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Michel Hazanavicius’s
The Artist
Opens Thursday, November 24, 2011


Written by Michel Hazanavicius.

Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle.

The Weinstein Company

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 2011 New York Film Festival

A valentine to cinema—old and new—Michel Hazanavicius’ entrancing, enveloping and exquisite film, The Artist, should sweep audiences—young and old--off their collective feet. It’s impossible to not fall in love with this motion picture and get caught up in the spellbinding magic of its irony-free optimism and unmitigated joy.

Do not let the fact that it happens to be a black & white, silent movie stop you from partaking in this delightful experience.

Michel Hazanavicius is a master filmmaker who loves his craft and knows his cinema history so well he can appropriate from the best (Citizen Kane, Singin’ in the Rain, Sunrise as well as a slew of silent and sound films from the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s) yet make an ingenious homage to a time when Hollywood was considered golden.

The basic plot is the typical A Star is Born story. It’s 1927. High on the heels of yet another cinematic triumph, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) meets an adorable young aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Hazanavicius muse and wife Berenice Bejo) at his film premiere. The two have an instant connection, but George is stuck in a loveless marriage to Doris (Penelope Ann Miller, looking like Miriam Hopkins by way of Mary Astor).

George also has other potentially calamitous things on his mind since talkies are taking the town and country by storm but he refuses to give in to what he sees as a passing fad (truth is he has good reason to fight sound pictures but I won’t say why—it’s a sweet surprise). As Peppy’s career begins to take off, George is all but washed up--only his faithful chauffeur (James Cromwell revisiting his Murder by Death character) and his Jack Russell-terrior who he shared much screen time with—do not abandon him. Little does he know he has one other champion in his corner.

The incredibly charismatic, captivating Jean Dujardin channels a host of suave Hollywood leading men including: Douglas Fairbanks, Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power—to name a few—but then etches his own poignant and heart-tugging portrait of a prideful man who is forced to realize he has become obsolete and must ‘make way for the young.’ It’s Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond with a sex change and Dujardin is more than ready for his close up!

Equally worthy of tons of praise is his leading lady, Berenice Bejo. Stunning and evoking Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Janet Gaynor and Luise Rainer, Bejo is simply spectacular as Peppy—a gal who is highly ambitious but also grateful and graceful.

All the actors have the faces of silent screen stars but the uncanny ability to project a modern perspective. It may seem a bit ananchronistic but it works magnificently.

The entire design team is to be commended for a dazzling, elegant and faithful look to the film and Ludovic Bource’s score keeps us energized and on the edge of ours seats waiting to see what will happen next.

Like Woody Allen’s extraordinary film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, The Artist is a tribute to movie making at its finest. Both films are sublime and bittersweet. Hazanavicius’ movie leans more towards the sweet.


 



Roman Polanski’s
Carnage
Opens Friday, December 16, 2011



Written by Yasmina Reza, Roman Polanski, based on the play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza.

Starring: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz.

Sony Pictures Classics

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 2011 New York Film Festival

I saw Carnage (running time: 80 minutes) and another film (running time: 91 minutes) back to back. At the end of Carnage, I could not believe that 80 minutes had zipped by. I was so enmeshed in the psychological entanglements onscreen that it was inconceivable to me that the film was over. I walked out dejected but thrilled from the experience. The second film, however, was another story—an interminable one. I was trapped in a bad Hollywood thriller, checking my watch every ten minutes in hopes time would stop slowing down. It felt like four hours.

Brevity can be a good thing but it can also leave the viewer wanting—demanding—more, especially when everyone involved is doing great work and the themes being presented are intriguing and universal.

The plot of Carnage, based on the Tony-winning Yasmina Reza play, is quite simple: one pre-teen boy hits another with a stick during a schoolyard scuffle, injuring him significantly. The parents of both boys get together to discuss the matter in a ‘civilized’ fashion. That is the plot. The rest is a swift, four-character game of truth where each parent reveals the true nature they are hiding underneath their respective veneers.

Roman Polanski is a masterful filmmaker so it’s no surprise that Carnage is a cinematic treat boasting electric performances and superb production values, including a terrific score, by Alexander Desplat, that brackets the narrative but never intrudes on it.

The pace is brisk. The upper middle class setting is uncomfortably claustrophobic and the jokes and shock-moments are perfectly hit.

I was especially struck by the actor placement in each frame--which seemed to work like a game of chess with different characters being in check or check-mate at different points in the film.

When I saw the play on Broadway, my main criticism was that I wanted more. At the very least, I wanted to see the four gifted actors onstage take things further. I craved a deeper examination of these people beyond the conspicuous. Yes, most of them mask their true natures until it betrays them. Yes, chaos becomes the order of the day. But I always felt there was room to take things further. It was too simplistic and, therefore, unsatisfactory.

Resa had an opportunity here to go beyond the world of the play but chose to remain faithful to her original work. Admirable but disappointing.

Luckily there are four superb actors on the screen for almost all of the 80 minutes keeping us completely captivated.

Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet deliver the best, most fully-realized performances. Waltz nails the educated, slimy, self-involved attorney with ingrained notions of how boys behave. And Winslet probably has the most interesting character-journey as we watch her move from concerned parent to disgusted wife to fed-up woman. And whether she’s projectile vomiting or tossing flowers, she does so with great gusto!

The other two are a bit hard to swallow as a couple to begin with. And while John C. Reilly is certainly good as a Fred Flintstone-type, it doesn’t seem like that much of an acting stretch. Jodie Foster has a more difficult time. She does controlling, bleeding heart/politically correct really well but a little more nasty and abrasive would have gone a long way.

And it’s exactly that bite, that savage exploration that could have given Carnage the boost from admirable film to extraordinary work.

 



Angelina Maccarone’s
Charlotte Rampling: The Look
Opened Friday, November 4, 2011

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella


The fiercely fascinating and endlessly enigmatic Charlotte Rampling is the subject of a bizarre and intriguing new documentary in which she muses on heavy themes such as Age, Beauty, Love, Death and Desire (the film is broken into these type of chapter headings), and yet we come away from the film with little knowledge of who the real Charlotte Rampling is. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Angelina Maccarone has made a lovely meditation on the thoughts, feelings and reminiscences of the actress who started her career as a Julie Christie-esque party gal who has no desire to settle down in Georgy Girl and became the go-to-actor representing the modern European woman--stunning yet aloof.

Maccarone’s camera follows Rampling as she speaks with fellow artists and lovers (former and otherwise) who aren’t even named until the end of the film. It’s as if they only matter in terms of how they help define Rampling or, in this case, define what she puts forth for the docu-cam to absorb.

Throughout her career she has fearlessly chosen roles enjoying, “wicked, dangerous characters.” A terrifically atypical actress who prides herself on being discerning in her film selections, Rampling has never been one to shy away from the provocative and has suffered for it. Respected New Yorker critic Pauline Kael famously blasted Rampling for her role in the Nazi S&M film The Night Porter in 1974. Kael did not attack her performance as much as she damned her as a person.

