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Phil Alden Robinson's
The Angriest Man in Brooklyn
Opens Friday, May 23, 2014

Screenplay: Daniel Taplitz, adapted from Assi Dayan’s 1997 Israeli film The 92 Minutes of Mr. Baum

Starring: Robin Williams, Mila Kunis, Peter Dinklage, James Earl Jones, Melissa Leo, Hamish Linklater

Lionsgate

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

A sentence of death from your doctor is so difficult to face that according to the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler- Ross, the unfortunate individual goes through five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. There’s another way to deal with the anxiety, and that’s with humor, with joke telling, as readers of The New Yorker cartoons are familiar. Take this dialogue:

Doctor: "Here is a copy of your lab report. There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that you have 24 hours to live.”

Patient: “And the bad news?”

Doctor: “The bad news is that the report came to me yesterday.”

Funny thing about this gag: here it is graphically illustrated in a current movie directed by Phil Alden Robinson, using Daniel Taplitz’s script adapted from Assi Dayan’s 1997 Israeli film, Mar Baum, or, The 92 Minutes of Mr. Baum. The difference is that the victim did not have 24 hours to live: he is told by a doctor that he has 90 minutes left, an obvious error brought on by the tension felt by doctor and patient during a hostile consultation.

This concept could be a good one eliciting both dark comedy and serious tragic input, but in Robinson’s hands, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn has almost nothing going for it. Here’s why:

The most serious fault is the director’s apparent insistence that most principal actors are over the top with anger; relentless, pointless, melodrama with just a few attempts to find personality quirks that could redeem these irritating people. Further, the story has a predictable, sappy ending, one which anyone in the audience could see coming an hour before its depiction—and this movie is only a brief but hard-to-take eighty-three minutes in length. In addition, we’re asked to believe that the patient accepts the doctor’s absurd prognosis, even counting down to his expected demise at 6:22 p.m. And what is the patient’s brother Aaron Altmann ( Peter Dinklage) doing wearing a kippah in his Court Street, Brooklyn office, an orthodox Jew, while the patient is apparently secular. What is this supposed to prove? And don’t even try to wonder about a verbal clash with an Uzbeki cab driver.

In short the humor lacks the slightest hint of subtlety and the melodrama soon becomes painful to the ears.

The tale revolves around a group of flawed people. Henry Altmann (Robin Williams), complaining of headaches, visits the hospital where he is seen by Dr. Sharon Gill (Mila Kunis), an internist covering for the neurologist (with whom she is having an affair that looks robotic on the screen). After being insulted loudly by Henry, who wants only to see his regular doctor, she gets rid of him by telling him he has an hour and a half to live. When Henry storms out of the office, this pill-popping internist feels guilty, chasing after him, but Henry is determined to live his final moments to reconcile with his son Tommy (Hamish Linklater), who rebuffs his dad’s wish to set him up in his law office because he wants to be a dancer. To his credit, Tommy does give us a demonstration of a modified tango with his girlfriend and fellow dancer, Adela (Sutton Foster). In the movie’s most embarrassing segment, James Earl Jones, a towering figure on stage and screen, is reduced to playing a camera salesman with a profound stutter, shtick that goes on and on until Henry takes out his anger on this man as well. And Henry’s wife Bette (Melissa Leo), shows that she can shout as loudly, confessing to a long affair with a speechless neighbor played by Bob Dishy—whose last appearance on the screen in The Wackness took place in 2008.

Robin Williams should leave Brooklyn and go back to Moscow on the Hudson, the one grace that this film offers is some nice shots of my Borough Hall neighborhood, including Junior’s Restaurant, where only one friend, Bix (Richard Kind), shows up for Henry’s party, eating an entire cheesecake; the famous Court Street of a thousand lawyers; and the bridge, now crowded with tourists but seen here with just two characters, the doctor and the patient.

Rated R. 83 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 



Amma Asante's
Belle
Opens Friday, May 2, 2014

Screenplay: Misan Sagay

Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Matthew Goode, Sarah Gadon, Penelope Wilton

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

After taking American History, every high school kid should be able to tell you what caused the American War for Independence: middle-class rebellions against taxation like the Stamp Act and the Hat Act, all passed by the British Parliament without representation by voters in the Thirteen Colonies. At the same time, one wonders how many college graduates can discuss changes, yes even a social revolution,that occurred within Britain at about the time the Mother Country was no longer the Mother Country. A great advantage of historical fiction is that its creators can reproduce not simply the dry, scholarly facts about societal changes but can convey the Zeitgeist—the spirit of the times in which the actions take place. Johnny Tremain, for example, is on Middle School readings lists, a fictionalized look at the American Revolution. Belle should be on the movie list of every youngster even in elementary school (it is that rare film for adults rated PG) as this film, perhaps more than any other recent one, conveys the tumultuous times within Britain even as that country begins scaling down the places in Empire in which the sun still never set.

Belle may be fiction, but it is closely based on the true story of Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, born in the UK), the love child of a wealthy British admiral, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) and an enslaved woman in the Caribbean. The movie was inspired by the 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle beside her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) which hung in England’s Kenwood House until 1922 and was transferred to the Scone Museum in Perthshire, Scotland. The script is by Misan Sagay whose special interest in the project lies in her tracing her ancestry to the title character Belle, who is called Dido throughout the story directed by Amma Asante, previously at the helm of the 2004 film A Way of Life, about a young woman charged with the care of a six-months’ old infant with the help of teen squatters.

Belle is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, lavishly shot on location in the Isle of Man, Oxford and London using Sony’s F65 CineAlta digital production camera with Ian Wilson behind the lenses. The photography makes superb use of the landscape of Man, punctuated by Susie Lewis’s costumes. In the principal role, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, daughter of Anne Raw, a white nurse, and Patrick Mbatha, a South African doctor, is perhaps little known on this side of the Atlantic despite her roles in an abundance of TV dramas. Being herself a mulatto (a now obsolete term), she is ideally cast, a fortunate choice as well given her breadth and depth of performance from teary-eyed woman unsure of her place in society to a champion of the down-and-outs and woman largely responsible for an unexpectedly liberal decision by her caretaker, William Murray (Tom Wilkinson).

