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Phil Lord and Chris Miller's
21 Jump Street
Opens Friday, March 16, 2012

Screenwriter: Michael Bacall, story by Michael Bacall based on the TV series created by Patrick Hasburgh, Stephen J. Cannell

Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Rob Riggle, DeRay Davis

Columbia Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

When critics talk about the chemistry or lack of same between two principal actors, they generally relate to male-female combinations. But you’re not likely to find better chemistry than that between two actors -21 Jump Street's Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.This modernized version of the 1980’s TV series which starred Johnny Depp (who gets a cameo in this version) features dick jokes whirled to the max. The result is a genuine comedy, hiliarious at some points, but also one which almost falls apart once the high physical action of car crashes and explosions take root.

As two cops directed by their captain (Ice Cube) to infiltrate a high school drug ring, Hill and Tatum are too old to convince anyone that they’re students, or that’s what you might think. After all one fellow is twenty-eight in real life and the other is thirty-one. But the audience—like the high school kids and the teachers—seem ready to buy into the fantasy since after all, this is absurdist comedy relying heavily on good slapstick, a raucous party, and vulgar dialogue and actions.

As for the differences between the two, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) was an honor roll student in high school in 2007 but he was too tongue-tied at the time to get a prom date. By contrast Jenko (Channing Tatum), was a dunce in school though presumably able to attract young women with his good looks. Schmidt looks on the experience as a chance to relive his high-school days using the knowledge he picked up in the years since, but he is still uncomfortable with the way “in” boys like handsome Eric Molson (Dave Franco) can make a clean sweep of the coeds leaving him out once again.

The high spirits come partly from the vulgar repartee, some from Schmidt’s relationship with the hot Molly (Brie Larson), and the slapstick particularly from the way Schmidt and Jenko trash a school production of Peter Pan. One terrific blend of animation comes when Schmidt and Jenko are forced to swallow drugs (LSD?) that find them seeing Mickey Mouse-like faces on the people with whom they are speaking.

Though the cool party thrown by Schmidt in his parents’ home can’t compare with the Dionysian extremes found in Todd Phillips’s Project X, the entire picture, filmed by Barry Peterson and swiftly edited by Joel Negron, makes one regret being born too early. Now is the best time to take your imaginary place among the goths, the jocks and the nerds for whom school in general offers one helluva lot more fun than trigonometry class.

Rated R. 110 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg's
American Reunion
Opens Friday, April 6, 2012

Screenwriter: Jon Hurwitz, characters by Adam Herz

Starring: Alyson Hannigan, Seann William Scott, Mena Suvari, Tara Reid, Katrina Bowden, Shannon Elizabeth, Jason Biggs, Eugene Levy

Universal Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Is it possible to relive the best years of our lives? Maybe. Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg’s American Reunion seems to have it both ways. In one of the few sentimental sectors of the movie, one of the characters celebrating a ten-year high-school reunion notes that life is not a reality show: that high school was then and now is now. Yet the major part of this high-spirited comedy, a sequel to Paul Weitz’s 1999 movie American Pie, gives reason for hope. We may not be able to relive our high-school days forever, but yes we can: for one weekend.

A film that’s as American as apple pie is anchored by the one married couple with a kid: Jim (Jason Biggs) and his wife Michelle (Alyson Hannigan). Jim is the one guy who may be benefitting in the long run from the weekend with the guys he knew and loved ten years ago. Presumably because they have a small son, their sex lives are in a rut. They seem never to have time to get it on, and what’s more even at the party that precedes the reunion, they are interrupted so many times that we wonder if they’ll ever have an intimate moment. Jim’s dad (Eugene Levy) is ready to give advice to the lad but it turns out that he, having been widowed a few years earlier, has been home every night reading when he should be getting warmed up with a girl of his own.

The big event finds the fellows getting together to bond once again: Oz (Chris Klein), Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), Jim (Jason Biggs), Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholis) and Steven Stifler (Seann William Scott), though Stifler was an afterthought, considered by the more moderate fellows to be too much off the wall to join them. Happily, Stifler not only joins but throws the party himself in the home of his hot mom (Jennifer Coolidge). Lucky for us in the audience as well since when it comes to vulgar comedies of this nature, Seann William Scott is in a class by himself.

The guys talk of sex throughout, some practice it, and the gals are all beautiful—Heather (Mena Suvari), on whom Oz has had his eyes for a decade, Vicky (Tara Reid), Nadia (Shannon Elziabeth) and Kara (Ali Cobrin)—the last of whom has the tale’s funniest scene; getting drunk in a car driven by Jim and having to be smuggled bare-chested into her own parents’ home almost under their noses.

Still, this situation comedy is getting old-hat, the setups predictable, and while granting that there is an abundance of laughs thanks largely to Scott’s presence as Stifler, it may be time to end here before the pie becomes stale.

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



Julien Leclercq's
The Assault (L’assaut)
Opens Friday, April 6, 2012

Screenwriter: Julien Leclercq, Simon Moutairou, from Roland Martins’s book

Starring:: Vincent Elbaz, Grégori Derengère, Aymen Saïdi, Mélanie Bernier

Screen Media Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If “The Assault,” a French import, were turned into a Hollywood movie, it would be in full, blazing color rather than carrying the desaturated color that looks almost like black and white except for the blond hair of one hero’s wife and the red clothing of her infant. But black-and-white does add drama to a thriller of this nature, forcing us to concentrate on the action rather than on the surrounding atmosphere. The English subtitles are easy enough to read, brief and to the point as is the entire picture directed by Julien Leclercq—whose “Chrysalis” in 2007 dealt with a cop’s search in Paris for his wife’ killer. This time the particular wife, Claire ( Marie Guillard), is shown several times too often with a shocked and anxious look on her face, her hands over her mouth as though to stifle a scream somewhat like our own Hillary Clinton who did the same while watching the Obama drama play out on a D.C. Presidential screen.

One wonders why Claire’s husband Thierry (Vincent Elbaz), a member of the SWAT-like elite French force known as GIGN, or Gallic Gendarmerie, volunteers to be first to enter a plane filled with hostages and commandeered by a quartet of terrorists who are members of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group. While the film does not specifically mention why these Algerian nationals sought to take off from Algeirs and to crash the French Airbus into the Eiffel Tower—considering that the Algerian War was decades old leaving the country independent of France—but we can surmise that the extremist body is similar to Al Queda interested in humiliating a key ally of The West. Whether they sought to free two Algerians held in jail as the supreme leader of the group insisted in Paris is unlikely, though welcome.

What is especially shocking is that one hundred passengers on Air France Flight were Algerians and just eighty-seven were French, plus a small assortment of other Europeans and one Vietnamese. Why would a terrorist group have such contempt for their own people? This reminds one of President Ahmadinejad’s boast that he would erase Israel [the Zionist entity as he phrases it] from the map notwithstanding that a nuclear explosion could kill the one million Israeli Arabs plus tens of thousands of others living in Gaza and the West Bank.

To give the dramatization a human touch. Leclercq and co-writer Simon Moutairou, adapting Roland Martins’s book, hones in on the family of Thierry whose wife and small daughter (Naturel Le Ruyet) are chatting about nothing in particular, though the little one refuses at first to kiss his dad. Carole (Mélanie Bernier), a high level member of the French ministry and a fluent speaker of Arabic—who turns out to be the most assertive and intelligent of the other (male) policymakers—is not keen on trying to negotiate with the terrorists but urges military action almost from the start. What we have then, is three divisions of the plot: one involves the airplane, filled with the shouts of Yahia (Aymen Saïdi), a hate-filled member of the Algerian Islamic Group; another focuses on Thierry’s happy family; a third on the competition between Carole, who wants to make her mark with her superior officers, and the would-be negotiators who are following the action. To maintain variety, Leclercq cuts among the three divisions quickly, approaching the storming of the plane in real time.

One would hope that twenty minutes or so could have been added to give some backstory to Yahia, the head of the terror cell, explaining why he had such hatred for the French despite his country’s independence. Nationalism shows up on the Algerian side, as the government of the North Africa state refuses permission for any French gendarmes to be on its soil. Editing is swift, the extremism of the Algerian leader is frightening, the confidence of the woman from the ministry comes off authentic. Almost all hostages were saved during the military action in the port of Marseilles, where the pilot landed after stating that the plane did not have enough fuel to go to Paris. The entire action, which took place over a 39-hour period in December 1994, is obviously a foreshadowing of the 9/11 tragedy in New York which took some 3,000 lives.

The full details of the hijack and its resolution are available on Wikipedia.org. on Air France Flight 8969.

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




Richard Linklater's
Bernie
Opens Friday, April 27, 2012

Screenwriter: Richard Linklater

Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey

Millennium Entertainment

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If you’ve ever joined in a bull session during your college years, you’ll recall that one of your most sophomoric debates was centered on the topic, “Everyone has a breaking point.” There is a great example of this adage in the film Bernie (a film based on an actual murder). In 1997, one Bernie Tiede, the nicest man in town, committed a first-degree murder. The town is Carthage, Texas, an upscale community in a state that can be divided, or so one of the participants in Bernie had said, into five provinces. (As one of the many gags in this genuine treasure of a restrained comedy, a resident being mock-interviewed states that one of those provinces is the People’s Republic of Austin, the home of girls with hairy legs and liberal fruitcakes.)

Richard Linklater, known for such riotous documentary fare as Fast Food Nation and for comedies like The School of Rock (Jack Black's best role), is at the top of his form, using the kinds of mock interviews made famous by Christopher Guest when that actor-writer-director satirized loud rock bands (This is Spinal Tap), small-town theater (A Mighty Wind) and suburban dog shows (Best in Show). Yet the mock interviews in the marvelous Bernie bypass the dreaded talking-head intellectuals in real docs, giving actual people in the town, the chance for fifteen minutes of fame by their wise, funny, and un-rube-like commentary.

Jack Black plays against type; he does not consciously milk comedy as he did in The Shool of Rock. But, let’s face it, you can’t look at the man without laughing, Black plays the title role, a funeral director who rivets attention in his very first scene as he explains to a group of student morticians how to do a perfect job with a cadaver. Simply hearing Black demonstrate with utmost seriousness that the eyes must be glued shut and ditto the mouth lest a toothy smile “turn tragedy into comedy” is hilarious. (I have no idea whether an actual corpse is used for this demonstration, but if not, the actor should be considered for a Best Corpse Performance of the Year Award as he does not breathe even though the camera is focused on him for several minutes.)

