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Julie Delpy's
2 Days In New York
Opens Friday, July 10, 2012

Screenwriter: Julie Delpy

Starring: Julie Delpy, Chris Rock, Albert Delpy, Alexia Landeau, Alexandre Nahon

Magnolia Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

With themes and plot strung between My Big Fat Greek Wedding and any Woody Allen movie, Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in New York finds family to be a menace in this madcap, anarchic comedy about cross-cultural dysfunction and individual neuroses. The mayhem becomes repetitious and annoying (but so did Woody Allen in his pushing an Italian tenor to try out for an operatic role in To Rome with Love). Still there is enough humor and even an occasional burst of belly laughs to be found in this film in which the writer-director stars with Chris Rock.

Chris Rock plays mildly against type (particularly if you judge him by his video on YouTube in which he riotously compares two types of African-Americans), a relatively quiet family type who wants as many intimacies with his girlfriend as he can get but is discouraged by a visit from her sister, her father, and her ex-boyfriend from Paris.

In a role that comes off more embarrassing than funny, Delpy’s real-life dad (Albert Delpy), who bears a resemblance to the late Rabbi Schneerson of Crown Heights Brooklyn (see below), takes advantage of his inability to speak English by letting out a torrent of smutty commentary, such as "There’s no privacy here. How can I jerk off?"' As if not to be one-upped, Rose (Alexia Landeau), who is visiting her sister Marion (Julie Delpy), walks around the loft apartment half-naked, showing one breast in yoga class. Manu (Alex Nahon), who used to date Marion in Paris but is now Rose’s boyfriend, smokes weed both in the apartment and outside a police station. During an exhibit in a gallery Marion, who is a professional photographer, insults a major critic who is kind enough at first to say that he likes the show but soon thereafter complains that the photos are “mundane.”

Compared to this crazy bunch Christ Rock’s Mingus (rhymes with “cunnilingus” as a family member notes) is a straight arrow, delivering a monologue to a cut-out of Obama that is of no particular interest while indie-actor Vincent Gallo shows up in a coffee-shop meeting to describe why he bought Marion’s soul for $5,000. (You’ll have to see the movie to understand.)

Delpy is a great talent, speaking fluent English as well as her native French language, but she was better in less-frenzied productions when paired off with Ethan Hawke in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset and in her Two Days in Paris, in which her character Marion tries to rekindle a relationship with her boyfriend Jack.

© 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Fernando Meirelles
360
Opens Friday, August 3, 2012

Screenwriter: Peter Morgan

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Ben Foster, Dinara Drukarova, Gabriela Marcinkova, Jamel Debbouze, Johannes Krisch, Jude Law, Lucia Siposova

Magnolia Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

“If you see a fork in the road, take it,” says a wise man in a quote that frames Fernando Merielles’ 360. If this gives the impression that the film will be like a Zen koan, impenetrable for some in the audience but allowing epiphanies by others, that effect would be incorrect. Instead, 360 comes across as basically naturalistic rather than stylized, a straight story despite its frequent reappearances of the many characters and diverse and sundry plot lines, most of which deal with the consequences of adultery and thoughts of same. Meirielles, whose City of God in 2002 deals with two young men who choose different paths in Rio’s slums, takes a break from depictions of violence in favor of explorations of ethical violations in the sexual sphere.

With dialogue in Russian, Slovakian, English, French and Brazilian Portuguese, Peter Morgan’s script utilizes a cast of actors many of whom are unknown on our shores to depict a panorama of people who are in need of both more authentic types of human contact and who in most cases give in to their appetites for temporary satisfactions. Because of the large number of performers, the film substitutes breadth for depth, and though the mini-plots are uneven, those that are good are quite worthwhile to watch indeed.

The picture begins and ends in a photographer’s studio. A cameraman who doubles as pimp (Johannes Krisch) captures a Slovakian woman (Lucia Siposova) nude from the waist up, one who wonders how much money she will make once her photo is released to the Internet. Adriano Goldman’s cameras follow her to a bar where she is to meet a businessman, Michael Daly (Jude Law), the latter blackmailed by a salesman (Moritz Bleibtreu) who is angry that Daly was giving his business to an Estonian. Daly shouldn’t have worried since his wife, Rose (Rachel Weisz), has busied herself with a lover of her own, Rui (Juliano Cazarre). Rui, in turn, faces flak from his girlfriend, Laura (Maria Flor) for his sexual proclivities, but who has adventures of her own after being grounded in Denver on a flight back to Rio. She meets and chats with an alcoholic passenger (Anthony Hopkins) and, in the film’s most interesting episode, with a sex offender (Ben Foster) whom she invites to a Denver hotel room with unusual results.

At about the same time an Algerian dentist (Jamel Debbouze) must decide how to deal with his urges toward his Russian hygienist (Dinara Drukarova), which should not have been a problem since she seeks a divorce from her husband (Vladimir Vdovichenkov). But counsel from his imam—who insists that adultery is an insult to Islam and who is put off by the dentist’s rationalizations—forces the man to make a stupid decision.

Much of the story is filmed in Vienna, not the most attractive or romantic of European capitals, though it could serve as a reasonable choice when contrasted with snowbound Denver where canceled flights strand a huge crowd and allow for the aforementioned hotel dalliance. If love makes the world go round, adultery provides dollops of possibilities which, in scripter Morgan’s estimation, is often not quite worth the trouble.

Unrated. 113 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Christophe Honoré's
Beloved (Les bien-aimés)
Opens Friday, August 17, 2012

Screenwriter: Christophe Honoré

Starring: Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Ludivine Sagnier, Louis Garrel, Milos Forman, Paul Schneider

Sundance Selects

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey KartenSundance Selects

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Men and women supposedly think of sex in different terms. To a man, sex is…sex. To a woman, it’s love, or sometimes, as in the case of one of the characters in Christophe Honoré’s Beloved, a way to make a living. What happens in this romance-cum-music is that one man thinks he has fallen in love with a woman after their first sexual encounter. The woman has clearly fallen in love with the man, after the first and several other encounters and is unable to get him out of her mind. Ultimately this is a recipe for disaster, as we see in a story that begins light and fluffy as a cumulus cloud, the cloud turns nimbus, and when it rains, it pours.

Though Honoré states in the notes that he is not particularly fond of filming period pieces, he does quite well with this story which commences in the mid-1960’s. By the time the drama ends in 2007, the ambiance is pretty much the same although one part of the film takes place in Prague (which finds Russian tanks putting invading in 1968), and the major segments in Paris.

With a bright international cast that includes North Carolina-born Paul Schneider, the great Czech director Milos Forman (creator of Amadeus, one of the great movies of all time), and French stars Louis Garrel, Catherine Deneuve, Ludivine Sagnier and Deneuve’s real-life daughter Chiara Mastroianni, Honoré takes us from a happy time in Paris when a carefree Madeleine reinvents herself as a high-priced call girl to a deadly serious era when all principal characters are visited by depression.

In the movie’s lightest moments in 1964—those that I think are its best and least pretentious—Madeleine (Ludivine Sagnier) has just lifted a pair of elegant shoes from the high-end Paris store where she is employed as a sales clerk, when she is approached on the street by a young man who offers her money for sex. At first resistant, the ambitious Madeleine takes up the offer, therein creating for herself a new and more lucrative career, using her hotel for business. Her prize customer, a smooth-talking, chain-smoking Czech doctor, Jaromil (Rasha Bukvic), changes from just another john to her steady boyfriend. Joining him as his wife in Prague at a time that Russian tanks patrol the streets, she returns to Paris, bringing up their fourteen-year-old daughter, Vera (Clara Couste), who morphs into a complex woman (Chiara Mastroianni), in love with a gay musician (Paul Schneider), while her co-worker (Louis Garrel) burns a candle for her. Vera’s mom, Madeleine (Catherine Deneuve, thirty years later) renews her love for Jaromil (now played by Milos Forman).

In an homage to the French director Jacques Demi (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Roquefort), Honoré mixes a number of songs throughout, each interpreting the feelings of the men and women who populate the story. However the songs, many of which point to loneliness and sadness, sound more or less alike and though the timeline is some thirty years, the film does not merit its length of two hours and one-quarter. There are no dance breaks, and as the numbers of characters add up, the tale becomes increasingly portentous. Still, Ludivine Sagnier in her youthful days as a salesgirl-turned-hooker, is a pure delight to watch.

Unrated. 135 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Tony Gilroy's
The Bourne Legacy
Opens Friday, August 10, 2012

Screenwriter: Tony Gilroy, Dan Gilroy, story from Tony Gilroy

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Stacy Keach, Oscar Isaac, Joan Allen, Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Zeljko Ivanek

Universal Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

You’ve got to admire Bourne’s photography and effects, however generic to thrillers, but if Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Legacy is the least exciting of the four Bourne series, it could be that too much exposure and repetition are not a good thing. After all, we have it from the grapevine that Matt Damon gave up big bucks by refusing to act in this fourth entry, in effect holding that enough is enough—even if some viewers were too young to see some of the previous pics featuring the C.I.A.’s program to close down an experiment which would boost agents’ brain power if they take one color pill and physical endurance if they take another. You’d think that, OK, does the agency have to kill those whom it recruited to swallow these drugs? Given some of the real actions of the Central Intelligence Agency in the past, anything is possible.