As to her personal story, we learn Ms. Rampling’s older sister (by 3 years) committed suicide when Rampling was 20 and we do get a smidge of a sense of how anxiety and fear have played roles in her life and every so often her chestnuts ring pretty profound: “I think we only live well because we know we’re going to die.” Yet she stays away from specifically speaking about her personal life—allowing the mystery and inaccessibility to remain intact.

The film is about reflection but Rampling is never content with wallowing in the past or looking for sympathy or validation--at least, not on the surface. She speaks about people’s perception that she is a monster and then capitulates that “quite often it’s just better to be a monster.”

The docu is peppered with terrific clips from some of her best work including Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict, Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, Luchino Visconti’s The Damned and François Ozon’s Swimming Pool.

It’s in these moments, the cine-segments as well as her speaking about the craft that a light truly shines beyond the dazzling beauty, cult status and well-preserved elusiveness. Here we see Rampling as a motion picture actress unafraid of allowing the camera to penetrate and reveal. In that respect she has paved the way for the Cate Blanchetts and Tilda Swintons of today.

After viewing Charlotte Rampling: The Look, I immediately watched Georgy Girl, began The Damned and have The Night Porter and Stardust Memories on top of my must-see-again pile. For a cinephile there is no greater gift than to want to learn more about an artist, through their work. Let the Charlotte Rampling film festival begin!




Alexander Payne’s
The Descendants
Opens Friday, November 18, 2011

Written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.

Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Patricia Hastie, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Robert Forster.

Fox Searchlight

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 2011 New York Film Festival

Reminiscent of James L. Brooks’ Terms of Endearment, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (his long awaited follow up to Sideways) is an exhilarating, poetic motion picture that is as alluring as it is profound. And you may find yourself dreaming of a Hawaiian vacation after you’ve seen this gem.

Matt King (George Clooney) proclaims in the opening voice-over that: “Paradise can go fuck itself.” King is distressed and distraught because his wife is in a coma after a boating accident off Waikiki. He is left to tend to his two rebellious daughters as well as deal with the recently revealed news that his spouse was unfaithful. In addition, Matt is an attorney who must decide what to do about a large block of land entrusted to his family and handed down from Hawaiian royalty. The majority of his legion of cousins want him to sell it, which would alienate many natives.

George Clooney places all-vanity aside to delve deep into the heart and soul of a man who must deal with his wife’s imminent death as well as the realization that she was about to leave him for another man--that and the all-too frightening eventuality that he will have to raise his two daughters alone.

Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the screenwriters take a very unique situation in a very unique setting and weave a rich and rewarding narrative filled with great charm, wit and bite--much like the late great Billy Wilder usually did.

The dialogue, as in all Alexander Payne films, is crisp, clever but never ostentatious or overly sentimental. He and his fellow writers know how to create real, intelligent characters who can cope with extreme stress in very distinct, individual ways.

Payne and his top-notch team also provide a glorious sense of atmosphere from the vintage Hawaiian music to the gorgeously photographed vistas to the yummy food on display.

And he’s cast his film perfectly.

Clooney simply gets better as he gets older, unafraid to immerse himself into this complex character—reach in deep and show us the pain and despair as well as the surprising joy. In a brief scene Matt shares with his daughter’s seemingly stupid friend Sid (a delightful Nick Krause), Matt is ready to write the boy off as an idiot until he lets him share some of his own messy familial history. Clooney’s realization that he may have been quick to judge this boy is a master class in subtle but powerful screen acting. This transcendent performance will bring Clooney another fully-deserved Oscar nomination.

The rest of the ensemble rocks—especially Shailene Woodley as Matt’s 17-year-old daughter, a damaged kid who proves much wiser than anyone, including her father, anticipated. Robert Forster nails gruff and angry in a brief but potent turn. And Judy Greer is sweet and heartbreaking in a key role.

The Descendants boasts one of the most satisfying endings of any film in recent memory. It’s definitely one of 2011’s best movies.



Stephen Daldry's
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Opens December 25, 2011

Screenwriter: Eric Roth, from Jonathan Safran Foer's novel

Starring: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, Thomas Horn

Warner Bros

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Historians of cinema may well note that Thomas Horn's role in Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is among the most assured debut performances of a child actor ever. Horn, just thirteen years of age and obviously a prodigy has been seen on Teen Jeopardy. He not only anchors the film but appears in virtually every scene as a nine-year-old lad burning with the ambition to fulfill a mission of his own choosing. Though the subject matter--a boy's search for a lock that fits a key left by his father who had perished in the World Trade Center on 9/11--is an occasion to break out the Kleenex, the movie is peppered by comic touches throughout and, best of all, by a host of stunning scene-chewing by the supportive ensemble.

Daldry takes time to convince us in the audience of the close relationship enjoyed by Oskar (Thomas Horn) and his dad, Thomas (Tom Hanks), with Thomas conjuring up an assortment of games to challenge his son's intellect. A jeweler who had wanted to be a scientist, Thomas settled into his choice as lapidarian in order to support his family, consisting of himself, his wife (Sandra Bullock), and his only son.

A road-and-buddies movie, if you will, Extremely Loud takes full advantage of the world's most exciting city when Oskar, finding the mysterious key inside a blue vase and thinking that his dad meant for him to exploit it, travels the five boroughs of New York City to find the one person named Black, as that is the name he finds on a sheet of paper left by his dad. His aim, which he figures could take him three years, is to meet and consult with 472 folks in the phone book named Black to find the one with the lock that the key can fit. (Never mind that hundreds of "Blacks" may have unpublished numbers.)

Oskar carries a tambourine as his security blanket wherever he travels, picking up an elderly man known as The Renter (Max von Sydow), a fellow who had been traumatized by the bombing in his home town of Dresden and has since been unable to speak. Like marathoners traversing the city limits in slow motion, the two become buddies as inseparable as Oskar had been with his dad.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close features extraordinarily rich acting by von Sydow (who shuffles along, trying to keep up with a lad who could be his grandson), by Jeffrey Wright (who is most familiar with the significance of the key), by Viola Davis (a Black who befriends the boy and delivers him to her ex-husband) and Sandra Bullock (who proves to be as adept in a serious role as she is in comic takes). Given a recent case in New York in which a young boy on his own was kidnapped, killed and dismembered, Daldry makes sure to let us know that the kid was not really alone any part of the way.

This performance by a thirteen-year-old is strong enough to distract us from looking at Tom Hanks as the dean of American acting. Our focus is on the boy all the way. While many parts of Foer's novel from which the film is adapted could not be included--such as the way Oskar deals with a recording of a Hiroshima survivor--readers who are cineastes as well will probably find that this story of loss and recovery does justice to Foer's novel.