Bernie is revered by his boss for drumming up business, not only by dressing bodies but in pushing high-end coffins on the grieving. This angel of a man sings with a church choir and is the director and leading man in a local rendition of 76 Trombones. And he takes an interest in the town’s multimillionaire widow, Margie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). As the first person who has shown this widely-disliked person any kindness, Bernie works his wiles on the widow to such an extent that she treats him to first-class trips abroad and nights at the opera. Bernie gives up his job at the mortician’s to become her full-time companion. When Margie becomes too demanding, treating him like a pet rather than a friend, Bernie does a slow burn until he is ultimately enraged enough to shoot her in the back four times. The D.A., Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) wearing wide aviator glasses is so certain that the town would acquit the well-liked man despite his confession that he gets the trial moved to a different county.

Shirley MacLaine, who deserves and is still getting major roles in the movies (she is in seven works currently filming or in pre-production), is underutilized: her casting is spot-on as is that of Jack Black. Mr. Black is perfect as a middle-aged man of ambiguous sexuality who stirs gossip that he is the rich widow’s gigolo. The many interviews of local people—not actors—are scripted exquisitely, their commentary ranging from going down easily to outright hilarity. Lavish scenes like the dress rehearsal of 76 Trombones make this a show you’ll not want to miss.

Rated PG-13. 104 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



John Madden's
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Opens Friday, May 4, 2012

Screenwriter: Ol Parker based on Deborah Maggoach’s novel These Foolish Things

Starring: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Dev Patel, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith

Fox Searchlight Pictures/ Participant Media

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a riot of color, blessed with a witty script by Ol Parker adapted from Deborah Maggoach’s novel These Foolish Things. The film boasts a slate of top-rate British and Indian actors.

Marigold Hotel is one of the few movies to appeal to an audience demographic over the age of sixty. This is not to say that youths would stay away from the box office: for them, Madden gives us a man and woman in their early twenties, the man standing up to his mother in insisting on marrying the woman of his choice. There is much to find funny and still a lot that comes across as tragic, as the story plumbs the depths of emotions in a group of elderly British men and women who take a risk, starting a new chapter of their lives in a country whose customs are hardly what you’ll see practiced in Piccadilly Circus.

We are introduced to an array of Brits with distinct idiosyncratic differences who for the most part bond during their lives on the other side of the world. Judy Dench, for example, stars as Evelyn, a new widow drowning in her late husband’s debts, who breaks from her comfortable life in England when she hears about a a residence in Jaipur called by its manager, Sonny (Dev Patel), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful. Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton play Douglas and Jean who are ready to celebrate their fortieth anniversary, but are unable to afford much because Douglas lost everything investing in his daughter’s Internet business. As Muriel, Maggie Smith is wheelchair-bound, unwilling to wait six months for a hip replacement, but advised by her doctor to go to India where she can have the surgery almost immediately. Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a judge on a high court, finally makes the move after telling his colleagues for years that he is about to retire, while Ronald Pickup’s character, Norman, a womanizer who still goes to speed-dating emporiums, looks for a new start outside of England. Madge (Celia Imrie) is single after several marriages and like Norman is on the make, thinking she’ll have better luck in India.

Ol Parker’s script has considerable humor. Norman notes that he still has “what’s needed” but that nobody’s buying. Muriel, a pronounced racist who tells a nurse that a black doctor “cannot wash that off,” that she wants an English doctor, but is provided with what she requests, except that he’s ethnically Indian. One wonders why she’d want to travel to India where the doctor is guaranteed to be, for her, the wrong color. Jean is the least sympathetic, refusing to go outside the hotel, disgusted with everything about India, her emotions doubtless colored by her toxic relationship with husband Douglas—who is the movie’s most melodramatic scene lets it all hang out with a tsunami of criticisms. Sonny provided smiles by his energy, his enthusiasm, and his lack of organization in running a hotel that is deteriorating and may be put on the chopping block by a company that would buy it simply for the land to rebuild. But when Sonny is not ineffectively puttering about, he avidly pursues Sunaina (Tena Desae), who works in a call center.

The comedy is balanced by tragedy: as one might have predicted, at least one member of the group is bound to die off, but what shines through, what makes this movie anchored in reality, is the notion that while adjustments are made and new relationships are tried, old age is no fun. For the most part, life passes people by, and death is omnipresent. Sorrow and pity, remorse and guilt are manifest through the film but so is love and an appreciation of life’s infinite variety and beauty. This is a well-constructed movie filled with endearing characters indulging in life’s color and hope.

Rated: PG-13. 122 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, NY Film Critics Online


 

Steve Taylor's
Blue Like Jazz
Opens Friday, April 13, 2012

Screenwriter: Steve Taylor, Donald Miller from Miller’s novel Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality

Starring: Claire Holt, Tania Raymonde, Jason Marsden, Marshall Allman, Eric Lange

Roadside Attractions

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

When President Obama suggested that all American youths go to college, Rick Santorum, looking at every positive statement from the POTUS to demean, offered that college is a ploy to brainwash your children. What he means is that religious kids enter the halls of academe and come out agnostic. Even if true, not every branch of higher education could be suspected of such mind control, given the number of religion-based universities like Bob Jones, but as we watch Blue Like Jazz, we cannot help but fear that Mr. Santorum might be correct—within reason.

The principal fellow in Steve Taylor’s movie does seem like a potential Manchurian candidate, but the story, like the film, is nuanced. Some religious students may pretend to shun the Deity in order to fit into the atmosphere of a progressive institution, but at heart they see their hypocrisy. People do not shuck off a couple of decades of upbringing because of an experience taking place during the supposed best years of their lives.

The movie has the narrative thrust missing from the book, which is more episodic, and does not inform us that Don Miller, whose epiphanies are the soul of the story, had traveled cross country at the age of 21 until his money ran out. Instead, the film finds Don (Marshall Allman), ashamed of his estranged parents when he discovers that his mother has been having an affair with the youth pastor of his Texas Southern Baptist church, a total hypocrisy for both parties. Don’s dad, a professor living in a trailer, has views diametrically opposed to his wife. He’s a free spirit who pulls strings to sign up his son, heretofore destined for Texas Christian University, at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. I know about progressive schools like Bard, but was amazed at the level of free-spirited antics depicted at Reed. One guy (Justin Welborn), dresses like the Pope, wearing the uniform to class. Don’s becomes friends with his lesbian next-door neighbor in the dorm, Lauryn (Tania Raymonde) and with Penny (Claire Holt), a socially conscious woman - a fish-out-of-water who has retained her religious faith. Yet Don, who wants to fit in (who doesn’t?) becomes a closeted Baptist, afraid of being shunned for a dissenting view of life. What’s more he becomes a hypocrite himself, taking part in the college antics to such an extent that he questions his own deeply-held beliefs.

The young cast is energetic and convincing in this movie. which could be called Left Behind meets I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. No one should think that the students at Reed College are simply social butterflies, drinking and partying and sharing co-ed bathrooms. Reed is as selective as Harvard, Yale and Stanford.

Marshall Allman, know mainly for HBO's True Blood, is as friendly as a pup, fitting in almost from the day after he discovers that men and women share the same bathroom. Claire Holt performs as Penny, a goody-two-shoes, with appropriate charm and reserve. The film makes good use of John Coltrane’s music in a film whose over-riding slogan could be “Life is like jazz; it doesn’t resolve.” The title of the movie comes from Don Miller’s statement, “There is something beautiful about a billion stars held steady by a God who knows what He is doing. They hang there, the stars, like notes on a page of music, free-form verse, silent mysteries swirling in the blue like jazz.” Ben Pearson filmed the movie in Tennessee with some shots in Portland.

Rated PG-13. 107 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 


Gabe Torres's
Brake
Opens Friday, March 23, 2012

Screenwriter: Timothy Mannion

Starring: Stephen Dorff, Chyler Leigh, JR Bourne, Tom Berenger, Bobby Tomberlin

IFC Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

During the Spanish Inquisition, a time that found people tied to the stake and burned as heretics, a hapless victim could bribe the executioner who would guarantee a quick death by strangulation rather than torture by fire. When Spartacus was crucified, slowly dying in agony, his significant other begged for death to take him away. Quick death beats torture.

As for what type of death might be unimaginably horrific today, many would agree that being buried alive could serve on the top-five list, particularly if the torturer were to put a breathing apparatus in top of a coffin to keep the victim alive only to die slowly from starvation and an inability to move. This last situation is (almost) like the fate suffered by Special Agent Jeremy Reins (Stephen Dorff), who wakes up in the trunk of a car without knowing the whys and wherefores of his claustrophobic imprisonment.

Turns out that Agent Reins is one of the few who know the location of the President’s bunker, to which the Chief Executive and a group of top politicos might repair during a severe emergency. Some bad guys want to know this location, though one wonders who this information would do any good considering that POTUS would be guarded by security and surrounded by impregnable walls deeper than even Iran’s nuclear plants. But never mind: that’s just one of the plot holes devised by Gabe Torres, copying his images, perhaps, from Ryan Reynolds’s performance Rodrigo Cortés’s Buried, a 2010 movie that finds Paul Conroy, a truck driver in Iraq, buried alive in a box with only a cigarette lighter and cell phone for company.

As writer Timothy Mannion seeks suspense through the prism settled in Buried, Agent Reins (Stephen Dorff) has only a radio transmitter and later a flashlight and a cell phone to use to try to work out an escape from the car trunk. At first the victimizers are silent, though Reins is able to communicate with another agent in a similar predicament, discovering shortly thereafter that there may be at least seven agents prodded by the enemy for the location of the bunker. Ultimately they have allegedly kidnapped his estranged wife, Molly ( Chyler Leigh), which should surely lead the agent to spill the beans but no: he’s an All-American Hero ready to die and to sacrifice his wife to allow the President and his band to survive. He swore an oath, and by golly, he’ll let nothing stand in the way of this rigid morality.

Dorff turns out a mighty performance as the victim, who waits out the digital clock from 4.00 minutes to 0, then back to 4.00 minutes and again to zero, but at times he is surprised when time runs out and terrible things happen. He is attacked by a swarm of bees sent through the car trunk; he overhears the gunning down of a police officer who has stopped the car and who seems ready to take action to free the agent who is now kicking and yelling up a storm.