Detracting from the thrills of the latest of the action-adventure quartet are the complexity of plot, the inability of Gilroy to get us into the mind of the principal performer, and the absence of Matt Damon who brought in solid box office returns in the three films that preceded this one. If you think you’ll clear up some of the confusion in a somewhat muddled plot by reading The Bourne Legacy (available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble for $9.99), forget it. There is nothing in the movie that bears resemblance to that 2004 book by Eric Van Lustbader.

In a plot co-written by the director and his brother Dan, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is introduced to us while on a training mission in Alaska where he meets another agent (Oscar Isaac) for the first time. Like any good C.I.A. agent with blue and green capsules in his system, Renner’s character can climb walls, use a firearms, avoid a drone attack and outsmart a wolf like the best of them, showing that some drugs do have benefits even if the side effect involves being hunted down by assassins. After learning that Jason Bourne has surfaced in Manhattan, C.I.A. honcho Eric Byer (Edward Norton) orders a kill, targeting Cross.

After a Ph.D., post-doctoral geneticist Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) escapes being gunned down by Donald Foite (Zlejko Ivanek), a fellow scientist gone insane, and what’s more is targeted by another pair of agents determined to finish the job, she pairs up with Cross, resisting the man’s charm at first but inevitably showing a willingness to do exactly what he tells her. Though Cross’s heroics are motivated simply by his attempt to save his own skin and later Shearing’s, Renner portrays the man as one-dimensional: he is not interested in the politics of the cynical agency nor do we learn anything about the man to make him more human—except that he is a more inquisitive type than Matt Damon’s Bourne.

Fans of the series, namely the youths who wouldn’t be caught dead at a screening of the cerebral Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy, will be disappointed by what percentage of this overlong movie is thin on action—until a rousing finale involving a chase by car and motorcycle. But the locations—Manila, Karachi, Chicago, Seoul, New York and our nation’s capital—are aptly filmed by Robert Elswit, though the dilapidated Asian venues are not of the sort that might encourage luxury tourism by well-off Westerners.

Rated PG-13. 135 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud's
Chicken With Plums (Poulet aux prunes)
Opens Friday, August 17, 2012

Screenwriter: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud from the graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi

Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Jamel Debbouze, Edouard Baer, Eric Caravaca, Maria de Medeiros, Chiara Mastroianni

Sony Pictures Classics

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

In a sequel to the wonderful and more political Persepolis, which was Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s animated film in which an Iranian girl travels abroad to escape from the oppression of the Iranian fundamentalist government (but cannot “find” herself in Vienna either), the writer-directors now treat us to an exquisitely photographed, edited and acted work with a modicum of animation. Chicken with Plums, which gets its title from the principal character’s favorite dish, is a beautiful love story with an ending that could remind viewers of Romeo and Juliet.

One of its chief themes of the film is the embrace of multiculturalism. Satrapi and Parannaud resorted to German expressionism when creating the film, particularly in the replaying of a section of Rupert Julian’s 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera. The filmakers' bag of tricks also includes delightful animation as shown with a scene that could have come from The Arabian Knights. It also features a terrific soundtrack that uses music inspired by Russia and Iran. What’s more, the cast is made up of actors who are French, Italian, Iranian and Moroccan and while the production takes place in Iran from 1930 to 1990, the film is in French and was created in a Berlin studio.

The story jumps seamlessly from depression to elation, from frustration to realization, from present to past and back again. All elements combine to make Chicken with Plums a work that’s a must-see for all sensitive souls seeking beauty without vulgarity.

Not that the characters are saints. As narrated by Azraël, the Angel of Death (Edouard Baer), the story focuses on Nasser Ali (Mathieu Amalric), a famous violinist with a temper—a man who despite his fame, is miserable in a marriage to Faranguisse (Maria de Medeiros) whom he wed at the advice of his dying mother (Isabella Rosslini). Faranguisse despises her husband’s inability to support their two kids, neither of whom enjoys the love of their father.

Nasser Ali enters his marriage at the age of forty-one after having traveled the world, playing his violin at concerts, but after returning to Teheran he settles into a job he hates, teaching violin to children. A chance meeting in the distant past with Irâne (Golshifteh Farahani), the daughter of a successful clock merchant, led to a mutual love that was thwarted, one which had causes Nasser Ali so much pain that his ability with the violin was sufficiently enhanced to make him a concert violinist. (Here the writers appear to believe that great art must come from significant emotional pain.) Ultimately, as a much older man, Nasser Ali takes to his bed for eight days, wishing to die.

Some of the bold steps that the film takes include a satiric look at a 1950’s American family, dialogue in English of course, and also an animation involving a man in Jerusalem who, in attempting to escape from the clutches of the Angel of Death visits King Solomon, who whisks him to the Taj Mahal in India as though opening a witness-protection program.

The film is exquisitely cast, the production anchored by Mathieu Amalric seen throughout with the bulging eyes of a French bulldog, as though amazed by everything he sees. Edouard Baer’s depiction of the Angel of Death is enhanced by his floating away like a ghost, a figure who is destined to return after a short sabbatical—one that is extended if someone prays for the life of a dying person. Chicken with Plums is as magical as any fairy tale, with all the characters’ disappointments and emotional brutality. Though Middle-East politics is virtually non-existent save for a brief animation of an American-organized coup in 1953 that puts the Western-minded Shah on the throne, we cannot fail to feel the writer-directors’ letdown that the once-modern country with a glorious past has been taken over by the devil.

Unrated. 91 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Craig Zobel's
Compliance
Opens Friday, August 17, 2012

Screenwriter: Craig Zobel

Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp

Magnolia Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Many kids have heroes, not only big names in Hollywood or on the football field, but their own friends who serve as alpha males or females. They do whatever their friends tell them to do, it seems. Let’s say your friends who are big names in your fraternity challenge you to drink a dozen beers in ten minutes, would you do it, maybe to fit in or simply because you assume that what they ask is a valid request? And if your mother found out that you did imbibe dangerously, did she tell you, “Hey, Johnny, if you friend told you to jump off the Empire State Building, would you do it?” Surprisingly, some people would.

Craig Zobel’s Compliance is built on that theme—the influence of authority figures who appear to make you do what they want you to do even you feel uncomfortable doing it. Nobody asks anyone to jump from the Empire State Building in this story—which by the way is true, with only the name of the fast food joint changed from McDonald’s in Kentucky to ChicWich in Ohio. But several characters here do what they told because they assume that an authority figure could not possibly ask for something immoral; and what’s more despite their discomfort in following orders, they are stupid enough not to investigate and see that the “authority figure” is not the detective he claims to be but simply the local perv.

Craig Zobel, whose previous film Great World of Sound told the story of a man n who answers an ad to be a record producer but discovers that the job is not what he thought it would be, now bursts forth with Compliance,a psychological thriller. As such, the movie does not insult the intelligence of the audience, as the tale begins so slowly that an impatient viewer might “switch channels” as it were, but which builds up to a startling crescendo. It gets under your skin (if you’re the right kind of audience member), balanced between prurience and good taste, particularly when a man is ordered to put a pretty nineteen-year-old girl naked on his lap and spank her. He does just this, which, again, despite his discomfort makes one wonder: couldn’t he simply tell the voice on the other end of the phone that he is spanking her while privately telling her to get dressed?

Compliance is set in a small-town fast-food joint, Chickwich, which serves trash for food to customers who have a taste for junk—specifically potatoes deep fried in old, likely rancid oil and chicken smothered in mayo, bacon and pickles, the condiments there to disguise the taste of third-grade, rotting flesh. Sandra (Ann Dowd), the supervisor, answers the phone after giving her youthful staff a motivational talk, acknowledging an Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), the near-by pervert whose carrot-and-stick conversation persuades everyone involved in the store to assume he is legit.

Claiming that Becky (Dreama Walker) has stolen $1,400 from a customer’s purse and that Becky would have the choice of spending the night in jail before official questioning or taking care of business in the basement of the store, Daniels succeeds in cajoling Sandra into questioning Becky. While Sandra talks to the “officer,” she compels her employee to strip one layer after another until she is covered only by an apron. He then manages to get Sandra’s fiancé to go ever further.

With a terrific performance from Ann Dowd, in a role that would suit a Margo Martindale, Zobel delivers the kind of thriller that has an audience cringing, maybe even wanting to crawl under their seats rather than speeding up hearts the way a blockbuster action-adventure movie like The Bourne Legacy would do. Ultimately Zobel asks each of us: How far would you go to follow the dictates of a person who convinces you that he has full authority to make wild demands? If this movie falls short of an “A” rating, it is simply because it comes across as a photographed play (one that could easily be performed off-Broadway) rather than a cinematic feast on the big screen.

Rated R. 90 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Christopher Nolan's
The Dark Knight Rises
Opens Friday, July 20, 2012

Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer

Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy

Warner Bros.

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

“Have you come back to your city to die?” asks Bane (Tom Hardy), a most evil presence (not to be confused with Bain) in this final spurt of the Batman trilogy. “No, I’ve come to stop you,” replies Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), dialogue which should probably give you the idea that you’re not watching Shakespeare. There is a Shakespearean theme, however, in that the hero, the Masked Crusader, is a flawed character who, having received a bum leg eight years previously, has retired to his palatial home where he broods like Hamlet and seems determined to hang up his cape for the last time.

