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Kaspar Heidelbach's
Berlin 36
Opens Friday, September 16, 2011
New York's Quad Cinema


Written By: Lothar Kurzawa, story by Eric Friedler
Starring:: Karoline Herfurth, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Axel Prahl, August Zimer, Maria Happel

Corinth Films
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Sports and politics normally exist in two separate worlds. And they do for the most part, but sometimes they intersect. In Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a marathon runner named Colin rebels against the Governor—who runs the juvenile penitentiary and has much to gain politically by winning a meet—by stopping dead just before the finish line. In a more true-to-life situation, Jesse Owens, a black sprinter, shamed the Hitler regime by winning four gold medals at the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936. Hitler wanted to use the Olympics to demonstrate a resurgent Germany, touting so-called Aryans as superior to competitors from other countries. That a black man could outmatch a blond German was difficult for true Nazis to stomach. That a German Jewish woman could jump higher than any “Aryan” was even more unbelievable.

Yet as we see in Kaspar Heidelbach’s Berlin 36, based on a true event during the Olympics in 1936, the German sports command is wary about allowing Gretel Bergmann (Karoline Herfurth), a young Jewish woman, to compete. Such a victory by a non-Aryan is unthinkable. Yet, since the U.S. threatens to boycott the games because of the absence of German Jewish athletes, the government manipulates Gretel into training for the event, just after she had won trophies in a British competition. The aim is to show the world that Germany would freely allow athletes of all persuasions to try out and, on the basis strictly of the performances, to be selected. Their key strategy is to use Marie Ketteler (Sebastian Urzensowky) to take first place. Marie is a male who dresses and looks like a woman because his insane mother always wanted a girl. Marie and Gretel room together, develop an intense friendship, and though in real life Gretel did not learn of her friend’s gender until decades later, they discuss the politics of the situation. Marie even suggests that she could mess up the jump, allowing Gretel to take the gold.

The major part of the film takes place in training camp, as a decent man and coach, Hans Waldmann (Axel Prahl), treats Gretel as his favorite to the dismay of the other young women, who play tricks on Gretel and generally behave like Drizella and Anastasia, Cinderella’s two brutish step-sisters. As you might predict, Hans loses the favor of the politicians running the show and is replaced by the sinister Kulmbach (Robert Gallinowski), who takes steps to force Gretel to quit. He has her teammates eat at a table separate from her, refuses to train her as hard as he does the others, even threatens her and her family with bodily harm if she does not withdraw.

We in the audience are probably expecting Gretel to become a hero, standing up to the Nazis by competing and, to the stains of music setting a world jumping record. But director Heidelbach, using Lothar Kurzawa’s screenplay adapted from Eric Friedler’s story, keeps the show involving. He coaxes sterling performances from the ensemble, especially from Herfurth, the lead. However the movie flirts with the pedestrian by being served in a simple, workmanlike chronological order with only a small segment of archival film to capture the spirit of the well-known ’36 Olympics.

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




David Frankel's
The Big Year
Opens Friday, October 14, 2011

Written By: Howard Franklin, book by Mark Obmascik The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession

Starring: Owen Wilson, Jack Black, Steve Martin, Rashida Jones, Anjelica Huston, Jim Parsons

Twentieth Century Fox

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

David Frankel's film The Big Year shows that the multiculturalists are right: there is happiness with diversity. The film is based on a book by Mark Obmascik, a reporter for the Denver Post. It tells the story of a seriously wacky competition that has hundreds of bird watchers participating in a contest called The Big Year. Each birder spends three hundred sixty-five days racing around North America compiling lists, respecting the honor system to report how many different species he or she have seen. Seven hundred thirty-seven had been the record in a contest that garners participants from all walks of life - from CEO’s to people who have to borrow money from their mothers. While we in New York feel lucky if pigeons stay away from our parked cars, these birders are ecstatic in their search for our winged friends, they even imitate the sounds of the various species, challenging one another to identify the birds being vocalized.

Obmascik’s book and the film follow the 1998 Big Year’s three main competitors—a roofing contractor, a corporate executive and a software engineer, who, though competing for the number one spot and a chance to beat the record, form unlikely friendships with each other. All three have problems at home. One fellow, a corporate bigwig from New York, wants to retire and pursue his love the year ‘round, but he finds that real happiness is found at home with his wife and his new grandchild. Another, the software coder, pursues a woman who is a fellow birder, hoping that he can land a spot in her heart almost as much as he wishes to be the new record-holder. A third, a successful roofing contractor, is in trouble with his wife who is taking fertility treatments. He is not there to answer the call of the clinic on the day he is needed most because he would rather capture the mating rituals of birds in flight than participate in his own ritual.

The Big Year is a comedy, though not one that will have you rolling on the floor. It’s more a comedy in the Shakespearean vein, meaning that the characters do not die but have generally happy endings at the conclusion of the story. Three of America’s top film comedians anchor the tale: Jack Black as computer whiz Brad Harris; Owen Wilson as contractor Kenny Bostick; and Steve Martin as hotshot executive Stu Preissler. The real deal in this movie is not so much the characters who, in Hallmark Hall of Fame postures find that their competitors are not people to waylay from the paths of bird scores, but folks with whom they share a common, unusual hobby.

Don’t look for strong women’s roles in this film: this is a man’s movie. There are some good turns by Rosamund Pike, Rashida Jones, Anjelica Huston, JoBeth Williams, Cindy Busby and Dianne Weist. John Cleese delivers some narration while men in supportive roles include Brian Dennehy as Brad Harris’s dad and Kevin Pollak as a member of Stu Preissler’s board of directors.

The real star of the movie is the photographer, Lawrence Sher, the unseen hero who follows the cast around to one hundred locations largely in Canada (British Columbia and the Yukon) but also to New York and Miami. Come to think of it, the entire crew should be praised for squeezing these locations into fifty-five days of filmmaking, braving temperatures from 110 degrees Fahrenheit in Florida to 20 below in Western Canada.

The film was given a PG rating that I’m surprised it attained, considering the machinations of the fertility clinic and the use of four-letter and five-letter words. But Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson manage to avoid Judd Apatow vulgarity like avian flu. The trio have genuine chemistry, the whole operation making this absurd hobby look as though it really exists. The big surprise is that, yes, it does!

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


 


Mateo Gil's
Blackthorn
Opens Friday, October 7, 2011

Written By: Miguel Barros

Starring:: Sam Shepard, Eduardo Noriega, Stephen Rea, Magaly Solier, Nicolak Coster-Waldau, Padraic Delaney, Dominique McElligott

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

One of the fascinating questions that historians are wont to ponder is wondering whether certain famous or notorious people are still alive, though presumed dead. When I started teaching high-school history, the question was: “My grandmother says that Hitler is still alive. Is that true?” Not wanting to cause grandparent-teacher problems, I suggested that since the body had not been necessarily found, anything is possible. Now that Hitler is 112 years old, a more decisive answer would be appropriate. But: Is it true that Osama bin Laden is really dead? We didn’t see pictures of him. And what about Ché? Was he killed by Bolivians, or had he escaped to somewhere else in South America? Or is he hiding inside someone’s T-shirt?

In Blackthorn, Mateo Gil looks at the myth that Butch Cassidy survived for decades after the year he was allegedly gunned down in 1908 and lived on with a job of security guard until his real death in 1936. Just as Robin Hood is lionized for taking from the rich and giving to the poor, and Mussolini, a close ally of Hitler, is to some a fine gent who made the trains run on time, Butch Cassidy is given the hero treatment by Miguel Barros’s script.

A haughty Brit businessman in remote Bolivia to whom Butch—now under the assumed name of James Blackthorn (Sam Shepard)—wants to sell his horses and move back to Utah, makes a pejorative statement about the Indians. Blackthorn puts him down, just verbally as he may be mellowing.

By the time the movie has reached its mid-point, we’re all rooting for the dude, never mind his run of train robberies and bank heists. Blackthorn, how aging with a full, gray beard, withdraws all his money, $6000, from the bank, where he quips to the concerned manager that he had never before been given such courtesy by the establishment. Blackthorn rides away on his horse until he is accosted by a thief from Madrid, Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega). With his life’s savings gone with the wind, Blackthorn contemplates shooting the bandit, but is conned into following him into a mine where he cuts a deal to share a hidden $50,000. But Eduardo is no Robin Hood: the money he stole is not from the big bosses but from the Indians themselves, who are now in hot pursuit of the scuzz.