In the end, get ready for twist time. However, given the nature of what could be transmitted better as a virtually one-man off-Broadway play—with James Mathers camera doing little work in contrast to Dorff’s writhing, sweating, screaming performance—the audience might be tempted to step outside for air (which would be a sign that the story is working) but more important could be tuckered out by the minimalism of the affair.

Rated R. 92 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online





Lee Hirsch’s
Bully
Opens Friday, March 31, 2012


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

For decades now, many of us have been irritated with the hypocritical ways the MPAA has decided to dole out ratings. Violence is rewarded with PGs and PG-13s, while any hint of male frontal nudity gets an NC-17 and profanity nails an R...depending on the film. The system is arbitrary and needs to be overhauled and/or vanquished. The fact that Bully would have received an R is nothing short of monstrous and proves that the MPAA are truly bullies themselves. Kudos to Harvey Weinstein for giving them the finger and releasing Bully with NO rating.

Bully, Lee Hirsch’s honest and disturbing new documentary, depicts the difficulties and despair inherent in the lives of a group of individual teens trying to simply exist in this world. In two cases, the subjects have committed suicide and their stories are told by the surviving parents and friends.

From Iowa to Georgia to Oklahoma to Missouri, Hirsch’s camera captures a world where ‘fitting in’ is paramount as kids are harassed because of their sexuality or because they look different or because they don’t act the way they’re expected or because they happen to be the wrong color.

Hirsch manages to actually film bullying as it occurs by taking his camera on a school bus as we watch Alex, a thirteen-year old boy, get smacked and called names while no one does anything to stop it, including the bus driver. More frightening, Alex seems to have gotten used to being teased and stabbed with pencils. When his parents are shown the footage, they are outraged and met with indifference from school administrators. And as Hirsch’s narrative shows, the powers that be are sometimes complicit in the bullying using phrases, as “kids will be kids."

The incomprehensible ways in which officials try and handle bullying (when they bother to at all) is highlighted in a scene where a high school principal (spelled on screen incorrectly as “principle”) confronts a boy who is being bullied and asks him to shake the hand of the bully, saying to him, “Can’t you just get along?”—almost blaming him for the fact that he’s being picked on. The “what-an-idiot” factor is high with this “principle.” She may be trying, but she’s going about it all wrong.

Even Alex’s mother admits her son comes off as “weird,” and she offers, “he can’t fit in, but he tries.”

What no one seems to wonder is why should he have to “fit in.” Why do we still live in a country where “fitting in” is important? Shouldn’t we celebrate uniqueness and individuality? Why is being different even an issue? This cuts to the core of what is wrong with the school systems in the US and their approach to teaching—they set the stage for bullying by demanding conformity and “normalcy”—whatever that word means.

One of the most compelling segments in Bully involves a fourteen-year old African-American girl from Missouri who gets so fed up with being bullied every day that she brings a gun on board the school bus. The way she is subsequently treated and the ridiculous amount of charges brought against her makes the viewer wonder if things would have been different if she happened to be white.

The most devastating scenes involve the survivors of the two suicide victims (one seventeen, one eleven) who no longer have a chance to heal but who have amazing parents who have made the anti-bullying campaign a crusade.

The film benefits greatly from its timely and important subject matter but Hirsch’s approach is occasionally muddled and dwells on minutiae instead of moving forward with these powerful stories. Still, the film is more than worthwhile.

In a town meeting scene, someone stands up and wonders. “If bartenders are responsible for a drunk killing another person, why aren’t bullies also responsible?”--a valid, if controversial, question that is currently being asked all over the nation—including New Jersey.

Kudos to Hirsch for bringing these questions out in the open and for showing his audience just how horrific it is out there for many teens.


Whit Stillman's
Damsels in Distress
Opens Friday, April 6, 2012

Screenwriter: Whit Stillman

Starring: Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton, Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echikunwoke

Sony Pictures Classics

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Some colleges are known for their sports teams, others for their academic departments. Still others are noted for religious impact while some are secular and progressive. Regardless, colleges will always have a clique like the quartet in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, a comedy the likes of which you might find on HBO but rarely if ever on the regular channels. You already knew that, if you are familiar with Stillman's best known movies. Stillman’s Barcelona was a comedy of manners about an uptight guy working in the Barcelona office of a U.S. corporation whose life changes when his less stuffy cousin visits. His The Last Days of Disco found two women, book editors, who find love when patronizing a disco. This is the world of a writer-director Stillman who graduated from Harvard and whose métier is dissecting the lives of people either in college or are recent grads.

While the direction of Damsels is fine, though nothing exceptional, the writing is what makes this movie a quirky hit. The film is targeted to a hipster college audience or recent grads of elite schools. Its principal character is Violet (Greta Gerwig), the leader of a group of four young women. She along with her friends Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Lily (Analeigh Tipton) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) preside over the suicide prevention center at Seven Oaks University (the location was filmed by Doug Emmett at Staten Island’s Snug Harbor). Their aim is to help people through their depression whether they need help or not. The women have come to the right place in a way since the men of the school, particularly those who belong to a Roman letter fraternity (yes, that’s one of the oddities of the picture: Roman not Greek) are Neanderthal and smell bad. The gals consider them morons, though Violet, who has the lion’s share of whimsical comments, has no problem with them since she does not approve of dating people who are cool but rather those who are inferior to her. Among Violet’s projects is the addition of a new dance craze—the results of which form the impressively comical end-credits.

Though Stillman’s emphasis is on the fair sex, he does develop some of the men. One of the “morons,” Frank (Ryan Metcalf), is so stupid he does not know the color of his own eyes. Thor (Bily Magnussen) has Joe College looks and at one point is thought to be heading to the second story of a college building to try suicide. Best of all is Charlie aka Fred (Adam Brody) who wears a jacket and tie. Charlie makes up a story that he is not a student at the college but rather works for a research corporation. This Walter Mitty becomes Lily’s favorite b.f.

Damsels in Distress has no interest in the kind of riotious comedy that evokes gales of laughter from the soundtracks of TV sitcoms. Its humor is deadpan, its look is screwball. While the repetitiveness of the dry whimsy causes the second half to falter, the picture is worth a shot. The film is buoyed by the end credits that recall the 1937 movie Damsels in Distress starring Fred Astaire and Joan Fontaine.

Rated PG-13. 99 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Lawrence Kasdan's
Darling Companion
Opens Friday, April 20, 2012

Screenwriter: Lawrence Kasdan, Meg Kasdan

Starring: Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Sam Shepard, Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss

Sony Pictures Classics

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

When a number of people take residence in a remote cabin in the woods, what do you think will happen? A guy with a chainsaw is waiting, of course. But wait. In Darling Companion, the residents of the cabin located in the Colorado Rockies (filmed in Utah) are adults, so this cannot be a horror film. Instead, it’s a shaggy dog story, literally, and right up the alley of director Lawrence Kasdan.

Kasdan, whose Grand Canyon dealt with six residents of different backgrounds living in L.A., whose The Accidental Tourist treated an emotionally distant travel writer whose son is killed and whose marriage is crumbling, and whose The Big Chill found seven former college friends having a reunion in South Carolina after the funeral of one of their circle, continues his tradition of probing relationships. A marriage begin to fall apart because of a lack of communication and comes together when an outside force unifies the couple. The tale is co-written by Kasdan's wife, Meg Kasdan, with an emphasis on ensemble acting. The actors are generally middle-aged and well known, but the movie as a whole lacks narrative drive, featuring people who are almost stereotypes of, well types—including the hysterical wife, the self-absorbed doctor, and others who bond during their time as guests of the couple when they must work together to find a lost dog.

Recall that Kevin Kline’s character, Otto, in A Fish Called Wanda could not figure out why people want dogs. “I don’t get it.” Similarly, this time around as Joseph, a prominent spine surgeon too much into himself to pay enough attention to his wife Beth (Diane Keaton), cannot understand why Beth would stop the car on the road to rescue an abandoned Collie mix. When she takes the dog named Freeway to the vet (Jay Ali), her daughter Grace (Elisabeth Moss) falls in love with the handsome doc. Some time thereafter when the two marry in a beautiful ceremony outdoors in Telluride in the Colorado Rockies (actually Park City, Utah), Beth, Joseph, and others repair to Joseph’s vacation home, a cabin cared for by Carmen (Ayelet Zurer), a Roma with alleged psychic powers.

When Freeway disappears, all head out to locate him, including Joseph’s sister Penny (Dianne Wiest), Penny’s new b.f. Russell (Richard Jenkins), and Penny’s M.D. son Bryan (Mark Duplass). During the dog hunt, the men and women get to know one another better. Most important, Beth and Joseph find themselves bonding anew, particularly when Joseph has a bad tumble, dislocates his shoulder (metaphor for dislocated marriage?), and has Beth put him together again.

The script ambles on amiably, though Diane Keaton’s frequent bouts of hysteria prove numbing as do Carmen’s repeated visions (the dog is near this house, no that house, no track down a red-headed woman who will know). The two best features of the movie are an animation to represent Beth’s dream of her lost dog’s being attacked by wolves and by Michael McDonough’s camera’s smashing photography—which could serve as a product placement for Colorado even though the entire pic was filmed in Utah.

Rated PG-13. 103 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 

Terence Davies's
The Deep Blue Sea
Opens Friday, March 23, 2012

Screenwriter: Terence Davies, from Terence Rattigan's play

Starring: Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale, Harry Hadden-Paton, Karl Johnson, Jolyon Coy, Sarah Kants, Barbara Jefford, Nicholas Amer

Music Box Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Money isn't everything; all you need is love. These clichés are put to the test in Terence Davies's drama based on a play written in 1952 by Terence Rattigan. Rattigan and Davies make an ideal collaborative pair. Rattigan was considered a middlebrow playwright whose dramas are set in upper middle-class backgrounds and directed to the "Aunt Edna" demographic--people with conventional taste. The Winslow Boy, for example, deals with a father's attempt to clear his son of a charge of stealing a five-shilling postal note. Some believe that Rattigan, who was gay (and would be 100 years old now), wrote The Deep Blue Sea as a love story between two males and that he penned it after the suicide of an ex-lover. Terence Davies, the sixty-six-year old writer-director of the film believes in understated emotions, like Rattigan. Davies's early pictures were shot in black and white to create powerful beauty stripped of all superfluity.