Blessed by Simon Bowles’ production design using a number of stately homes in the London area and the 18th Century look of Bristol Docks on the Isle of Man, Belle tracks Dido from pre-pubescent in 1769 to marriageable age a decade or so later during a time that the British fought the American upstarts (though any sign of rebellion in the Colonies is completely unmentioned). Her role in the household of William Murray, the Chief Justice of England, and his snobbish wife Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) is an ambiguous one, best described as that of a woman who is “too high to dine with servants and not high enough to sup with the gentry.” A bosom buddy of her half-sister Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), she submerges herself in the role of a compliant woman with an unsteady identity in English society, but one who is courted by Oliver Ashford (James Norton) who is simply sniffing money (Belle is an heiress), a courtship encouraged by Oliver’s otherwise racist mother, Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson). We in the audience hopes she opts for true love, even if the suitor is John Davinier (Sam Reid), the poor son of a vicar, but one who is a fierce abolitionist who in spirit joins the views of perhaps one-third of Britons that slavery, despite its centrality in the British economy, must be ended. (The UK abolished the slave trade in 1807 and beat the U.S. by thirty-two years in outlawing slavery altogether in 1833.)

The principal legal conflict is this: The crew of a ship bearing some 130 enslaved people, many diseased and considered incapable of commanding a price on shore, dumps the entire group overboard, drowning them. The captain, stating that the ship’s crew would be in danger of rebellion because of the alleged lack of water, makes a claim on the insurance company, stating that property has been lost. The legal point revolves around the question of whether live, human beings, can be considered human beings and thereby beyond the pale of the insurance company, or simply property subject to a legitimate claim for insurance. The otucome rests on the decision of one man, William Murray as Chief Justice, a fellow who has held conservative views during his time on the bench and is likely to find for the ship’s owners.

This is a picture that is riveting to an intelligent audience willing to listen closely to the gems of Misan Sagay’s screenplay and directed with a steady, sure, leisurely pace by Amma Asante. Nor does it hurt that Tom Wilkinson takes on a major supporting role while Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido embraces the essence of a mixed-race aristocrat at once an heiress and a social pariah.

Rated PG. 105 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Jeremy Saulnier's
Blue Ruin
Opens Friday, April 25, 2014


Screenplay: Jeremy Saulnier

Starring:: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eve Plumb, David W. Thompson, Brent Werzner, Stacy Rock, Sidné Anderson

Radius TWC-Radius

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

Don’t look for much of the color blue in this gothic melodrama: the term “blue ruin” means “desolation,” or “utter despondency.” Such is the manner of the movie’s principal character, Dwight (Macon Blair), who is a wreck from the first time we see him until the story’s logical conclusion. In one scene he tells his sister, Sam (Amy Hargreaves), that he’s not used to talking, and we in the audience believe him. He mumbles, he’s phlegmatic, he’s mysterious and self-destructive. At the same time he is bent on revenge and believes that he will be protecting his sister if only he can kill the fellow who liquidated his parents seemingly for having an affair with the murderer’s wife.

The camera almost never leaves the Dwight’s face, accentuating every wide-eyed stare, capturing his every emotion--not too difficult since his feelings are reflected by anything from a poker face to a poker face with big, scared eyes. We see everything from Dwight’s point of view and, given that, we cannot necessarily root for him to get back at the killer because any execution-style murder will lead inevitably to the targeting of his sister and her two young daughters.

While this film, which was picked up by the Cannes Film Festival, looks fairly original, at base it’s predictable. What’s more, the suspense, such as there is, is manifested principally from a good soundtrack. But Dwight is non-talkative and non-emotional to the point of audience exasperation, the scenes are shot almost completely in the dark, and Dwight’s plot to exact an eye for an eye is burdened with some dumb errors which look as though they will inevitably lead to his own demise and perhaps the death of his estranged family. The most discomforting scenes find Dwight pulling an arrow from his leg in excruciating pain and inflicting a mortal blow on one gentleman by slashing his neck from ear to ear.

Dwight starts out as from a full-bearded dumpster diver who breaks into homes to take baths, sleeps in his car, and who one day is warned by a police officer and friend (Sidné Anderson) that Will Cleland (Brent Werzner), the confessed killer of Dwight’s parents, has just been released from prison. Little does she realize that she has set a revenge drama into motion as Dwight shaves his beard, cuts his hair, and takes off in his decrepit blue Pontiac for his hometown in the sticks of Virginia. If we did not know that Virginia is a gun-friendly place, we are convinced of this in noting the battery of firearms in the home of Dwight’s best friend, Devin Ratray (Ben Gaffney), who trains Dwight in the use of several rifles to see what is most comfortable to him.

As Will Cleland’s redneck family goes after Dwight, the latter virtually guarantees their success by amateurish moves, among which is his refusal simply to shoot first and ask questions later. As they say, you’ve got to watch out for the quiet ones, yet Dwight is so inept, his conversations so flabby, that an audience cannot be blamed for wanting him out of the way.

Rated R. 90 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Cédric Klapisch's
Chinese Puzzle
(Casse-tête chinois)
Opens Friday, May 18, 2014


Screenplay: Cédric Klapisch

Starring: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Cécile De France, Kelly Reilly

Cohen Media Group

Reviewed for New York Cool by Tami Smith (Guest Reviewer). Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

Those of us who ever wandered what life brought to L'Auberge Espagnole’s characters Xavier (Romain Duris), Wendy (Kelly Reilly), Martine (Audrey Tautou) and Isabelle (Cécile De France) are in for a great treat. There is a third part to this story, which director Cédric Klapisch is eager to tell.

Living in Paris for ten years Xavier has married Wendy and is now an adoring father of two children: Tom (Pablo Mugnier-Jacob) and a younger Mia (Margaux Mansart). The marriage is falling apart, and Xavier’s sperm donation to Isabelle makes matters worse. When Wendy falls in love with John (Peter Hermann), a New Yorker, and moves to New York City she takes the kids with her. What is Papa to do? Xavier takes a transatlantic flight and parks himself in Big Apple’s Chinatown.

If Xavier’s life in France was complicated he will now find himself a foreigner, speaking French and Spanish in an English-speaking country, with new laws. He will need a visa to prolong his stay in the U.S.A. He will need a job to improve his legal status as a newly divorced man, and he may have to find a new wife in a hurry to facilitate his Green Card application (Marriage of Convenience).

Situations like these have been explored in films such as Green Card, but director Klapisch presents us with chaos that will be resolved in a light comic manner.

Romain Duris who appears in every frame of this 117-minutes comedy puts a “spot-on” performance as father and an author whose life is complicated. Audrey Tautou as his ex-girlfriend Martine, gives us a portrait of a fourty-year old woman with a positive outlook on life, who is willing to try another round with him. Kelly Reilly, as his British ex-wife Wendy is a pleasure to watch with her stiffed upper-lipped British outlook on life. Cécile De France, as his Lesbian friend who wants to have a female partner, be a mother and have some affairs on the side, puts meat on Isabelle’s character that would look ridiculous if played any other actress.