Rated PG-13. 129 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 



Asa Butterfield and Jude Law in Hugo

Martin Scorsese’s
Hugo

Opens Friday, November 25, 2011

Written by John Logan, based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.

Starring: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law.

Paramount

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

An instant classic, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is the perfect holiday film and a celebration of the art of cinema. Scorsese, like Woody Allen, continues to do spectacular, awe-inspiring work that rivals every younger filmmaker working today. They just don’t get any better than Hugo.

Based on Brian Selznick’s award-winning children’s novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the sad but sweet Hugo (the delightful Asa Butterfield of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) is a lonely orphan who lives in a large clock in a busting train station in1930s Paris. He has taken over the job of keeping all the clocks running since his drunken Uncle (Ray Winstone) vanished. Hugo’s passionate project is trying to fix the automaton he inherited from his late father (a charming Jude Law). While stealing a particular gadget he hopes will help jumpstart the elaborate machine, Hugo encounters an embittered toy seller (Ben Kingsley in a moving and understated performance) who, it turns out, is the great forgotten filmmaker George Melies.

Melies, for those who do not know, was one of the pioneers of early cinema. He made over 500 films, most of them lost to us, but his 1902 sci-fi masterpiece, A Trip to the Moon, is most significant and the shot of the spaceship hitting the moon in the eye is truly iconic.

John Logan’s enrapturing screenplay grabs us from the very first amazing scene and keeps us bedazzled until the credits roll, taking viewers on a journey of survival where one boy tries to figure out his role in the world and ends up enriching it for the better, forever. This may sound schmaltzy but as directed by Martin Scorsese, it’s simply magical.

Hugo is an action-adventure story for those of us who are tired of the typical action-adventure movies churned out by Hollywood. Scorsese’s film captivates because his characters are so alive and passionate and his work reveals the inner pathos and hopes and dreams in each one, something we can all relate to. And he takes 3-D to new heights by giving us distinct dimensions throughout, never forcing cheesy shots or silly prop maneuvering.

The ensemble is simply sensational as is the design team--in particular: Dante Ferretti’s elaborate, gorgeous sets; Robert Richardson’s stunning camerawork and Thelma Schoonmaker’s deft editing.

Scorsese has always been an uber-knowledgeable motion picture historian, a ravenous movie lover and a champion of film preservation. Here he gets to combine all three and deliver an absolute wonder of a gift to audiences—no matter how much or little they know about the medium.

Hugo is undoubtedly one of the finest films of 2011.




Werner Herzog's
Into The Abyss
Opens Friday, November 11, 2011


Written By: Werner Herzog
Starring:: Werner Herzog

Sundance Selects
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Into the Abyss looks into the soul of humankind, specifically one man who has been condemned to death. His father is serving time during the young man's execution. Another subject of the film is spending his life behind bars. A few more subjects are connected to the Texas death industry, such as a reverend who notes that he stands next to the condemned holding onto his ankle until the moment of death; a captain responsible for getting the condemned strapped to the gurney; a woman whose brother is a victim of one murder; the young man who had been found guilty and given a death sentence ten years earlier; the wife of a lifer who became pregnant shortly after seeing her husband, presumably (so she says) by artificial insemination. Director Herzog wryly comments that contraband is usually from the visitor to the prisoner but in that case, the delivery took place in reverse.

The principal flaw, one which ranks this film considerably below most of the German-born director’s output, is that the movie is rarely opened up. When photographer Peter Zeitlinger looks beyond the folks being interviewed by Mr. Herzog, it’s only to get a look at the ramshackle towns of Conroe, Texas, and its neighbor (no joke), Cut and Shoot, TX. Cut and Shoot is six miles east of Conroe, 40 miles from Houston, and was given its name when a small boy reportedly declared "I'm going to cut around the corner and shoot through the bushes in a minute!" This statement apparently stayed in the residents' minds. The Conroe Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website calls that town “a beautiful collision of nature, history, the arts and recreation all nestled in the Piney Woods of East Texas.” Somehow under the link for “things to do,” murder is not mentioned.

A triple murder took Herzog to the area to interview eleven people with some relevance to the crime. A woman in a gated community, no less, is killed by two teen-agers looking to steal her car, probably for just a joy ride. Two others are used by the killers to find the code that would unlock the gate. One teen, Jason Burkett, was sentenced to life imprisonment, the other, Michael Perry, got the death penalty and is interviewed just eight days before he received a lethal injection at Texas’ death house at Huntsville. We’re not apprised of the reason for the different sentences.

Herzog is allowed under one hour for each of the incarcerated fellows. Michael Perry, big smiles on his face, almost gleefully submits his wrists for handcuffs, asserts his innocence (the other guy did it) and has the chutzpah while on the gurney to forgive the family of the victims. He, like his accomplice Jason Burkett, is articulate, as though flattered that a great filmmaker has gone to the Texas sticks to interview him. Perry indicates that he kept his sanity by refusing to “look” at the walls enclosing him.

Mirroring Herzog’s own repulsion at the death penalty, Charles Richardson, a captain of a death squad responsible for strapping the condemned onto the gurney, quit his job though he lost his pension, becoming disgusted with the whole procedure. In a way Richardson reflects Timothy Spall’s character, Albert Pierrepont, responsible for scores of hangings in Britain but who ultimately repents—having had enough. As the most articulate spokesperson, Melyssa Thompson-Burkett, a perky woman who married lifer Jason Burkett, is coy about admitting that the child in her womb is Jason’s.

I would have liked Herzog to focus more on why so many people in the little town of Conroe are behind bars, including Michael Perry’s dad—who blames himself for not “being there” for the boy. Is there something hereditary about these killers, considering that a great many Americans live below the poverty line and do not commit crimes? There are good reasons for abolishing the death penalty, but Herzog does not convince us to his view that the punishment is barbaric, in fact highlighting testimony from Lisa Stotler-Balloun who states that she breathed a sigh of relief when she witnessed her brother’s killer’s execution.

Unrated. 108 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Phyllida Lloyd's
The Iron Lady
Opens Friday, December 30, 2011

Screenwriter: Abi Morgan

Starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Alexandra Roach, Harry Lloyd

The Weinstein Company

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

There’s nothing bland or compromising about Margaret Thatcher. She would find apt company in our Republican Party debates, though there her right-wing views would hardly stand out as anything different or weird given the state of politics here today. A soul sister, as it were, of Ronald Reagan, she took vociferous stands against unions and against what she considered a nanny state with a citizenry groveling at the feet of government agencies for welfare payments, disability allowances and guarantees against job dismissal. When Argentina invaded the British-held Falkland Islands, Margaret sent the fleet to take back the land thereby protecting the British citizens who lived on the Falklands. Like so many Republicans and tea party advocates on our shores, her political views were not simply a few meters different from those of liberals, they were from a different planet. Her viewpoint today would be that the rich should not pay a higher percentage of tax than the poor, because why should success be penalized? And why should anyone owe obligations to his or her fellow creatures simply because both are citizens or residents of the same country?

