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Ken Kwapis's
Big Miracle

Opens Friday, February 3, 2012

Screenwriter: Jack Amiel, Michael Begler, from Thomas Rose's book "Free the Whales"

Starring: Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Kristen Bell, Dermot Mulroney, Tim Blake Nelson, Vinessa Shaw, Ted Danson

Universal Pictures/ Working Title

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Politics makes strange bedfellows. Who would have thought that so many individuals with different cultures and conflicting ideologies could unify in the remote northern regions of Alaska, all working toward the same goals albeit for different reasons? Ken Kwapis does a great job in recreating what must have been covered in one way or another by the National Geographic Channel, employing the big screen to milk audience emotions in a movie that bears some of the tensions you might expect in a thriller. The film boasts a PG rating from the MPAA (there might of been a time that "hell" and "damn" would not have garnered such liberality). Big Miracle, with a screenplay by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler from Thomas Rose's Free the Whales, is inspired by a true story that riveted an international TV audience in 1988.

Sentimental to a T, Big Miracle finds an oil man, J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson), environmentalist Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), a flock of local Iñupiati people, and a group of Soviets on a barge, all putting aside their considerable differences to save three whales trapped under ice. The group had only days to cut a large gap in the ice before the small opening through which the whales surface and breathe would freeze over. In temperatures ranging from -40 to -70 Fahrenheit, a local newsman Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) and a TV reporter imported from L.A. (Kristen Bell) together with her boss (John Michael Higgins) would take part in an adventure that captured the inputs of President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachov. With the assistance of the Alaska National Guard called out by Governor Haskell (Stephen Root) and led by Col. Scott Boyer (Dermot Mulroney), the would-be saviors are cheered on by local native Malik (John Pingayak) and his extroverted grandson Nathan (Ahmaugak Sweeney).

What does a local newsman do for warmth in this sort of weather? This questions allows director Ken Kwapis to trot out Drew Barrymore's Rachel, a Greenpeace volunteer who is less than diplomatic toward the people with the power to save the three whales. Rachel is a woman who was dumped some time back by newsman Adam, who will obviously connect once again with the woman who, he says, drives him crazy. As for the whales, they look realistic enough, but are animatronic creations made a world away in Auckland, New Zealand, but who have too many worries about survival to remember their names--baby Bamm Bamm, mother Wilma and daddy Fred. Why do Eskimos, who spear and eat whales (although not the gray whales in the cast); an fellow for whom Alaska means nothing more than a place to drill for oil; a Soviet barge during the icy days of the Cold War; the President of the United States; and an environmentalist all doing working together? Only Rachel Kramer is sincere in her love for the big creatures: for the others, it's all PR, but who cares? As long as they get the job done.

We do learn something about the local culture and about geography. Barrow, Alaska is in the big state's northwest, presumably an area that gets 24 hours of light in the summer and 24 hours of darkness in the winter. We get the impression that the Inuit people would have it no other way: in fact in assembling the cast, the producers auditioned the locals throughout the state, folks who speak different languages depending on their tribes. Small fry who see the movie will be most impressed by young Ahmaugak Sweeney as the hotshot grandchild, a true capitalist who takes advantage of the increased population to charge $20 for a piece of cardboard on which to stay while the local hotel, hardly a Sheraton, is getting $500 a night--no credit cards accepted.

Cameos taken from 1988--Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, for example--give the movie an added authenticity, though Ted Danson's rectangular glasses were probably unknown before the 1990s. Corny? Perhaps. But given that the action is on a huge screen and not on your 55-inch Sony gives the story all the punch, the humor, the sentimentality that it needs. And who knows? Maybe some of us will put aside our BlackBerries to find out more about our fellow Americans who'd rather live in Seward's Icebox than down in Florida.

Rated PG. 107 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Dori Berinstein's
Carol Channing: Larger Than Life
Opens Friday, January 20, 2012 in LA; February 3, 2012 in NY

Screenwriter: Dori Berinstein, Adam Zucker

Cast: Carol Channing, Barbara Walters, Debbie Reynolds, Lily Tomlin, Tyne Daly

Entertainment One US/ Dramatic Forces

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If you're a diehard fan of Broadway, happy to shell out over $100 for a decent seat to a musical and the equivalent amount discounting inflation way back, you're the perfect audience for Dori Bernstein's Carol Channing: Larger Than Life. Ms. Channing, now ninety years old and still able to get up on the stage, take some reminiscent steps with adoring younger actors, dominates the documentary which is all to the good. We don't need yet another non-fiction work featuring people with knowledge of a person but nary a look at the subject. Instead Berinstein's film features the title character everywhere, in notably archival flashes of the stage work in her signature musical, Hello Dolly. The pacing is swift, the animated Hirschfeld drawings a marvel of technology, the commentators not overstaying their welcome.