Excellent supporting roles are played by Jason Kravits as Xavier’s second-rate lawyer who is willing to bend the law for his client’s benefit, and Sandrine Holt as Ju, an unexcitable partner of Isabelle, who faces any crisis situation with a poker face. Pablo Mugnier-Jacob, Margaux Mansart, Amin Djakliou and Clara Abbasi give good performances as children of Xavier and Martine, in four underwritten roles.

The film was shot realistically in parts of Chinatown, East Village, Manhattan Bridge, Tribeca and the Upper West Side, showing Manhattan that tourists may never want to see.

Chinese Puzzle will appeal to urban viewers in general and New Yorkers in particular. Though it is light on comic presentation, its subject matters are brought to us in a down-to-earth practical style that shows the daily trials and tribulations of any new comer, transplanted from Europe to the United States.

Rated R. 117 minutes. © 2014 by Tami Smith, Guest Reviewer




Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's
Citizen Koch
Opens Friday, June 6, 2014


Screenplay: Carl Deal, Tia Lessin

Starring: Scott Walker, Dee Ives, Mari Jo Kabat, Brian Cunningham, Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, John McCain, Bud Roemer

Variance Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

A point made in this political doc by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin—heretofore known for Trouble the Water about two residents who became refugees in their own country when the New Orleans levees broke—is that there is one way that the person living in a box under a highway has same power as a billionaire: and that is in the vote. While this is technically true, the theory misses the power that the media, especially TV, and personal appearances during a campaign heavily influence the way we vote. It’s easy for seemingly independent folks like us to say that they are not influenced by the barrage of commercials—that it does not matter whether Barack Obama’s face is thrust upon us more than Mitt Romney’s—that we vote according to our beliefs. But this ignores the effect that psychology (call it brainwashing if you must) influences our beliefs and therefore our actions; hence the fellow with the more active campaign has the big advantage.

Campaigns cost a good deal of money. Candidates who out-finance their rivals are more than a few steps ahead of the game. Because of this, money contributions are a big factor, which is like saying that people and corporations with deep pockets and a strong motivation to win can put their favorites over the top. According to Deal and Lessin, who are obviously on the side of the left despite their attempts to partially balance the scales, corporations got the go-ahead to spend as much as they want on campaigns thanks to a Supreme Court decision in 2009 known as Citizens United, in which the replacement of one newly retired Supreme Court justice by another of a more conservative bent led to a 5-4 decision that opened the financial floodgates. Deal and Lessin, emphasizing the ideological bents of the justices, note that the decision overturned precedents that had limited contributions, and that precedents are not overturned unless situations have changed—and nothing here has changed.

Citizen Koch focuses on one race, in Wisconsin, involving Scott Walker, heavily financed by the billionaire Koch brothers, David and Charles, owners of the country’s second richest privately held corporation. When Governor Walker, joined by the Wisconsin State Legislature, stripped away collective bargaining rights of public unions—working on a precedent begun by President Ronald Reagan when he fired striking California air controllers—working class folks who had always been Republicans became alienated from their party. Voters collected a million signatures on petitions to set up an election to recall Walker mid-term, the Koch brothers financing media saturation urging the public to reject the recall and keep the governor in office.

The documentary does not bring out exactly why voters by a 53-47 margin threw out the recall. Instead we see protests by people on both sides, the Tea Party and other conservatives shouting their support while those on the other side denounced the state’s chief executive for his reactionary politics. Take Dee Ives, a nurse and Air Force veteran, Mari Jo Kabat, a public school librarian, and Brian Cunningham, a correctional officer: why would they be diehard Republicans in the first place? Only one brief mention was made of a motivation when Kabat confirms that she is pro-life and therefore a natural in that sense—though not in the economic sense—for following Republican politics.

So the Koch brothers, through their organization Americans for Prosperity, are able to continue getting right-wing politicians elected who will cut taxes for millionaires while raising them for workers, allowing the government to look the other way when regulations on such aspects as pollution, and marginalizing independent candidates who, like Bud Roemer, had been unable even to take part in the Presidential debates. In fact the one intelligent voice in the doc is that of candidate Roemer. You would have heard quite a bit more from him if he were financed by the Koch brothers, but given his lack of money for his own campaign, he became a mere footnotes to presidential history.

You don’t have to be Michael Moore, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog or Morgan Spurlock to put across an intriguing non-fiction movie. While there is a shortage of humor in Citizen Koch, apparently even the brothers themselves ran scared at the thought that this critical work would be produced and screened. They even convinced Independent Television Service, which had committed $150,000 to produce this documentary, to pull the funds. ITVS was apparently convinced to cancel plans for the premiere to avoid losing David Koch’s funding of public television.

If you fear the rightward turn of American politics and want to get more of a visceral look at how money shapes out country’s decision-making, you can’t go wrong by taking in Citizen Koch.

Unrated 86 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Criatics Online




Ryan McGarry's
Code Black
Opens Friday, June 20, 2014


Screenplay: Ryan McGarry, Joshua Altman

Long Shot Factory

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

In making yet another excuse for avoiding governmental support for health insurance, President George W. Bush callously stated, “If they don’t have insurance, they can go to the emergency room.” True enough that everyone in America can get medical care even if they have no money, but there’s no way you can compare the treatment you get in an emergency room with that you can get from your own doctor or, at an even higher level, from your boutique health providers with whom you can contract for a sizeable annual fee. And the worst kind of emergency room, one which requires the typical patient with a non-life-threatening problem to wait ten, fifteen, yes even twenty hours to see a doctor, can be found a public hospitals which are financed by taxpayers and which, by Act of Congress during the 1980s are required to treat all comers whether undocumented, uninsured, or just plan poor.

In a documentary that took Dr. Ryan McGarry four years to make, Code Black, which is the term used to describe the common situation in which the Los Angeles County (public) hospital emergency room is full, takes us into what looks like complete chaos, groups of doctors and nurses surrounding patients on tables to treat gunshot wounds, stabbings, heart attacks and presumably bad headaches. These doctors are the real thing. They’re young and sharp-looking, and they choose emergency medicine as their field though they realize that this puts them on the lowest rung salary-wise. They’re idealists who may or may not remain with this specialty for a lifetime and, in fact, as one of the older physicians tells us, they’re regularly bleeding nurses and other staff who go on to perhaps more lucrative and comfortable fields.