Like such British political dramas as Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace, about the fierce loyalties of William Pitt, Phyllida Lloyd’s biopic of the titled ferrous female has far from a dull political focus but instead plays up the personal aspects of the lady that proves her to be somewhat less shatterproof than iron. Instead Lloyd focuses, if in an overly sentimental way, with the woman years after her retirement when she shops for a bottle of milk seemingly unrecognized by the clerk or the customers.

The principal time period of the film is 2005 when Britain came under terrorist attack, though Lloyd shifts the spotlight regularly to the lady’s youth, then to her rise in politics. She is at first overtly heckled by the men in their bespoke suits, relegated to a women’s room in Parliament complete with an ironing board. But who by force of speech and passion, she rises to the leadership of her party. (These steps are not made clear by the film. Weren’t there quite a few men who’d have priority over her as the choice of the Tories?) Though Thatcher is eventually forced out of her party’s leadership by street protests, including a miners’ strike, IRA terrorism, an unconscionable gap in incomes, she retains her partisan supporters to this day.

But wait. Though the plot is conventional, even didactic, you may not be going to this movie to learn about Margaret Thatcher but rather to watch the uncanny performance by Meryl Streep who plays the Iron Lady both as Prime Minister and a retired homebody who is now unrecognizable by her public. Streep, America’s foremost actress, does not play Thatcher: she actually is the woman, fragile in her dotage, forceful in her Prime Ministership, showing youthful ambition long before she hitched her political star to her country’s government. In other words you don’t go to this movie for the story, but rather for Streep’s searing performance, one which won her the Best Actress award from New York Film Critics Circle.

Among the rewards of this movie is insight into the British parliamentary system, one more exciting than our own in that the deputies do not sit passively while bills are debated but actively heckle those whose views they do not like. Without Meryl Streep, the film might never have gotten off the ground. Streep's flawless acting projects the views of the writer, Abi Morgan, and director Lloyd, that Margaret Thatcher receives ever-so-just treatment as a woman whose virtues and vices are nothing more than elements to be pondered by the audience.

Rated PG-13 105 minutes. © Harvey Karten, 2011. Member: New York Film Critics Online


 

 


Lars von Trier’s
Melancholia

Opens Friday, November 11, 2011

Written by Lars von Trier.

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, Brady Corbet, Cameron Spurr, Charlotte Rampling, Jesper Christensen, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Udo Kier, Kiefer Sutherland.

Magnolia Pictures

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 2011 New York Film Festival

Melancholia may very well be the Lars von Trier film for Lars von Trier haters. But his fans will be pleased as well.

It’s no secret that von Trier is one of my favorite filmmakers. Why? Because he dares. The man is afraid of everything, yet the artist—or more accurately--the work, is fearless. He’s a director currently unparalleled in his originality and chutzpah.

Like the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, Lars von Trier’s films are usually born out of his own angst, depression and general ennui. These artists never hide their internal crises; they weave them into highly personal motion pictures. Their narratives have a therapeutic quality--for the respected auteurs and, if you share some of their demons, for the audience as well. In addition, both directors have a misanthropic, Strindbergian view of the world that certainly stamps their films. And misogyny is an additional shared trait. Bergman is subtler. Trier is balls-out obvious about his simultaneous adoration and contempt for the female sex (Antichrist is a prime example of this).

The best work by Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier provide the viewer with a devastating catharsis. You may feel like you’ve spent two hours in exhaustive psychotherapy, yet you feel oddly euphoric.

Sadly, Bergman is no longer with us but von Trier is, and if you can separate the boorish and loudmouth man from the genius filmmaker, you should be thoroughly enthralled by his latest meditation on life, death, love, sex and the true nature of human beings. (If you cannot, it is truly your loss!)

Melancholia is about the end of the world.

In fact, the world ends in the opening sequence (set to Wagner’s classic ‘Tristan and Isolde’) so there is never any wondering about whether it is actually going to happen or not. The shots are visually dynamic, so impressive that they may flashback into the viewer’s conscience as he/she watches the rest of the narrative—always aware that they are experiencing a story with great cosmic weight.

Melancholia is a mental condition marked by depression and unsubstantiated fears. In the film, it is also a planet that is about to collide with Earth.

The story introduces us to two sisters: Justine, a depressed, wreck of a person, played magnificently by Kirsten Dunst, and Claire, the calm, orderly sib pitch-perfectly embodied by Antichrist’s Charlotte Gainsbourg. I’m sure there that it is no coincidence that they represent the two sides of every female (as seen by LVT anyway).

Justine is about to marry sweet, vapid Michael (played winningly by True Blood hottie Alexander Skarsgard), but quickly has second thoughts..and then some.

Von Trier puts his hand-held, shaky-cam style to great use in the wedding scenes as we feel Justine’s unease as well as her increasing sense of foreboding. Claire does her best to handle her erratic sister and her angry husband (Kiefer Sutherland) but as the weeks pass Claire begins to lose it—just as Justine seems to find clarity. The psychological journeys of both sisters are fascinating as we watch two completely different reactions to their impending doom.

The director has assembled a brilliant technical team as well as cast to tell his gorgeously grim story with striking visuals and terrifically gripping performance.


The final shot is one of the most haunting, mesmerizing and unforgettable of any film I’ve seen in the last few decades. It is truly poetic in it’s beauty yet profound in it’s depiction of despair and acceptance.

Lars Von Trier has given us some of the most remarkable, bold films of our generation (can anyone dispute the power of Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville?) as he continues to explore his own dark side and unleash his mental monsters on a sometimes unsuspecting audience. In challenging his own beliefs, prejudices and idiosyncrasies, his work makes us question our own thoughts, ideas and behavior, forcing us to visit the disturbing and depraved areas of our own hearts and minds. He’s not just a provocateur; he’s a therapist at a time when psychoanalysis may be an absolutely vital part of our survival.

 




Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn

Simon Curtis’s
My Week With Marilyn
Opens November 18, 2011


Written by Adrian Hodges.

Starring: Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Redmayne, Emma Watson, Julia Ormond, Toby Jones, Dominic Cooper, Judi Dench, Dougray Scott, Derek Jacobi, Zoe Wanamaker.

The Weinstein Company

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 2011 New York Film Festival


I wanted to love My Week With Marilyn. I loved certain moments. I loved most of the performances (even the highly caricatured ones). I loved the look of the film, the tint. I loved the tone. I loved its ambition. And, mostly, I loved that it was a love letter to one of the most iconic movie stars that ever graced the screen. The word ‘iconic’ is tossed around like a baseball, of late, so it’s meaning has been diminished. When you think of Marilyn Monroe, you realize words like ‘icon’ and ‘legend’ were created specifically for her.