Channing is one entertainer who proves that one can make it big in the entertainment world with a raspy voice, huge saucer eyes, and lips puffier than Angelina Jolie's. She accepts the accolades of ordinary folks on the streets of Manhattan and L.A. almost with surprise that so many recall her past work, talking without hesitations or "you know"'s or "kind of" or other speech peculiarities as though she were relating experiences that occurred just the other day. In her most humorous aside, she notes that Yul Brynner once begged her not to remind the public that she beat his own record of 5,000 performances in The King and I, but now that Brynner is no longer with us "I don't think he'll mind."

In one of the most unusual romances imaginable, she gets together with the sweetheart she knew and set aside in junior high school at the age of twelve, a relationship that took seventy years to make her and Harry Kullijian realize that they should have remained together forever. She notes with poignance that she spent 42 years miserably married to Charles Lowe, a man who ruled every aspect of her life.

Interview subjects--none of whom has a bad word about her (though Channing makes a caustic comment about the casting of Barbra Streisand in Hello Dolly--include Barbara Walters, Tyne Daly, Jerry Herman (who saved Dolly when it almost expired in Detroit), Lily Tomlin, and Debbie Reynolds. There are even cameos by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson. Larger Than Life could not be a more apt subtitle for the doc.

Rated PG. 87 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New Yorl


Baltasar Kormákur's
Opens Friday, January 13, 2012


Universal Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Screenwriter: Aaron Guzikowski, adapted from the Icelandic film Rejkjavik-Rotterdam

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster, Giovanni Ribisi, Lukas Haas

It is tempting to say that Contraband is full of plot holes, but the story is so convoluted, with so many scene changes picked up by photographer Barry Ackroyd's shaky hands, that what remains is more a set of scenes missing a narrative flow. The framework, however, is clear enough, "one last job."

Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), married to Kate Farraday (Kate Beckinsale) and father of two kids, needs to bail out his young and stupid brother-in-law, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones). Andy made a mess of a smuggling job, importing ten pounds of cocaine for drug lord Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). After ditching the bag of drugs at sea when customs boarded the boat, he comes home empty-handed. Andy is then threatened with death unless he digs up the money within a couple of weeks, but not only that: Chris, Chris's wife Kate, and their two kids are threatened as well. To make good on the debt Chris, a former smuggler gone straight with a security business of his own, must return to a life of crime by bringing in a fortune in counterfeit currency from Panama.

The film is adapted by Baltasar Kormákur from the 2008 movie in which he starred, Reykjavik-Rotterdam, which showed that some Icelanders as a violent bunch intent on smuggling booze. (That movie received no reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and two on the internet movie database.) The action here takes place in New Orleans, in Panama, and on a boat under its captain (J.K. Simmons--who, rumor has it, begged for a role as a tough guy). Chris's job is to load tens of millions of counterfeit dollars onto a ship under the noses of the crew, some of whom are in on the job, and to get the loot past customs, which, on a tip, is making a thorough search in the Port of New Orleans. Gradually Chris finds out that his best friend, Sebastian Abney (Ben Foster) may not be the trustworthy pal he took him for.

You could say the movie is targeted toward those with ADD, folks who cannot tolerate gazing at a single scene for more than five seconds. The violence and most of the action dealing with the smuggling operation is photographed so swiftly that one wonders just how the intricate details are executed. Mark Wahlberg once again demonstrates his biceps as well as his character's blue-collar culture and principles: he drinks beer at a friend's wedding, he kisses his wife on the dance floor, he is taking on a job not to enrich himself but to bail his brother-in-law out of a mess. Nor would he consider smuggling drugs. But the dialogue runs to four-letter words (Kate Beckinsale is not too prim to use her share), car crashes and flying fists, in short what insiders and some general audiences know is the stereotypical January entry.