The film is a marvel of Juan Ruiz Anchia’s cinematography, a product placement for Bolivia that should prompt that country’s sleeping tourist board to give rich gringos reenactments of the paths followed by Blackthorn and pursuers. Sam Shepard is the man to watch, but his performance cannot save this Western—or should we say Southern—which advances too slowly.

Director Gil switches back in time to show us a young Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Padraic Delaney). But showing a younger Butch and Sundance does not help the pace.

When a drunken MacKinley (Stephen Rea), who has pursued Butch with the same ferocity that Javert chased after Jean Valgean, shows up, he only succeeds in lionizing Blackthorn and helping him to get away. The film still remains as barren (and lovely) as ever.

Unrated. 98 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Kate Winslet in Contagion

Steven Soderbergh’s
Contagion
Opens Friday, September 9, 2011


Written By: Scott Z. Burns

Starring: Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan, Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin, Elliott Gould

Warner Brothers

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

A disaster movie for the new millennium, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is a gripping, pulse-pounding thriller that grabs the viewer in the dazzling opening montage—as we watch a new and deadly airborne virus spread—and takes us on a dark cinematic journey of despair.

If you’re expecting Outbreak or 28 Days Later (two films I happen to love), you’ll be in for a jarring awakening as Soderbergh is after something different with this anxiety-ridden ride, he’s out to explore the consequences of a pandemic on today’s world. In doing so he cine-scurries in and out of almost every conceivable aspect of such a calamity—probing the magnitude as well as the consequences.

The film opens on Day Two as we meet Patient Zero (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her husband (an affecting Matt Damon). Before you can say cameo, Paltrow is dead and Damon discovers he is immune to the virus. The film traces the contagion to Paltrow’s trip to Hong Kong. The outbreak wreaks havoc on most major cities and within days the deaths are in the millions and all hell has broken loose. The reps from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention try to grow the unrelenting and mutating virus in order to find a vaccine.

The deputy director (Laurence Fishburne) sends his best staffer (a dynamic Kate Winslet) to Minneapolis to investigate. And in Switzerland, epidemiologist Marion Cotillard is sent to Hong Kong.

The rest of the film is a race to see if there is anything that can stop this ruthless beast of a virus before it kills everyone.

Soderbergh cleverly casts his film with instantly recognizable faces, which goes a long way in our instantly caring for them, so he need not spend too much time creating backstories. Who, for instance, does not adore Marion Cotillard? And how can you not empathize with Matt Damon?

Jude Law plays the one truly despicable character, a blogger out to ‘expose the government cover-up’ when he’s really out for his own financial gain. Law nicely swims in the sleaze.

The best performance in the film is by Jennifer Ehle as one of lab scientists looking for a cure. She’s direct, no-nonsense and wholly believable, much like Soderbergh’s way with this sharp script (by Scott Z. Burns).

Contagion is lean and concise filmmaking. Soderbergh has a docu-drama style here that never dwells on the melodramatic or maudlin (hardly a tear is shed for dead—though it certainly haunts you afterwards), nor does he over-depict the chaos that would ensue if such a plague ran rampant on our planet. He never spends too much time in one place, never allowing us the luxury of manipulation. And it’s damned refreshing!

All tech credits rock, especially the contagious score by Cliff Martinez and the bracing editing by Stephen Mirrione.

Heed this: Contagion is not for the squeamishly germ-phobic. Winslet has a frightening statistical line about how we humans touch our faces on average of 2 to 3 thousand times daily. Daily! I dare anyone seeing this terrific and thought-provoking movie to not spend the next week hyper-cognizant of where they put their hands, what they eat and who they share breathing space with.


 

 


Steven Soderbergh's
Contagion
Opens Friday, September 9, 2011


Written By: Scott Z. Burns

Starring: Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne

Warner Brothers

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

“This is the way the world ends/ This is the way the world ends/ This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.” So states T.S. Eliot in The Hollow Man, demonstrating that Mr. Eliot was not only a gifted writer but a fortune teller as well.

In Steven Soderberg's new film, Contagion, the villain is not Iran or North Korea, not Venezuela or the Taliban, not Al Queda.

We’re all fascinated by stories of the end of our planet, so long as the culmination of life is on the page of a book or an e-reader or the movie screen. First there was Noah’s Ark, then Armageddon, now Contagion. The trouble is that while there’s something almost comedic about how Noah’s animals lined up, two by two, always a male and a female however unhip that appears today, Contagion is without humor. While Michael Bay’s Armaggedon centered on a single asteroid the size of Texas heading for Earth, Contagion, which takes place around the world and has Peter Andrews’s camera zipping from Hong Kong to Tokyo to Minneapolis, is too diffuse to carry much tautness. There you have it: a film without humor, without tension, but with an all-star cast that the studio hopes will draw in the crowds.

As Soderbergh imitates the six o’clock news, we watch how a virus spreads from one person—from the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow of all people—to twelve million. Paltrow’s character, Beth Emhoff, is married to Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), but finds herself in Hong Kong sans her husband, having a good time spending the night with a man other than her husband. But adultery has its punishments: Beth is the first to die, breaking out in a cold sweat, soon winding up examined in an autopsy which spares us in the audience the closeup of her brain but gives us enough of a hint of gore by showing the surgeon peeling back the top of her head.

Contagion does not play as a solid narrative, but then not all movies need to use that format. Traffic did quite well scurrying about, for example. But Contagion comes across throughout like a news broadcast, with all the news from all parts of the world just about the same. A few characters propel the story forward. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) is the most rock-steady individual, spewing alarm by phone and behind lecterns as number one man at the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S.. Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) plays a World Health Organization bigwig, kidnapped for a ransom of vaccine. Elliott Gould furthers his career as one of many scientists groping for a cure, while Kate Winslet as Dr. Erin Mears pushes for a quarantine. Strangest of all, Jude Law operates as freelance journalist Alan Krumwiede, telling us not to believe in what the government is propagating while trying to enrich himself with a fake homeopathic cure for the disease called forsythia.

The obligatory riots break out when crowds hear that the vaccine is available but is being given to government favorites. Looting and murder takes place with the breakdown of society. Ultimately Contagion is flawed by its absence of edge-of-seat-disaster tension, its major plus being that the movie is not shown in 3-D.

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



Charles Martin Smith's
Dolphin Tale
Opens Friday, September 23, 2011


Written By: Karen Janszen, Noam Dromi

Starring: Nathan Gamble, Harry Connick, Jr., Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Winter the Dolphin, Rufus the Pelican.

Warner Bros
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Watch an 8-year-old kid when he comes upon a group of pigeons. What does he do? Pull out bread crumbs and sunflower seeds, bend down, talk softly to the birds and feed them? Not likely. He will probably chase after them to show his power: “Look ma, I made them all fly!” maybe even kick one that’s in the way.

Nobody’s kicking any dolphins in Charles Martin Smith’s movie, but some are thinking of putting one down—not for any malicious reason, but rather to do what they consider the right thing. Dolphin Tale, which could be called A Dolphin’s Tail, is based on a real story. The star of the film, Winter, is a dolphin playing herself on location in Clearwater, Florida, Winter had the bad luck to have her tail caught in a crab cage dropped into the sea. The tail, with which Winter and others of her species rely to swim, has to be amputated from her body, forcing Winter to swim side by side, which is a disaster for Winter because this technique will soon cause a spinal crisis that could lead to paralysis. The only way to get her to kick up and down is to supply a prosthetic, fitted by a doctor, but that’s not so easy since the dolphin will—and does—reject the artificial limb more than once.

Dolphin Tale could be said to star Winte,r but truth to tell it’s more about human beings who are broken in body or spirit. Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) is an eleven-year-old kid doomed to spend his two months’ vacation time in summer school learning such vital skills as how to recognize a prepositional phrase. He’s depressed, with no interest in socializing because his dad flew the coop five years earlier, leaving the mom, Lorraine Nelson (Ashley Judd), to bring up the lad. That funk comes to an end when he runs into a home-schooled kid, Hazel Haskett (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), whose dad, Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick, Jr.), runs the Clearwater aquarium, a less-than-stately institute that’s about to go bankrupt. Lorraine, Clay, and Clay’s salt-of-the-sea dad, Reed Haskett (Kris Kristofferson), take the boy under their wing, watching the sullen fella spring to life when he meets Winter. Trusted to help the dolphin recover the ability to swim, Sawyer blossoms, at least until a soapy interlude that finds his cousin, Kyle Connellan (Austin Stowell), returning home from the army, depressed that because his leg is in a brace, he must give up his dream to be an Olympic swimmer.