What I didn’t love about the movie: the obvious and predictable approach the screenwriter (Adrian Hodges) chose to take. The talent involved in this work demanded a better, more complex script. Still, most everyone does their best with what they are given.

In the summer of 1956, the most famous woman in the world, Marilyn Monroe, landed in England for the very first time to begin principle photography on The Prince and the Showgirl, a film that would co-star and be directed by the most celebrated stage actor of his time, Sir Laurence Olivier. It was a monumental pairing of an aging, but brilliant, egotist with an erratic, needy and neurotic Hollywood star. Talk about olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Simultaneously, 23-year old Colin Clark, an aspiring filmmaker, got his first job as the third assistant director on that very set. Forty years later he would write a detailed account of the six-month shoot titled, The Prince, the Showgirl and Me. He would then write a follow-up memoir titled, My Week With Marilyn, which chronicled a fantastical weekend he spent with Monroe during that time. The film is based on both books. Basically Clark becomes Monroe’s go-to boy once hubby Arthur Miller flees her side.

Simon Curtis, responsible for Cranford and many other terrific Brit TV dramas—along with his design team—does a fabulous job of capturing the period and getting the movie-set look perfect. As with TV films like Moviola and Norma Jean and Marilyn, that is half the battle.

The other half always proves more challenging. Which brings me to my main issue with biopics and films about known stars: why can’t screenwriters pen normal speak for celebrities? It’s bloody unfortunate that the actors are forced to spew out cliché-ridden drivel instead of real, true sentences. Here the character of Vivien Leigh (played by Julia Ormond) suffers most. Yes, by all accounts Leigh was highly aware of the fact that she was no longer able to play certain types because of her age (she, ironically, originated the part of the showgirl on the stage but was too old for the film version) and she was manic-depressive, but the lines Ormond is forced to speak are downright appalling. And the writer is to blame.

I get the difficulty involved in breathing life into public figures that were so popular and have taken on legendary status. But I’m certain when no one was around they didn’t put on airs and act all the time.

As far as the approach by the actor, that can be more of a conundrum. Do you rely on mimicry? Do you move away from the obvious and run the risk of alienating the audience? When it’s blended well it can be glorious (Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, Robert Downey, Jr. as Chaplin, Christian McKay as Orson Welles).

Most of the actors fair very well. Eddie Redmayne, as Colin, is a delight and, since he isn’t saddled with playing someone we know, etches a splendidly sweet portrayal of a boy completely transfixed by a goddess, but also horny for a girl (and they happen to come in the same sexy package).

Kenneth Branagh’s Olivier is a masterful impersonation and yet he gives us deep insight into a man who longs to be more famous than he already is while trying to remain an artist. Most of his best moments involve little dialogue—Branagh’s face simply says it all.

Dame Judi Dench in the tiny role of Sybil Thorndike enlivens every moment she is in. And Dougray Scott is Arthur Miller to a frightening T.

Michelle Williams has the greatest challenge on her hands with Monroe and mostly triumphs. She has the pouty look, the sexy movements, the charm, the insecurities, the sweetness and when she isn’t forced to utter obvious lines like: “Please don’t forget me,” she is magnificent. It’s more than impersonation; it’s the best embodiment possible given the limitations.

I have not been much of a Williams fan of late. I’ve found her work quite wooden and one-dimensional. And during My Week With Marilyn I was fighting enjoying the performance but midway through I was completely won over. She charms in unexpectedly spectacular and sublimely subtle ways--as I’m certain the real Marilyn did. A fitting tribute, indeed.


 




Lilian Franck, Robert Cibis's
Pianomania
Opens Friday, November 4, 2011

Written By: Lilian Franck, Robert Cibis

Starring: Stephan Knüpfer, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Lang Lang, Alfred Brendel, Till Fellner, Julius Drake, Ian Bostridge, Rudolf Buchbinder

First Run Features

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

There are pharmacists who do nothing but read prescriptions, take some good guesses from the physicians’ handwriting on the drugs to be issued, and put the pills into an automatic counter. Then there are pharmacists hired by GSK and Squibb and the other biggies who do intensive research into new products, racing for the cures. Similarly, there are the piano tuners who come to your house, listen to the parents who may not know a C from an F sharp, turn a tool left or right, and leave within a half hour. Generally they satisfy the elders, who listen to their kids’ playing and find it to be terrific. And then there are piano technicians, glorified tuners, who work for the concert pianists. Their year-‘round job is a far cry from the simple adjustments of spinet pianos with feeble sound. They do not simply tune the grand pianos at the great concert halls as they see fit but act according to the persnickety instructions of the masters—who in the old days would be the likes of José Iturbi and Vladimir Horowitz and Van Cliburn. These piano technicians can never throw up their hands upon hearing the constant complaints and suggestions of the concert pianists, even if they cannot themselves hear anything wrong with the way the middle C sounds.

Directors Lilian Franc and Robert Civis believe that one of these technicians is charming enough to win us in the audience over, since only a small fraction of folks choosing to attend Pianomania would be interested wholly in the way the 88 keys are made to heel. Graciously avoiding the usual technique of mediocre documentarians—those who carry on interviews with an abundance of talking heads who sit in chairs and pontificate—the directors utilize no interviews at all. Everything proceeds naturally, the technician talking to the pianist, then responding. We’re flies on the wall, which is all to the good. In those instances that require the technician to make something clear to the movie audience when no-one else is around, he literally talks to himself, but in reality he is delivering a small soliloquy to us in our seats.

The gifted technician is Stefan Knüpfer, a Hamburg resident, a former pianist who is now chief technician for Steinway & Sons. Most of his work shown here takes place in Vienna at the city’s famed concert house. Photographers Robert Cibis and Jerzy Palacz take breaks now and then to show us the wealth of statues in the city that at one time was the cultural and political capital of the world. Knüpfer is German-speaking, but comfortable enough in English to communicate with a wide band of world-famous pianists. Lang Lang, for example, is said to have inspired twenty million youths in China to take up the instrument, given the way he has made some of the classics into “pop” style interpretations, banging out the notes to Liszt’s "Hungarian Rhapsody Number Six" like a fellow trying to equal the decibel count of "Deep Purple." Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Alfred Brendel, Julius Drake, Till Fellner, Aleksey Igudesman and Richard Hyung-Ki Joo strut their particular stuff, the surprise coming from the last two musicians who do a clown act, in effect satirizing pianists to the laughter of their live audience.

We’re also let in on the technical skills required by the recording engineers, who read notes as their pianist is playing Bach’s “Art of the Fugue,” a recording that was booked a year in advance and for which Knüpfer must have spent a hundred hours or so preparing the pianos.

Pianomania may be too broad a title for this movie, presumably meaning that concert pianists must be obsessive about their craft, seeming to nitpick about matters such as whether one musician wants to have “a big, blossoming tone for the note or a more compact intimate tone.” Some of the techie terms thrown about include “harpsichord-situation,” “chamber-situation” and “ensemble situation.”