While The Deep Blue Sea is filmed in color, photographer Florian Hoffmeister opts for dark tones to the probable annoyance of many in the audience who may not agree that a lack of light accentuates the emotions.

The film features Rachel Weisz in a dazzling performance as a woman who loves too much. The Deep Blue Sea occurs during a single day in 1950, though Davies delivers one flashback after another to fill us in on the background of this desperately love-seeking woman who is resuscitated after having tried to kill herself by taking twelve aspirins and turning on the gas. Taking place in 1950's England, a country still recovering from damage of World War II, the story flashes back ten months when Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) bolted from the opulent household of Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale--a noted British theater actor), having fallen madly in love with an immature, young Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). Freddie, who has not adjusted to peacetime and thinks more of his glorious days fighting the Luftwaffe then he does about the new, beautiful woman in his life. Here is a case of a man who does not love a woman in quite the passionate way that she loves him--rarely a formula for a happy relationship. Nor does Freddie's lack of a job or money lead to an enticing existence but to a dilapidated tenement house run by an overly curious landlady.

Amid the long strains of Samuel Barber's plaintive violin concerto, life plays out as Freddie, spends much of his time on the golf course or singing in the local bar. Hester's attempted suicide, perhaps seen as a ploy to win back her young man's interest and affection, but it merely drives him further away until he appears to take away any shred of her dignity by thrusting a shilling at her as he would a hooker.

Melodramatic scenes punctuate the film which has marked time in a quiet way as vicious arguments break out between Freddie and Hester--a contrast from the even keel of her life with the wealthy Sir William. Some marvelous scenes find Londoners singing current popular songs in the bar, steins of beer in hand, while a terrific tracking shot of the Underground during the early 1940s finds Londoners singing merrily as the bombs go off above.

The Deep Blue Sea is a period piece which does not try to deliver a contemporary style. This could put off some moviegoers who look askance at anything not au courant. This movie exists for those who can appreciate a personal story whose principal character demonstrates an astonishing display of heartbreaking emotional suffering.

Rated R. 98 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member NY Film Critics Online



Tony Kaye's
Detachment
Opens Friday, March 16, 2012

Screenwriter: Carl Lund

Starring: Adrien Brody, Marcia Gay Harden, Betty Kaye, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Blythe Danner

Tribeca Film

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

A friend of mine, perhaps telling me what I want to hear (I was a high-school teacher for 32 years), noted that “Teachers deserve every dollar they earn.” Well, that depends. Do you calculate the pay of hard-working professionals by how difficult and frustrating the job is, or by how successful they are in raising the interest and test scores of their charges? If the former, I’d say that a six figure income would be a good start for a 22-year-old fresh out of grad school. If the latter, maybe a couple of bucks or perhaps the teachers should pay the city. We’re talking about the tough urban high school, mind you, not Andover, Exeter and Choate where the kids are already thinking about Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Tony Kaye’s Detachment hones in on an inner city school in Chicago, the sort of place where on open school night you’d be lucky to have one daddy or mum show up although you have 150 “students” on your roster. Choosing Kaye as the director was a natural given his work on American History X, which deals with the attempts of an older brother, a former skinhead, to prevent his sib from following the same path.

Although Detachment deals partly with some of the students in one tough high-school class, Tony Kaye’s focus is largely on substitute teacher, Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), who because of his mother’s suicide has detached himself from society. Barthes does have the gift of teaching and connecting with students, but he buries his gift by insisting on remaining a substitute teacher so he can spend a few weeks in a school and move on rather than form any attachments with the students or faculty. This may be about to change when three people in the school enter his life. One is Meredith (Betty Kaye), a pudgy girl (the director’s daughter) with a talent for photography whose home life makes her suicidal. Ms. Madison (Christina Hendricks), a colleague, awakens our substitue teacher emotionally by taking a shine to him. And Erica (Sami Gayle), a teen street hooker whom he takes in to his almost bare apartment, is a kid who has the potential to awaken a sense of caring. Even in that last case, however, he makes clear that his hosting is strictly temporary despite the girl’s treating him as the only family she has ever had.

In two senses, Henry is not detached. In one, he cares at least for a while for the people in his new world. In another, he visits his Alzheimer-afflicted grandfather (Louis Zorich), making sure that the employees of the assisted living home give him the attention for which he has paid. Despite everything, Tony Kaye, using Carl Lund’s incisively-written script, makes clear that Henry is not going to make a substantial change in his character.

The movie is snappily edited and directed mixing animation and surrealism as though to compensate for a pace that’s not so much sluggish as it is sedated. Many scenes show Henry with a three-day growth of hair on his face, quietly recording his impressions in a machine as though he were talking to an interviewer. Some scenes are so bizarre that one suspects they come out of the imaginations of the individuals. James Caan, for example, in the role of a seen-it-all pedagogue, imitates the threats of a thuggish young man twisting the kid’s words into loud, operative commentary. Lucy Liu as a Ph.D. guidance counselor who is blessed by having to deal only with one-on-one situations, is nonetheless so burned out that she bellows at a cute student who is without ambition and who believes that she will make her living as a model. Tim Blake Nelson is the ultimate burn-out: so defeated by an inability to make a dent as a teacher that he frequently clings to the school gate as though seeking an escape that is impossible. And Marcia Gay Harden’s role as principal who is told that she is going to be pensioned off at the end of the year because of declining test scores, is believable enough even when collapsed on the floor of her office making yet another innocuous announcement to the school. Finally, Adrien Brody is phenomenal, issuing an awards-worthy performance so early in the year that one hopes the guilds (like the prestigious New York Film Critics Online) will remember him come December.



Malgoska Szumowska's
Elles
Opens Friday, April 27, 2012

Screenwriter: Malgoska Szumowska, Tine Byrckel

Starring:: Juliette Binoche, Anais Demoustier, Joanna Kulig, Loui-Do de Lencquesaing

Kino Lorber

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

The Wall Street Journal reported the other day that student debt in America has reached one trillion dollars. But you’ve gotta go to college if you want a good job, so what’s a kid to do? The Polish director Malgoska Szumowska finds optimism in a trade that any hot young co-ed could do with no overhead and no tools required. She can turn tricks by placing an ad for an escort service (wink wink).

How to show a movie audience what it’s like to be a beautiful young student-sex worker? Set up a couple of interviews with those who ply their wiles as part-time hookers and make sure that the interviewer knows not only to avoid the usual “Don’t you want to do anything better with your life?” but also to cast an envious eye at her subjects. Never mind that Anne (Juliette Binoche), the interviewer for the prestigious Elle magazine, has spacious digs in Paris thanks, presumably, to the income her husband Patrick (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) earns, but money isn’t everything.

Here Binoche plays the role of a contemporary Mrs. Dalloway, the British socialite who in 1923 has a visit from a former flame that forces her to reconsider her choice in marriage. Anne, assigned an article on college girls who turn tricks to afford tuition and decent Paris apartments, is made to reconsider her own identity when she interviews an becomes involed in the lives of two women barely out of their teens. One is a Polish émigré, Alicja (Joanna Kulig), a showy blonde who looks the part of a professional. The other, Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier), is a girl-next-door type whose boyfriend has no idea what she does to make money. Charlotte in particular tells Anna that the work is not unpleasant at all, that the middle-class, middle-aged men patronize her because she does things that their wives would not. As Anna appears to compare her own sterile marriage to the joys of these young people, she becomes their friend more than a detached writer, in one scene lustily eating pasta and drinking with Alicja. Her husband Patrick, meanwhile, resents his wife’s immersion in the article, complaining that she is not adequately disciplining their two sons, Stéphane and Florent—the former addicted to video games, the latter to weed.

For no rational purpose other than titillation, director Szumowska immerses the audience in a graphic display of sexual encounters, one with a sadist who makes a perverted use of a wine bottle, others with men who range from self-confident, ordering Charlotte “gentle, faster, stop,” to at least one other who seems terrified. There are two ways of interpreting the action. One is the trite idea that women who do housework are engaged in free prostitution, though that seems unlikely in this case given Patrick’s seeming disgust with the sexual aspect of his marriage. The other is that a French bourgeois who likes good wine, good food, and classical music must re-evaluate herself.

Juliet Binoche has enjoyed better roles such as Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, where she plays a woman who invites a British writer to a small village where revelations take place. In fact, one might say that she is humiliating herself by appearing in a film this unfocused, this laden with lurid sexual scenes, on a subject not particularly original and with dialogue not only banal but predictable. What would you expect two intelligent young women to report that sophisticated magazine readers would not already know? Stay for the credits because Beethoven’s Seventh sounds grand on the big screen.

Rated NC-17. 96 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Bobcat Goldthwait's
God Bless America
Opens Friday, April 6, 2012 VOD

Screenwriter: Bobcat Goldthwait

Starring: Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr, Melinda Page Hamilton, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Rich McDonald, Maddie Hasson, Larry Miller, Travis Wester, Lauren Phillips, Aris Alvarado, Regan Burns

Magnet

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

God Bless America are often the final three words of speeches given by politicians, but the term is used for ironic effect by Bob Goldthwait. Goldthwait, whose World’s Greatest Dad starred Robin Williams as a failed writer, the divorced dad of an obnoxious boy who accidentally strangles himself. When Dad forges his son’s diary making the lad a hero, the writer’s life changes. There are plenty of obnoxious people on display in the latest movie of Robert Francis “Bobcat” Goldthwait, some so repulsive that you’ll be tempted to cheer their demise. Frank (Joel Murray), the principal character who says and does things that many of us would like to say and do but refrain from doing because we’re too civilized, is an ideal Everyman. Frank lives in Syracuse—which happens to be the director’s home town.

Frank, like some of us, takes issue with the popular culture of our time, ranting against a laundry list of vulgar people and systems including right-wing commentators (think Rush Limbaugh’s calling a woman a slut simply because she favors insurance policies that include contraceptives); screaming babies next door to people living in apartments with paper-thin walls; spoiled brats who wail when their birthday presents include a car not exactly like the one they wanted; declining civility in general from people who in movie theaters talk on cell phones, crack popcorn loudly, and yak to one another (my own bête noir); and innocuous reality TV programs like American Idol. Not included might be the orations of national leaders who vow to wipe other states off the map. You can fill in your favorite targets for extinction.

And by extinction Frank means just that. He does not write letters to the editor. He does not sign petitions to his congressman. He shoots these bottom-feeders dead, and what’s more he has the assistance of a teenager, Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), who joins up with Frank once that latter has killed a rich, unpopular high-school girl who was throwing a tantrum.