As we in the audience watch Sawyer try to overcome more problems than an eleven-year-old deserves to have—a dispirited cousin who was his hero, an abandoned mom who tries to bring up an unhappy kid, a dolphin that may have to be euthanized, and a bankrupt aquarium that must be sold to make way for a hotel—we can’t help becoming deeply involved in family and institutional politics that turn alternately mournful and euphoric.

The excellent cast do their best to match the star power of the dolphin, particularly Morgan Freeman in the role of Dr. Cameron McCarthy, on whom everyone depends to build a prosthetic device for the tail-less, tweeting animal, and Harry Connick, Jr., who reminds me of Jeff Goldblum, as a too-good-to-be-true dad to his freckle-faced daughter and friend to a lonely, freckle-faced boy. You’ll be reminded of Simon Wincer’s 1993 movie Free Willy, about a boy who runs afoul of the law, meets an orca whale named Willy, and teaches him tricks. Dolphin Tale will bring a tear or two to the eye even as you guess how the mess will end (spoiler: it does not end happily for the crabs) and is a class act entertainment for (pardon the cliché) the young and the young at heart.

Since I hate to end reviews on a happy note, here’s a side issue: According to PETA, in tourist-driven "swim-with" programs, dolphins are denied everything that is important to them. People are captivated by these fascinating marine mammals, but dolphins used in swim-with programs continue to live in misery long after travelers return home with their pictures and memories. Most captive dolphins die prematurely and live to only half the age of their wild brothers and sisters. Driven by greed, many facilities operate almost continuously, giving the animals little respite from a constant stream of tourists. This from http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-in-entertainment/swim-with-dolphins-programs.aspx

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



Michael Brandt's
The Double
Opens Friday, September 28, 2011



Written By: Michael Brandt, Derek Haas

Starring: Richard Gere, Topher Grace, Martin Sheen, Stephen Moyer, Odette Annable, Stana Katic

Image Entertainment

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Just after President Bush met the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in 2001, he told the nation, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy…I was able to get a sense of his soul.” Sorry, Mr. Bush, but that was the first of your many errors. The Russians, smarting over their loss of empire and prestige and still threatened by NATO, are continuing the Cold War, though with a battle much more cordial than one that found President Kennedy risking nuclear war over Soviet missile bases in Cuba. The Double is yet another movie torn from yesterday’s headlines, more specifically a big news story that hit the media recently. Just last year, a twelfth Russian spy inside the U.S. working at Microsoft was arrested and deported after he tested codes at the world’s biggest software company headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Members of that spy ring have been portrayed in the media as ineffective, but the software picked up by the band of spies could have given Russia significant leverage in computerized espionage.

Similarly—and also by way of contrast—director Michael Brandt offers to us a Russian agent believed by the CIA and FBI to be sticking around Washington DC, though what this agent named Cassius was after seemed not to be U.S. secrets but rather a need to kill people. Cassius has a record of assassinations in Helsinki, Madrid, Dublin and other parts, knocking off not only Westerners but also his fellow Russian and Poles. His motivation? Search me, as not only was this considered unimportant by the folks who bring us The Double, but the tale, like other spy stories, has a couple of twists which serve only to confuse the audience further. Even worse, despite the scary, dissonant music on the soundtrack, The Double lacks tension and is more of an intellectual exercise than it is a down-and-dirty political thriller Among the baffling points in the confused plot is the idea that Richard Gere, in real life 62 years old and here playing a retired CIA agent, is able to overcome at least three much younger men including Brutus (played by Stephen Moyer), a tough serving a jail sentence who works out every day and has a deep facial scar that brands him as a man who did not make a living as a librarian. And Gere’s character overcomes one adversary even after taking a bullet to his stomach.

The story takes off when a U.S. senator is killed in the style of a notorious Russian spy named Cassius, a man who, like his namesake in ancient Rome is an assassin but one who kills in his own personal style—encircling his victims’ necks from the middle instead of ear-to-ear and cutting upward instead of across. Both the CIA, led by Tom Highland (Martin Sheen) and the FBI believe Cassius to be alive, though retired CIA agent Paul Shepherdson (Richard Gere) tries to convince his superiors that the double-agent is dead. Since rookie FBI agent Ben Geary (Topher Grace) had written his Master’s Thesis at Harvard about Cassius, who began his wave of crime in 1988, Geary is teamed up with Shepherdson, brought out of retirement, assigned to track down Cassius if the latter is alive and bring him to justice.

The movie’s core is the relationship between the young upstart, Ben Geary, and the grizzled old Paul Shepherdson, and in this regard the connection is made—though Geary seems horrified at the violence committed by his co-worker toward those who may have information about Cassius while for his part, Geary believes in making “a connection.” This good-cop, bad-cop tactic gets frequent attention from the media, with those who believe that torture should be used in some cases to gain information while others believe that playing “friends” with the enemy will evoke truer intelligence. The younger man who has a wife and two kids is compelled to work with an amoral fellow with no family at all, and for the most part they get along until the picture’s bang-up conclusion. Still, absent real tension, an unbelievable show of physical power by the agent in his sixties, and, worse, motivations and strategies that do not ring true, The Double is a pale imitation of what we should expect from a political thriller.

Rated PG-13. 98 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Craig Brewer's
Footloose
Opens Friday, October 14, 2011


Written By: Dean Pitchford, Craig Brewer

Starring : Kenny Wormald, Julianne Hough, Dennis Quaid, Andie MacDowell

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

Is there anything that Kenny Wormald can’t do? He looks great, he can dance, he can perform gymnastics, he can speak eloquently. Wormald might become this generation’s James Dean. I would like to see him again in a movie that’s more serious than the enjoyable albeit trivial Footloose, a remake of Herbert Ross’s 1984 film that gave a great push to Kevin Bacon’s career.

Craig Brewer’s version of Footloose, scripted by him and Dean Pitchford, is updated to the current year, but shows a high-school world where kids barely use cell phones and only a few computers are in sight. Some changes in the music are made, though the dialogue is not far off from the original script.

Director Brewer, whose Hustle & Flow (a Memphis pimp in mid-life tries to become a hip-hop emcee), is in his milieu, filling his new movie with country, rap, and rock. The adults in the film stand on the sidelines like prunes, determined to repress teen activity until, of course, the end when they cheer the young ‘uns on. From the opening scene which showcases a vigorous dance performed by fun-loving kids, we get the point: it’s good to be young, though with one reservation. When you’re young and foolish, you are more likely than adults to drink behind the wheel, which makes it credible that some will die—as five teens do in a violent collision with a truck that leaves all dead, including the town reverend’s only son. (One wonders about a respected reverend who loses one boy to drink and whose daughter is considered by some to be the town slut.)

Footloose is anchored by a performance by Kenny Wormald as Ren McCormack, a high-school senior who in real life is twenty-five years old. Ren lost his mom to leukemia and his father bolted. Ren is informally adopted by his uncle Wes (Ray McKinnon), who moves him from Boston to the small southern town of Bomont (population 19,000).

After five teens are killed in a car crash, the city council unanimously declares that all public dancing is banned and that a curfew is imposed on folks below the age of twenty. Given his ebullient personality and good looks, Ren McCormack is quickly accepted by the other teenagers in town, almost none of whom had been farther away than Alabama. Like the other teens, he is incensed that the church is in bed, so to speak, with the city council, its minister, Rev. Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid), among the ayes. So what are teens to do? Spend Saturday nights in the library or sitting in front a computer when dancing provides far more exercise and the option to interact with others their age? No way. Together with his principal male friend, the awkward, dance-challenged hick Willard (Miles Teller) and his potential girlfriend, Ariel Moore (Julianne Hough—who could conceivably play in a biopic about the life of Jennifer Aniston), Ren plans strategy. But this strategy planning is done after he lets off a heap of steam in a factory warehouse, climbing and swinging on ropes only to be discovered by (who else?) Ariel, who has been spending time with the local redneck, Chuck Cranston (Patrick John Flueger). Chuck becomes increasingly hostile to his rival Ren, whom he calls “Yankee Doodle.”