Rated R. 109 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy's
The Fairy (La Fée)
Opens Friday, February 24, 2012

Screenwriter: Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Bruno Romy

Starring: Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Bruno Romy, Philippe Martz, Vladimir Zorano, Destiné M'Bikula Mayemba, Wilson Goma

Kino Lorber

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

No cinephile could possibly watch this movie without thinking of Jacques Tati (1908-82), a French director, who may well have been the inspiration for the Belgo-Canadian-French directors of The Fairy. Tati's theme, like that portrayed by Buster Keaton, is that individual personality is warped by unfeeling organizations--which the principal characters try to overcome. In The Fairy, Dom (Dominique Abel) is a romantic who appears bewildered by the world, an impression he gives in the very opening scenes as he rides a bicycle in his town, Le Havre, during a rainstorm and develops a flat tire that forces him to carry the bike to work. As in Tati's movies, filmmakers Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy have set up absentminded characters who are emotionally suffering, yet their very suffering makes us laugh. (Would you laugh at or with a man who is virtually blind and who keeps bumping into walls? You might, if you're into this film.)

Abel, Gordon and Romy's previous work, Iceberg, dealt with a couple with clone-like children who went about life like robots while their Rumba was about Fiona and Dom, a happy couple with a passion for Latin dancing, their lives turned upside down by a car accident. If The Fairy were part of a trilogy (it isn't), this could be called a prequel: we find out how Dom and Fiona meet.

Dom (Dominique Abel) is a night clerk at a run-down hotel in Le Havre who is regularly interrupted from consuming his bologna and ketchup sandwich on white bread (French food?) by the phone or by buzzers from the entrance. An English tourist (Philippe Martz) asks for a room, using a French guide-book to Monte Python-esque humor, is told that no dogs are allowed (he has a lively West Highland terrier), but finds a way to solve that problem. Dom's life changes when he meets Fiona (Fiona Gordon), barefoot and possibly an escapee from a mental institution, who claims that she is a witch and offers him three wishes. She is, in fact, what she claims albeit with limited powers: she has given wings to another gentleman, but that guy falls gently to the ground. She has sex protected by a large clamshell and becomes pregnant, her stomach expanding moments later. The couple order beer from a nearly-blind bartender (Bruno Romy) whose eyeglasses reach all the way into the foam. And a group of illegal immigrants ask to be taken to England.

The emphasis is on visual humor rather than dialogue. Elements of magical realism include Dom and Fiona's shedding of clothes to romp for a long period under water. They have adventures with their new baby, who is set up on top of the trunk of an old Mercedes, following the cherub on a scooter and attempting to gather the tyke up. We wonder how cameraman Jean Christophe Leforestier films that scene, as it includes a death-defying leg stretch by Fiona Gordon, one foot on the scooter, the other on the trunk of the car in front of it.

The Fairy will go down easily on those who like Buster Keaton and slapstick in general. It is not my Crème brûlée The whimsy can become tiresome, but I'd be churlish to pan the film because of my strictly personal proclivities.

Unrated. 93 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Joe Carnahan's
The Grey
Opens Friday, January 27, 2012

Screenwriter: Joe Carnahan, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers

Starring: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, James Badge Dale, Joe Anderson

Open Road Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Ironically on the day of the screening I attended, the Wall Street Journal noted that the most recent study of airline efficiency cited Alaska Airlines is a winner in many categories. But in the film, The Grey, the folks taking a plane from their oil rig work site to Anchorage (actually filmed beautifully by Masanobu Takayangi) had the bad luck to crash.

The Grey is a horror tale, a character study making good use of ensemble acting, and a travelogue all taking place in a remote region that had probably not seen a human being for months. While there was not even a thought to eating one another--and for that matter the wolves that attacked them seemed simply to be defending their territory since they made no attempt to make nutritive value of these fellows--there is nothing particularly original thematically. Instead we in the audience are asked to consider how we would cope with fellow survivors if we were caught in an area surrounded by wolf dens with blizzards threatening to put out the fires that were started in an attempt to avoid freezing to death and to keep the lycan-like creatures away.

Liam Neeson stars John Ottway as the putative leader of the group, the guy who at first is resented for his knowledge of the ways of the wolves. Much of the time that he is working on the rig--we actually see him at night as the men entertain themselves by brawling, which is a way of foreshadowing how they will act after the crash--he dreams of his wife or girlfriend who had succumbed to a dread disease.