Not that Frank is in good shape. He is fired from his job after eleven years simply because he sent flowers to the home of a coworker. He is afflicted with migraines and can’t sleep. He is just the person we need to rid our society of all that makes it vulgar—though of course his murdering scores of people has nothing to do with vulgarity. Frank has cracked up just like Peter Finch’s fired newscaster in director Sidney Lumet’s and screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky's 1976 Oscar-winning Network. In that film Finch takes aim against the evils of the 1970s still with us today like sexism, ageism, and capitalist exploitation, but Lumet uses a classic format with a detailed narrative structure while Goldthwait throws the laundry list around with considerable repetition, the satire suffering diminishing returns as it ambles on. For example too much use is made of a contestant on the American Idol clone.

Still Joel Murray and Tara Lynn Barr make a good team, though Ms Barr’s character can often be as annoying as Thomas Horn’s Oskar Schell in Bob Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Young Barr comes across as Bonnie Parker to Murray’s Clyde Barrow in a movie which despite repetitiveness gives all of us an outlet in fantasy to what we’d like done with our civilization’s discontents.

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




Morten Tyldum's
Headhunters (Hodejegeme)
Opens Friday, April 27, 2012

Screenwriter: Lars Gudmestad, Ulf Ryberg, from Jo Nesbø’s 2008 novel

Starring: Aksel Hennie, Synnøve Macody Lund, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Julie R. Olgaard

Magnolia Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Headhunters is the best Norwegian thriller to come to our shores in years and among the most exciting psychological dramas an American audience will be treated to in quite a while. The acting is outrageously good, the plot twists come to us at a furious pace, the music on the soundtrack is spot-on and perhaps not even needed since the gore that shocks us every now and then is scary enough without it. Headhunters has elements of horror, detective story and noirish comedy, all in the service of a sophisticated tale of a handsome but short corporate recruitment officer with a penchant for fine art.

Given that the house owned by the movie's protoganist Robert Brown (Aksel Hennie) and his beautiful wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund) could easily fit on a page of Architectural Digest, and the fact that Oslo is Europe’s most expensive city, we wonder how Roger’s paychecks from employment as a corporate headhunter could pay the bills. And don’t forget his smashing suits and the jewelry he regularly bestows on his wife, a woman who is a head taller than Roger, the kind of woman that Rog hasn’t the self-confidence to think he can keep this person in his arms unless he gives her every material good he cannot afford—including his Lexus automobile. We are not surprised to discover from the opening scenes that Herr Brown is an art thief, one who meticulously plans not only an almost foolproof way to sneak into the houses of collectors, substitute copies after removing the canvas from the frames, and making off with an authentic Rubens or other artworks du jour. He has the help of Ove Kikerud (Elvind Sander), a security officer who appears to control every alarm system in the community’s upper class homes.

Complications develop when he meets the strikingly handsome Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Despite Roger’s suspicion that Greve has an eye for Diana which the gorgeous woman reciprocates, he invites him to apply for a top job at Pathfinder. Clas Greve has a military background involving tiny gadgets that can track people anywhere provided that one can attach such a trinket to the enemy’s hair or clothing. Greve, who owns the Rubens that could allow Roger to pay his mortgage if successfully heisted, is no easy victim and becomes, in fact, a headhunter in the more literal sense than Roger.

Scenes of bloody gore abound, but the one that will have some in the audience turning away does not involve shootings, stabbings, even the bites of one of the most ferocious dogs in cinema history. Morten Tyldum, who directs a movie propelled by the intricate architecture of Lars Guidmestad and Ulf Ryberg’s screenplay (based on a novel by Jo Nesbø) finds Roger hiding from the man who is tracking him by immersing himself wholly into a bucket of feces in a rural outhouse.

We come away from this taut, edge-of-the-seat thriller-cum-black comedy with the view that the higher you go, the more risks you take. In this case, a smart-looking fellow in competition with one whose looks surpass even those of Brad Pitt, must go through hoops not so much to meet the demands of a corporation but simply to remain alive. Aksel Hennie, a popular Norwegian actor, anchors the thriller as a man who is shot at, stripped naked, arrested, injured when the car he is in is totally destroyed by a huge truck, shaved bald, and worst of all covered in poop from head to toe. It would be difficult to conceive of a performer who could do better, though one has to guess that an American version of this film might be in the works with…Brad Pitt? Aaron Eckhart? Daniel Craig?

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


 


Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne's
The Kid With a Bike (Le gamin au vèlo)
Opens Friday, March 16th

Screenwriter: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Starring: Thomas Doret, Jérémie Renier, Cécile de France

Sundance Selects

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If you live in an urban area, you’re likely to see dogs tied up to the poles outside supermarkets, even restaurants—as though their owners were once living in Dodge City and did likewise to their horses. This is a cruel practice, easy enough to confirm as the dogs of all sizes look nervously inside the stores for their owners, squealing, barking, and ignoring the kind words of passersby. Aside from the threat posed by dognappers, one has to wonder about their people who may spend up to an hour in restaurants, scarcely looking outside to watch their pets succumb to panic attacks.

The same problem affects Cyril (Thomas Doret), a 13-year-old actor playing an 11-year-old in a small Belgian town when his father simply walks out without warning, allegedly because he has no money or because he simply does not want to care for his cute tyke. Doret, a real find who is in virtually every frame, spends half the story running, either trying escape from bullies or to look for his dad or to chase down the thieves who twice take his bike (which he leaves unlocked as though he were living in the crime-free Europe of the 1950s). If he were the right age at the time, he could have been chosen to act the key role in Run Lola Run.

The Kid With a Bike is a heart-rending story, typical of the productions of the Dardenne brothers, showing what happens to a kid who is left alone by his only remaining parent, and could be symbolic of an entire class of miscreants whose crime waves could be attributed to similar abandonment.

As Cyril zips to and fro looking for dad, Guy Catoul (Jérémie Renier), eventually finding him at work in a restaurant and told not to come around again, ever, he attracts the attention of Samantha (Cécile de France), a middle-aged hairdresser who has agreed to take him in on weekends as a break from the local foster home. One wonders about her motivation since she does not herself understand why she is virtually adopting the boy—particularly since he has tried a few times to run away in order to see his father again.

Desperate for love from any quarter, he accepts the kindness of a young drug dealer/criminal, agreeing to help him on a planned misfeasance. We wonder whether he will learn his lesson. Presumably the Dardennes would have us believe that given the new substitute mother who can give him considerable attention, the boy will do just fine. We hope so: meanwhile in this brief 87 minutes of running time, the writer-directors contribute a naturalistic production without CGI or flashbacks, virtually assuring us that young Mr. Doret has a nice career ahead of him per his vivid freshman performance.

Unrated. 87 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 


Don Argott and Demian Fento's
Last Days Here
Opens Friday, March 2, 2012

Starring: Bobby Liebling, Sean "Pellet" Pelletier, Hallie Miller Liebling

Sundance Selects

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

It's such a cliché that I hesitate to use it but with some documentaries, truth is stranger than fiction. Who would believe that the guy shown in the opening scene of Don Argott and Demian Fento's Last Days Here--in his fifties with gray hair, a pock-marked face, scabs all over his body from picking at "parasites," the look of someone wasted on cocaine, crack and heroin (which he was), living at his age in his parents' basement in Germantown, Pennsylvania--would marry one of the hottest blondes you'll see on the screen, a straight woman a quarter century his junior? Can you imagine what her parents might think if and when he went to their home for The Big Meeting? Hallie is not a groupie who prowls around with a typical audience for rock concerts, and the fellow, however groovy he was in the 1970s, looks nowhere near about to redeem himself and bring the fans at New York's Webster Hall to their feet.

Bobby Liebling (the last name is ironically German for "darling"), appears in virtually every scene, easily recognizable by his huge eyes, which appear to be his calling card since before one concert he is seen getting shadow painted onto his lower lids. As seen in the opener which was photographed about the year 2007, he looks near death, his mother having just about given up on him as she puffs on a cigarette while playing with some strange concoction on the stove, his father agreeing with everything that mom says despite his record as a U.S. defense department adviser to Nixon, Johnson and Ford. In other words, the family is as straight-laced as their son is zonked out.

Thanks to the support of Sean "Pellet Pelletier," the manager of the heavy metal group called Pentagram, Bobby appears ready to get his life together. Never mind that years back he would show up late to the band's concerts, in one case leading a member to tell the audience that the group is without a singer and inviting everyone to sing along karaoke style.

Not quite as unbelievable as the marriage he gets into with Hallie, a woman who at one point had him sent to jail for violating a restraining order, is the fact that a youthful audience would crowd Webster Hall for a concert featuring a singer whose fame originated before anyone on the floor was born. It's not as though Bobbie is simply recapping the renaissance of Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, since despite a fairly long article in Wikipedia on the band the name Pentagram would conceivably be unknown except to die-hard fans of heavy metal.

The filmmakers put in years to accumulate the narrative but what's missing is a heavy dose of archival films depicting the origins of Pentagram and actual concerts by the group, including stories of the many band members who dropped out during the group's heyday. Otherwise, you don't have to be a fan of the music to appreciate the doc since the filmmakers are concerned principally with the idea of redemption beyond all odds. We wish Bobbie the best with Hallie and their new baby.

Unrated. 97 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Kat Coiro's
L!fe Happens
Opens Friday, April 13, 2012

Stardust Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Screenwriter: Kat Coiro, Krysten Ritter

Starring: Krysten Ritter, Kate Bosworth, Rachel Bilson, Justin Kirk, Geoff Stultz

In Kat Coiro's new film L!fe Happens , Kim (Krysten Ritter), had a one-night stand with Marc (Rhys Coiro), barely noting that her roommate, Deena (Kate Bosworth) had taken her last condom. As for why she did not take immediate action to undo the potential fertilization, we don’t know. Writer-director Kat Coiro (who co-wrote the scenes with Krysten Ritter), is not about to get political in this light comedy. Nine months later Kim has a baby, Max (Zachary Ross and Connor Ross), putting her in a quite different category than Deena, her free-spirited writer-roomnate, and Laura (Rachel Bilson), the third roommate and the only one of the three who has held on to her virginity.

