studded action involving missiles launched from American and Soviet ships.

Solid acting and stunning effects under the leadership of John Dykstra are enhanced by Chris Seagers, who creates a variety of awesome production designs, while Sammy Sheldon’s costumes would win any Halloween contest and John Mathieson’s sharp photography illuminate the entire production. Kevin Bacon shows his linguistic ability in German, Russian and English, using his trilingualism in his move to take over the world. In that sense he is with neither the Russians nor the Americans, but as in familiar James Bond themes, he represents a third force.

Could it be that X-Men First Class is making a civil rights statement as well? Some of the mutants are ashamed to be blue. That makes them different from other human beings. Each is convinced to “be yourself,” though one wonders why those mutants who are insecure—principally young Raven Darkholme—could not simply abstain from turning themselves into blue people.

Rated PG-13. 131 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Frank Coraci's
Opens Friday, July 8, 2011

Written By: Nick Bakay, Rock Reuben

Starring: Kevin James, Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb. Donnie Wahlberg, Joe Rogan

Columbia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karte

Some guys seem unable to make the scene with the babes, at least with the ones that our culture considers hot. There are ways to correct this flaw, the most imaginative being told in Rostand’s novel Cyrano de Bergerac, where the handsome but tongue-tied Christian hires the physically ugly but poetic Cyrano to hide and become Christian’s voice. A similar idea is present in Frank Coraci’s Zookeeper, in which a rotund but well-meaning fellow has his marriage proposal turned down while riding horseback against a background of fireworks and mariachi singers on a romantic beach. His problem is that he’s only a zookeeper and his girlfriend wants him to be something more dignified and lucrative.

Nick Bakay and Rock Reuben, who scripted this movie, have a solution. The animals in the zoo, fearing that the zookeeper will take up an offer by his brother’s car dealership and resign from the zoo, reveal a secret. They speak English, they can talk to human beings, and they can offer good advice, like “feel your inner bear.” This concept may have been borrowed from The Wizard of Oz, though in reverse. But it’s difficult to make this comparison because Zookeeper is no Wizard of Oz. In fact the “comedy” ranges from mildly amusing to insipid to downright embarrassing, which could mean that it will be a hit with its target audience of, maybe, 8 to 11-year-olds. Though dealing with romance, Frank Coraci, who honed his talent on films like Adam Sandler vehicles The Waterboy and, better, The Wedding Singer, is more intent on providing slapstick than honest sentiment.

The story finds Griffin Keyes (Kevin James), happy in his vocation as head keeper in Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo, Kevin is crushed when Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), his girlfriend of five years, rejects a marriage proposal because she cannot see herself marrying a man with, to her small mind, a lowly job. Why a striving woman like Stephanie would date the guy for all this time, and, in fact, has a thuggish ex-boyfriend, Gale (Joe Rogan), is a question that eight-year-olds in the audience would probably not ponder. Griffin turns to his animals for advice on winning the girl back. Joe the Lion advises that he should get her away from her current boyfriend, though this seems absurd since he and Stephanie had considerable time with just each other already. The lioness wife counsels that he should make Stephanie jealous by showing up with a hot date at an upcoming affair. Two bears suggest acting like a predator. The monkey is more concerned with bragging that he has a thumb (able to pick up a cappuccino?). Yet Griffin’s solution is right in front of him. The zoo’s vet, Kate (Rosario Dawson), has feelings for him just the way he is, and he for her, but both are in denial. When Kate agrees to be Griffin’s date at a function to be attended by Stephanie and her current beau, Gale, Griffin is stunned by how great his colleague looks. From there, some eight-year-olds and all ten-year-olds can see where the plot is going.

The point: Be Yourself, hardly the most original theme. However, in getting this concept across, Coraci relies on the broadest comedy, the only Apatow-esque feature in this PG entry being that Griffin “marks territory” with the bear, though discreetly. Some animals like the elephant are real, the gorilla inhabited by a human being with Nick Nolte providing the conversation, and others products of computer graphics, each critter vocalized by an actor. Given the inanity of the dialogue, perhaps allowing animals, also, to be themselves instead of graphics and human voices would have improved the story.

Rated PG. 104 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



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