Ottway tries to get the group of survivors to work together and to relinquish they macho postures. One fellow insists that he is not scared, never scared, to which Ottway replies that he is "terrified." One by one the survivors are killed, by wolves, drowning, falling, heart attack, knee injury making walking impossible.

This is a film to watch not so much because of the predictable story but because of the scenery and performances by Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, James Badge Dale, Joe Anderson and Nonso Anozie. It's a testosterone flick, the only women being the hostess on the doomed airliner and the love of Ottway's life seen in flashbacks.

Rated R. 117 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Elizabeth Banks and Sam Worthington

Asger Leth's
Man On Ledge
Opens Friday, January 27, 2012

Screenwriter: Pablo F. Fenjves

Starring: Elizabeth Banks, Sam Worthington, Jamie Bell, Edward Burns, Kyra Sedgwick, Ed Harris, Anthony Mackie

Summit Entertainment

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

As an action-adventure movie, Man on a Ledge only succeeds partly: by providing some tension when an ex-cop who has been convicted of the crime of stealing a $40 million diamond goes out on the ledge of New York's Roosevelt Hotel 25 stories in the air. The trouble is that much of the action--particularly the busy goings-on across the street from which the title man on a ledge wants to distract the police--remains stable when it should be ratcheted up. That's not all: the dialogue is as corny as Kansas in August, the young woman who serves as hostage negotiator has hair that always remains in place from the time she is awakened, there is only one newscaster providing visuals to the adventure in our city of eight million, and we find out early on that there is little chance that the man will plunge to his death.

The movie, which is directed by documentarian Asger Leth whose Ghosts of Cité Soleil deals with gangs in that Haitian slum, finds Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington) near the beginning of a 25-year sentence for stealing the diamond from its owner, real estate tycoon David Englander (Ed Harris). He is determined to prove his innocence. Escaping from Sing Sing prison in upstate New York, he checks into the Roosevelt Hotel under the name of Joe Walker, wipes all the prints from his room where he has eaten what could be taken as his last meal, and climbs out on ledge, quickly encouraging an audience of hundreds who seem split 50/50 on whether he should jump. Cop Jack Dougherty (Ed Burns) arrives on the scene trying to talk the man out of jumping only to agree to bring in hostage negotiator Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks), who feels guilty for failing to prevent a rookie cop's descent off the Brooklyn Bridge a month earlier.

Among the implausible notions is Cassidy's ultimatum: that if Lydia Mercer does not show up within one half hour, he would jump. He even gets the count-down to ten seconds, albeit slowly, though he has no idea that Mercer is already in the room ready to go out herself on the ledge. What would he do if she had not dressed so quickly?

Much of the action takes place across the street where Cassidy's loyal brother, Joey (Jamie Bell) and his girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez) are into a mission-impossible act to find the evidence needed to exonerate Nick. The hostile banter between the two, who if caught could wind up in Sing Sing for a dozen years, is yet another implausibility, just as the friendlier dialogue between Nick and Lydia becomes tiresome, perhaps encouraging the movie audience to yell "jump" as well.

The film may have been inspired by an incident involving John William Ware, a twenty-six-year-old native of Southampton, NY, who committed suicide on July 26, 1938. He leaped from a window ledge of the seventeenth floor of the Gotham Hotel at 5th Avenue and 55th Street in Manhattan. He was the son of a Long Island express agent, his eleven-hour dilemma before jumping having held three hundred New York City police officers at bay.

Rated PG-13. 102 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Oren Moverman's
Opens Friday, February 10, 2012

Screenwriter: James Ellroy, Oren Moverman

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Robin Wright, Sigourney Weaver, Ice Cube, Ned Beatty, Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche, Brie Larson

Millennium Entertainment

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

There's really only one reason to see Rampart, but it's a good enough one--and that's the awards-worthy performance of Woody Harrelson in the role of a dirty cop. The L.A.-based police drama that may well have been inspired by the Rodney King affair is murky--a downer with a plot that is repetitive, spinning on in a circular way to put us firmly into the mind of the rogue cop, Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) who is coming apart at the seams both on his beat and within his strange family. The major part of Bobby Bukowski's filming is dark and sometimes dizzying. The neighborhood is bleak and appears riddled with crime, which is all Dave Brown needs to know to release his macho style on everyone he meets. He is so controlling that he even forces a rookie cop in the precinct to eat the fries that she orders, despite her insistence that she is watching her cholesterol. (Never mind the burger that she downs, though the whole scene may be Woody Harrelson's sending up of his own raw-food shtick, having had a role in a DVD about reversing diabetes by eschewing the gas range: the end-credits list his personal nutritionist.)