For her first full-length feature, Kat Coiro’s comedy enjoys considerable originality. For example, can you name another movie in which a woman having sex drops breast milk on her partner? That plot point plus other quirky elements in a snappy script give the film its luster despite the way it covers bases through some typical months in the lives of single women.

Some other points—aside from the fact that women are expected to provide the condoms—make what looks like today’s culture (at least on the West Coast) different from the mores with which I grew up in New York. During the ‘50’s sex was not easy to find: those were the years before the pill got introduced and gals who made out beyond necking and petting were considered to be of ill repute. Nowadays it’s the virgins who are objects of bemusement: Laura, who has kept what she calls her “golden crotch” intact, is the outlier.

While Kate Bosworth's character is blond and beautiful and a woman with a promising career as a writer of books about women, Krysten Ritter has the juiciest role, playing a dog-walker for the flamboyant Francesca (Kristen Johnston). Kim does not make enough money for formula, thereby forcing her to use the breast milk mentioned above. Kim is determined to hold on to Nicholas (Geoff Stults), a dreamboat she met at a party. While Deena is nurturing her attraction to Henri (Justin Kirk), who is Nicholas’s friend and who spouts the poetry of John Donne, Kim has some explaining to do about that breast milk, particularly since she has lied, telling Nicholas that baby Max is Deena’s.

The dialogue is whip-fast and smart, the editing appropriately crisp, featuring split images and jump cuts. Director Kat Coiro is in pre- and post-production on two other features, A Case of You about a guy who meets someone on an online dating site with an embellished profile and must work to be worthy of his image, and Here Lies Bridget, about a mean 17-year-old girl who dies, is in limbo, and hearing that her friends want her to go to hell gets a chance to prove them wrong. Watch for these. Coiro is going places.

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


James Mather and Stephen St. Leger's
Lockout
Opens Friday, April 13, 2012

Screenwriter: Luc Besson, James Mather

Cast: Maggie Grace, Guy Pearce, Peter Stormare, Lenni James, Joseph Gilgun

Open Road

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Here’s a sci-fi pic made for the Terminator crowd, which means anyone who spends five hours a day playing Call of Duty 4 or other violent vid games, which means some 97% of the 12-17 year olds. Others, like critics who like to have a good time with a popcorn movie, will go for the humor - 100% of which is what comes out of the mouth of Snow (Guy Pearce), who wisecracks his way through the picture even when he’s getting the cojones beaten out of him by some strange Secret Service people. The government agents led by Scott Langral (Peter Stormare) think that he’s guilty of killing one of their own and they’re looking for a metal attaché case which could be little more than a acGuffin—though you’d not be able to convince Snow of that since he raced after it as though his life depended on finding the thing.

He’s about to be beaten to death except that word comes from the President of the United States that his daughter Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace), is in grave danger. She left on a mission to see the maximum security prisoners being held in suspended animation in a space capsule, but the most psychotic prisoners had busted out and are threatening the government in heavy Scottish accents courtesy of Alex (Vincent Regan) who is leading the attempt to escape from the "space" pen.

The movie, which takes place apparently in outer space but in reality is filmed in Serbia, has a generic production design (but one that deserves to be seen on the big screen preferably in IMAX), and has a few shots of equally generic violence edited in the usual generic way because the actors don’t really want to hurt one another. The chemistry, such as the production team hoped would sizzle, doesn’t, really, because Guy Pearce is old enough to be the father of the President’s daughter and because the young woman is so left-wing that she refuses to escape from the Scottish-accented guys unless all the hostages can be freed.

The picture has several moments that evoke unintentional laughter, not the least of which is a scene in which Emilie and Snow jump from the space capsule, go into free-fall for about two minutes (he has to pull her ripcord because she has fainted), and land right on their feet somewhere on a Manhattan street.

Writer Luc Besson, who has given us the pleasures the wonderful La femme Nikita, has his computer on second-rate adjustment this time. Guy Pearce’s limitless spewing of one-liners, entertaining though they may be, cannot save this movie from incomprehensibility. If you see it, be sure to take someone 12-17 years old to explain it to you.

Rated PG-13. 95 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 

Susan Seidelman's
Musical Chairs
Opens Friday, March 23, 2012


Screenwriter: Marty Madden

Starring: Leah Pipes, E.J. Bonilla, Priscilla Lopez, Jaime Tirelli, Laverne Cox, Morgan Spector, Auti Angel, Nelson R. Landrieu, Angelic Zambrana, Joey Dedio, Dominic Colon, Philip Willingham, Carpathia Jenkins, Jerome Preston Bates, Tibor Feldman

Paladin

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Whether you’ve been taking ballet lessons since you were three or are a complete klutz on the dance floor, you’ll find much to compel your attention in Musical Chairs, a deeply moving filim directed by Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan, Boynton Beach Club). This delightful indie embraces drama, comedy and sentiment in equal doses, but steers clear of soap-opera-ish melodrama. The story looks authentic despite the fairy-tale trappings because of the skill of the entire ensemble in telling the story. We are given a surprisingly realistic view of a cross-ethnic, cross-social-class couple whose chemistry easily brushes aside their real-world differences.

Choreographed splendidly by Jose Edgar Osorio, Musical Chairs takes us to a predominantly Latino section of the Bronx underneath the “EL” where a Puerto-Rican family is ruled by Isabel (Priscilla Lopez) a Jewish-mother type who is busy serving customers while worrying about the unmarried status of her son Armando (E.J. Bonilla). Isabel actively lobbies for a marriage between Armando and Rosa (Angelic Zambrana), who seems a match in every way in that she is a dancer like Armando and is clearly in love with the lad. Yet Rosa is regularly defeated by her son’s refusal to get together with Rosa - he even jumps from the window to avoid a meeting.

Armando trades janitorial work at Daniel's (Philip Wilingham) dance studio in return for dance lessons. Armando is astonished when Daniel’s upper-middle class white partner, Mia (Leah Pipes), secretly watches Armando hoofing before a mirror, then assertively takes hold of him to cavort to a Latin beat. After a tragic car accident that leaves Mia wheelchair-bound for life and plunges her into an understandable depression, she is visited by Armando who tries to convince her—and a pot pourri of others at the center—to enter New York first wheelchair dance competition. The two are obviously smitten. Director Seidelman also introduces us to some other handicapped characters: Chantelle (Laverne Cox), a stunning black transsexual; Nicky (Auti Angel), a punkish woman with a chip on her shoulder; and Kenny (Morgan Spector), an Iraqi war vet.

The flawless ensemble includes Wilfredo (Nelson R. Landrieu) who courts the transsexual; Bernardo (Jaime Tirelli), Armando’s dad and the owner of the restaurant; Jimmy (Jerome Preston Bates), an orderly who is to take part in the dance competition; Erma (Carpathia Jenkins), the fearless receptionist; and Mr. Grinker (Tibor Feldman), the manager of the rehab center who is shocked to discover that his basketball court is being used for wheelchair dance lessons.

The influence of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire is obvious from Jimmy’s dance with a broom and Armando’s swinging with a large trash cans. Leah Pipes’s as Mia, the WASPish twenty-something woman with Italian and German parental background, is delightfully sweet, the kind of person that we in the audience would want desperately to smile just as she has hit the lowest point in her life. E.J. Bonilla’s turn as a simpático dancer is riveting.

Rated PG-13. 100 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

 


 

Lasse Hallström's
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Opens Friday, March 9, 2012

Sreenwriter: Simon Beaufoy from Paul Torday’s novel

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Amr Waked, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Mison

CBS Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Writing political satire in America today must be an almost effortless job: the Republican candidates are making it easy. “My wife drives a couple of Cadillacs,” or “I’m not concerned about the poor,” or “Contraception isn’t what’s supposed to be.” The British may have the same situation, one not as recognizable to us on the other side of the Atlantic. Paul Torday in his satirical novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, takes aim at the British government which has had to put a spin on such unpopular campaigns as its contribution to the Iraq War. The government’s taking all the credit for the work of others is always a popular theme of writers, and Torday hones in as well on marriage, public relations people, TV interviews, consumerism, and the idea of Westerners that everyone in the world wants to be like us. In adapting this cutting novel to the screen, Simon Beaufoy has sweetened the parody to the potential disappointment of those among us who take great joy in laughing at government, and Swedish film director Lasse Hallström has helped to convert politics into romantic comedy, to the pleasure of those who like that kind of thing.

Though it’s a shame that the film that bears the name of the book is almost toothless, much credit must be given to the cast and crew for tracking the growing affection between a woman who is the representative of a fabulously wealthy Yemeni sheik and the somewhat dull man who, in mid-life crisis, is about to chuck his uneventful job in a British government fisheries department to find passion and commitment in an exotic land.

In this production by CBS films, Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), burdened by a loveless marriage to career-obsessed Mary Jones (Rachael Stirling), is approached by Harriet Chetwode-Talbor (Emily Blunt), a representative of a sheik (Amr Waked) with a proposal that seems hare-brained. The sheikh is willing to pay $50 million pounds to get 10,000 fish from the Scottish Highland transported to Yemen. His aim—one that is punctuated in the book but glossed over in the film—is to get Yemenis to forget their tribal hostilities and to have all classes of people united in the sport of fishing. The problem is that the Scottish Highlands have oodles of rain and lots of fish-friendly water while Yemen is arid. The British prime minister looks at the scheme as a way to deflect criticism of his government for participating in the Iraq War (not specifically mentioned in the movie) and to further Anglo-Arab relations while at the same time playing up to the millions of his countrymen who fish. To that end he directs Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), his chief flack, to pursue the dream and to be sure to get the photo-ops he needs in that pursuit.

The romance between Dr. Jones and Harriet seems impossible at first. He has marginal Asperger’s with no sense of humor and is not as young or as good-looking as Harriet’s soldier boyfriend (Tom Mison). However the affection builds slowly and credibly, enhanced no doubt by their joint experience in a strange land. Harriet’s and Alfred’s penchant for calling each other by their last names is particularly humorous given the way that he regularly refers to “Ms Chetwode-Talbot,” while director Hallström only gradually allows them to go on a first-name basis—a sure sign of growing intimacy in what seems to be a Britain as stodgy as it was in the fifties. There is more depth to this movie than the romance. Philosophically the story pits science against religion; faith against facts. The sheik understands that Dr. Jones is a non-believer, a man of science, and is eager to convert the fellow into one who understands the role of faith. As the movie concludes we realize the extent to which the sheik has succeeded.