“The Dark Knight Rises” deals in part with billionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne’s lethargy despite the urging of his faithful butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), who pushes him to get back into action because the city of Gotham is facing a new, grave danger after eight years of peace. A body in motion tends to remain in motion unless an invigorating force pushes it into action. Therein lies the talent of a woman, Selina, (Anne Hathaway), who in the guise of a servant at one of Wayne’s parties steals a pearl necklace from his safe, one which he is determined to get back. Selina and Bruce, both donning masks for a fair segment of this overlong, one hundred sixty-five minutes comic-book movie, are a match made in heaven—as we find out at nearly the conclusion of the marathon film.

The Dark Knight Rises,” is directed by Christopher Nolan, who did far better work with Inception—a taut thriller, one vastly more entertaining than the current blockbuster—about an industrial thief who gets information that he needs not by breaking into homes or computers but through invading people’s dreams. With a screenplay he wrote with Jonathan Nolan on a tale conceived by David S. Goyer, based on characters appearing in DC Comics Batman, in turn created by Bob Kane, Nolan finds Gotham at the brink of nuclear destruction by a crazed terrorist, Bane (Tom Hardy), who wears an gas mask to alleviate the pain he received in prison. Determined to get revenge, Bane frees one thousand prisoners who are behind bars thanks to the passage of the so-called Dent Law, named for the District Attorney Harvey Dent whose death is blamed on Batman.

With a stellar cast including Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate who is pushing a clean-energy initiative; Morgan Freeman as Fox, the CEO of the Wayne Foundation; Gary Oldman as police Commissioner Gordon; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Blake, an idealistic cop; director Nolan eschews a straightforward narrative in favor of a series of brilliant cinematic takes—photographed by Inception's Wally Pfister in India, New York, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Wales. The opening scene is reminiscent of 007; it is an action scene that finds Bane and his men hijacking a CIA plane. Other shots that will evoke cheers from the target audience, include the anarchy that follows the release of a thousand prisoners; hand-to-hand combat between a police force and Bane’s cronies; a bridge that goes up in smoke; a depiction of a city gone to seed with rundown corners and steaming sewers; and best of all a couple of airborne shots of Batman’s jet helicopter that curves and fakes to avoid heat-seeking missiles, a clear technological advance from the glorious Batmobile of comic-book fame.

One does have to wonder how Batman could get the better of Bane considering Wayne imprisonment and the bum leg that has caused him to pull a Howard-Hughes isolation. Bane knocks the stuffings out of Batman, a clearly superior force, yet we expect—and we get—a return match that will provide the caped man with greater puissance.

See the movie for its spectacle, but buried within is what could have been a clearer narrative, sharper dialogue (though bad guys are usually given barbed witticisms, this time Bane is vapid), and a more suspenseful evocation of disaster as a nuclear bomb ticks away. There is a tilt toward a political note as Bane comes across as a revolutionary who will redistribute income from the Fifth Avenue tenants who are roughed up, but what good is this experiment in socialism when the city is about to be destroyed?

Rated PG-13. 165 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




David Palmer, Dax Shepard's
Hit & Run
Opens Friday, August 24, 2012

Screenwriter: Dax Shepard

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Kristen Bell, Kristin Chenoweth, Dax Shepard, Beau Bridges

Open Road Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If you like car chases, you may alter your views after seeing David Palmer and Dax Shepard’s Hit & Run. With a script (if you can call it that since it is written by its star), the comedy is as fast moving as the principal character’s 1967 Lincoln with “700 ponies,” but half the picture seems to be taken up with three or four cars chasing one another, while the other half appears largely improvised. The result is a comedy with fewer laughs than you’d find on a Saturday Night Live sketch—and that’s few indeed.

Dax Shepard performs in the role of Charlie Bronson aka Yul Perkins who, unbeknownst to his cute girlfriend Annie (Kristen Bell) is living in Milton, California in the witness protection program. While he may have given her the impression after revealing his secret past that he was a witness against a bank robber (Bradley Cooper), he was actually the getaway driver in a series of thirteen heists who is being chased by the guy he ratted out.

This road-and-buddy movie also features Tom Arnold in a role considered by the makers of the film to be funny, but even that average actor seems to strive for mediocrity this time. He’s chasing Charlie, Bradley Cooper’s character is chasing Charlie, a gay cop is part of the menagerie of chasers, and Annie doesn’t know whether to abandon the guy she suddenly realizes she doesn’t know. Should the past determine a significant other’s feelings? Yes, says Annie, no, says Charlie, and you can probably guess whose philosophy wins out.

There is one hugely embarrassing moment when the bank robber has an argument in a supermarket with a tall and muscular black dude. The robber lassoes the black guy with a leash, drags him outside for a block, and makes him eat the “sawdust” that he bought for the dog. If this doesn’t conjure up an image of slavery, I don’t know what will.

There you have it: dull car chases, ridiculous dialogue, embarrassing moments, and lack of humor. Apparently the two critics whose commentary is on the IMDB (IMDB.com) disagree as do two audience members whose quotes appear on rotten tomatoes. There is no doubt an audience for this kind of stuff.

Rated R. 97 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Benoît Jacquot's
Farewell, My Queen (Les adiex à la reine)
Opens Friday, July 13, 2012

Screenwriter: Gilles Taurand, Benoît Jacquot, from Chantal Thomas’s novel of historical fiction

Starring: Diane Kruger, Léa Seydoux, Virginie Ledoyen

Cohen Media Group

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Every schoolboy used to know that in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton, a drunken lawyer who never accomplished anything meritorious in his life, sacrificed himself to the guillotine to benefit Lucie, the unrequited love of his life, thereby allowing her to marry the aristocrat whose place he assumed on the final page of the novel. In Farewell, My Queen, Director Benoît, whose previous contribution, Deep in the Woods (a period piece about a French wanderer who pretends to be a deaf mute), now deals with a king and queen who might as well be deaf and blind. This being a French film (co-produced by Spain), nobody is mute, however. The entire story takes place over a period of three days in July of l789, when the infamous Bastille prison is stormed and members of the court at Versailles (except apparently the king) believe their lives hang by a thread. Escape is the only option, though the king delays too long and winds up, together with his sometimes sapphic wife, a victim of the national razor.

Farewell, My Queen, whose French title means literally “goodbyes to the queen,” is a costume drama whose real stars are Christian Gasc and Valérie Ranchoux, whose threads adorn the men and women at the Versailles palace outside Paris. However the movie is marred by a distance that Benoît Jacquot, who co-wrote the movie with Gilles Taurand, creates in showing palace intrigue and gossip on the eve of the Revolution, all from the point of view of the queen’s reader. Worse, however, is the quality of the images. A drama of this nature demands the finest quality film but what comes across is hazy, resembling a digital print or one shot largely with a handheld camera intent on extreme close-ups.

Notwithstanding these flaws, the work can be recommended for the insight it provides into the politics and living conditions of the palace, though one could argue that too much time is spent within the walls of the monarchs’ abode and could presumably be performed on a Broadway stage. The adaptation is from Chantal Thomas’s novel of historical fiction, the kind of book that should be used at least below the college level to expose youngsters to the spirit of the times rather than simply to the dry facts, however accurately presented.

With a brief moment of female frontal nudity—which earned an “R” rating for the film—there are only intimations of sexual intrigue. One involves a would-be quickie between Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), the queen’s reader, and Paolo (Vladimir Consigny), a faux Italian gondolier. Another more than hints a passion between Queen Marie-Antoinette (Diane Kruger) and an aristocrat from the court, Gabrielle de Polastron (Virginie Ledoyen).

Léa Seydoux, the 27-year-old whom we will see a lot more in the years ahead, performs in the role of a quiet and fiercely loyal servant of the queen, reading to her from the offerings of the palace library and occasionally doing embroidery. Her rapport with Marie-Antoinette evokes envy, particularly from Mme. Campan (Noemie Lvovsky), who acts as the queen’s first lady-in-waiting. But this envy must be nothing compared to that of the reader, who peeks in on the not-so-platonic relationship that her queen has with Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen).

Between the readings and the subtle cuddles, the queen notes with obvious fear that her name is first on the list of the 286 people to be beheaded by the hoi polloi. She burns love letters and has servants remove and pack up her jewelry, all the while attended to obsequiously by Laborde who is eager to be considered número uno by her lady.

Though as principal performer, Sidonie Laborde shows considerable talent, she appears held back throughout by the director; unemotional, a blank slate defying the audience to figure her real self out. Among the goodies we take away is that everyone who is reading this review is probably living better than the king and queen of France, whose crib is inundated with rats and mosquitoes. And Jacquot does not even get into what they do for toilets.

Rated R. 97 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Stephen Gyllenhaal
Grassroots
Opens Friday, July 13, 2012

Screenwriter: Justin Rhodes, Stephen Gyllenhaal, from Phil Campbell’s book “Zioncheck for President”

Starring: Jason Biggs, Joel David Moore, Lauren Ambrose, Cobie Smulders, Tom Arnold, Cedric the Entertainer

Samuel Goldwyn Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

To get the full emotional appeal of this movie it pays to have lived in Seattle during the turn of the century, since Grassroots tells the true story of a race for a slot on the Seattle City Council. The picture looks highly improvised and consists almost exclusively of young people, since they appear to be the only ones with the time to work on a young candidate’s campaign. Stephen Gyllenhaal, uses a script he co-wrote with Justin Rhodes in adapting Phil Campbell’s 2005 book Zioncheck for President: A True Story of Idealism and Madness in American Politics (available on Amazon for $9.72 but also published as Grassroots for $15.99). The young fellow campaigning against the encrusted council member is running on a single issue: the extension of the Monorail, holding that his opponent is in the pocket of the contractors who want to build more roads and extend the subway line, thereby increasing pollution and shafting the poor neighborhoods.