In some graphic takes, we are privy, like the interns and medical students who sit in the balcony as spectators, to surgery involving attempts at CPR some of which are unsuccessful, and invasive procedures involving the placement of instruments deep inside the hapless patients’ ribs, chests, and abdomens. We take a look at the masses of people who sit close together on upholstered chairs looking as though they’re waiting for Godot, not a single one of them using the time to read, to do puzzles, or distract themselves to make the time go by more quickly.

When the county received a spanking new hospital paid for by the taxpayers, an additional problem arose. More government regulations were put into place requiring doctors to spend additional time filling out forms rather than dealing wholly with patients. One young doctor is put off by the separation he now feels from the patients. He reminisces about the connections he made with those he treated in the older, more dilapidated institution. Who needs sterile hallways?

You can have a lot more fun with a Michael Moore documentary like Sicko, putting up with Moore’s obvious manipulation such as showing how some Americans got faster and better treatment by going with him to Cuba. But notwithstanding Moore and a bevy of Grey’s Anatomy type TV fare that make hospitals dramas as exciting as police stories, you cannot get a better look at the real thing—the heartaches, the drama, the cheers for missions accomplished—than you can get with an authentic, boots on the ground doc like this one.

Unrated. 82 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Richard Ayoade's
The Double
Opens Friday, May 9, 2014

Screenplay: Richard Ayoade, Avi Korine, story by Avi Korine based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige, Cathy Moriarty

Magnolia Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

In her book Quiet,author Susan Cain argues that introverts prefer listening to speaking; that they innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; and that they favor working on their own over working in teams. It is to introverts—Rosa Parks, Chopin, Dr. Seuss, Steve Wozniak—that we owe many of the great contributions to society. This may be true, but ask around and you’ll find people believe that extroverts have more fun. Who wants to be Chopin when you can be Donald Trump? And if you don’t believe that introverts can be miserable, join the special audience for Richard Ayoade’s The Double, a movie even more quirky that his Submarine, which was about a fifteen-year-old who has the hots for a pyromaniac and who forges letters from his mom to his dad.

The most exceptional thing about The Double is not the story but the cinematic tools that Ayoade brings to this imaginative project. Filmed in London, an ideal location for capturing dark, dank, foggy and depressing nocturnal scenes, The Double borrows from authors and filmmakers considered for their classic style, particularly the expressionists—who distort reality in order to evoke moods and ideas better than physical reality. Expressionists get under the skin of their subjects, theatrically with such plays as Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine (which features a Mr. Zero who is tried, executed, and goes into the afterlife) and Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal (about the trial and execution of Ruth Snyder).

Though Rice and Treadwell are familiar only to small number of theater fans, moviegoers will see parallels between The Double and Franz Kafka’s The Trial (a man is arrested for a crime of which he knows nothing), Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (a society of mindless drones), Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (an office drudge hands his apartment key over to his supervisors for their trysts), Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (a professional photographer in a wheelchair spies on people in adjacent apartments, and Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki’s Take Care of Your Skarf, Titiana (two shy men run away from their mothers and take off on the road). You’ll find quite a few other sources, but this does not mean in any way that Ayoade is simply cutting and pasting. The comedy-drama he brings forth has considerable originality and a vivid imagination.

Cinematically, the picture is a triumph, photographer Erik Alexander Wilson contrasting the murky, nourish atmosphere with splashes of brilliant yellows, blues and reds. The story takes place in an undisclosed location more likely in the recent past than in some sci-fi future, as nobody has an iPhone (land phones are used prominently) and a TV set that the principal character turns in to buy a present for the woman he adores looks some thirty years old.

Eisenberg performs in the role of Simon James, an introvert’s introvert who is painfully shy, tongue-tied, and given to apologize to every person who exploits him, beginning with the guy on an otherwise empty subway car who tells him to relinquish his seat. He is for the most part invisible. Even the again mother he cares for has contempt for the man and Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn), his boss in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic office, ignores his suggestions for adding efficiency to the company. He desires Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), a pretty co-worker, but rather than speak up and create a bond, he settles for spying with his telescope on her doings in an adjacent apartment. His life changes even for the worse when James (also Jesse Eisenberg) a doppelgänger who looks exactly like him, is hired, a fellow who is Simon’s opposite in other ways. Where Simon is shy, James is outspoken. Simon is invisible, even to the extent of having a security guard (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) daily demand that he sign for visitor’s pass though Simon has worked for seven years at the same place.

At first James gives advice to Simon, from simple, hackneyed "You have to go out and get what you want," but soon exploits the poor guy by demanding a key to his apartment for his trysts, affairs he carries on with the coffee shop waitress (Cathy Moriarty) and the boss’ niece. He steals Simon’s report to the boss, claiming it for his own, and is promoted promptly to senior executive. At this point Simon is not taking crap lying down.

What we in the audience wonder is the extent to which James is a real ghostly double of Simon or a product of Simon’s Walter Mitty-esque personality. In fact, the entire story could be a dream. But whatever your interpretation, you may find The Double to be a treat cinematically, an excursion into the joys of expressionist filmmaking.

The principal flaw is that even at its brief ninety-two minutes, the one-joke, or rather the one-dramatic theme, becomes repetitious, running out of steam about three-quarters of the way into the tale. You may be encouraged to pick up a copy of Dostoevky’s novella, which deals with a hallucinatory nightmare foreshadowing Kafka and Sartre, as a man who is an unimportant official is confronted by a doppelgänger who assumes his life.

Rated R. 92 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Joanna Hogg's
Exhibition
Opens Friday, June 20, 2014


Screenplay: Joanna Hogg

Starring: Viv Albertine, Liam Gillick, Tom Hiddleston, Harry Kershaw, Mary Roscoe and the "House”

Kino Lorber

Reviewed for NewYork Cool by Tami Smith (Guest Reviewer). Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes


D “likes it fast” while H “likes to play”. After twenty years of such marital bliss this forty-something married artistic couple, without children, has decided to move on and sell their house. The house in question is not your ordinary flat but a towering citadel, in West London’s Chelsea neighborhood. It is a real house, not a set, which was built in 1969 by James Melvin, a modernist architect, who lived there with his wife for many years. This development has three floors with a spiral staircase running through it, and glass walls. People entering the shrine must remove their shoes. It has a private garage, a swimming pool and a garden, not to mention some working rooms, living room and a full size kitchen. The neighborhood is going through some structural changes and D has some concerns and anxieties about selling it to a developer that may implode the building, rebuild and divide the new creation to many rental apartments.