As a person more interested in the sounds produced by Mr. Knüpfer than the particular ways he manipulates the hammers and strings to get those sounds, I’m probably like the typical member of the movie audience. In that regard I’d have preferred to hear more than mere snippets of the glorious music, which include the aforementioned piece by Liszt, Bach’s “Die Kunst der Fuge,” “Brahms’s “Sommerabend” which has a vocal accompaniment, and Schumann’s “Fantasie C-Dur.” Delivering some 30-120 seconds of each and then shifting back to some talk is like coitus interruptus. Don’t expect any of the drama of Milos Forman’s Amadeus, in which larger snippets of music are presented together with dramatic situations and gorgeous photography. This is not an edge-of-your-seat experience, but rather a solid, workmanlike look at a profession that has never been examined before in the cinema.

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




Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender in Shame

Steve McQueen's
Shame
Opens Friday, December 2, 2011


Written by Steve McQueen & Abi Morgan

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 2011 New York Film Festival


“Fucking fearless” is the best way to describe both Michael Fassbender’s groundbreaking performance as well as Steve McQueen’s edgy and thrilling new film. And you may reverse the two words as well and it would still be appropriate.

Shame is one of the most searing, realistic depictions of sex addiction ever captured onscreen. Not that many films are vying for the title. Reminiscent of Richard Brooks’ extraordinary Looking for Mr. Goodbar, but without the moralistic ending, Shame follows hot, fit, thirtysomething Brandon (Fassbender), a financially successful sexaholic on an Inferno-esque journey through his own libidinous heart of darkness though, in his case, the heart is replaced with another vital organ (very vital to Brandon)!

Brandon’s dolce, yet empty, vita is interrupted by the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Their intense, borderline-psychotic relationship gives the film its pulse and allows us a peep-show window into their dark and nasty world.

A third important character in this feral film is New York City. But realize this is not the NYC of Woody Allen’s Manhattan as much as the NYC depicted in Scorsese’s seminal Taxi Driver—2011-prettier, but festering with Lynchian nastiness beneath the surface, certainly beneath the surface of it’s inhabitants.

From the first erotically-charged image of Brandon laying on blue bed sheets, shirtless, with his hand near his crotch and a tormented look about him to the repetitive nude walking scenes where he listens to disgruntled messages left by angry women (right before he hits the shower) to his maniacally masturbating at work and at home to the his many anonymous sexual encounters—Shame is bent on pulling no punches in its portrayal of a man so obsessed with sex, yet so devoid of the ability to feel anything other than momentary pleasure.

McQueen and his team have decided to boldly probe issues of intimacy and how most of human foibles and idiosyncrasies—especially the sexual ones—are born in childhood and can sometimes mutate into unhealthy compulsions.

For Brandon, there is a definite separation between love and sex; the former is completely foreign to him, the latter he excels at. Like alcoholism, gambling and drug addiction, sexual compulsion is a real disease and Shame doesn’t shy away from a frank and challenging narrative.

The nuanced script, by McQueen & Abi Morgan lay the groundwork for a rich and disturbing meditation on sex addiction, but Shame is about Brandon’s odyssey and that focus allows the film to penetrate (I’ll intend the pun) and, ultimately, devastate.

So much of the film’s success has everything to do with Michael Fassbender.

McQueen’s gripping and ballsy first feature, Hunger, played at the 2008 New York Film Festival and never got the release or push it deserved. Back then I said in my review: “Fassbender reminds one of Daniel Day Lewis with his total immersion into his character. It’s the bloody performance of the year.”

Well, ditto 2011.

Incredulously, Hunger was completely overlooked by the Academy and most other accolade bestowing organizations. Let’s hope that Fox Searchlight is smarter and savvier than IFC (the indie that released Hunger)—they certainly have more money to spend—because this film deserves recognition and Fassbender’s performance should not be overlooked.

I realize many of us get lost in the end-of-year awards battle but the reasoning, at least for this writer, is that I’d like to see the best in film actually rewarded and awards usually means a larger audience. A film like Shame, guaranteed to get an NC-17 if they even submit it to the MPAA, needs that attention.

Overlooking his transformative performance in Hunger was shameful enough (sorry, I had to) but if he is passed over for Shame, then the Academy must collectively shoot themselves. While I realize this isn’t exactly family-fare, it’s the reason people get excited about the motion pictures; it is original, urgent, astonishingly and soul-piercing. Whether we can admit it or not, there is an honestly about this film that speaks to most adults. It’s also an unpredictable film and how exciting is that for a change!

As with Hunger, Fassbender manages to create a visceral performance that demands great physical and emotional intensity.

There are so many remarkable and subtle touches to his characterization like how Brandon drinks three-olive martinis but never eats the olives--and in a terrifically detailed scene in a restaurant on an ill-fated date with a co-worker where even the minutiae of his pouring Pinot Noir proves mesmerizing. A wonderful example of just how obsessive his behavior is can be seen in a powerful subway scene where his smile turns predatory once he realizes the woman he’s cruising is married.

As bloody brilliant as Fassbender is, the entire cast and creative team is to be commended beginning with Carey Mulligan who is an absolute revelation. Anyone who has seen her impressive work in An Education, Never Let Me Go and Drive will still be blown away by how far she is willing to go to examine the depths to Sissy’s damaged nature.

The oddly enchanting Mulligan is also responsible for a stirring and evocative rendition of the ‘Theme from New York, New York.’ It’s a brilliant scene, photographed mostly in close up and should guarantee Mulligan her second Oscar nomination (there I go again!)

The Fassbender/McQueen collaboration is reminiscent of the DeNiro/Scorsese work from the 1970s. With films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, DeNiro and Scorsese made cinema history by changing the language of film. If Hunger is Fassbender and McQueen’s Means Streets, perhaps Shame is their Taxi Driver. That means the best is yet to come. I cannot wait!


Steve McQueen's
Shame
Opens Friday, December 2, 2011


Written by: Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie.

Fox Searchlight Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Apparently there’s such a thing as sex addiction. But, wait: aren’t all men sex addicts or at least talk like them? Have you ever run into a teen, especially male, who does not think or talk about sex at least ten times a day? There is a difference, as British director Steve McQueen most graphically illustrates, both clinically as a case study in psychiatric diagnosis and as a powerful drama that casts its victim as the kind of basket case we tend to associate with heroin addicts. But I’ll bet you never thought that a sex addict who gets what he wants virtually every night, not depending simply on his porn collection or his adventures in auto-erotism, but on his charismatic talent as a smart man whose handsome, marmoreal face appears to cast him as a ad exec in the 1960s rather than in the tumultuous present.