You’d think from all the whooping and dancing around by the campaigners that they were electing the President, but in truth, even if they got their man elected, he would be only one vote out of nine members; hardly enough to convince the staid politicians to extend the Monorail—which to this day it simply is not.

What’s irritating from where I sit is that there are scarcely any adults in the film. Nobody on the campaign looks over thirty, they all yell at every opportunity, they dance, they worry about their significant others. At least they’re not texting while walking down the street oblivious to their surroundings.

The story finds Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs), newly fired from his job as a journalist with the alternative paper “Stranger,” worrying about how he will live without money, though once he is hired to be the campaign manager of his best friend Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore), he has a job offer with a major daily—which he turns down out of loyalty to Cogswell. Cogswell himself is eccentric, waltzing around in a big polar bear costume, acting as though on speed in delivering his one-issue message to the voters. One wonders how he got as far as he did, given his regularly unshaven appearance and his frenetic pace, talking about the need to extend the Monorail as though he was pushing the national health care bill (though the year of the action is 2001).

There’s a romance, of course, though Phil’s pixie-ish girlfriend, Emily (Lauren Ambrose) is on the verge of leaving him because their quarters are filled with loud youths day and night. The only mature person in this largely irritating movie is incumbent council member Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer) who, like Jason Biggs, is in his first wholly serious role.

Writer-director Stephen Gyllenhaal, who is the dad of Jake and Maggie, wants to plunge us into the camaraderie of a local campaign where he probably sides with Cogswell’s leftist views on the need to reduce the city’s pollution and allow the poor to get to work on a cheap, electricity-powered Monorail. That Nation Books published the tome on which the movie is based is no surprise. Strangely, Sean Porter’s camera lenses never get wet as there is not a single day of rain—in Seattle!

Rated R. 100 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



David Frankel’s
Hope Springs
Opend Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Written by Vanessa Taylor.

Starring: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell, Jean Smart, Elisabeth Shue, Mimi Rogers.

Columbia Pictures.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Meryl Streep is ridiculous! She just won her long-deserved third Oscar for her gutsy performance in The Iron Lady, so you would think she’d ease up on the amazing and extraordinary--just a little bit. Apparently, she’s incapable. And we are the better for it.

I had major doubts about Hope Springs after watching the dumb commercials and trailer that could only amuse those under the age of thirteen. The studio seemed to be marketing the movie as a silly sex comedy with “old people.” How utterly deceptive, but if it gets people who wouldn’t normally see an intelligent, heartfelt and often-hilarious film about two people trying desperately to reconnect with one another into theatres--more power to the simultaneously savvy and shameless studio!

Directed with great understatement and grace by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada), Hope Springs is pretty fearless about delving into a 31-year relationship and unearthing some painful truths in an impressively honest manner—especially in a film that’s supposed to be a comedy.

Nebraskans, Kay (la Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) have cut themselves a groove in the fourth decade of their marriage. Their kids have flown the nest. They sleep in different rooms. He barely touches her and would rather watch golf than spend time with her. She longs for affection, for a kiss, for anything. These are your typical folk who have been married for a while, but have lost passion in their lives.

Kay, in a brave step for a woman like her, cashes in a CD and pays for a couples counseling get-away in Maine—which her crotchety and negative husband immediately balks at—but eventually capitulates to.

The weeklong intensive is run by Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell, who is finally showing signs of not being dryly dull and unabashedly annoying) and it is in these uncomfortable sessions that Kay and Arnold must come to terms with how they’ve compromised and what they truly feel for one another. At one point Dr. Feld explains that it’s important to ask: “Is this person worth more to me than my pride?”

Newcomer Vanessa Taylor is to be applauded for a script that is witty, smart, thoughtful and never compromises it’s wonderfully drawn characters for a cheap laugh.

Tommy Lee Jones has the role of his career with Arnold, a good man who has learned to bully his wife too easily and forget the spark that was once there. Jones can deliver a cutting remark one minute and give a look that breaks your heart the next. It’s an outstanding portrayal of a man fighting to keep the brick wall he has built up standing tall when his true desire is really to knock it right down.

And, Streep. Oh, Streep. Her Kay is a carefully etched portrait of a timid lady who is so afraid she has become undesirable, but is also willing to accept the truth. We never, for a moment, believe Kay could or would want to leave Arnold—this isn’t a cosmopolitan couple, but she will give it one last ditch effort—since, as far as she’s concerned—her marriage is worth it. It’s—surprise—another astonishing turn by the silver screen’s greatest actress.

The scenes where Streep and Jones attempt intimacy are real and funny and sometimes embarrassing to watch. There is no forced Hollywood cap to any of them. And so much of the joy in this film comes from watching the two leads simply act and react to things.

The production design (by Stuart Wurtzel) is impressive as are all the tech credits. Sometimes Frankel overuses songs, but his choice of music also happens to work nicely during each situation.

There is a supporting cast and they’re all terrific in a very limited amount of screen time simply because this is the story of a sixtysomething couple who are brave enough and foolish enough to want to want one another again. The focus remains on Streep and Jones throughout, as it should.




Bart Layton's
The Imposter
Opens Friday, July 13, 2012

Starring: Frédéric Bourdin, Carey Gibson, Beverly Dollarhide, Charlie Parker, Nancy Fisher, Bryan Gibson, Bruce Perry, Philip French, Adam O’Brian, Anna Ruben, Cathy Dresbach, Alan Teichman, Ivan Villanueva, Maria Jesus Hoyos

Indomina Releasing

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Admit it: You’ve sometimes imagined what it would seem to be like someone else; to have Bill Gates’s money, President Obama’s prestige, Tom Cruise’s popularity, Brad Pitt’s looks, Angelina Jolie’s lips. But how often have you wished to actually BE someone else? There are precedents. in Daniel Vigne’s movie The Return of Martin Guerre, a man leaves his family and friends for the war and comes back a changed man, though he claims to be Martin Guerre. He is not. In Fred Schepisi’s film Six Degrees of Separation, a rich New York couple puts up a guest without fully believing that he is the person he is. Bart Layton now sends The Imposter our way, a hybrid between a documentary and a docudrama, about a young man who claims to be the lost child who disappeared forty months ago. Never mind that his hair color is different, his ears and height are not the same as the actual boy’s, his accent is off, he is seven years older than the son would be, and the eyes are brown rather than blue. The mother, sister, and others in the community seem to believe him to such an extent that when the FBI offers to give the lad a DNA test, the mother refuses, as if to say that she has doubts herself but is amply pleased to have this strange person in her home to replace the biological child, Nicholas Barclay of San Antonio, Texas.

You’ve got to hand it to Frédérec Bourdin. He has the guts to put across the scam, getting away with his own non-recognition of his community by insisting that he had been shanghaied to Spain, sexually abused and tortured, and now too traumatized to make sense of his environment. This is a fascinating idea that loudly calls for a film adaptation—and in fact did come to us two years ago when Jean-Paul Salomé released The Chameleon, a taut dramatization of the Bourdin scam. To get added drama to the true story, Layton combines actual interviews with staging, the aforementioned mix of doc and docudrama.

The result, however, lacks tension and is, in fact, a bore to sit through. The “film” (actually looking like a series of cheap, digital shots), is too dark almost throughout as though the lenses rarely saw the light of day. And we can do without any graininess that is put there for cinema-verité effect: we get it.

The motivation of the sister, mother, friend and others in the community to believe that Bourdin is the long-lost son is difficult to figure, but not so the incentive for Bourdin compulsively to pass himself off as other than himself. In an endless interview that lasts almost throughout the film, Bourdin looks at the camera to explain that he was himself sexually abused and often wished he were somewhere else where he could receive love and attention. He passed himself off as an orphan at least once to get placement in a children’s home. Despite a prison sentence, he continued scamming families throughout Europe. Some people get their kicks watching soccer: Bourdin is turned on by taking on new identities like Nunnally Johnson’s Eve in the film Three Faces of Eve, though that title character trips from one identity to another rapidly. And look: Bourdin is now the star of this film!

Rated R. 95 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



William Friedkin's
Killer Joe
Opens Friday, July 27, 2012

Screenwriter: Tracy Letts from the scripter’s play

Starring: Emile Hirsch, Matthew McConaughey, Gina Gershon, Juno Temple

LD ENTERTAINMENT

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

There’s an saying in the movie industry that if you feel a woman’s breast, the MPAA ratings committee will bestow an “R.” If you cut off her breast, you could get a PG-13. This is an exaggeration surely, but we wonder whether the ratings cops care more about protecting kids from lovemaking than shielding them from the gore of violence. After all, The Hunger Games, which depicts children killing children, won a PG-13 rating while Whores’ Glory, without real violence would be stamped R.