Needless to say the obvious plot gets in the way of some terrific dancing, from the line steps popular in Southern small towns on Saturday night to break-dancing wherein the white guys could effectively challenge the African-Americans. Brewer caters to the crowd that will never get over the pleasure of watching cars, trucks and buses crash, particularly when at least one of the vehicles is on fire.

Footloose provides a fun time for its principal audience. The film features a great performance by Kenny Wormald whose career is on the rise.

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



Alex Gregory, Peter Huyck's
A Good Old Fashioned Orgy
Opens September 2, 2011

Written By: Alex Gregory, Peter Huyck

Starring: Jason Sudeikis, Michelle Borth, Lindsay Sloane, Lucy Punch, Will Forte, Tyler Labine, Leslie Bibb, Lake Bell, Nick Kroll, Don Johnson

Samuel Goldwyn Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

One of the guys in this fast-moving, sexy movie states that his generation—those in their 30s— are “the lamest” compared to what came before and after. If this fun-loving group is the lamest, pass me the crutches: I want in. While some life-is-a-party people around the country are hoping that they serve beer in hell, the whole gang in Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck’s A Good Old Fashioned Orgy are probably thinking more of Vodka Tonics to cool things off when the flames get too close.

Though the climactic moments, so to speak, are like Judd Apatow light, the language is happily ribald as you might expect when a group of 30-somethings, almost all single and yet all thinking that their feelings for one another are platonic, plan their wild parties in the Hamptons. Happily for Eric (Jason Sudekis), the handsomest dude in the gang and the de facto party organizer, his dad (Don Johnson), owns a sprawling house in which he rarely resides. The bad news, though, is that Dad wants to sell, which would mean that the big Labor Day party-cum (again, so to speak)-orgy will be the last. Still, Eric is clever enough to think of ways to sabotage the sale.

Guys who believe that it’s fun to serve brown bean dip out of a toilet bowl are my kind of people. If you agree, you’ll be rooting, as I did, that the big blast will be smooth and that everyone will get what he or she wants, whether it’s the gal who secretly holds a torch for Eric, the shy one who dreams of getting it on with the businesslike guy, and the mental health worker who needs to stop intellectualizing that party people are covering up their inability to make deep emotional commitments.

Mike (Tyler Labine) is one fellow who can draw laughs from the audience just by showing up. By way of overkill he wears a T-shirt that affirms “Life is too short not to be Norwegian.” Generally stoned out of his mind when not nursing a hangover, Mike will get a comeuppance when told that he, unemployed, is nothing more than Eric’s pet, though Eric, who has become smitten with his dad’s slim, blond realtor, Kelly (Leslie Bibb), will likely be snowed under by people who want to be adopted by him.

Once the men are on board for the orgy, the women sign on one by one; Sue (Michelle Borth), is yet another gal who has a thing for Eric, Laura (Lindsay Sloane) wants to break out of her shell, and psychologist Allison (Lake Bell) joins in only when she breaks up with her beau du jour. Perhaps the best scene involves the research the men do, as they’d never had an orgy before. At a sex club presided over by Vic George (David Koechner, of all people), they learn the ins and outs (need I say “so to speak”?), then retiring to the TV to watch good old fashioned porn.

Gregory and Huyck know how to write terrific one-liners and, wearing their directors’ caps keep the action going in a frenzied pace while the performers have comic timing down aces.

Rated R. 95 minutes.

© 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




George Clooney's
The Ides of March
Opens Friday, September 7, 2011

Written By: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon, from Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North

Starring: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Max Minghella, Jennifer Ehle

Columbia Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

In America’s Presidential election of 1824, no candidate received a majority of the electoral votes, thus putting the contest into the House of Representatives. Surprisingly the House elected John Quincy Adams over his rival, Andrew Jackson. It was believed that Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House, convinced Congress to elect Adams, who then made Clay his Secretary of State. Andrew Jackson’s supporters noted that Jackson had won a plurality of popular votes and the greatest number of electoral votes. Without Clay’s support for Adams—which he purportedly gave only because he was promised a cabinet post--Jackson would have been elected. This “arrangement” is known in the history books as a “corrupt bargain.” The year 1824, then, was the last time that corruption entered a Presidential election (at least according to school history books), which is why America is supposedly called the leader of the FREE world.

But wait! George Clooney, who, together with Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, wrote the screenplay for the new movie The Ides of March (based on Willimon’s play Farragut North), begs to differ. In fact he so strongly wants to impress on us that politics, even on the Presidential level, is rife with corruption, compromise, breaking of promises, backroom skullduggery, blackmail, extortion, and worst of all the seduction of pretty young interns, that he destroys the innocence of the movie audience with this shocking thriller. (A thriller, though, in only the broad sense, since on March 15th only Julius Caesar was assassinated, leaving this Clooney-directed film with the title only because that would be the date of the Ohio primary election.)

Some of the best looking actors in Hollywood star in this vehicle—George Clooney, the ubiquitous Ryan Goslin, the gorgeous Even Rachel Wood—which should bring in an audience of 20-somethings, 40-somethings, and a few who like me majored in Political Science. Folks looking for beauty and charm will also have to accept the presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti.

The picture is loaded with contemporary resonance: the aforementioned seduction of an intern, the reality that this has something to do with Howard Dean’s candidacy in 2004 (I’d have voted for Dean), though Dean withdrew for not having the numbers rather than for any bedroom frolic.

The best thing about the film is the steady patter of zingers and commentary that uncover political insight. For example, when Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) on the campaign trail, is asked why we endorse separate bathrooms for men and women while doing likewise for African-Americans and Whites would not be tolerated, his response is quick and to the point. Easily the greatest one-liner in the 100-minute movie, the most prescient one, is the truism that if you’re President “you can bankrupt the country and send the nation into war, but you can’t [expletive] an intern.”

Director Clooney takes us to campaign headquarters in Cincinnati, the hotels, the kitchens and even in one case a park bench that serves as a clandestine meeting place between the governor’s press secretary and a U.S. Senator. He makes short order of a debate between two Democratic contenders, Mike Morris and his opponent, Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell). Governor Morris’s press secretary, Stephen Myers (Ryan Goslin), working directly under the governor’s campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is a youthful, 30-year-old striving to become the President’s flack after his man wins the four-year term. He has a tough job convincing Governor Morris to promise Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright) a cabinet job as Secretary of State if Thompson would throw his support to Morris because Morris retains some ideals. He thinks little of the senator and refuses to consider an offer that would have sewed up the delegates in Ohio, creating a cascading effect that would have other states coming out for him like falling dominoes. That’s going to change. But here are already clues that his principles might be compromised by the political realities; he considers the suggestion to set up compulsory service for all Americans turning eighteen, whether in the armed forces, the Peace Corps or other, since kids under that age who might resist can’t vote and those older have nothing to lose.

The picture is gloriously filmed by Phedon Papamichael, making good use of extreme close-ups of Ryan Gosling and Evan Rachel Wood, but also focusing on a disastrous meeting between the press secretary and the opponent’s campaign manager (Paul Giamatti).

Marisa Tomei turns up as Ida Horowicz, a New York Times reporter with an extortionate plea of her own, one resisted at least temporarily by Stephen.

If you believe that assassinations of politicians and reporters are required in a political thriller as in Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View, you may find The Ides of March a ho-hum affair. If you enjoy the cerebral battles that are part and parcel of American politics, this will be your movie.

Rated R. 101 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



David M. Rosenthal's
Janie Jones
Opens Friday October 28, 2011

Written By: David M. Rosenthal

Starring: Abigail Breslin, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Shue

Tribeca Film

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

At first glance, Janie Jones looks like the perfect picture for the Lifetime series, all about sweetness and light with little cynicism. However, stay with it and you’ll discover that the movie deserves far more credit than you’d think given two superb performances. This is not say that there’s anything in Janie Jones that’s unpredictable or that takes us away from the typical trajectory of good news, bad news, good news. Besides, there’s an array of fourteen original songs which are all pleasant, albeit not the sort that would rock the house from the rooftops.

Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine), no longer nine years old but of Bat Mitzrah age, co-anchors the film as the title character, Janie Jones, an adorable, talented girl who deserves better than she got, though she does find life almost ecstatic once she meets her drunk, druggie dad for the first time in the last thirteen years.

Could you have guessed what happens next? Maybe there’s a small chance that the dad, fading rocker Ethan Brand (Alessandro Nivola), will deny paternity. He may even challenge the woman who appears on the scene in front of the entire band insisting that she, Mary Ann Jones (Elisabeth Shue) and Ethan had an affair way back when and that she now is unable to care for their daughter because she’s in rehab. We all know that Janie and Ethan will be inseparable, he, a chain-smoking, hot-tempered fellow will keep being a chain-smoking, hot-tempered fellow but he will discover that there’s no love like that of a man for a daughter. (It helps that he wasn’t around during the diaper stage, but meet Janie only when the kid is a well-behaved, talented singer-guitarist who gets her dad out of trouble more than once.)

Janie Jones is written and directed by David M. Rosenthal, whose Falling Up looks at a nursing school dropout who become a doorman in an elite apartment building. He evokes good work from the ensemble, including other band members and from Peter Stormare as Sloan, the group’s manager. Frances Fisher turns up as Lily, the band leader’s haute bourgeois mom, who is hit up for money which she grants only when she’s convinced that she’s in the presence of her granddaughter.

Rated PG-13. 107 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Drake Doremus’s
Like Crazy

Opens Friday, October 28, 2011


Written by Drake Doremus & Ben York Jones.

Starring: Felicity Jones, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, Charlie Bewley, Alex Kingston, Oliver Muirhead, Finola Hughes, Chris Messina, Ben York Jones, Jamie Thomas King.

Paramount Vantage

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Cute, curly-top Jacob (Anton Yelchin), a promising furniture designer, is slipped a note in a college class by pretty, promising Brit writer Anna (Felicity Jones). So begins a deeply affecting and invasive glimpse into the lives of one young couple as they discover first love and all the joy, pain and desire inherent in a real and true connection.

As the romance sizzles, Anna makes the boneheaded (but understandable) decision to ignore the fact that her student visa has expired and overstay her welcome in the U.S. so she can spend the summer with Jacob. This choice will have grave repercussions on the couple and test their true feelings for one another.

Director and co-writer Drake Doremus rarely gives us what we’ve come to expect from a romantic comedy, instead he focuses on the minutiae—the glances, smiles, looks of longing, fear and jubilation--and in doing so delivers a refreshing, enveloping film that charms and delights us without the need to force comedic situations down our throats (I think I laughed out loud once but I was smiling throughout) or placing contrived devices in the way of our two lovers.

Much of the film is impeccably improvised by the two leads and that, along with Doremus’ style of shooting and editing (von Trier-like hand-held, Godardian jump cuts) makes for a true meditation on the angst, frustrations and paranoia that comes with being apart as well as changes people go through when they aren’t together. I also appreciated the way the movie examined the deep need human beings have to not be alone.

For a film like Like Crazy to soar the way it does to the heights it reaches, casting is key and Yelchin and Jones are pitch-perfect. In many scenes it’s their faces and body language that tell us all we need to know.

Kudos to Jennifer Lawrence as well for being so good she made a typically unsympathetic character heartbreaking.

The film hints at simultaneity without ever being too obvious about it and, in the end, chillingly captures the confusion felt when you finally get what you’ve wanted for so long and then wonder if it's really what you want.

 



Alain Corneau's
Love Crime (Crime d’amour)
Opens September 2, 2011

Written By: Alain Corneau, Nathalie Carter

Starring: Ludivine Sagnier, Kristin Scott Thomas, Patrick Mille, Guillaume Marquet

Sundance Selects

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Director Alain Corneau and co-scripter Nathalie Carter are dangerous people. Watch out. Their intricately plotted tale of love and skullduggery shows them to be capable of the perfect crime. Though Mr. Corneau died recently, I would guess that Nathalie Carter could likely work out a robbery, a kidnapping, a murder and assuredly get away with these felonies. That’s how credible and involving is this complex tale of love, sex, envy, and humiliation—all the things that make office politics so intriguing.

While director Corneau may be interested in a taking pot shots at capitalism’s piñata, the multi-national corporations, he is far more interested in showing not how the public may get shafted by the machinations of these powerful bodies but in displaying the high stakes that envelop their major players—stakes that involve more than simple backbiting and other relatively minor treacheries.

The two players, Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier), are executive vice president and her protégé respectively. In the opening scene Christine is hosting Isabelle in the former’s own, lavish home in the Paris suburbs, but work is not the only thing on the boss’s mind as she flirts with Isabelle, to the latter’s dismay. When Philippe (Patrick Miller), Christine’s other colleague and apparent lover, enters, Isabelle discreetly makes her exit. When Christine, in a boldly manipulative gesture, send Isabelle and Philippe to Cairo to negotiate a deal, taking undue credit for a marketing idea from Isabelle, the two travelers see less of that beautiful if currently troubled city than they do of the ceiling of their five-star hotel. All events behind closed doors seem so predictable to Christine that she could have been pulling the puppet strings herself. When Daniel (Guillaume Marquet), another executive, takes Isabelle’s side, advising her to take proper credit where credit is due, the stage is set for melodramatics that appear to involve a near emotional breakdown by Isabelle. What follows is a series of twists that will keep the audience baffled. We in our theater seats wonder why Isabelle is so willing to take the blame for a heinous act that she is accused of committing simply because she is the only player who seems to have a motive.

Love Crime makes Meryl Streep’s performance as big boss Miranda Priestly in David Frankel’s The Devil Wears Prada seem little more than child’s play: that’s how cold and crafty act Kristin Scott Thomas comes across.

For a good example of how humiliation can turn a stable, fun-loving person into a nervous wreck, take another look at the director’s terrific Fear and Trembling (Stupeur et tremblements), as its principal character Amélie, played winningly by Sylvie Testud, is stabbed in the back (figuratively in this case) by the person she least suspects. If you still believe that boys are made of snips and snails and puppy-dog tales while girls are all sugar and spice and all things nice, prepare to lose your innocence.

Unrated. 106 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



J.C. Chandor's
Margin Call
Opens Friday, October 21, 2011


Written By: J.C. Chandor

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci

Lionsgate/ Roadside Attractions/Benaroya Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

It’s difficult to find fault with the hordes of mostly young people who are marching on Wall Street. Their protests are spreading to other cities in the US, a movement that reminds one of how the revolts in Tunisia spread to other Middle East nations. The aim of the revolt on Wall Street is to gain media attention to the shady practices of financial institutions, practices responsible largely for our economic crisis that has resulted in unemployment reaching toward ten percent. African-American joblessness is at sixteen percent, and, if you add underemployment to the mix, you could come up with figures approaching twenty-five percent. Those newly graduating from college find themselves jobless, unable to move out of their parents’ homes and their spirits crushed with student debts that cannot legally be erased by bankruptcy.

Margin Call is a movie that’s torn from today’s headlines. Unlike the superb documentaries of Michael Moore and such works as Wall Street (“greed is good”). writer-director J.C. Chandor’s deals with what’s happening in New York’s financial area during a 24-hour period mostly within the framework of a brokerage house, thereby meeting what theater scholars would call the three classical unities: of time, of place, and of plot.

Chandor does not attempt to tell us exactly what this brokerage house is selling, perhaps for fear that the explanation would go over the heads of people who did not major in finance. But the abstract nature of the product helps make the plot more universal. We suspect, though, that the highly-paid financial wizards who, some believe, do little more than crunch numbers and sort papers, are part of what’s wrong with our country, a nation that used to make things but now gives the greatest material rewards to those who buy and sell pieces of paper that may or may not have the value attributed to them. In this film, the brokers are pushing mortgage-based securities, or MBS’s, documents similar to bonds which have proven to be worth far less than their face value. There’s no need to go into the details of why this is so, but in simple terms, financial institutions purchased mortgages held by people who could not afford the housing they purchased.