Without focusing on the “why” director Joanna Hogg gives us a 104 minutes’ fascinating tour of this see-through home, with all its nooks and crannies, upstairs and downstairs.

Viv Albertine, a graduate of the Hornsey School Art and the Chelsea School of Art, plays D with mature feminine honesty, not sparing us the character’s masturbatory habits. At one scene she puts on high heels, lathers her breast with lotion and masturbates in bed while H sleeps a few inches away.

Liam Gillick, a New York artist in real life, puts meat into H’s role, with very little background available. It is not too clear what this independent artist does for a living. Is he an architect? Does he write for a publishing house? That ambiguity aside, he plays a supporting role to D’s more independent character, who was offered a gallery exhibition in the very near future.

Supporting roles are provided by Mary Roscoe as a Guest, Harry Kershaw and Tom Hiddleston as Estate Agents. Casting was done by Olivia Scot-Webb.

Exhibition will not be appreciated by the Fast and Furious crowd. Patience is needed here since the subject matter grows on you during this 104-minutes drama.

Unrated: 104 minutes. © 2014 by Tami Smith, Guest Reviewer




Stephanie Soechtig's
Fed Up
Opens Friday, May 9, 2014



Screenplay: Mark Monroe, Stephanie Soechtig

Cast: Bill Clinton, Tom Harkin, Kelly Brownell, Robert Lustig, Michael Pollan, Katie Couric

SRadius-TWC

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

If you’ve been keeping up with the tsunami of books, articles and movies about America’s onward rush to obesity and diabetes, you won’t find anything new in Stephanie Soechtig’s documentary. (Soechtig’s previous feature, Tapped, deals with America’s love of bottled water.) Nonetheless, Fed Up deserves accolades for the stunning graphics (you’ll see labels stating 25g of sugar converted instantly to percentage of sugar in the total package, for example), for its pace, which is faster than that of a Japanese bullet train heading from Tokyo to Kyoto, and for its relative absence of mind-numbing one-on-one talking-heads interviews. The message is clear: Americans are eating wrong and, in fact, look all over the world at countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia and Denmark, and you’ll find that we’re all facing an epidemic of obesity. More people are malnourished because of plenty than because of starvation.

Again, if you’ve been following the propaganda over the last thirty or forty years, you know that we’re fatter today than we were in 1980. Why so? Ironically, the chief reason according to Mark Monroe, who co-wrote the script with director Soechtig, is that companies producing packaged food cut the fat drastically. Huh? Cutting the fat caused our nation to become fatter? Yes, because when companies like Snackwell cut the fat, they increased the sugar since, as anti-high-fructose-corn-syrup doctor Robert Lustig tells us, when you cut the fat you produce food that tastes like cardboard. The only way to get us to buy the stuff is to increase the sugar, whether you call that dextrose, or sucrose, or corn syrup, or honey. And sugar, not fat, is the leading cause of not only weight gain but diabetes. In fact by 2050 it is predicted that one of our three Americans will be diabetic.

Katie Couric, narrator and chief interviewer, lucked out in getting Bill Clinton to talk about how his administration missed the boat on growing obesity, noting that Michelle Obama, the First Lady, has taken the lead in instructing us, especially the small fry, on the benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables. (Never mind that to celebrate her recent birthday, she and the President stepped out on a “date” to a DC restaurant where she chose steak and velvet cake.) But Couric may have missed out during that interview by not questioning Potus on winning PETA’s person of the year award for becoming virtually vegan, giving up burgers, cheese and yogurt and subsisting (albeit unhappily) on beans, fruits and veggies.

Kids took center stage. One articulate fellow had bariatric surgery at the age of twelve, and one was actually in tears worrying that he would die before the age of twenty. American food industries are blamed largely for fattening the world, as witness Ronald McDonald’s presence in Japan. Japanese are giving up their fish and vegetables diet for burgers and fries.

The most controversial point made by Soechtig and Monroe, one which places them firmly on the left politically, is that it’s not the fault of the fatties that they eat the wrong things. They have been subjected to so much advertising, a form of brainwashing, that the poor young things just can’t be expected to have the discipline to see through big food fascism. They join the crowds in gorging on Oreo cookies, cakes, fatty meats and deep-fried foods.

Processed food is cheap, but our nation is paying a heavy price for hospitalizations and chronic illnesses that could be avoided largely if we cut the junk food the way we cut back drastically on cigarettes, but the corporate food people have too much money to spend on marketing and continue to insist that there’s a place for soda as part of our daily consumption of liquids. “Bring on the nanny state,” the director and writers appear to say without apologies, and I say “amen.”

Unrated. 92 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Lucía Puenzo's
The German Doctor
Opens Friday, April 25, 2014


Screenplay: Lucía Puenzo from her novel Wakolda

Starring: Àlex Brendemühl, Florencia Bado, Natalia Oreiro, Diego Peretti, Elena Roger

Samuel Goldwyn Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

Dr. Josef Mengele was a true believer, not the sort of person who, at the end of World War II, could say with a straight face, “I was just following orders.” He was obsessed with eugenics, experimenting on captive twins, dwarfs and people with abnormalities. He had no concern for their pain and his experiments during the war were not done in a scientific way. Mengele was one of the most evil men of the Twentieth Century notorious for “selecting” who should stay a while in Auschwitz and who should be sent directly to the gas chambers. He eluded capture, continuing his experiments in Argentina, perhaps even in Paraguay and Brazil where he resided long enough to keep Israeli agents off his tail. Did Mengele, who had a stroke and drowned in Brazil in 1979, really continue his experimentation until the end of his life? We don’t know, but sometimes by capturing the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, historical fiction can prove a better medium that scholarly tomes. Witness the book and 1978 movie The Boys from Brazil, wherein a Nazi hunter finds a plan in Paraguay to rekindle the Third Reich.

Lucía Puenzo’s The German Doctor does not match up to Franklin J. Schaffner’s movie or to Ira Levin’s book in suspense, but it is a workmanlike study of Mengele from the point of view of a 12-year-old girl, Lilith (Florencia Bado) living with her father, Enzo (Diego Peretti) and mother Eva (Natalia Oreiro) in Patagonia, Argentina. Little does Lilith know that she resides in the midst of a group of Nazi ex-pats escaping from the long arms of Israeli’s Mossad, but her father becomes increasingly suspicious of the activities of a German doctor, known even in real life for developing a stunning rapport with children. In the case of Lilith, she is teased at a German school, called a dwarf, and is eager to let Mengele (Àlex Brendemühl) inject her with growth hormones. Meanwhile the German doctor makes detailed notes about Lilith, whom he considers a perfect specimen for his growth hormone because of her being vertically challenged. While her mother sides with the doctor, even letting him take care of her newborn twins who had breathing difficulties, the father is furious that the hormones appear to have side effects and bans him.