While the story becomes at best one that is short of riveting, Shame, which provides its characters with an adept script by the director and Abi Morgan, appears to exist primarily to show the world that a star is born, and that star is Michael Fassbender in the role of Brandon. Brandon’s solid relationship with his boss, David (James Badge Dale) allows him to report to work late when he wishes, so long as Brandon accompanies David to the hot spots to tomcat after the women who may well be looking for a night’s stand but who could not in most cases be considered sex addicts. David, who has a minimally furnished, coldly-but-expensively furnished pad in Manhattan overlooking a bay, might appear to have everything going for him: a good job, great looks, lots of women, none able to negate the need for stacks of porn and computer videos. How does this hunk wind up the saddest man in Our Town, one driven to tears and perhaps even the point of suicide? It would not be revealing much to say that what he lacks is a solid relationship, nor does he feel the need for one lasting—as he tells a co-worker he dates—more than four months.

He has the opportunity to save his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan in an equally charismatic role) who calls him frequently without a response and one day takes over his apartment, a neurotically needy person who lives on what she picks up from her singing gigs. (Showing respect for his audience, Steve McQueen allows Sissy to belt out the slowest version on record of the song Frank Sinatra made famous,“New York New York” Nor does McQueen shrink from focusing the first eight minutes of his film on Brandon who says but a single word. When Brandon discovers his sister cavorting in his apartment with his boss, David, powerless to throw the cad out, he’s on his way to a breakdown. Predictably enough, when one potentially serious woman, Marianne (Nicole Beharie) enters his life giving Brandon a chance to be saved, he is a depressing mass of erectile dysfunction.

Perhaps the first and only NC-17 film to appear on the prestige circuit this year with its full frontal and rear nudity and graphically simulated sex, Shame is imbued with a curious physicality that makes it a potential choice of the arthouse crowd rather than, oh, say, a modicum of pervs. Whatever one thinks of the film as plot, make-up, and especially Sean Bobbitt’s deeply respectful view of the drama and excitement of Manhattan Island, the movie is all about performance, and that performance comes from Michael Fassbender, a man who will now take his place among the A-list actors of our time.

Rated NC-17. 99 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online





Brady Kiernan’s
Stuck Between Stations

Screenplay by Nat Bennett & Sam Rosen.

Starring: Sam Rosen, Zoe Lister-Jones, Josh Hartnett, Michael Imperioli.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival

Reminiscent of Before Sunrise and After Hours, but nowhere near as compelling, Stuck Between Stations is a commendable feature debut by director Brady Kiernan.

The story is simple: Casper, a soldier on leave from Afghanistan, encounters Becky, an old school crush who has no immediate recollection of him. They proceed to spend the entire night sharing stories and learning about one another. Casper’s father has just died. Becky is going through trauma involving a married man she’s been dating.

Set in Minneapolis, Stuck Between Stations is one of those romantic dramas that wants the audience to get to know and fall in love with the couple as they do same, then debate their potential with one another before deciding they deserve a chance together. And, for the most part it works, although we are cheated out of a real ending.

Kiernan and his cameraman (Bo Hakala) enjoy playing with framing and do quite a bit of effective split screen work. They also give Minneapolis quite a striking look.

The script is a bit too slight. For instance, we are taken on an odyssey as the couple attend a party and even an indoor circus but we don’t spend enough time at any one location and we aren’t given any real reason for their going—other than providing some fun visuals. The party, in particular, is supposed to be filled with former high schoolers, but none of them have any lines except for the host.

By the time we get to the movie’s most potent sequence--around a campfire where both characters get their respective revelatory moments--we wish we had been given more backstory.

The best boon the film has is its lead actor, Sam Rosen, who is immensely endearing as Casper. This guy’s hidden psychological wounds have more to do with his father than his tour of duty and Rosen underplays it deftly and effectively.

Zoe Lister-Jones’s performance is more of a conundrum. Becky is very hard to like—which is fine—but Lister-Jones does very little to even make us understand why Casper would care…until the final scene. It’s also difficult to believe that in high school she was the popular one and he was the nearly invisible crybaby. To be fair, Lister-Jones is interesting to watch and most of the problem with Becky has to do with the sketchy script.

Josh Hartnett makes a brief but welcome appearance as a townie friend of Casper’s. He provides a nutty breath of fresh ‘n nasty air and I kept hoping the couple would run into him again. Alas, I’m still hoping…





Cameron Crowe's
We Bought A Zoo
Opens Friday, December 23, 2011

Screenwriters: Aline Brosh McKenna, Cameron Crowe, from Benjamin Mee's book

Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, Elle Fanning, Maggie Elizabeth Jones

Twentieth Century Fox
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Happiness consultants say that you should spend most of your money on adventures, not on things. Memories of exciting adventures can last a lifetime. Isn't that what life is all about? Cameron Crowe illustrates this theme nicely, if with too much mugging by the small fry, in We Bought a Zoo, holiday fare for this Christmas season that seems almost too sophisticated for ten-year-olds given its commentary about the death of one human being and one tiger, but will resonate warmly with most of the kids in the audience and with the adults who will not be unhappy that they've been dragged along.

Cameron Crowe, whose long sports comedy Jerry Maguire starred Tom Cruise as a fired sports announcer, goes the more conventional route this time, making a film inspired by Benjamin Mee's book about the healing power of animals. As expected, the movie features both macho and cutesy shots of animals, from a howling bear, a majestic lion and a tiger in "endgame" to a group of chicks at the moments of birth. Bearing down on the cuteness, Crowe, using a script he co-wrote with Aline Brosh McKenna, captures the charm of little Rosie Mee (Maggie Elizabeth Jones--Footloose), contrasting her infinite goody-two-shoes-ness with her rebellious and unhappy teen brother, Dylan (Colin Ford).

Although at over two hours, the movie tries ones patience, it is ultimately worthwhile fare that does not talk down to the small fry in the audience, never avoiding talk about the existential dilemmas of life (and death).

Matt Damon anchors the story as Benjamin Mee, whose true-life adventure with a dilapidated zoo resulted in his publication of the book We Bought a Zoo. Seeking a spacious house for his family of three following the death six months ago of his wife Katherine (Stephanie Szostak), Benjamin falls in love with a property shown to him by Mr. Stevens (JB Smoove), a ridiculously caricatured realtor who tries to convince his client not to buy because the sale would make him the owner of an all-but-abandoned zoo. The zoo is watched over by Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) and her motley crew which includes Robin (Patrick Fugit), a fellow with a capuchin monkey virtually stapled to his shoulder. With an inspection expected in one month by Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins) that could close the zoo for good unless several criteria are met, the team, with the reluctant help of fourteen-year-old Dylan, go to work.

The flirtations are predictable: Dylan with thirteen-year-old Lily Miska (Elle Fanning), Benjamin with the twenty-something Kelly. Everyone with the exception of the bureaucratic inspector (as little Rosie tells him "Everyone calls you a dick...but I don't agree") emerges likable as do all of the good-natured animals.