Killer Joe is this year’s first picture to pick up the dreaded NC-17 rating—dreaded because the box office would be bereft of kids under the age of seventeen even if they are accompanied by an adult. It’s difficult to tell whether the violence or the sex and nudity concerned the board, since William Friedkin, known principally for The French Connection and The Exorcist, tends to go overboard on both. One wonders whether “kids” of sixteen would become corrupted in the current age: it would be a shame to deprive them of a movie that mixes comedy-noir with genuine horror and spectacular writing. And don’t forget Matthew McConaughey playing a contract killer, a role in which he shines so brilliantly that this could be his best performance yet. Killer Joe is riveting from beginning to end, featuring terrific performances in a story about a family whose dysfunction is so gross that you’d have to think hard to find any other work about such hatred.

After all, how many youngsters want to kill their mothers while having their fathers go along with the plan? How many movies feature a father who wants his first wife dead and does something concrete to put her away? In the role of that dad, Thomas Haden Church is the comic anchor of the tale, a fellow who is pretty much indifferent to the violence around him, neither enthusiastic nor condemning, but whose stupidity can make the audience laugh in the middle of intense violence.

Friedkin starts with a bang, or rather with a bark by a ferocious pit bull who appears chained day and night outside a family’s Texas trailer. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), thrown out of his house by his mother and desperately needing money to pay off a criminal after a drug deal gone sour, determines that he can get the money he needs to stay alive by having his mother killed for her insurance. Enter Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), the Killer Joe of the title, who is a detective by day and a hired killer during his off hours. For $25,000 he will do the job, though one wonders how much will be left for Chris after splitting the remaining insurance dough with his sluttish stepmom, Sharla Smith (Gina Gershon), with his dad, Ansel Smith (Thomas Haden Church), and with his virginal, aptly-named, never-even-been-on-a-date sister, Dottie Smith (Juno Temple). Though Joe wants the money in advance—which cannot happen until after the insurance is paid—he will accept an unusual collateral—sister Dottie.

In the picture’s most erotic scene, Joe and Dottie share a tuna casserole just before the former deflowers the latter. We don’t blame Dottie for giving in, either, because Joe is surely the suavest person she has ever met, speaking in measured tones (until the gruesome finale), ordering Dottie to remove first her bra, then her underpants as though this was not unlike anything he had done before. Even I’d be convinced to do so. Joe is so convincing, whether scary or cool, that even the pit bull refuses to bark aggressively when the detective enters the trailer.

While Friedkin is playing up the stereotypes of trailer trash, he indulges in as much humanity as can be expected. The hapless Chris may seem wholly amoral in his dealings with criminals, but he is fond enough of his sister to challenge the killer’s demand for a “retainer.” Ansel’s own stupidity gives him our sympathy. He is simply out of his element and simply does not know how to react when his second wife, Sharla, is beaten mercilessly in their own home.

It’s easy to see how Killer Joe began as a stage play. Most of the scenes are located indoors in the trailer, but Friedkin opens the play cinematically with views of a strip joint and a breathless race between Chris and two thugs who chase him on their bikes. The production lost its appeal from an NC-17 rating and, thankfully, decided to release the version uncut. Rarely has so much blood been so entertaining. Les Gutman, who reviewed the play from a performance at New York’s SoHo Playhouse, noted “In a time when many so-called major playwrights are producing anemic works of little enduring interest, this phenomenon should serve as a source of optimism. And playwright Tracy Letts concludes, “A normal person is just someone you don’t know too well.” Amen.

Rated NC-17. 102 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Guillaume Canet's
Little White Lies (Les petits mouchoirs)
Opens Friday, August 24, 2012

Screenwriter: Guillaume Canet

Starring: François Cluzet, Marion Cotillard, Benoit Magimel, Gilles Lellouche, Jean Dujardin, Laurent Lafitte, Velerie Bonneton, Pascale Arbillot

MPI Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

The most shattering climax in the movies this year is not Aaron Cross’s motorcycle chase in The Bourne Legacy. Words often have more impact than mere physical mayhem. Points of greatest blockbuster tension can speed the heart and raise the blood pressure, but they rarely draw intentional laughter or tears from an audience. In Little White Lies, written and directed by Guillaume Canet (whose La vie meilleure deals with the downward spiral that crushes a cook and a waitress who fall in love and decide to open a restaurant), a group of seven friends who take their one-month’s summer vacation together at a beach discover that people who respond, “Oh, yes, my summer vacation was great—no problems!” are often telling little white lies. More pointedly, Little White Lies is inhabited by people who are lying to themselves.

While it seems difficult for people who do not work on Israeli kibbutzim to imagine going with the same pals to the same place summer after summer, that this is an ideal way to grow and add depth your lives, who’s talking about growth? Since the seven people, whose average age is forty, are not high-school students about to meet chain-saw killers at a remote lodge, what passes among them is far less violent though far from sedate. Despite longueurs particularly in the mid-section—inevitable in a two and one-half pic that is largely talk—and the French know how to talk—Canet’s take on this insular group of mostly professional men and women is of universal interest.

As photographer Christophe Offenstein captures their expressions, which reflect the full spectrum of emotions, these friends irritate one another with their flaws, but inevitably most will be hanging out with one another for the next ten or twenty summers. Choppily edited by Hervé de Luze (love that first name), which makes the film come across disjointed at times, Little White Lies hones in on the ensemble, each with particular traits and idiosyncracies.

As the story opens during a wild early morning in a Paris club, Ludo (Jean Jardin, star of the inimitable The Artist) gets hit by a truck on his way home, landing him in critical condition in one of the city’s hospitals. His pals debate whether to spend time daily visiting the patient, but decide that the show must go on, so à la plage. In one of the movie’s best comic, yet poignant moments, Vincent (Benoit Magimel), a married chiropractor who insists that he is not “queer,” confesses his passion for the older Max (François Cluzet), whose beach properties are those used by the group. Max explodes, as he does at almost every moment he appears, and for reasons as dissimilar as warding off an attack of weasels and chewing out a six-year-old for cheating in a game. The best moments, however, are owned by Marie (Marion Cotillard), who has bedded all the males in the group save one Eric (Gilles Lellouche), who pines for a Bordeaux woman who has rejected him, and probably Antoine (Laurent Lafitte), a 35-year-old who likewise has a failed relationship.

The white lies of the title come from the French name of the film, Les petits mouchoirs, literally “the small handkerchiefs,” referring to the expression “le mettre dans la poche avec le mouchoir par dessus,” meaning “to put something in your pocket with your handerchief on top of it.” Use your handkerchief to keep something hidden. Little White Lies is France’s more than competent answer to Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 film The Big Chill.

Unrated 154 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 

Rob Reiner's
The Magic of Belle Isle
Opens Friday, June 6, 2012

Screenwriter: Guy Thomas, Rob Reiner

Starring: Morgan Freeman, Virginia Madsen, Madeline Carroll, Kenan Thompson, Fred Willard, Emma Fuhrmann

Magnolia Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

In order to get their juices flowing, some writers like J. D. Salinger retreat to rural areas - other really famous ones to communities like the Hamptons. Others, Like Norman Mailer, cannot stand peace and quiet and need the busyness of big cities. The writer in Rob Reiner’s The Magic of Belle Isle (filmed in Greenwood Lake, New York, north of Manhattan) has just about given up. But he finds a certain magic in Belle Isle independent of the beautiful lake, the peaceful summer ambiance. He gets his juices flowing by his relationship with a neighbor whose three daughters take him under the wing, as it were, While he in turn gives back at least as much to them.

The story is schmaltzy, a Hallmark type of event and one that could be presented on a off-Broadway stage. Most of the action takes place in and around the summer home that finds Monte Wildhorn (Morgan Freeman) entering as a cynic and re-entering a couple of months later like a changed man. The septuagenarian who has been in a wheelchair since the age of twenty-five when a drunk driver ran a red light, has had celebrity status for his novels about the Old West, but now he has dried up. His wife died seven years back and he has hit the bottle big time, downing bourbons as though they were iced tea.

Enter Monte's neighbors. Charlotte O’Neil (Virginia Madsen) is going through a divorce and is apparently ready to give up Manhattan and stay in Belle Isle forever even though one of her teen daughter Willow (Madeline Carroll) regrets leaving all her friends. Daughter Flora (Nicolette Pierini) is willing to give the place a try while Finnegan (Emma Fuhrmann) becomes Monte’s disciple, willing to pay her life savings, $34.18, if he would teach her how to use imagination to write stories.

“What do you see?” he asks Finnegan, who at first spots nothing more than a deserted road. In almost no time, however, she conjures up a host of characters and activities, excitedly telling her mom that she has written her first tale. Though strangely enough Monte calls Charlotte “Mrs. O’Neil” and she calls him “Mr. Wildhorn” throughout the summer (as though this were the 1950s), there are elements of romance between the two, particularly illustrated when Monte dreams of getting out of his wheelchair and slow-dancing with the middle-aged woman—until Spot, the Labrador who does not retrieve and for whom Monte is dog-sitting, licks his face to wake him up.

Side characters come and go, like the mentally challenged teen, Carl (Ash Christian) who hops like a bunny but is quickly cured when Monte dubs him “Diego Santana, train robber,” and like the wonderful actor Fred Willard as Al Kaiser, another neighbor, who like the rest of the town is most welcoming of the writer. We need not wonder whether Monte will perk up out of his droll cynicism as the story is formulaic, though wholly agreeable. This is all about Morgan Freeman’s performance, one worth your time and money to catch.