Cinematographer Nicolas Puenzo captures the beauty of the land surrounding Bariloche, Argentina, which resembles the Swiss Alps complete with chalets that could double for hotels in Swiss towns like Zermatt.

It’s a shame that Nora (Elena Roger), the Mossad agent who had been following Mengele, was ultimately unable to kidnap him and whisk him to trial in Israel as was Eichmann. In fact, the agent, posing as a photographer, is seen speaking Hebrew on the phone, urging her compatriots to come and get him. We’re not sure why he was not picked up that very day before he had a chance to flee by hydroplane to Paraguay. Director Puenzo is responsible for a deliberately slow-moving script which she adapted from her own novel, Wakolda.

Rated PG-13. 93 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Jos Stelling's
The Girl and Death (Het Meisje en de Dood)
Opens Friday, April 25, 2014


Screenplay: Jos Stelling and Bert Rijkelijkhuizen

Starring: Sylvia Hoeks, Dieter Hallervorden, Renata Litvinova, Sergey Makovetskiy, Maxim Kovalevski, Eva-Maria Kurz

Shadow Distribution

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

You don’t need to see this film to know that old age is, indeed, what it’s cracked up to be. For some, it’s a time to enjoy retirement, to do what you want for ten, twenty, thirty years. Even if you don’t have the money, nobody can take away your memories. Hopefully memories of your earlier self is not full of resentment but is instead about happy times, about the loves that crossed your path.

Jos Stelling’s movie Het Meisje en de Dood—which translates literally as The Girl and Death, is a Dutch-made production which does not speak a word of Dutch, relying instead on German, Russian and French. Taking place outside Leipzig, Germany in the town of Tannenfeld, The Girl and Death focuses on the memory of an aging doctor who has become hardened and cynical, scarcely looking at his patients, asking them “What are your symptoms?” before they have even met and shaken hands. As played by Sergey Makovetsky as Nicolai, now a seventy-something physician in Russia after World War I, the film about memory takes us back through Nicolai’s visit to a long-defunct hotel where the man had gone through what we in America call a coming-of-age. Nicolai has loved and lost, and we in the audience must judge whether his experience, ultimately sad, is a generally positive one—or whether he might have been better off had he not traveled from Moscow to Paris to attend medical school, passing through Leipzig on the way to his final destination.

The journey, and not the final destination, proved the core of Nicolai’s romantic life as now the man (played by Leonid Bichevin), fifty years back, handsome and intending to stay at a hotel for just one night, is flooded with emotion from the time he sets eyes on the beautiful Elise (Sylvia Hoeks). The hotel, which rents rooms by the night, the week, and for most of the guests apparently for years, doubles as a brothel, with Elise as the most desirable courtesan and Nina (Renata Litvinoa) serving as madam. Nina urges the new guest to forget about Elise, who is “owned” by The Count (Dieter Hallervorden) and living the high life from a man decades her senior. The Count—who is a fake, a man who paid for the title—owns the whole town and is protected by Bruno (Maxim Kovalevski), a burly bodyguard, who, as we can predict, is prepared to beat the stuffing out of anyone who tries to take Elise away from him.

The story outline is a simple one. Boy meets girl, girl resists boy, boy sadly surrenders and is chased by the girl. However, the sumptuous production, filled with costumes (chosen from Prague’s famous Barrendov Studio) of the belle epoch, renders the time and the rural ambience with careful, deliberate artistry. Stelling emulates Anton Chekhov’s theatrical techniques, situating almost the entire time of the story within a single building, the bell-boy (Jim van der Woude) and all elderly guests marking time, the clients playing cards for money they seem to have, though nobody appears to work. The stellar cast is headed by Sylvia Hoeks as Elise, who is too fond of material goods to leave the Count for good, and by Leonid Bichevn as Nicolai, who is determined to win the lovely courtesan away from the money-grubbing lecher known as the Count.

The romantic tragedy is thoroughly convincing but not for fans of fast-paced movies in a language other than their mother tongues. With director Jos Stelling, whose 2009 film Duska is about an older film critic whose life is interrupted by a visitor, the production is in good hands.

Unrated. 127 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Don McKellar's
The Grand Seduction
Opens Friday, May 30, 2014

Screenplay: Ken Scott, Michael Dowse

Starring Brendan Gleeson, Taylor Kitsch, Liane Balaban, Gordon Pinsent, Anna Hopkins, Rhonda Rodgers

Entertainment One

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

Except for a few idealistic souls, doctors locate where the money is. There are so many of these white-coated professionals on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that you wonder why you’re about the only person you know who never draped a stethoscope prominently about your neck. OK, maybe a number of physicians locate in simple, middle-income suburbs rather than Beverly Hills or Scarsdale, but how many would go to a place that is so rural that it is not considered even a village, but proudly calls itself a harbor? One? You might be lucky if that many park their bandages there, and to get that one person, a big-city plastic surgeon, to give up a life of money raising cheekbones, you’d have to offer something besides filthy lucre.

Such is that situation in the village, oops, harbor, of Tickle Cove, Newfoundland, located within a day’s travel of St. John’s International Airport, but so far from that "big city" that it might as well be somewhere in Middle Earth. The townspeople, about 120 strong, live on welfare, but at least it’s a place where postal clerk knows your name. The typical resident has never even left that harbor, much less seen someone outside the area’s humble restaurant and fishing cove. What do they do for medical care? Nothing, apparently. Why are these people who drove out their only source of income by over-fishing the water suddenly eager to sign up a doctor? Simply this: a corporation whose officers are New-York based, are looking for a small harbor area to locate a plant that has something to do with oil, offering enough jobs to employ every man and woman in town, but the corporate leaders require a certificate that a doctor is in residence. Now, how to convince such a person to sign a contract to stay and treat the folks? The town’s leading spokesperson, Murray French (Brendan), working with the entire population, must seduce a physician, aiming their arrows at one Dr. Lewis (Taylor Kitsch), who has taken a month off to check out Tickle Harbor.