Chandor has assembled a stellar group of performers who create surprising tension throughout the story despite the almost total avoidance of music on the soundtrack to tell us what to feel. Those of us who have already been downsized or who live daily in morbid fear of losing their job can readily identify with the plight of eighty percent of traders on the floor of this one company who lose their jobs in one fell swoop. We’re introduced to Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a dedicated worker with several years’ employment who is currently working on something which he calls “dangerous.” Eric is fired from his job in risk management by order of his boss, Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), given a sendoff by two ice-cold women who present him with a booklet that ironically shows sailboat on the cover. He is escorted from the building, his business cell phone and computer turned off before he hits the street. He hands his flash drive to a co-worker, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who like Eric had been an engineer, but who joined the financial company in the department of risk management because that’s where the money is.

Money is on the mind of everyone. In one scene Sullivan and his 23-year-old co-worker and friend Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) are in a strip joint debating how much money each of the stripper is making, coming to the estimate of $2,000 per performance. This area is not called the financial district for nothing.

It’s difficult to think that this movie has not been adapted from a play, since, given the speechifying, the whole story could easily have been performed on the stage. Jeremy Irons performs as John Tuld, the big boss who calls together the key executives for an all-night meeting at the office as it becomes clear that the brokerage house is stuck with so much in worthless securities that the firm could go under that very day. Tuld lectures the group that it must quickly sell the paper in a single day, as the word is about to go out that the trading is corrupt. Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), a fairly idealistic fellow with thirty-four years in the firm, is ready to call it quits. He is disgusted with the malfeasance of the director, but with an annual paycheck that probably average two million a year, he concedes that he must remain with the company because he needs the money.

Just what do these fellows do with the millions they earn each year? Listen to Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), a gum-chewing exec who describes just how he spends most of the two million each year—on restaurants, clothing, cars, and hookers.

New York looks seductive, particularly at night. Photographer Frank G. DeMarco shoots the skyscrapers that give Our Town a look of pure majesty, a beacon that justifiably coaxes people from the Mid-West into the Big Apple for its money, its excitement, is promise of business connections and romantic introductions. The theatrical aspect of the film gives it a static quality, though, a tone that bodes against the possibilities of box office returns that might parrot the cash that its participants are making. The movie is impressive given that this is J.C. Chandor’s freshman work. Chandor is a director who is quite likely to be grabbed up by a bevy of producers for future entertainment.

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




Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson in Martha Marcy May Marlene

Sean Durkin’s
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Opens Friday, October 21, 2011

Written by Sean Durkin

Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbet, Hugh Dancy, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner, John Hawkes, Louisa Krause, Sarah Paulson..

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

Elizabeth Olsen makes quite the auspicious screen debut in the disturbing, ambiguous and riveting indie, Martha Marcy May Marlene. It’s a haunting and deeply affecting performance that should garner some award recognition and hints at a promising career for the younger sister of the Olsen twins.

Olsen plays the title character (figure that one out yourself but let’s call her “Martha”) who has just escaped a farm where she lived for two years as a member of a cult following the whims of Patrick (the chilling John Hawkes, born to play sleazy bad/maybe good/no, definitely bad) and his sexist, rapist, murderous tendencies.

Martha has called her upper middle class older sister Lucy (the extremely underrated Sarah Paulson) to come get her and she is brought to the Connecticut lakehouse Lucy shares with her perfect husband Ted (Hugh Dancy, doing his best with an underwritten part). Martha is obviously completely rattled by her experiences on the farm but does not share any of the details with Lucy so she is seen as weird and inappropriate since she thinks nothing of swimming naked, cuddling next to them when they are making love and asking pointed questions about things that are none of her business.

The film flashes back and forth between past and present in a deliberately- patterned manner and we begin to put together the pieces of who Martha was before and during her cult stay…and the shattered individual she has become since.

Writer/director Sean Durkin has crafted a fascinating story that feels quite familiar-- there are elements of Jonestown, the Manson gang and Waco in the film’s portrayal of the group but we can also see the allure of the place as well.

As compelling as it can be the film is sometimes unsatisfying, sometimes feels like an obvious first feature (which it is) and ends too abruptly. I understand why the film stops where it does, but I felt cheated.

Still Durkin has talent and the film channels Altman in places (the highest compliment possible for a filmmaker!) And Olsen’s deep psychological delving keeps us focused from beginning to end.





Bennett Miller's
Moneyball
Opens Friday, September 23, 2011

Columbia Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Written By: Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, from the book by Michael Lewis

Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman

After the Enron scandal and surely after the recent debacle that led to Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns’ belly-up act, accounting became not a subject for geeks but a course leading to a full-scale macho degree. Could the same be said for majors in economics? Not in the larger sense but in a situation in which the major league baseball team, the Oakland Athletics, found themselves, economics turns out to be a solid, manly course of study. In the case of the big-budget but low-key Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller (Capote) after Steven Soderbergh was “traded away” from the feature partly because he was creating too much of a documentary look, a pudgy fellow with an economics major from Yale University ups his career from being an assistant to a manager from another team to sending the Oakland A’s from the cellar to the top of the heap; or as stated by the A’s general manager (not an exact quote) there’s the top tier, there’s a second tier, then there are 50 feet of crap, and under that you will find us.

Look at the experiences of the A’s at the turn of our century; they lost regularly because the backers could not put up enough money to buy the best talent. If the Yankees, for example, could retain top ball players for a stash of millions of dollars each, the A’s had to do with tens of thousands—which, by conventional wisdom means that they will never amount to much. Enter the duo of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), among the most unlikely people ever paired off by the movies. Beane is a macho guy who eats everything in sight, but keeps his weight down, presumably, with chewing tobacco, which he regularly spits into a paper cup. Brand is wholly out of shape though is never seen consuming food. Brand got his Economics degree from Yale while Beane is a high-school graduate who turned down a full football-baseball scholarship at Stanford in order to join the A’s, becoming its general manager when he no longer had the needed youth. (“Some give out at 18, others at 40.”) Beane has charisma that would stop a discussion while Brand, for all his weight, would remain invisible. After Beane hears Brand combining a discussion of statistics and baseball strategy, he questions the man and hires him away to Oakland as his adviser.

More important even than the position of director is that of screenwriter. Co-scripter Aaron Sorkin is well-known by movie buffs everywhere as the scribe for the award-winning The Social Network and The West Wing. Sorkin’s skill is making ordinary conversations sound like magical words of wisdom. This is good since while some time is spent on the field watching the players field and bat while flashbacks take us to part of Billy’s career as a player, the principal feature of Moneyball is the conversations away from the diamond. We get more than an inkling about the backlot business of trading players as though they were baseball cards rather than real people, decisions made in minutes and executed by the general manager almost without emotion. One fellow on the team has something wrong with his leg: he is let go without another team to pick him up, while others go, say, from Oakland to Detroit while Oakland gets a player from that city with a few hundred thousand in cash.

In the same way that old-fashioned methods of farming have long been chucked in favor of scientific agriculture, the sport of baseball—if we project from what we see in Moneyball—is fast becoming one no longer wholly dependent scouts who watch players cavort about the field in colleges, high schools, whatever, and instead study statistics such as how many times a fellow has gotten on base. (I had always thought that statistics counted heavily throughout: in fact a former colleague of mine took pride in memorizing and quoting such arcane trivia as numbers of RBI’s, base hits, walks, strikeouts, the works from any team.)

Brad Pitt’s performance is inspired as this time he is not a golden boy but rather a vulnerable character who sticks his neck out to go with the statistical approach contrary to the advice of crusty manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the old guys who serve as the team’s board of directors. Several off-the-field scenes find Pitt’s character acting like a great dad with his daughter, Casey (Kerris Dorsey), a girl who plays guitar and sings and shuttles by air between Oakland and her divorced mother’s place (Robin Wright). When Casey worries that her dad will be fired if his team continues its losses, Billy assures her with false confidence that there’s no chance. Yet the kid is sensitive enough to sing what she feels, and what she feels is from Lenka’s The Show. “I’m just a little bit caught in the middle/ Life is a maze and love is a riddle/ I don’t know where to go, can’t do it alone/ I’ve tried and I don’t know why.”

I like the metamorphosis undergone by Jonah Hill’s character, Pete, who is at first mystified and flattered that Billy even talks to him, then starts dominating the conversation with his hero by pushing him to reveal more than he would like. Director Miller finds more drama in the talk than on the field, opening the film to an audience that knows nothing about baseball and making Moneyball the first real major movie of the prestige season.

Michael Lewis's book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, can be picked up at Amazon for under ten bucks.