Terry Stacey films the proceedings in London, the Scottish Highlands towns of Argyll and Bute, and Morocco (Yemen is out-of-bounds for this sort of venture: and who ever called that country The Yemen? Even The Ukraine gave up the article adjective.) The true beauty of southern Morocco is not brought out but Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a lovely, light, expansive rom-com peopled with attractive performers, particularly Amr Waked who is said to be a hot item in Egypt.

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

 





Gianni Di Gregorio's
The Salt of Life (Gianni e le donne)
Opens Friday, March 2, 2012

Screenwriter: Gianni Di Gregorio, Valerio Attanasio

Starring: Gianni Di Gregorio, Valeria de Franciscis Bendoni, Alfonso Santagata, Elisabetta Piccolomini, Valeria Cavalli, Alyn Prandi, Kristina Cepraga, Michelangelo Ciminale, Teresa Di Gregorio, Lilia Silvi, Gabriella Sborgi, Laura Squizzato, Silvia Squizzato

Zeitgeist Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

The expression "Dirty old man" deserve to be sent to the scrap heap of all politically incorrect talk, including ethnic, religious, racial and age-ist epithets. Older people, patronizingly called senior citizens in the U.S., have feelings like the young, emotions which are particularly frustrating since folks over fifty enjoy the romantic attentions of youths only if they're loaded. Otherwise, as Gianni Di Gregorio, co-writer, director and principal performer in The Salt of Life notes, they're invisible. If a sixty-year-old man such as Gianni Di Gregorio in the role of Gianni Di Gregorio wants to be looked in the eye by young women, he must do favors for them such as walk their dogs or pick up their groceries. The women are all too happy to "use" him and he, being a pensioner since he was fifty and seemingly without a hobby, volunteers the time on his hands to run errands. A mamma's boy, he is on the alert whenever his mother asks for favors as well.

Gianni Di Gregorio, whose Mid-August Lunch finds the writer-director-actor taking in a condo administrator's mother and aunt in order to relieve some of his debt, is a late middle-aged fellow there as well, a wine-drinking retiree who is looking for a surprise or two in his life which this arrangement might just provide. The Salt of Life, not a follow-up or a picture requiring its audience to be familiar with that 2008 movie, is wistful rather than comic or heavily dramatic. Its beauty lies in the naturalism that the director insists upon, creating characters who really talk the way people in real life do. All performers are given their own names as those of their characters. The success of this arthouse film, which is likely to attract mostly an older demographic, depends on Di Gregorio's charm: he comes across evoking the requisite interest from us despite the pronounced bags under the eyes, the lack of energy in his walk, the sympathy derived from those of us in our movie chairs who just might identify with the fellow.

The women in Gianni's life include his wife (Elisabetta Piccolomini), to whom he caters with breakfast in bed but does not provide even the most basic romantic interest; his college-student daughter (Teresa Di Gregorio, who is the director's real-life girl); his 96-year-old mother (Valeria de Franciscis Bendoni who is that age in real life and who is bankrupting her son); his mom's caretaker, Cristina (Kristina Cepraga); and a pair of hot, fun-loving twin blondes whom he has just met (Laura Squizzato and Silvia Squizato). For one reason or another, the women are unavailable. One must get up early to catch a plane to Paris, another had invited him over on a Sunday but spends the whole day practicing vocals with a young pianist. And so it goes. He rejects the suggestion of his women-seeking lawyer friend Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata) to go to a bordello. In the end, his daughter's live-in, unemployed boyfriend, Michelangelo (Michelangelo Ciminale), asks him what's on his mind, at which point Gianni's fantasies open up on the big screen.

Photographer Gogò Bianchi takes his camera to Travestere, a part of Rome rarely seen in the movies despite being in the heart of the city, and to the villa owned by Di Gregorio's aristocratic mother, all joining to provide the right audience with a picture of an older man's unfulfilled desires.

Unrated. 90 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

 



Gianni Di Gregorio’s
The Salt of Life (Gianni e le donne)
Opens Friday, March 2, 2012

Written by Gianni Di Gregorio, Valerio Attanasio

Starring: Gianni Di Gregorio, Valeria de Franciscis, Alfonso Santagata, Elisabetta Piccolomini, Valeria Cavalli, Kristina Cepraga, Michelangelo Ciminale; Gabriella Sborgi

(In Italian with subtitles, 90 min.)

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the OPEN ROADS: NEW ITALIAN CINEMA—11th Annual Festival

After last year’s gem, Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto), it was hard to imagine that the writer/director had also penned the searing Gomorrah. Now, with his second directorial achievement, The Salt of Life (Gianni e le donne), actor/director Gianni Di Gregorio proves he is, indeed, an old softie with a wonderful wit and bracingly honest insights about the aging Italian male.

Gianni, once again, plays Gianni, a ridiculously obliging sixty-year old who longs for something more in his life—and of course that something more means a younger woman. Gianni must contend with a mother who spends all her money on extravagance (the amazing ninetysomething Valeria de Franciscis, whose face is mesmerizing), a nagging wife and a typically screwed up daughter who keeps taking her jobless boyfriend back. Gianni also has a neighbor who flirts shamelessly with him, but never follows through.

Can Gianni find the right girl to have a fling with? The film takes us on a sometimes hilarious, often wistful journey with Gianni as he discovers a few truths about himself.

Di Gregorio brings his self-deprecating yet charming personality to Gianni--a character that could easily be seen as a dirty old man. Instead the film delivers a poignant and sweet portrait of an endearing fellow looking for a new and exciting way to pass the usually-dull time.

The supporting performances are all a treat with special mentions to Gabriella Sborgi as the over-the-top singer Gianni hopes to romance and Michelangelo Ciminale as the slacker boyfriend Gianni bonds with.

The only thing I can find fault with is changing the literal interpretation of the title, Gianni e le donne (Johnny and the women) to The Salt of Life. I am often stupefied by the silliness involved in tampering with a perfectly good title and deciding on something deemed more marketable--in this case the choice is mystifyingly wrong.

Open Roads: New Italian Cinema has been organized by The Film Society of Lincoln Center together with Cinecittà Luce- Filmitalia and the support of Ministero per i Beni e le Attivitá Culturali (Direzione Generale per il Cinema) in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute of New York. Special thanks to the Italian Trade Commission-ICE Los Angeles, the Alexander Bodini Foundation, Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimó and Antonio Monda for their generous support.

Tickets are on sale both at the box office and on-line. Discounts are available for Film Society members. Read more about The Film Society of Lincoln Center. <http://www.filmlinc.com/>

Screenings will be held at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, located at 165 West 65th Street, between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway.

 


Roger Donaldson's
Seeking Justice

Opens Friday, March 9, 2012

Screenwriter: Robert Tannen, from Todd Hickey's story

Starring: Nicolas Cage, January Jones, Guy Pearce, Jennifer Carpenter, Harold Perrineau

Anchor Bay Entertainment

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If this story reminds you of Goethe's Faust or of George Abbott and Douglas Wallop's Damn Yankees, then you'd likely get an A from Will Gerard (Nicolas Cage), who teaches English in an inner city public high school in New Orleans. Will, who is so liberal that he refuses his wife's request to keep a gun in their home after she is brutally raped and beaten, is not like Paul Kersey, who is Charles Bronson's character in Michael Winner's Death Wish. Kersey is a vigilante whose wife is killed by street punks and who picks off scuzzy looking characters of all races and creeds in a crime-infested New York. If Will is going to kill anybody, it would be with great reluctance, if his back is to the wall. Even when pursued by attackers you get the impression that like any softie, he'd want simply to talk to them, to discuss how we're a culture in the Age of Enlightenment, a country which, according to Harvard Professor Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, bad guys are not as bad as they used to be.

Still, while you're not likely to get a terrific vigilante drama like Death Wish or Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs or Aeschylus's Agamemnon that easily, Seeking Justice has a good amount of tension, not a bad performance from Nic Cage, and a couple of twists that a perceptive cinephile will see coming just about a half hour before the conclusion.

The story opens as Will and his wife Laura (January Jones) celebrate their fifth anniversary in a hip New Orleans bar, the perfect couple who laugh at each other's jokes, dance, make love, and exchange presents--or at least Will gives Laura a necklace. When Laura is raped, beaten to a pulp and hospitalized, Will is approached by an unusual fellow, Simon (Guy Pearce) with a strange request: Simon knows the rapist and will kill him if Will, some time in the future, will return a favor when asked. Reluctantly, Will sells his soul, falling into Simon's net. When Simon later calls in on the contract like a modern Mephistopheles, asking Will to kill an alleged scuzz and make it look like a suicide, Will's liberalism comes to the foreground, forcing the high-school teacher to do otherwise. Simon will not accept this answer, of course.

Director Roger Donaldson's cameraman, David Tattersall, shows us a New Orleans almost recovered from hurricane Katrina, a place where the races freely interact (Will's best friend is Jimmy (Harold Perrineau, an African-American). One scene finds Will present at a wake of a person he had been asked to kill, quite an experience for those unfamiliar with Irish custom of drinking and loudly praising the dead, warts and all. There are car chases and collisions, but no explosions except for those generated by Cage's character. Major flaws: if Will is so opposed to vigilante justice that he will not kill even his wife's attacker and is reluctant even to contact with Simon to do so, how can Simon expect him to kill people who are perfect strangers to Will? And if Simon and his organization are so efficient at killing, why do they have to hire others to do their work?

Look for a terrific performance by Guy Pearse as the Charles Bronson character and a thoroughly bland job from January Jones, who looks good but serves merely as a plot accessory.

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



Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks's
Surviving Progress
Opens Friday, April 6, 2012

Screenwriter: Mathieu Roy, Harold Crooks from Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress

Starring: Jane Goodall, Margaret Atwood, Stephen Hawking, Craig Venter, Robert Wright, Marina Silva, Michael Hudson, Ronald Wright

First Run Features

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

In teaching high school history, I regularly run into a kid in the class who says, “Let’s talk about current events.” I reply, “OK, let’s look into civilization in Ancient Greece.” “Huh?” replies the youngster? Easy to explain. We human beings have been living in civilization for only 0.2% of our existence on the planet. The other 99.8% of the time we were living in the Stone Age (like one of the current presidential candidates). We have the software to advance (technology) but the hardware (our own bodies) is not much difference from the way it was at prehistoric levels. As Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks bring out in the documentary Surviving Progress, which they have adapted from Ronald Wright’s best-selling book A Short History of Progress, we still have the attitude of prehistoric hunters. They found enough food to eat by learning how to kill a wooly beast like today’s bison. Then they found the tools that allowed them to kill two of these big animals at a time. Finally, they must have said, “Let’s drive the animals over the cliff so we can produce 200 of them in one shot.” That they did and guess what happened? The animals became extinct and the human beings had to rely on, what—french fries?