Dave Brown is a veteran police officer with the L.A.P.D., though despite twenty-four years with the department he wears only two stripes--which probably means that he's merely a corporal with a little supervisory authority within the precinct. Perhaps because of his low rank after all that service or maybe because of his criminal actions on the force, Brown is brutal to alleged criminals and, with his own family, a bad husband (consecutively) to two sisters (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche). He believes it's OK to put away the bad guys for good, which is why he killed an alleged serial date-rapist--giving him the nickname in the precinct of Date Rape, which his confused older daughter (Brie Larson) uses to address him. Accused by one of his ex-wives of ruining the lives of the two daughters, he is in even greater trouble with his police unit, investigated by the D.A. (Steve Buscemi) and the assistant D.A. Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver), and pursued by internal affairs officer Kyle Timkins (Ice Cube). Yet because he projects the image of "all man," he scores with the women he hits on in bars including Linda Fentress (Robin Wright) who he believes may be setting him up, and is given shady advice by his mentor, Hartshorn (Ned Beatty) who may also be stabbing him in the back. General Terry (Ben Foster), a homeless man in a wheelchair who witnessed one of Brown's murders, believes he is owed special favors by the cop as well.

Director Oren Moverman, whose The Messenger (which also featured Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson and Steve Buscemi) looked in upon a pair of military men who visit the families of soldiers killed in action, does allow us some sympathy for a cop who is his own worst enemy, as when we watch Dave Brown privately consider suicide while publicly refusing responsibility for his extreme behavior. Moverman, using a script he co-wrote with James Ellroy, does well in featuring Harrelson in virtually every scene, an actor whose charisma commands attention even in a slow-moving drama that is a downer all the way.

Rated R. 112 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Daniel Espinosa's
Safe House
Opens Friday, February 10, 2012

Screenwriter: David Guggenheim

Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Cunningham, Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga

Universal Pictures/ Relativity Media

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

You've got nifty car chases, car crashes, explosions, fist fights, loud gunfire, jumping from roof to roof: what more can a movie lover ask for? Oh, there's more: a top cast including the fabulous Denzel Washington, who can do no wrong, handsome Ryan Reynolds who knows how to grimace and sweat and bleed when he's in pain, some sinister looking people with big guns who never smile or joke, a top CIA executive who shows he means business by never raising his voice. There's some cool photography of Capetown, South Africa, one slum of which can justify an agent's plea that he be reassigned to Paris. I could go on, but getting back to the first question: what more can you ask for?

You could want some extended conversations: more people get killed in midsentence than have been taken out in any other movie I've seen. You could want subtlety and nuance in writing. You could want a script that makes a modicum of sense while still allowing enough of a twist near the conclusion. You could ask that at least somebody, anybody, might use a silencer on his gun because those gunshots are loud, man. You could want to interview the actors asking why they're so desperate for money that they signed on to this picture--particularly Vera Farmiga, who made a reputation by appearing in quite a few intelligent films like Up in the Air and, to be released later, A View from the Bridge. And is Sam Shepard, who has written for us such imaginative plays as True West and Curse of the Starving Class able to keep a straight face throughout this mayhem? That's to his credit.

The film, which bears not a smidgen of originality--corrupt government officials, the aforementioned noisy scenes, a shaky camera, a vicious manhunt--is largely a two-actor thriller pitting Ryan Reynolds' Matt Weston against Denzel Washington's Tobin Frost. Frost, a renegade CIA operative who has betrayed his country by selling secrets to the enemy, is being pursued by a motley crew of assassins and government officials who seek information to which Frost is privy. When a safe house in Capetown is invaded by people who want Frost alive, Matt Weston is directed by CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to transport him under handcuffs to another location. If he can do this successfully, he can say goodbye to Capetown, hello Paris. Thoroughly bloodied by not bent, Matt Weston, who plays straight man to Tobin Frost's wiseacre, did not know how lucky he had been when he was going nuts as a safe house caretaker whose only function was to look at four walls and throw a ball back and forth.