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




Jennifer Fox's
My Reincarnation
Opens Friday, October 28, 2011

Long Shot Factory
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Written By: Jennifer Fox

Starring: Yeshi Silvano Namkhai, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu

For a guy who is angry that the Chinese government took over Tibet in 1959, causing him to flee to Italy, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu seems awfully fond of giving Chinese fortune-cookie advice. A teacher, excuse me, A Master, whose classes bring out scores of Westerners who are looking for a Buddhist alternative to Christianity and Judaism, Norbu—at least from what we can see from Jennifer Fox’s “twenty-years-in-the-making” documentary--provides little insight to this tubby fellow’s popularity. His son, Yeshi Silvano Namkhai—who kvetches that The Master acts toward him like a teacher rather than a dad—rebels against his father’s insistence that he maintain his Tibetan culture. Namkhai, who should see a dermatologist, is thought by some hippie-ish folks to be the reincarnation of his uncle, another “great” spiritual master, which means that perhaps in Buddhism, unlike Hinduism, one can progress from one dead human being to another uncharismatic human being without first becoming a cow or an iguana of what-have-you.

New York based Jennifer Fox, a documentarian whose Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman “mirrors the way women communicate today” and whose An American Love Story tracks a year-and-a-half of an interracial marriage particularly with insights of their biracial daughter, shows the crowds in awe of this father-son act. But who would not be in awe of the older man who advises a scared young fellow in the audience who wants a mantra to deal with his HIV-positive diagnosis to “see a doctor” and then to “relax.” As if that’s not awesome advice, check out his son’s counsel to a man who finds his job stressful. “All jobs have stress. Be like a child.” To add to audience stress, the young man ends a large number of his advice-giving sentences with “know” just a tad better than the American practice of saying the most insipid phrase in the English language, “you know.” Or does he mean “no?” That would be more logical.

There’s a mix of psychology and philosophy in the teachings, which is not unusual since some experts believe that people with neurotic concerns or healthy worries would do best to consult Aristotle and not Freud. We are privy to meetings in which the congregation says “OM,” to a scene in the hospital where the older master is fighting cancer, and not nearly enough footage of scenes from the Tibet that the Master had fled when the Chinese took over and killed some of the locals. Too bad Ms. Fox did not try to uncover for naïve members of the movie audience just what benefits one gets from mantras, nor did she try to explain just what excites the Westerners, causing them to display broad smiles, when the Dalai Lama comes into view. I guess we’ll have to ask Richard Gere.

Unrated. 82 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online




Gus Van Sant's
Restless
Opens Friday, September 16, 2011

Written By: Gus Van Sant

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Henry Hopper, Jane Adams, Schuyler Fisk, Lusia Fisk, Ryo Kase

Sony Pictures Classics

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Gus Van Sant is perhaps best known for his Good Will Hunting, an uplifting tale of a genius who was abused as a boy and cannot think of leaving his South Boston childhood roots, whose life is turned around by a therapist. Coming to terms with the blows that life often leaves is a theme that’s taken up again by the writer-director, but Restless, though warmly applauded at Cannes as “the kind of movie they don’t make any more,” is too close to a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV episode to warrant universal praise. A PG-13 film that refuses to show much in the way of the agonies faced by someone with terminal brain cancer who has only three months to live, is up to the standards of a staid TV program. But on the big screen, featuring a pair of teens with just a few melodramatic moments, the film is hardly awe-inspiring. This work is not up to the standards of one of our country’s most prominent directors, and could have audiences wish for Van Sant to return to his less accessible self as shown in such works as Gerry— the story of two twenty-something guys hiking in a desert who forget to carry food and water.

Ironically there is little that is “restless” about the two principal performers, teens Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper) and Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska). Their relationship is un-teen-like, peppered with a few chaste kisses and a sex scene that could have been filmed during the 1940s. There is nothing here that is unpredictable or which makes use of the possibilities inherent in cinema as opposed to the stage.

Mia Wasikowska, who is made up so pixie-like that she could play in a bio-pic of Mia Farrow, is an actress in demand these days, having appeared as the title figures in Alice in Wonderland and Jane Eyre. In Restless, she shows no interest in I-pods or I-pads or smart phones or computers but rather is so in sync with the natural world that her principal hobby is sketching pictures of water birds. For his part Enoch (Henry Hopper) has left school following the tragic deaths of his parents, and has taken refuge from life. His hobby is crashing memorial services of strangers. He does this to such an extent that after his fourth visit he is told to leave by the authorities. Enoch has only one friend, Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), the ghost of a Kamikaze pilot who died for his country during the early 1940s, while Annabel’s hero is no less than Charles Darwin. Can you think of a high-school student today who would entertain such idols?

Though Enoch feels threatened when he sees Annabel’s interest as stalking, he agrees to become her boyfriend to ease her mind when he hears that she is under a death sentence. Soon, thoughts of rescuing the damsel grow into puppy love, making the project more like Love Story than Good Will Hunting. Restless could probably find a better home on the off-Broadway stage or in regional theater, where its dramatic potential—with more effort put into the script for subtleties—would make the story welcome.

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


 


Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg's
Tanner Hall
Opens Friday, September 9, 2011


Written By: Francesca Gregorini, Tatiana von Fustenberg

Starring: Rooney Mara, Georgia King, Brie Larson, Amy Ferguson, Tom Everett Scott, Chris Kattan

Anchor Bay Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

A movie about an all-girls’ secondary-level boarding school is probably not going to deal with how the students discuss the situation in Libya. Tanner Hall is no exception to the usual rule that such a genre will emphasize sex, flirtations, troublemaking, all the subjects that parents don’t want to deal with, which is why they send their teens to such a place. These gals are stereotypical, which is to say that you won’t expect much thinking, er, outside the box. Things do occur during senior yea,r but nothing that would justify putting caps and gowns on any of these lovely young women.

This is an ensemble-based film, but one that is anchored by Rooney Mara in the role of Fernanda. Mara is the co-ed who made an egregiously stupid financial move by dumping Mark Zuckerberg during the first five minutes of The Social Network. Soon to star in the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mara is going places. In this story, let’s call Fernanda the home-wrecker, though her interference in an older man’s marriage is not entirely her fault. Brie Larson is Kate, a flirt, a no-action-talk-only type who seems scheduled to drive her English teacher out of the school. Amy Ferguson is here as Lucasta, a lesbian who may not know what the word means, but realizes “there’s something wrong with me” when she cannot react to her boy-friend’s kiss. And Georgia King as Victoria, is trouble. There you have it. Each young woman is a type.

The story is not uninvolving, though, even as it clicks off the boxes on the checklist. Mr. Middlewood (Chris Kattan) plays against his Corky Romano type, stuck with a strange wife (Amy Sedaris) who goes through her own checklist of visualization techniques to try to arouse her erectile-ly dysfunctional husband—who manages to be ready to perform when enticed by the flirtatious Kate. Fernanda falls for The Older Married Man Who Just Became A Father, Gio (Tom Everett Scott, sporting an obvious rug on his head). Gio looks ready to throw his life overboard for Fernanda, yet another example of a guy whose brain is stapled in below his waist.

Despite all these soap-opera-like undercurrents, the Big Event for these girls is a trip to the town fair using an ill-begotten key, as these tykes are not allowed outside the grounds of the school. All is filmed in a leafy part of Rhode Island by Brian Rigney Hubbard with Roger Neill’s original music playing softly in the background. Tanner Hall is a coming-of-age chick-flick right down to the two writer-directors, Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg in their first joint project.

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



Emilio Estevez's
The Way
Opens Friday, October 7, 2011

Written By: Emilio Estevez, based on stories from Jack Hitt’s Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route in Spain—available on Amazon.com for $14.22.

Starring: Martin Sheen Emilio Estevez, Yorick van Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, Antonio Gil

Producers Distribution Agency/ Arc Entertainment

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

During the recent session of the United Nations in New York, the diplomats relaxed in their hotels. Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, stayed at the Mandarin at $16,000 per night, and since the average Rwandan makes $1500 a year, it would take a year’s pay to spend about two hours there. Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian West Bank is a more modest fellow, spending $3,000 for each of his nights in the Big Apple. But I’ll bet that neither one had nearly as much fun as the quartet who form the principal characters of The Way, written, directed and produced by Emilio Estevez and featuring his dad, Martin Sheen.