This is an excellent analogy for what we are doing now, according to the talking heads, who include such heavies as Jane Goodall, Margaret Atwood, Stephen Kawking, Craig Venter, Robert Wright, Marina Silva, Michael Hudson and Ronald Wright. In the span of just 86 minutes they, particular book writer Wright, take us from early civilizations in Sumer through Rome, into the Dark Ages which became dark because the folks who lived a mere 5,000 years ago metaphorically drove the bison over the cliff. The Romans in particular could have foreshadowed the Wall St. and banking crisis whose bubble broke just a few ago. The elite Romans, perhaps the top ten percent of the society, consumed so much, leaving scraps for the others, that the society collapsed at the hands of the more Spartan enemies.

The principal point made by the doc is not an original one but a view that typifies principally those of us to the left of the political center: we have to consume less. Thomas Malthus may have been wrong when he suggested in the Nineteenth Century that population increases would overwhelm the amount of food produced (technology has enabled us to grow a lot more on limited, fertile land), but given the way humankind is reproducing and adding 200 million people every three years (it took centuries for that much growth to occur in the past), we are going to run out of stuff. One needs no convincing more explicit than the fact that the average American consumes fifty times what is used by the typical Bangladesh resident—which seemed OK for a while. But now that China and to some extent India have made growth the most important word in their vocabularies, we will run out of minerals more quickly than anyone had considered possible to say nothing of the pollution such “progress” brings.

The doc does not lay out anything that we educated film critics do not already know or have not seen or read about before such as the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon, but Mario Janelle’s camera provides us with some entertaining fast-motion antics to show the zany rapidity of life in the developed, read: exploitative, world. The one interview that made the clearest sense, featuring a motormouth with a Slavic accent (Vaclav Smil I think), is that we Americans cry if we cannot afford renovating our bathrooms at a cost of $50,000.

The film is bookmarked by a chimpanzee who is given a reward of fruit each time he can set up two blocks on a table. When the blocks are “fixed” so that one cannot stand up like the other, the chimp tries and tries and simply cannot figure out what to do. While chimp brains are quite a bit like ours, there is one thing the hairy animal cannot do which we (or some of us) can, and that is to ask, “Why?” The point to be made could be “Why make progress when bad progress can lead us over the cliff?

Unrated. 86 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Michael Knowles's
The Trouble With Bliss
Opens Friday, March 23, 2012

Screenwriter: Douglas Light, Michael Knowles from Douglas Light’s novel East Fifth Bliss

Starring:: Michael C. Hall, Chris Messina, Brie Larson, Brad William Henki, Sarah Shahi

Variance Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Michael Knowles directs The Trouble With Bliss as though the movie were a TV feature or an off-Broadway play. Judging by the reviews on Amazon for the source material, Douglas Light’s novel East Fifth Bliss, the read has been a big five-star success about characters who, the reviewers state, are “sympathetic, endearing, maddening, hilarious, and hard to forget.” Another reader wonders whether “the movie [will be] as funny, sharp and touching as the book.” Sadly, something went wrong with the adaptation, or perhaps characters seen on the page by readers using their imagination do not come out funny, sharp or touching when visualized realistically on the screen.

The film showcases Michael C. Hall as the title character, Morris Bliss, who at the age of thirty-five is still living with his dad, Seymour (Peter Fonda). Morris is such a passive slacker that he forgets to pick up the groceries and keys that his father asks him to get. Strangely, Morris, who is wearing a big obvious rug, is a chick magnet, reeling in eighteen-year-old Stephanie Jouseski (Brie Larson) whose Catholic school uniform does not inhibit her in Morris’s bed. Equally weird, even the fully adult Andrea (Lucy Liu) is hot for the lad as well and also unable to keep her hands off him. Both women have guys who will not take their women’s flirtations with Bliss silently, particularly Steven ‘Jetski’ Jouseski (Brad William Henke), who is Stephanie’s dad and also a burly, former classmate of Morris, and a menacing dude who is attached to Andrea.

Throw in yet another strange person, NJ (Chris Messina), who is part of an international cartel bent on overthrowing governments around the Third World and you end up with a mixture of eccentrics who, by rights, should have evoked audience laughter but instead elicit audience exasperation.

Unrated. 97 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Nanni Moretti's
We Have a Pope (Habemos Papam)
Opens Friday, April 6, 2012

Screenwriter: Nanni Moretti, Francesco Piccolo

Starring: Michel Piccoli, Jerzy Stuhr, Renato Scarpa, Franco Graziosi

Sundance Selects

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

As an actor, Michel Piccoli is one of the world’s gems with a résumé stretching back to 1954. But there is little he can do to rescue a film about upper levels of the Catholic Church that is devoid of bite and that uses forced humor such as the idea that (tee hee) even Cardinals may want a cappuccino and even a college stacked with men who’d consider a seventy-year-old member to be a kid can play and love volleyball. And oh, a panel of nuns sitting on the sidelines are cheering their favorite teams, wow!

Folks like me who live in the New York area might be particularly keen to buy tickets for this film given that our own Timothy Dolan has just been elected cardinal. Yet, the repetitions and the forced attempts at humor are more likely to make an audience squirm.

The story finds one hundred eight members of the College of Cardinals assembling in the Vatican following the death of the last Pope, who is carried away in a plain wooden coffin. As the balloting goes on and the black smoke is emitted from the chimney indicating “we don’t yet have a winner,” the members of the College are compelled to turn to a dark horse, someone, we’re told by a psychoanalyst, had a 90-1 chance of being elected. Though the new pope (Michel Piccoli) hesitates at the swearing-in, he does affirm that he accepts the judgment of the College, but just before he walks to the balcony to deliver an address to the multitudes assembled (obviously a file film unless the producers spent money for a thousand extras), he screams and retreats. He does not feel ready to accept the job. If so, why does he say “Yes?” And given that all cardinals were once preachers tending to congregations, then bishops and archbishops with greater responsibilities, why should the top job be a problem?

The bewildered and embarrassed clergy bring in a psychotherapist (director, co-writer Nanni Moretti) to find out whether the new pope’s mama may have rejected him giving him “parental deficit,” with Moretti’s milking the scene with the less-than-funny set-up that finds all the cardinals sitting in on the therapeutic session. The pope bolts, losing his chief handler (Jerzy Stuhr), dons civilian clothes, mixes with the real people rather than those who are the equivalent in the U.S. of The Beltway, and gains insight into his own life by watching a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull. Meanwhile the psychotherapist sets the cardinals up in a volleyball game meant to cheer up the pope, who is supposed to be across the street in his apartment, an apartment occupied by a member of the Swiss Guard who is impersonating the Pontiff.

Does he return, full of new confidence, to wrap himself in papal garments? Do we care?

Unrated. 104 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 

Neema Barnette's
Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day
Opens Friday, April 13, 2012

Screenwriter: Cory Tynan, T.D. Jakes

Starring: Blair Underwood, Sharon Leal, Nicole Beharie, Clyde Jones, Pam Grier, Jaqueline Fleming, T.D. Jakes

Codeblack Entertainment

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karte
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For some churchgoers there is only one thing more satisfying than affording respect to people who are good: and that’s honoring those who were less than saintly but who have redeemed themselves. Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day is an almost perfect example. The movie, which bears the sectarian ideology of author and televangelist T.D. Jakes (he’s the fellow who escorted George W. Bush around New Orleans during the Katrina tragedy in 2005 and is the pastor of the non-denominational Potter’s House in Dallas), is about two people who meet this standard. One, David Ames (Blair Underwood), is the Dean of the Humanities Department at Xavier University in New Orleans, while his wife, Kari Ames (Sharon Leal), is a successful real estate agent. When you look at their home, a stunning mansion, really, with about 15 rooms for only three people, you wonder how they came into this kind of money. Surely they don’t pay professors that much, so his wife must be an extraordinarily successful realtor. But that’s just one of the less-than-believable points of Neema Barnette’s feature.

Man, wife, and small child Mikayla (Zoe Carter) go to church on Sunday to hear booming sermons by T.D. Jakes—who emphasizes the power of forgiveness. But the adults are flawed characters who have violated several of the Ten Commandments. They’re living the good life—he gives lectures about the human condition, asking (as a way of foreshadowing) whether a human being’s change also changes the human condition. He and she cuddle and snuggle as they pursue the advantages of the haute bourgeois. Life changes when their little girl is kidnapped, an event that gives the film its melodramatic flourishes and, more important, puts the Ames’ marriage in crisis. When the police and FBI investigation reveals that Kari is not the woman she has claimed to be and that Kari is not even her birth name, the couple are on the road to splitsville except that Preacher Jakes, who wrote the script with Cory Tynan, is going to show us that healing and forgiveness are on the way.

Blair Underwood in the lead role is a strikingly handsome African-American performer, which makes us wonder why his wife might even consider falling for Nicoye Banks as Special Agent Wil Bennett—who in one of the movie’s coincidences turns out to have been a classmate of Kari way back when. Also among the beautiful people, Nicole Beharie stands in as Beth Hutchins, the adorable graduate assistant who marks Professor Ames’ class papers and engages in one of the school’s more pleasant and dangerous extra-curricular activities. Among the less handsome performers, Pam Grief inhabits the role of Detective Barrick, who is not above slamming scuzzy men against the wall, men who are too intimidated and overpowered to offer any resistance.

The story is loaded with creepy people—pimps, whores, pervs— all of whom wait their turns to be slammed against walls by Detective Barrick. The movie is also a follow-up to Michael Schultz’s 2004 project Woman Thou Art Loosed, with similar themes. In that incarnation Kimberley Elise’s persona is on death row, a woman who like Kari Ames in the current movie was raped as a child. Neema Barnette’s direction is not too different from what we find on TV law and order programs, this tale being one of those races against time since the serial kidnapper kills his victims on the sixth day following the abductions. Perhaps you can think why this is so.

Rated PG-13 107 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 


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