Safe House lovers might change their affections if they looked back at some of the great spy movies of yesteryear, particularly Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor (The CIA knows him as Condor. What he knows about the CIA could make him an endangered species.) Sound familiar? Safe House could actually make one relish even a confused and confusing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It's quiet.

Rated R. 115 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

This Means War
Opens Friday, February 17, 2012

Written by Timothy Dowling, Simon Kinberg, story by Dowling, Marcus Gautesen.

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Til Schweiger, Angela Bassett, Rosemary Harris, Chelsea Handler, Abigail Leigh Spencer.

20th Century Fox

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Tom Hardy keeps proving he can do just about anything and mesmerize. Even a Hollywood mash-up that wants to be hip but ultimately—in the final reel--becomes the same safe, irritating paint-by-numbers bullshit Hollywood pic.

This Means War is a genre blended romantic comedy/action thriller. And for quite a while it is actually sweet, intriguing and fun mostly due to its terrific trio of lead actors. It’s a Valentine’s Day offering that wants so desperately to be that one movie that both sexes can go to and enjoy. But in the end, instead of pursuing something original and distinct, it relies too much on the tried and true—which has become quite stale and migraine inducing.

Reese Witherspoon delights as Lauren, a product researcher, who gets involved with two men who happen to be best friends and co-workers (covert CIA agents, actually). Chris Pine is the cad who can’t commit to women but loves to seduce them. Tom Hardy is the lovable romantic with the ex-wife and child, who is looking for a real relationship. The romantic portion of the plot involves Lauren getting to know each of them and deciding which one is for her. You don’t have to be a fan of Katherine Heigl movies to guess this outcome in the first 20 minutes.

The action plot involves….ah, who cares! It’s silly, confused and only there, seemingly, to lure the tween boy demographic.

Fault the McG for everything wrong with the film. He’s the director responsible for the cacophonous mess that was Terminator Salvation.

And give credit to the valiant threesome for creating sparks from near-nothing; each brings surprising depth to their flimsy roles.

The rest of the ensemble is wasted including Angela Bassett who deserves so much better.

Chelsea Handler, who is one of the funniest women on TV, seems to be trying way too hard to shock in her scenes. I don’t blame her. I blame a terrible director who either didn’t bother directing her or chose all the worst takes.


This Means War has the dubious distinction of boasting the most market-research-infested ending of any film I have seen in eons. The last ten minutes feels like a series of rewrites and reshoots to make certain no moviegoer could possibly be offended and that each character would enjoy some kind of happy ending. The result negates most of the charm the actors worked so hard to achieve. McG’s treats his films as commodities, which makes him a whore to the studio system.

The worst affront is the last-minute revelation that Lauren did not sleep with both guys—the one thing that gave the film an edgy fascination beyond its limited trappings. God forbid she should be seen (by middle America, of course) as a slut. Because any female willing to sleep with two different at the same time must be the whore of Babylon, right?

There are moments in the film where the lovely Witherspoon seems to be staring at the camera wondering what style she should play. Alas, McG was probably too concerned with reaction cards to give her any direction.

Hiromasa Yonebayashi's
(English version by Gary Rydstrom)
The Secret World of Arrietty

Opens Friday, February 17, 2012

Hiromasa Yonebayashi, English version by Gary Rydstrom
The Secret World of Arrietty
Opens Friday, February 17, 2012

Screenwriter: Hayao Miyazaki, Keiko Niwa, English version by Karey Kirkpatrick from Mary Norton's "The Borrowers"

Cast: Voices of Bridgit Mendler, Amy Poehler, David Henrie, Moises Arias, Will Arnett, Carol Burnett

Walt Disney Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

A delightful book, The Borrowers by Mary Norton published in 1953, is now a lavish movie with Japanese style animation splashed with the colors of the rainbow. The Borrowers, which posits that tiny people live hidden form humankind beneath the floors of a quiet country house in England, gets a Japanese production which, for the benefit of Westerners has been translated into English by Gary Rydstrom. A few changes have taken place: we do not see some of the loot "borrowed" from "human beans" such as postage stamps for paintings and matchboxes for storage; or a small pair of Turkish bloomers made from two glove fingers for what Mary Norton states are for "knocking about in the mornings." Nor does the boy that comes to live in the country house have a pet ferret.

The big fear of the tiny people, is that one of them, the cute title character Arrietty, had allowed herself to be seen by the 14-year-old boy: first by accident when bounding about in the garden, then by the lonely lad's coaxing her as she stands outside his bedroom window.