Regardless of the incestous casting, The Way is no vanity project. Instead, it is easily the most spiritual movie of the year, but one without the saccharine pretensions of TV’s Hallmark Hall of Fame.

The Way is said to have received a standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival, with journalists guessing that the great reception must be because it meets the needs of regular audiences who look (with microscopes perhaps?) for something without cursing, sex, explosions, car chases or angry robots. The Way is a road-and-buddy movie that has been compared to The Wizard of Oz.

As its central character, Martin Sheen plays the role of Tom Avery, a Ventura, California ophthalmologist whose idea of fun is golf with other doctors. Avery is a fellow whose loyalty to his patients seems to mean he’d never consider cancelling an appointment even if was deathly ill. All that changes when he gets a call from the French police informing him that his son, Daniel (Emilio Estevez), eager to see the world rather than continue his doctoral studies, has died by accident in the Pyrenees Mountains while on a hiking pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Obviously devastated by the news, Tom goes wholly out of character, cancelling a month’s appointments to pick up his son’s remains. He is determined to take the young man’s ashes on the route that Daniel would have followed, walking for a month from France to the Church where St. James is said to be interred.

Thinking he’d be alone throughout the journey, and probably preferring to be solo at first, he surprises himself by enjoying the company of three other pilgrims who, like him, are not taking the hike for religious reasons. First he runs into Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a boisterous and generous Dutch traveler, who is taking the hike to lose weight. He won’t. Canadian Sara (Deborah Kara Unger) joins the group as a woman who is on the walk to give up smoking. She doesn’t. Irishman Jack (James Nesbit), is a travel writer who is blocked and is determined to break out of the standard magazine articles to write a book about the celebrated journey. He probably will. Not religious himself, Tom simply wants to take his son’s place, as it were, and continue the journey that Daniel could not make. He does.

Though deep character analysis is not even tried, nor should it be given the marvel that Estevez turns out. The Way works its magic not by a plethora of melodrama or wild celebrations, though there is a terrific scene that has the quartet enjoying a group of Roma people spontaneously abandoning themselves to flamenco at night. As described by the Roma adult (Antonio Gil) that the group meets, the gypsies are a strong community with wedding celebrations that could include 2,000 guests. From the looks of the gathering, these folks, reviled for centuries by populations of countries like Romania and Spain, have a lot more fun that the rich ophthalmologist whose moments of golf with friends seem overly civilized despite the good-natured teasing.

The Way is at the very least an exquisite product placement for the Spanish Tourism Board, for the intensity of the Catholics on the pilgrimage (one scene inside the church at Santiago features a group of thurifers swinging the large thurible wildly up and down and sideways, incense streaming from the inside), and for the hope it gives people who are no longer in their youth that their days of full participation on the world scene are not over. Yes, dear readers,the journey is the destination. This marvel of a picture must be seen on the big screen as the shots of the Spanish countryside are, what shall we say, Olé!

Unrated. 115 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online



Philippe Le Guay's
The Women on the Sixth Floor (Les femme du 6ème étage)
Opens Friday, October 7, 2011


Written By: Philippe Le Guay

Starring: Fabrice Luchini, Sandrine Kiberlain, Natalia Verbeke, Carmen Maura

Strand Releasing
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Members of the U.S. Tea Party might be horrified to note—if they can catch subtle clues—that the writer-director of The Women on the 6th Floor has communist or at least socialist tendencies, and that his leftist views come to fruition in the story. This is not to say that The Women on the 6th Floor is principally political, which it is only in the broad sense. Instead, Philippe Le Guay’s interest is in amusing his audience while painlessly giving us a comedy of manners that may not be as witty as anything by Oscar Wilde, but does alert us that people whose dinnerware is made in Xian, China have lives quite often more interesting than those who feast and drink on Wedgewood china. A plethora of studies have shown that happiness does not increase exponentially with wealth: that once people earn enough to live with basic comfort, they may be more excited by life than others born with silver spoons in their mouths.

In The Women on the 6th Floor, Jean-Louis Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) finds himself in the higher socio-economic group, having inherited ownership of an investment bank in Paris. He doesn’t know that he’s unhappy until he compares his life to those of the contingent of Spanish-born maids crammed together on the sixth floor of an old building in a posh Paris neighborhood, while he makes his bed some floors below in a richly-furnished set of rooms. He is married to Suzanne Joubert (Sandrine Kiberlain), who like her husband ultimately realizes that the servants upstairs have more joie de vivre than both she and her contingent of Ladies Who Lunch.

Le Guay’s film is a frothy entertainment, nothing much that smacks of “art,” but is rather one which can appeal to a variety of audiences that can relate to French movies that are not endless talk-fests. Situated in Paris in 1960, when Franco remains in power in Spain and De Gaulle is the big fromage in France, The Women finds Jean-Louis frustrated that his maid is unable to make a breakfast egg for exactly three and one-half minutes. Out she goes, and in comes the attractive María Gonzales (Argentine-born Natalia Verbeke), who on her first day enlists the cheerful help of her floor-mates—who include Pedro Almadóvar favorite Carmen Maura as Concepción Ramirez. In a matter of hours the dishes are washed, the furniture dusted, the shirts cleaned and ironed, all followed up the next morning by a perfect egg. Forget the bourgeois complaint “You can’t get good help nowadays.”

Turned off by investment clients who are rich and act as if they own their stockbrokers, bored with the parties that his wife drags him to, Jean-Louis discovers in middle age that he had missed out on the true camaraderie enjoyed by the giggling servants. He gets to work helping them in many ways—counseling a victim of beatings, driving them to a picnic, even sitting on a pew in a Spanish-language church—while at the same time he is falling in love with the efficient, charming but vulnerable María. He even becomes jealous when a boorish caterer appears to be making time in the kitchen with María, threatening to fire her for indiscretions that are in no way her fault.

Though difficult to say that the rotund and lovable Jean-Louis could evoke the romantic attentions of a woman a quarter century his junior, we’ll just have to suspend disbelief and go with the airy tone of a film that ompetently traverse barriers of class and nation.

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


 



Andrew Haigh's
Weekend
Opened Friday, September 23, 2011

Written by Andrew Haigh

Starring: Tom Cullen, Chris New.

(UK, 96 min.)

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella
at the Newfest Film Festival

Since filmmakers like Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki introduced an exciting and non-apologetic style of Queer Cinema into American culture, new helmers have had more freedom to explore all aspects of gay life and truly delve into gay issues. Yet they’ve often chosen the simpler stories about coming out and infidelity.

The Brits, however, have always been ahead of the US with honest and edgy “gay” films that go much further in their explorations of all aspects of gay life (Maurice, Another Country, Beautiful Thing, My Beautiful Laundrette, Get Real, Prick Up Your Ears, to name a few from the 80s-90s).

Writer/director Andrew Haigh’s intense and atmospheric new film, Weekend, is a simple yet powerful work where, around the structure of a hook-up, we get to know two very different gay men and how they cope with life, love, sex and simply trying to find their way in the world. The film assumes audience intelligence—which is a rare and bold thing nowadays.

Tom Cullen plays Russell, a guy who is very uncomfortable in his own skin and even more uncomfortable with the fact that he likes other guys. On a Friday night, after a fairly dull family event at his best friend’s home, he finds himself at a gay pub and picks up Glen (Chris New) a brazen, near-militant gay boy who begins to challenge Russell’s beliefs—once they are both sober.

The two embark on their own queer version of Brief Encounter, sans the melodrama and infidelity, but chock filled with significant dialogue about what it means to be a gay man in todays world—a world that has finally begun to accept homosexuality, slowly and with stipulations.

Amidst the raw and honest sex and drug taking, Haigh provides a window into the lives of two guys, who happen to be gay, trying to get along with each other and trying to figure out where they fit in.

Weekend is terrifically shot by Urszula Pontikos in a most effective peeping tomish style. Haigh’s direction is deliberately stylized but not pretentious. The script is crisp and smart. And the two actors are riveting and both have moments where they reveal quite a bit without saying much at all.

My only complaint (as a non-Brit) is that sometimes the dialogue was unintelligible, but that just makes me look forward to viewing the dvd twice more at least—once with subtitles and another time so I can simply watch the fascinating faces of these two actors go to places that are real and penetrating.

NewFest, the New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Film Festival runs July 21-28 at various locations in New York City. NewFest.org

 


 


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