Rated PG. 109 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Peter Hedges'
The Odd Life of Timothy Green
Opens, Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Screenwriter: Peter Hedges from Ahmet Zappa’s story

Sarring: Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton, CJ Adams, Ron Livingston, Rosemarie DeWitt, Dianne Wiest, Odeya Rush, Common.

Walt Disney Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

“There’s something you ought to know about me,” says the title character, Timothy Green (Cameron “CJ” Adams). Yes, this Green kid is a ten-year-old, but other than his would-be parents, are there people in the audience at the edge of their seats to listen into the big secret? Could be. I don’t know how the small fry will react to this Disney production. Maybe only the target audience should be reviewing the picture. But it seems to me that this Hallmark Hall of Fame-type of comedy-tear-jerker may not go down any better on children than on the parents who drag them to the movie. CJ Adams is a fine young actor who carries the part well, for a kid who’s just about sixty pounds, four feet six inches high and I’d guess about eleven years old. The theme, though, is a cliché—that it’s OK to be different. Yet from the way this Timothy kid does everything wrong-- for example can barely kick a soccer ball more than two inches without falling, yet makes a huge blooper when finally taken off the bench and put on the field—you’ve got to question whether different is good. He is invited to perform on a musical instrument right after the sister of his adoptive mother bragged about her child’s performance in a chamber music group, but can do little other than tap a chime. His parents then take over at the concert to dance and sing to the child’s beat in the most embarrassment segment of the story.

Contrary to the view of those who might criticize how sanitary this PG picture turns out, it deals with matters that some parents would not want their 10-year-olds to hear. Death, for example. We not only see Timothy’s “uncle” in the hospital after suffering what looks like a heart attack, but see his dead body laid out for witnesses. We hear how Timothy’s adoptive parents “tried everything” to have a child but were told that there was no hope. “Mommy, mommy, what does she mean that she “tried everything”?

The story finds the depressed couple Jim Green (Joel Edgerton—wearing a large, dark-brown rug) and Cindy Green (Jennifer Garner) despairing so poignantly that they cannot have a biological baby that some in the audience will wonder whether she’ll pull a Yerma. Yerma, meaning “barren” in Spanish, is the woman created by Federico Garcia Lorca who kills her husband because he will not give her a child. The couple plant some notes in a box in their garden stating the attributes that their child would have and, voilà—on a dark and stormy night the ten-year-old appears in the bedroom full of dirt, a happy child who insists on calling the two adults Mom and Dad.

The entire story unfolds during a conference that Jim and Cindy have with Evette (Iranian-born Shohred Achdashloo), an official of an adoption agency who challenges the couple to prove they have the qualifications to adopt. They tell her the story, which she finds nutty but unrealistically believes—and for that matter nobody in the movie truly wonders whether this kid was either kidnapped or had run away, picked up and informally adopted up by Cindy and Jim.

In trying to prove that it’s OK to be different, writer-director Peter Hedges (Dan in Real Life) has Timothy bond with Joni (Odeya Rush), whose birthmark proves that she is likewise unusual, but she apparently does not have the same fantasy background as Timothy, whose leg sports green leaves that cannot be cut or removed in any way, but which fall out, one by one, as their green color fades.

The story is populated by such colorful characters as Ron Livingston, terrifically funny as Peter Gibbons in Mike Judge’s Office Space, in the role of the boss of the Stanley pencil factory, which is on the brink of bankruptcy; M. Emmet Walsh, who laughs for the first time in years when listening to Timothy; Dianne Wiest as a witch of a woman who is Cindy’s boss in a pencil museum; and David Morse as Jim’s dad, a man who simply “wasn’t there” when Jim needed him. Common pops up as a soccer coach who gets so excited during a small fry game that you’d think he’s handling the NY Giants.

The photography is perfect as we’ve come to expect from Disney productions, and we do get to see how pencils are manufactured.

Rated PG. 100 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 


Lauren Greenfield's
The Queen of Versailles
Opens Friday, July 20, 2012

Screenwriter: Lauren Greenfield

Starring: David Siegel, Jackie Siegel

Magnolia Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

In May of this year Charles Hopper, a 63-year-old former CEO of Lehman Brothers, hanged himself in the garage of his Connecticut home. What? A guy making well over one million dollars annually is depressed? Turns out that he had a problem: not an emotional problem or marriage dilemma but a MONEY problem. How does a guy with this kind of salary wind up owing? Look to the effects of the 2008 stock market crash and housing bust.” A graphic example of this riches to rags theme can be seen in Lauren Greenfield’s doc, The Queen of Versailles.The two principals, especially the male, are uncompromisingly honest about their views notwithstanding how their commentary damages the other.

Lauren Greenfield hones in on David and Jackie Siegel, he 74, she 43, and their eight kids and Filipina housekeeper. Her film becomes what is probably the best example of conspicuous consumption by a private family ever. David Siegel, though never saying he expected to win a placement in the Guinness Book of World Records, is intent on building what is officially called the largest home under one roof in America, covering 90,000 square feet with some 10 kitchens and 30 bedrooms (or is it bathrooms)? The bathrooms are needed not because the family eat high-fiber foods but because of the lavish parties they sponsor, including one in which the entire corps of fifty candidates for Miss America show up to party. The home is modeled on Versailles.

Greenfield, whose previous doc Thin, looks at four anorexics in South Florida, notes that the Siegels have a pet tiger and a lion, which we do not see, but we do get a look at their lizard (died of dehydration by an uncaring teen), a python, a brood of Spitz dogs, a Maltese, all of whom are responsible for globs of poop scattered about the residence, picked up by the maid.

But when the bust comes in 2008—market collapse, housing bubble burst—the time share vacation estates which made the Siegels rich become a burden as David is unable to pay off the “cheap money” he got from banks to make him a billionaire. One gets the impression that he may have put as little as ten percent down with the best coming from the banks: that all his wealth is tied up in buildings, not cash. As a result of the financial crash, Siegel had to lay off 6,000 employees and ultimately sell off a large Las Vegas building which he used as the corporate headquarters of his vast empire.

At this point, the marriage (David’s third) begins to collapse. We watch with sympathy (or schadenfreude, depending on your ideology) as a capitalist hero who claims responsibility for President Bush’s election victory, slowly falls apart to such an extent that he insists that all lights be turned off in his current residence as he may not have the money to pay the electric bills. Feeling sorry for himself, he charges his wife, a former Mrs. Florida who divorced her first husband for abuse, with not appreciating the empire he built for her. You can’t blame him, because despite the financial crisis that the family are in, she continues to spend money, loading a shopping cart to the brim with toys for the eight children. Jackie dominates the chatter while David, a workaholic, gives the impression of being more down-to-earth as he sits in his chair gently explaining to us in the audience what is bothering him. Like Willy Loman, but in much more epic terms, he is a victim of the loss of the American Dream.

Tom Hurwitz’s camera slides about the corridors, taking in even the most seemingly confidential conversations between David and family. Among the humorous intervals is a pep talk by David’s son, a high-level executive in the business, telling his sales staff that the time shares are saving lives because, he insists, people who do not take even one vacation a year will die of stress-related heart attacks. The doc is an original.

Rated PG. 100 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris'
Ruby Sparks
Opens Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Screenwriter: Zoe Kazan

Starring: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Elliott Gould, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If you could turn your girlfriend or wife into anything you want—have her do what you want when you want, even visit your mother every weekend and like it—would you go for it? Sounds great, but is it? See Ruby Sparks and you’ll change your mind. The movie, written and performed by Zoe Kazan, who is Paul Dano’s real-life girlfriend, is imaginative, though not wholly original. The idea of creating a living being out of either nothing or some non-human material is reminiscent of the Greek legend of Pygmalion and Galatea, wherein Pygmalion, a sculptor, makes an offering at the altar of Venus, who grants his wish. He kisses her and her lips are warm. He touches her breast and she comes to life. The legend inspired the musical My Fair Lady,though in that film, Professor Higgins simply molds a lower-class woman into a haute societé lady.

Ruby Sparks seems inspired in turn by Episode 36 of a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone, featuring Keenan Wynn as Gregory, who brings Mary Roche’s character Mary to life by simply using his dictation machine to control reality.

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s movie uses a most clever tagline, “She out of his mind,” perfectly describing how a Calvin (Paul Dano), a writer, overcomes a ten-years’ block by pecking out a Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) whom he had met in two dreams, dreams that resulted in his fervently knocking out of a new novel. When she appears in his kitchen, cooking eggs, he is astonished at first, nor can his brother, Harry (Chris Messina), believe him until he sees her as well. Recognizing the benefits of this Stepford Wife situation, if you will, Harry, who regularly counsels his brother to have more sex, i.e. to have some sex, encourages Calvin to manipulate her to his fancy. When Calvin types “Speak fluent French,” she can parle comme un natif. When he types “Become deliriously happy,” she can’t stop bouncing on his bed. To keep the picture out of a NC-17 rating, we in the audience are not privileged to see what else he may have written, but we have the impression that Calvin has become a happy man.

Not so fast! Can you imagine a situation in which you’d prefer to have a woman as a free agent, one who, though loving and loyal to you is not manipulated and controlled by you? If not, there’s another reason to see Ruby Sparks.