The story centers on a tiny family living under the floorboards of the home for years, taking things that they say the humans will not miss such as a single cube of sugar or a piece of cheese--just enough to survive. They're a nomadic group, forced to change locations whenever spotted by the enemy (that's us). Arrietty changes her mind about at least one human being when the boy and she become friends. At the risk of scaring some of the small fry in the audience, the G-rated movie contains dialogue such as "we all have to die some time" and the fact that the boy has something wrong with his heart and will go into surgery in a week. (Why is that dialogue necessary?)

Using Studio Ghibli technology emanating from Koganei, Tokyo, whose work Spirited Away is best known in the U.S., we see such delights as Arrietty's mother pouring a single drop of tea in a tiny teacup--which is later used to transport the family across the water to a new home. For self-defense, Arrietty carries what to us looks like a simple pin but in her sheath it is a fearsome sword--which she can use against grasshoppers who tower above her in height.

Arrietty's mother is an overprotective nag who regularly fears for her daughter's safety, while the human housekeeper takes on the role of the evil woman who at one point captures Arreitty's mom and places her in a jar to prove to the family that she was right all along about the existence of the little ones.

The designers do well in creating characters to scale: the borrowers look convincingly shorter than the human family, but both groups are given interesting, though literal dialogue. There are no Shrek-style wisecracks or words put in for the benefit of the old timers in the audience.

Bridgit Mendler takes on the role of Arrietty's voice while other characters are given human dimensions by Amy Poehler, Carol Burnett, Will Arnett, David Henrie, and Moises Arias.

Rated G. 94 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Jill Sprecher's
Thin Ice
Opens Friday, February 17, 2012

Screenwriter: Jill Sprecher, Karen Sprecher

Cast: Greg Kinnear, Billy Crudup, Lea Thompson, Alan Arkin, David Harbour, Bob Balaban

ATO Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

The other day Jon Stewart's guest on the comedian's The Daily Show was Brad Pitt. After announcing his name, the audience burst into sustained applause, to which Jon replied (comically) "No, not that Brad Pitt: he's an insurance salesman in Poughkeepsie." Insurance salesmen, then, are in a categorywith dentists and accountants, presumably professions peopled primarily by dorks. The salesman in Jill Sprecher's Thin Ice, however, is anything but a dork, though by the time some of the people he meets do him harm he'd be happy if being a dork was the worst thing that could have happened to him.

Greg Kinnear is perfectly cast with a role that suits his personality to a T, that of a conniving insurance salesman, Mickey Prohaska, who has been spending too much time in hotels because he is separated from his wife, Jo Ann. He is enough of scammer to make us realize that when he tries to get back with her, sweet-talking his way into her bed, his only concern is to save money previously spent on hotels. Mickey gives motivational speeches advising his audience to ask people for the time as a way to start conversations that would inevitably lead to selling policies. He sees an easy victim--a slightly senile man in his eighties named Gorvy Hauer (Alan Arkin)--and looks forward to selling him a policy on his house not realizing that the man asked him over principally to have someone to talk to and to fix his TV set. The plot advances when a locksmith (Billy Crudup) arrives to install an alarm system, which would pay for itself by lowering Hauer's premiums.

By the time loose strings are tied up--and there are enough strings here to warrant a considerable work force of boy scouts or sailors--we get the message that this conniver could use peace of mind a lot more than the money he expects to get. Once a murder takes place right in Hauer's shack, implicating Mickey as an accessory, Mickey might have almost wished he were an honest man.

The ambiance will remind cinephiles of the broad stretches of ice in Fargo. Thin Ice is filmed in Minnesota where, production notes state, the temperature often hit ten below, yet a sartorially splendid Mickey ambles about in the open air without a hat or gloves while others are covering almost in every inch of flesh with wool. This noir tale with heavy comic touches is exquisitely cast--friend of Hauer, Mickey's wife, Mickey's new employee, locksmith, and a none-too-friendly mutt named Pete. The writer-director team of the Sprecher sisters, whose Clockwatcers (1997) pits two temps against a full-time staff, benefit from Dick Pope's good looking widescreen camera work and Alex Wurman and Bela Fleck's music. If there are too many coincidences to make the big twist plausible, that's a small caveat for a film with an ending that only a few in the audience will see coming.

Rated R. 94 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



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