What emerges from this small Canadian comedy photographed on or near location in Newfoundland and Labrador is an absolute delight, filled with writers Ken Scott and Michael Dowse’s witty lines and Don McKellar’s subtly droll direction. We in the audience get a look at these down-home types from the bearded welfare dependents who seem to drink up their modest checks, some elderly women manning a switchboard and listening in to every conversation Dr. Lewis makes to his girlfriend back home, a pretty but cynical young woman, Kathleen (Liane Balaban), who works in a convenience store, the right-hand man, i.e. drinking partner of Murray French who goes by the name Simon (Gordon Pinsent), and a bunch of extras who join in the big fraud. They reward the doctor by pretending there’s good fishing (Simon in a diving suit threads a dead, frozen fish, onto the man’s hook), and that there’s extreme popularity of cricket, the doc’s favorite sport (nobody in town knows a thing about it), and that one of the townsfolk loves jazz, joining the Dr. Lewis in listening while hating every minute of the music.

This is a movie that recalls Peter Weir’s 1998 effort The Truman Show, where a fellow played by Jim Carrey is unaware that his entire life is being secretly taped and enjoyed by a large TV audience. We all know what will happen during the last time the corporate bigwigs investigate the town as the future home of their oil plant, but formulaic or not, The Grand Seduction will seduce all in the movie audience except those with the hardest shell of cynicism.

Rated PG-13. 115 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Clint Eastwood's
Jersey Boys
Opens Friday, June 20, 2014


Screenplay: Marshall Brickman, Rick Elise

Starring: Christopher Walken, Francesca Eastwood, Freya Tingley, James Madio, Billy Gardell, Kathrine Narducci, Mike Doyle

Warner Bros

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes


If you wonder why the 1950s are considered the most boring decade in U.S. history, you need only look for some videos of NBC’s show Your Hit Parade. The Saturday night festivities featured the top seven hit tunes, playing number one on the charts last, holding TV viewers in suspense. The trouble is that was nary a hit that was not some white bread ballad with lyrics like “Because of you, there’s a song in my heart/ Because of you, my romance had its start…” And it featured singers with names like Snooky Lanson. How far would a name like that get today, and how far would these mushy ballads get now? In fact, the ‘50’s music scene was taken over in the succeeding decade by rock and roll, which begat folk, which begat rock, and then its variations e.g. punk-rock. Ethnicity was important in the sixties music scene, the style of singing perhaps best exemplified by the mostly Italian-American group The Four Seasons. A elaborate trip down memory lane, the Tony-award winning Jersey Boys is still playing at the August Wilson Theatre on W. 52 Street, but if you don’t feel like paying $120 for a good seat, you can see an opened-up version on the big screen as of June 20 for about one-tenth the price. The Broadway casts are here, the backstory is more carefully examined without the limitations of the stage, and for special theatrical effect, the fourth wall is occasionally breached as first one, then other principal actors talk directly to the audience.

Jersey Boys is a treat. Perhaps under Clint Eastwood’s direction, the one-liners and back-and-forth kidding are not as snappy as they are on the stage, but when this movie version turns to an all-out musical before the first half is over, this is as good as it gets for Broadway-in-Hollywood this year so far.

What lifted The Four Seasons above the generic fifties singing is the special, stylized voice of Frankie Valli, here played by John Lloyd Young. Some would consider this a feminization, but whatever it is, it is distinct, putting Frankie in the position of lead singer in a group that includes its manager, Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen).

Marshall Brickman and Rick Elise’s screenplay takes us to Frankie Valli at age sixteen where he is a barber-in-training, here giving mobster friend Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) a shave. Frankie, known at the time by his real name Frankie Castelluccio, serves as a lookout for a heist under the direction of Tommy, who gets six months in jail for his troubles. The group meets songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), testing their distinct voices during the first part of the movie led by Gaudio at the piano playing “Cry for Me.” After being rejected by a number of producers in midtown’s famous Brill Building, they pick up kudos from Bobe Crewe (Mike Doyle), who guides them with their new songs to the tops.

The Four Seasons sum up in micro the history of major song groups: their shaky origins, their gradual rise, their almost inevitable fights and breakups. Nor could marriages be expected to last. Valli’s first wife Mary (Renée Marino) delivers one-note, drunken invectives to the man she accuses of being simply not there for their daughters. With all this emotional baggage, we wonder that Valli can continue delivering his falsetto voice in crowd favorites like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like a Man.”

The group were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, having sold 100 million records.

Rated R. 134 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Jan Troell's
The Last Sentence (Dom över död man)
Opens Friday, June 20, 2014


Screenplay: Jan Troell, Klaus Rifbjerb book by Kenne Fant

Starring: Jesper Christensen, Ulla Skoog, Pernilla August, Björn Granath
Box Office Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

Dom över död manIn November 2001, President George W. Bush issued this manifesto. There is no room for neutrality in international politics. You are with us or against us. A nation need not contribute troops, but all moral countries must take an active role in some way in the war against terrorism. Such advice would have gone over like a lead balloon during World War II, when countries like Switzerland and Sweden maintained an iron-fisted neutrality even against an evil such as Nazism. (Even though the U.S. was neutral during the early stages of the war 1939-1941, this was in name only as our country supplied the UK with destroyers under the Lend Lease program).

And Bush’s counsel cut no ice with the government of Sweden to this day. That most prosperous Scandinavian state was eager to have its neutrality respected by Germany during the Second World War, even rolled over to some extent by allowing the German army to use Swedish railways to transport the German 163rd Infantry Division along with howitzers, tanks and anti-aircraft weapons. Sweden also sold iron ore to Germany, but then again, the country allowed the Allies to use Swedish air bases during the last months of the war.

Still, there were voices against all compromises with the Nazis even at the risk of provoking a German invasion. The leading voice of all was that of Torgny Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen), who risked the contempt of members of the Swedish government by churning out articles (“Hitler is the devil”) by the scores as editor-in-chief of the Göteborgs Handels-och Sjofartstidning newspaper. Ironically, the publisher of the paper, Axel Forssman (Björn Granath), gave his editor a free hand even though he had been knowingly cuckolded by his rich wife Maja Forssman (Pernilla August)—who carried on a long-term affair with Segerstedt to the dismay of Segerstedt’s much ignored wife Puste Segerstedt (Ulla Skoog). Some people in high position believed that Torgny’s furious writings were influenced by Maja, who was Jewish, and that the publisher put up with the risky business because of his wife’s money—which presumably financed the newspaper’s operations.

In this dramatic tale, filmed in Sweden’s northern coastal town of Lulea and also in Filmpool Nord’s Studio Kronan, with the Lule River’s standing in for Klarälven. The crew relocated to Gothenburg for eight weeks, then to Stockholm for a few days.