The ensemble acting is so good that we in the audience do not even wonder how Calvin is able to perform his magic. We just look at what’s going on as though this magic realism were an everyday occurrence in every relationship, and we are charmed by a performance from Annette Bening as Cal’s hippie-ish mother Gertrude (reminiscent of Jane Fonda’s performance as Grace in Bruce Beresford’s Peace, Love & Misunderstanding). We can see how a person like this could attract a handsome Spanish man, Mort (Antonio Banderas). In a welcome role as psychoanalyst Dr. Rosenthal, Elliott Gould is the kind of shrink we all should get if we need that kind of help, while Steve Coogan takes the role of Langdon Tharp, a rich party-giver, who without a touch of magic manipulates Ruby into joining him in the pool in her underwear.

In a twist that some may not get, Zoe Kazan in real life is actually manipulating her real-life boyfriend Paul Dano by writing his role, one which he must follow to the letter. This movie features Calvin’s adorable dog, Scotty (Oscar), whose job is to be a catalyst for the writer to meet women—realistically.

Rated R. 104 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Chen Kaige's
Sacrifice (Zhao Shi Gu Er)
Opens Friday, July 27, 2012

Screenwriter: Chen Kaige, Gao Xuan, Ren Baoru, Zhao Ningyu, based on the Yuan era play The Orphan of Zao

Starring: Ge You, Wang Xueqi, Huang Xiaoming, Fan Bingbing, Hai Qing, Zhang Fengyi, Vencent Zhao, Bao Guo-an, William Wang

Samuel Goldwyn Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

At about the time that Greeks were discussing the meaning of justice with Socrates, some Chinese clans were making war. Chen Kaige takes us to the 5th Century B.C., an era that finds high-school history lessons rich with discussions about the European continent. We wonder why our ambitious teens are not apprised of developments in what is now the world’s most populous country, one which presumably kept written records about the various and sundry dynasties.

Director Chen Kaige, however, has no problem bringing drama to events of the near and distant past. His Farewell My Concubine took us to 1924, dealing with two men with the Beijing Opera and the woman who comes between them. The Emperor and the Assassin located action in the pre-unified 3rd century B.C. as the heir to the kingdom of Qin seeks to dominate six other kingdoms.

Sacrifice is practically a chamber-piece compared to the above-mentioned. While there are several battles, nicely photographed by Yang Shu (how do they get those horses to fall and turn upside down?), key scenes are indoors. In fact Sacrifice is more a family drama than a rousing blockbuster. The initial hour displays a confusion of plots requiring a sorting-out in the latter part, the second hour being the more involving.

Sacrifice is a revenge fantasy. When General Tu Angu (Wang Xueqi) murders the region’s duke in a jealous rage (the latter married the woman that the general wanted), he falsely blames the assassination on the Zhao clan, intending to wipe out all three hundred members of the extended family. Concocting a strategy to locate and kill the last of the Zhaos, essentially just one recently-born infant, he thinks he has murdered the right baby when he slams the little one to the floor. In truth, Dr. Cheng Ying (Ge You), who delivered the tykes, pulled a switcheroo which backfires: the doctor’s own baby is killed while the Zhao infant is brought up by the doc, who is to use the young ‘un to gain revenge against Tu. No matter that the revenge is scheduled to take place in fifteen years: he can wait.

The Zhao baby is frequently seen with bad general Tu, since Tu is the godfather. He treats the boy like his own son. Women have a strictly secondary role in the story, which comes down to a three-man conflict pitting the doctor against the general with the Zhao boy’s allying himself with his godfather most of the time even after the doctor explains to him that Tu killed the entire Zhao clan with the boy as the only survivor.

Sacrifice is not a bad offering from the prolific director, but time is needed to unravel some confusion, some of which takes place in flashbacks during the second half of the film. Performances are fine, though subtitles are sometimes difficult to read (white against a white background) and the film seems to lack the sharp focus of Chen’s previous, aforementioned works.

Unrated. 126 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 

Oliver Stone’s
Savages
Opens Friday, July 6, 2012

Written by Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, Oliver Stone, based on the novel by Don Winslow.

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, Emile Hirsch, Demian Bichir, Sandra Echeverria, Diego Catano, Joaquin Cosio, Jake McLaughlin, Joel David Moore, Leonard Roberts, Shea Whigham.

Universal

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Midway through 2012, a movie that I am certain will be included among the Best of the Year, has finally screened--a film I thoroughly enjoyed, immersed myself in completely, and emerged from deeply satisfied and wanting to see it again. Sure, certain films came close: The Avengers, The Hunger Games, Prometheus, the indie gem, Your Sister’s Sister. And these delights might make my Top 10, but Oliver Stone’s Savages is the first film of 2012 that did not disappoint on any level.

Savages serves up huge portions of hot sex, nasty violence and frequent drug use. The film’s characters are over-the-top Shakespearian (one is actually named Ophelia) and most of them behave abysmally, lovingly and humanly—sometimes all at the same time.

Based on Don Winslow’s popular novel, Savages begins with a voice over by Blake Lively explaining that just because she’s narrating doesn’t necessarily mean “I’m alive at the end of it.”

Lively plays O, short of Ophelia, a young gal who lives with two very different, yet very tight pot dealers. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is the tough-as-nails Afghanistan war vet and Ben (Aaron Johnson) is the pacifist philanthropist. Both have become quite wealthy growing their own coveted strain of marijuana. All three live a ménage a trios’-type lifestyle where they all love each other and O sleeps with both guys. We never see the two guys getting it on (God forbid we take that step, plus Ollie made that mistake in the highly underrated Alexander and look where that got him) but the love they feel for one another is palpable.

But life in paradise can never remain too heavenly for too long…

Before you can say Lady MacBeth, the ruthlessly greedy head of the suffering Mexican Cartel, Elena (Salma Hayek), decides she wants a piece of their action—okay, she wants it all. So she sends her right-hand man (a suave Demian Bechir) to make the boys an offer they can’t refuse. When they do refuse she is insulted and enlists her more menacing, murderous henchman to seal the deal (Benicio Del Toro in an over-the-top, creepy, nasty-ass-free-style-turn that seems to channel Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men).

A little kidnapping, some decapitation, much double-crossing, a mega-theft and one brutal death-by-fire later, so much shit has hit so many fans and the film takes so many twists and curves that the rollercoaster sensation is palpable and Stone steers it all with mad and emphatic glee.

The surfer-pot growers call the Mexicans ‘savages’ because they’re willing to murder in the most heinous ways if they don’t get what they want. The Baja Cartel sees the trio as ‘savages’ for their unconventional living situation. Almost every character in the film’s behavior becomes savage at one point or another. And just when you’re certain you know who the real savages are, Stone and the writing team, take a sharp left…and then u-turn.

The finale is an absolute triumph where Stone pokes fun at his own films as well as Hollywood notions of melodramatic catharsis.

And Stone, as usual, has assembled a superb cast.

Lively proved she’s more than just a Gossip Girl in Ben Affleck’s The Town. Here she demonstrates some exciting and dangerous qualities. As sexy as she is, that is as good as she is—both in her narration and her performance.

Kitsch, playing against pretty boy type and recovering nicely from the John Carter debacle earlier in the year, delves deep into Chon’s sadistic side but also shows his caring side—especially when it comes to Ben.

Johnson, so kick-ass as John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, is quite affecting. And when he is called on to do things that he finds morally reprehensible, we feel the conflict as we watch someone realize what they’re capable of and is simultaneously horrified and at ease.

John Travolta is better than he’s been in decades here, letting loose as a corrupt DEA official. His scene with Del Toro is manically hilarious.

Emile Hirsch pops up as a whiz kid and kills it—albeit too briefly.

And then there’s Salma…

This is easily Salma Hayek’s best performance—proof she has come a long way ince Desperado. Hayek chews the scenery, spits it out and then eats it all over again. Her Elena is a terror of a human being. She’s as cutthroat as they come and yet her maternal side is ever present—producing a deliciously paradoxical portrayal of a different type of alpha-female trying to get along in this world. If there is any justice, like Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Hayek will be cavorting with Oscar early in 2013. (I would have loved to have experienced Uma Thurman as Hayek’s mother but her scenes were completely cut out of the film.)

Savages is gorgeously shot by Dan Mindel and deftly edited by Joe Hutshing, Stuart Levy and Alex Marquez. Stone’s choice of music and songs enhance the experience. Of course Savages will have its detractors--those who find it too violent, call it ludicrous, see it as cartoonish. Most of these critics live comfy existences, making a decent salary and the closest thing they’ve come to the drug world is buying pot from a local dealer—and feeling mighty cool about themselves for taking that risk.

Now, I’m not saying Savages is sheer realism, but I am saying that with Stone’s deliberately absurdist satiric meets real-world approach we are given a glimpse of a battle that is taking place each day in the Americas. A battle for money and, what people covet most: power.

Oliver Stone has made a number of groundbreaking films: Platoon, JFK and Natural Born Killers, spring easily to mind. And in its own way, Savages is pretty daring and certainly provocative. Not only is the film a dark, riveting, nail-biting thriller that has quite a bit to say about today’s drug trafficking problem-- it also, surprisingly (for an Oliver Stone film), has some nuanced insights about relationships and love.