Rated PG. 124 minutes
(c) Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 


Jason Reitman's
Young Adult
Opens Friday, December 9, 2011

Written by: Diablo Cody

Starring: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser

Paramount Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

The usual reason that people have for attending reunions of their high school and college classes is to get together with the folks they knew in better, freer times, see how they look, compare notes on who is successful and who are the flops. There may be subconscious desires to run into their old flames, not just to reminisce about old times but actually to hook up. Why not? You can’t do it if you don’t try. But usually people who are in the mood for some flirtations do not act out their immature wishes with almost the ferocity of a fatal attraction.

Jason Reitman’s Young Adult is about a woman, Mavis Gary played by Charlize Theron, who does want to rekindle what she thought she had in the past. Mavis is a divorcee who recalls her days making out and sneaking alcoholic beverages behind the sporting stands with a man who is now married. Screenwriter Diablo Cody, of Juno fame, takes special interest in themes involving the inner lives and torments of women whether teens or, in this case, mid-thirties. As the tagline states, everybody gets old, not everybody grows up. Mavis is so lost in nostalgia that she interprets her old flame’s marriage as crumbling and assumes that his life with a new baby is boring. She is there to invigorate her own ego and save him from ennui. The trouble is that as anyone can see, he is happily married, cheerfully taking lots of time out to mix baby formula, and pursuing an active interest in such conventions as baby naming wherein he and his wife invite the community over for the obligatory kutchi-coos.

I suppose this could be a template for a romantic comedy, though given the ways that the story plays out, neither romance nor comedy is ascendant—nor would it be even if there were enough chemistry between either of the two principal couples on exhibit. As Mavis, a ghost writer of young adult fiction, Charlize Theron dominates proceedings as a beautiful woman (duh) whose series of books has begun a southward move just as her personal life runs toward empty. She believes she can fill all the gaps by re-establishing herself with handsome Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), despite his being married with a new kid, and a resident of what people in Minneapolis would consider a hick town, Mercury. Traveling in a beat-up car to Mercury with the excuse that she has a real-estate deal cooking, she begins some serious drinking in a bar where she runs into former classmate and loser Matt Freehauf (played by Patton Oswalt), who depends on crutches courtesy of a severe beating he received from jocks who considered him to be gay. In the movie’s most unbelievable shtick, she reveals all to Matt, indicating that she intends to break up Buddy’s marriage to Beth (Elizabeth Reaser). The situation gets thoroughly out of hand when he loudly expresses her borderline-psychotic wishes to the old flame. Even Mavis’s mother, Hedda Gary (Jill Eikenberry), is unable to put a damper on this mess before the whole town is embarrassed.

To the credit of the makeup artists, Charlize Theron morphs from a slutty-looking drunk in some scenes to a highly sophisticated party woman in others. Though Patton Oswalt tries his best to keep proceedings credible and on track, Young Adult, a slight story at best, cannot summon up even a modicum of comedy or romance.

Rated R. 93 minutes. (c) 2011 by Harvey Karten. Members, New York Film Critics Online

 




Philipp Stölzl's
Young Goethe in Love (Goethe!)
Opens Friday, November 4, 2011


Written By: Alexander Dydyna, Christoph Müller, Philipp Stölzl

Starring: Alexander Fehling, Miriam Stein, Moritz Bleibtreu, Volker Bruch, Burghart Klausner, Henry Hübchen


Music Box Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Is Goethe the fellow whose book had launched a thousand suicides? Ironically enough, one of the proofs that a novel has had a profound influence on its audience is its ability to provoke violence (think of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom’s Cabin which helped incite the War Between the States and, in the case of this film, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, which became an influence in Germany’s Sturm und Drang movement. Defined as “turbulence and urgency,” this movement embraced the telling of passionate, subjective literature, which in turn helped to influence the 19th century Romantic era.

If one were asked to define the aim of Young Goethe in Love (German title simply Goethe!), one might answer that it portrays the background of the author of The Sorrows of Young Werther (German title Die Lieden des Jungen Werther) But that sterile description would not begin to convey the movie’s ability to evoke the passions of two people, the nature of unrequited love without which probably half of all love poetry would not exist. With some terrific performances by the always reliable Moritz Bleibtreu (The Baader Meinhof Complex), Alexander Fehling (Inglourious Basterds) and especially Miriam Stein who is best known in her native land for TV presentations, Young Goethe in Love is a brilliant recreation of life in an 18th Century German backwater. The movie was filmed in the Eastern provinces of Thuringia and Saxony and depicts a time when unpaved streets, the absence of toilets, the lack of birth control and the inability of medical science to prevent boatloads of childbirth deaths, made life nasty, brutish and short.

With many shots by Kolja Brandt simulating the tone of a Rembrandt painting, Philipp Stölzl’s film peers into the hearts of two lovers, one who too immature to pass his doctoral exam and one who is too poor to marry the man she really loves. Though Goethe is best known for Faust, which gave rise to Mephistophelean operas, stories, poems and plays like Damn Yankees, that later work gets not a single mention as writers Alexander Dydyna, Christoph Müller and Philipp Stölzl want us in the audience to focus on the great writer while he is in his early twenties.

Though Johann Goethe (Alexander Fehling) was pressured by his father (Henry Hübchen) to enter the field of law, the young man was a poet at heart who, like Harry Potter’s creator J.K. Rowling and top writer of legal fiction John Grisham had his early writings rejected by publishers. Goethe is a playful lad, skipping about the university courtyard after flunking his oral exam by writing "Kiss My Arse” in the mud. Sent by his dad to the sticks of Wetzlar to apprentice at the local Supreme Court, he chafes under the directives of his boss, Albert Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu), who piles the lad with dozens of files to catalogue. He perks up after meeting free spirit Lotte Buff (Miriam Stein), who is taking care of an abundance of siblings left by her dead mother. Lotte's father (Burghart Klaussner) is scarcely able to support himself and therefore eager to marry Lotte off to money. If it’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich person as a poor one, Goethe and Lotte seem not to have heard that expression as they flirt, fall in love, and (probably fictionalized given the fear of venereal disease, the lack of birth control, and the moral code of the times) make love in the open air. When unknown to Goethe, the woman sought by Kestner is Goethe’s own true love, the stage is set for conflict leading to a duel, which results in Goethe’s imprisonment. There by candlelight he pens The Sorrows of Young Werther as a series of letters that would eventually be published as a semi-autobiographical novel and become a best seller. (It’s available now at Amazon.com for $7.99.)

I don’t know if Birgit Hutter’s costumes are authentic, but they look striking, even giving the appearance of wear—which adds to the authenticity of this fictionalized, poetic labor of love. Stölzl navigates with ease between frivolous comedy and heart-rending drama, in effect blowing away quite a bit of what passes for romantic movies in the U.S.

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


 


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