 



Nancy Savoca's
Union Square
Opens Friday, July 13, 2012

 

Screenwriter: Nancy Savoca and Mary Tobler

Cast: Mira Sorvino, Tammy Blanchard, Patti LuPone

Dada Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Director Nancy Savoca knows New York City. Her movie Dirt, released in 2003, deals with a maid from El Salvador under constant threat of deportation who wonders whether she should leave New York and return to her ancestral home. In Union Square, Savoca focuses on two estranged sisters from New York, one, Lucy (Mira Sorvino) from the outer borough of the Bronx, the other, Jenny (Tammy Blanchard), from Union Square in Manhattan. They have an estranged mother (Patti LuPone), so obviously the movie is about estrangement—not only the physical kind but the feeling that they are not leading authentic lives of their own.

One sister, Jenny, is engaged to Mike (Michael Doyle) the owner-cook of a small organic food company, a carrot-and-peas sort whose apartment does not allow smoking or dogs: in other words, an antiseptic spot suitable to his character. Jenny, who wants to show Mike that she and he are the same type, is living a lie; refusing to bring up her past in the Bronx which involved drugs and smoking. Instead, she pretends to have come from Maine. When Jenny, who is nonetheless the quiet type, finds loud and emotional Lucy at her door asking to stay for a few days, she can’t say no, but on the other hand she also cannot get rid of her. Jenny wonders whether Lucy will give away the truth about them, as Lucy does not hide whether she comes from but does have a secret lover in Manhattan who brushes her off on a cell call, leading Lucy to go ballistic—cursing, crying, yelling. The opening scenes are the most comic and admirable.

When Lucy disappears from her sister’s loft at one point without leaving a message, we in the audience prepare for a surprise twist.

Union Square is the sort of indie that could have done fine on an off-Broadway stage given its setting largely in a loft around Broadway and 14th Street, though some sharp filming takes us to the city’s largest outdoor farmers’ market. The acting is fine, but the story becomes tedious as the two sisters argue, and what’s more a trashy TV show featuring two women who could be their psychological clones, mirroring the hysterics, drags the film down the road to seemingly endless melodramatics. Neither woman is likable, though Mira Sorvino’s sassy performance can make the movie watchable for some. For others, there’s an adorable black poodle to watch.

Rated R. 80 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Susan Froemke's
Wagner's Dream
Opens Friday, July 20, 2012

Starring:: Robert LePage, Deborah Voigt, Jay Hunter Morris, Peter Gelb, James Levine, Fabio Luisi, and the Metropolitan Opera

The Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Let me take a wild guess that more people have heard of Spider-Man than Götterdämmerung and that, further, more people have seen Spider-Man-Turn Off the Dark on Broadway this year than Richard Wagner’s 15-hour long Ring Cycle at the Met. What do they have in common aside from the sounds of music? Both productions embraced avant-garde staging that includes flying actors and singers. A month from its Broadway debut, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark found one of its stars injured at the first preview, struck by a weighted rope backstage. She suffered a concussion. Several cast members were later injured by inadequate stage props.

When the Met arranged an avant-garde production of Wagner’s Ring cycle (which could also be called The Ring of the Lords and which inspired The Lord of the Rings in movie theaters), there were not many accidents, but there was certainly a fear of getting crushed by a 90,000-pound set design! By avant-garde, we don’t mean something as ordinary as Woody Allen’s creation in his latest movie To Rome With Love, which involved staging I Pagliacci with the hero coming out onstage while taking a shower. No, this Wagnerian production was somewhat more complicated. Wagner himself was never satisfied with stagings during his lifetime since they did not capture the gradiosity of Scandinavian gods, but he would have liked what bilingual opera director Robert Lepage had done at the Met. Believing that opera must continually reinvent itself or die (and given the fact that subscriptions at the Metropolitan Opera House at New York’s Lincoln Center were in free-fall), he dreamed the kind of dream that Wagner would have dreamed. He may have disappointed the fogies who want to see operas over and over again staged in the same style, but he must have dazzled most who took in even one of the four music dramas of the Ring cycle.

To afford spectators the excitement behind the search by gods for a ring, in a story that includes the god Wotan’s punishing his daughter Brünnehilde by taking away her immortality, he used the crew of Ex Machina in Québec to construct a 45-ton set of wooden planks nicknamed “The Machine,” planks that would move up and down and would dazzle all by showing the characters retreating slowly to Valhalla. On opening night of Das Rheingold, the first of the cycle, the planks simply did not work, but all was redeemed on the following eve just when the critics from the New Yorker and the New York Times were present, as the operation went over smashingly.

Not everything was perfect. At one point music conductor James Levine had to leave the cycle to get surgery for a lower back problem (he was effectively replaced) and an illness by the tenor playing Siegfried allowed for a substitute who spoke English with a Texas accent but mouthed his ponderous arias with the panache of a Berliner. The most charming member of the documentary is Deborah Voigt, who comes off in interviews as anything but a prima donna but who sings like a goddess. Robert Lepage, the visionary director, finds fulfillment in the riskiest bet of his career, while Susan Froemke, who worked on this doc for five years, gains kudos for her persistence and for her ability to coax her interview subjects to let their anxieties all hang out.

I’d have liked to see the backstage methods of the computer-generated imagery, imagery that Wagner would have killed for in the late Nineteenth Century. Froemke strikes a balance between scenes of construction and vignettes from the four operas. While I don’t know I could have sat through all sixteen hours in one night, I’m pleased to get an inkling of what Wagner was attempting. Now if only I could afford $500 for a good seat at the Met! Lest the 90,000-pound planks with its attendant straps and ropes be trashed, I’m sure it can be utilized next time the Met knocks out The Flying Dutchman.

Unrated. 115 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Daniel Auteuil's
The Well Digger's Daughter (La Fille du Puisatier)
Opens Friday, July 20, 2012

Screenwriters: Marcel Pagnol, Daniel Auteuil

Starring: Daniel Auteuil, Kad Merad, Sabine Azéma, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Nicolas Duvauchelle

Kino Lorber

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Mature audiences might be suckers for sentimental movies with Hollywood endings, sometimes called Hallmark pictures, critics are often loath to give kudos to that category. Perhaps this is because we journalists have seen a large number of movies and realize that the some of the best do show the mean sides of life. Though beautiful women sometimes marry virtual princes, realistic enough since good lookers attract good lookers, it would be unrealistic for Snow White to marry the Huntsman given the class differences. If, however, Ms. White did have nuptials with the man who saved her, we might say that’s a Hollywood ending.

In his freshman debut as director, Daniel Auteuil, who is easily one of the best French actors of his generation and whose name I will one day learn to pronounced, had in mind a 1940's novel and movie by Marcel Pagnol, in which class differences play a big role in determining the course of events of a courtship between an 18-year-old gal and the son of a rich merchant. Perhaps in real life they’d never get together beyond a couple of dates, but what might overcome his reluctance to make her his bride is that she had been sent away to Paris by her dad at the age of six, and returns a dozen years later. She now dresses with finery outside the realm of rural France and maintains a Parisian accent to her dad’s rough Provence speech. My Fair Lady anyone?

To make a long introduction longer, The Well Digger’s Daughter, or La Fille du Puisatier), is a lovely, sentimental romp into the French countryside at the outbreak of World War I. The film is exquisitely photographed by Jean-Francois Robin with old-fashioned direction by Mr. Auteuil: no flashbacks, no CGI, no 3-D. Somehow the production team got a hold of a French railroad train, filled it with extras taking the parts of soldiers, and sent it zooming to the front, with speed that probably does not exceed that of the (now) antique cars on display, some of which require the driver to crank up the motor.

Auteuil takes on the role of Pascal, a poor well digger. His pretty eighteen-year-old daughter, Patricia (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), has fetched lunch for her dad and is helped across a stream by a pretty-boy pilot, Jacques (Nicolas Duvauchelle), acting as though he were Sir Walter Raleigh stretching out an overcoat to keep her dry. Jacques’ dad, M.Mazel (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) owns a successful hardware store. Mazel’s son seems smitten with Patricia despite class differences, but Pascal’s best friend and co-worker, Félipe (Kad Merad), has had a not-so-secret crush on the lass and is about to propose marriage. When Jacques is called to the war and reported dead, Patricia’s in trouble. The virginal woman had apparently “sinned” with him (that’s her dad’s word) and is now pregnant.

Avoiding melodrama save for Pascal’s fury that her daughter will give birth to an illegitimate child, The Well Digger’s Daughter centers on the up-and-down relationship between Pascal and Patricia. How will the story turn out now that her lover is apparently dead? Will Patricia decide to marry the good-natured but rough-hewn, much older and bald Félipe? Will she be sent to a monastery to grieve for the remainder of her life?

Much of the quality of this production comes from the French-Catalan actress Astrid Berges-Frisbey, who has one of the most expressive faces you’ll see on the screen this year. Every subtlety of emotion is conveyed as she faces her critics with head down, looks upon her lover with sparkling eyes, and demands her independence under the tutelage of the aunt, to whose home she is sent at least until she has the baby. The ambiance of France in 1914 is one of the picture’s highlights as are Pierre-Yves Gayraud’s costumes. English subtitles are clear. Hallmark fans will be pleased and so should others.

Unrated. 107 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 


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