Director Jan Troell, whose Everlasting Moments focuses on a working class woman whose winning of a camera changes her life and whose The Emigrants deals with a couple trying to run a farm in Southern Sweden who emigrate to the U.S., this time covers a critical time in Sweden’s contemporary history. Troell appears to believe—judging by the voices he cites against the editor’s actions—that this one man, Torgny Segerstedt, could be solely responsible for provoking the first war on Sweden’s soil since 1815, and indeed, Segerstedt and his Jewish mistress both toyed with guns and capsules which could be used had the Germans invaded. The government is so alarmed by the flow of editorials that the prime minister, Per Albin Hansson (Kenneth Milldoff), though a dinner guest of the publisher, becomes furious when unable to stop the presses, though King Gustaf V (Jan Tiselius), known to be pro-German and no stranger to anti-Semitic feelings, finally gets his goons to raid the publication and censor some articles.

While about half of the picture’s fairly long 126 minutes deals with politics, the other segment treats the relationship within the eternal triangle: editor, wife, mistress, though neither Troell nor co-writer Klaus Rifbjerb, basing the screenplay on a book by Alfred Nobel biographer Kenne Fant, condemns Segerstedt as a “home-wrecker.” Perhaps the makers of the film are so impressed with the principal that they ignore domestic criticism in much the way that the movie Schindler’s List ignored that title character’s womanizing, making him a flawless hero as well.

The film is done with a high degree of respect for its audience with a stellar performance from the 66-year-old Danish actor Jesper Christensen, whose résumé includes twenty-five years’ work in his country’s theater.

Unrated. 126 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Steven Knight's
Locke
Opens Friday, April 25, 2014

Screenplay: Steven Knight

Starring: Tom Hardy, Voices of Ruth Wilson, Olivia Colman, Andrew Scott, Tom Holland, Bill Milner

A24

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

There is a reason that telephoning while driving is illegal in many parts, but Steven Knight, who wrote and directs Locke, finds that the chance of causing an accident is strictly peripheral. Locke stars Tom Hardy as the title character, a study in cinematic minimalism that finds Hardy in a one-man show. This is the sort of presentation that might work if you have a brilliant writer like Samuel Beckett dealing with a script that finds Krapp looking back at tapes made years back when he was idealistic, laughing at himself when comparing those years to the present. But Knight’s script is banal, leaving Tom Hardy’s performance as the only thing that can save this film. English-born Hardy affects a delightful Welsh accent, without which the film might have been intolerable. Given, though, that the entire action takes place in Locke’s BMW using a Red Epic camera to make the audience wonder at how the whole enterprise could be filmed, one might expect Locke to be more at home on the legitimate stage. But then again, when you can find better scripts at the local pharmacy, what’s the point?

As the lone character drives from his home town of Birmingham to London, he speaks to a number of people (including the ghost of his dead father in the back seat) who call him, though quite a few calls are initiated by him. He is considered a tough manager of building projects and is now making final preparations for the pouring of concrete for a new skyscraper, an effort involving an army of 218 trucks due the following morning. He shows his managerial expertise when, having been told of an upcoming stop order by the city council, he frantically but skilfully finds the number of a political contact that can overturn the ban so that the project can start on time.

But Locke made one mistake that threatens him with the loss of his family and his job. Because of a one-night stand with a 43-year-old woman who is “no oil painting,” the woman, Bethan (Olivia Colman) is about to give birth by C-section in Birmingham, and Locke insists on being there hopefully in time for the delivery—hence the nocturnal drive. He confesses (again by phone) to his wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson) about his judgment error, excusing himself by stating that he cares not for this woman nor does he pretend he can love her in return. No good. Katrina says that there is quite a difference between “once” and “never,” which means that Locke must vacate his home, leaving his teen sons Eddie ([A1] Tom Holland) and Sean (Bill Miner) to be cared for by his wife. What’s more, because of his drive to London, he has been fired from his job, though, being a perfectionist, he insists on being at the work site the following morning to preside over the pouring of concrete.

Locke talks too much, but what else could he do when he is the only performer on the screen? This monochrome, stripped-down film is an unusual one from Steven Knight, whose Redemption deals with a man homeless and on the run for military court martial, and whose script for Dirty Pretty Things focuses on an illegal Nigerian immigrant at a hotel that deals with drugs and prostitution. Other critics have called Hardy’s performance a tour-de-force, but I simply don’t see it.

Rated R. 85 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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Jane Weinstock’s
The Moment
Opens Friday, June 6, 2014

Screenplay by Gloria Norris & Jane Weinstock.

Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Martin Henderson, Alia Shawkat, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Meat Loaf, Navid Negahban.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival

How nice to see Jennifer Jason Leigh in a meaty lead role again. Back in the 90s she was one of the most promising actresses in film delivering astonishing performances in Last Exit to Brooklyn, Short Cuts, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Dolores Claiborne and Georgia. Strangely, she never received any Oscar recognition. Her kind of quirky extreme immersion into the role she played could be quite alienating (her turn in Robert Altman’s Kansas City is a good example), but, at least, she made distinct and beguiling choices.

In Jane Weinstock’s The Moment, Leigh is allowed to thesp-out again and she does so with full-on actor’s relish playing a war photojournalist who may or may not be crazy and may or may not be a murderess.

As the non-linear narrative unfolds, we learn that Lee (Leigh) was injured in a suicide bombing in Somalia and, while recuperating in a rehab facility meets John (Martin Henderson), whom she eventually has a stormy affair with. John disappears and Lee is convinced she has killed him. Now in a mental hospital, Lee becomes friendly with a fellow patient who looks exactly like John. Lee’s complicated relationship with her daughter (Alia Shawkat) adds to the intrigue.

Leigh keeps us interested at all times, even when the difficult and deliberately obfuscated narrative leaves us frustrated and confounded.

Henderson does a nice minor variation on Jekyll and Hyde while it’s wonderful to see Marianne Jean-Baptiste in a film again, even in the small role of Lee’s therapist.

Weinstock and co-screenwriter Gloria Norris should have made things just a bit clearer at the film’s end. Perhaps thirty more seconds of reveal. Instead, I walked away shrugging the film off and looking forward to my next screening--forgetting much of what I had just seen—except for the indelible impression Jennifer Jason Leigh made.



Matthew Watts’
Mutual Friends
Opens Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Written by: Matthew Watts, Frank Angones, Jessica Sue Burstein, Craig DiFolco, Ross Partridge, Olivia Silver, Amy Higgins.

Starring: Caitlin Fitzgerald, Peter Scanavino, Cheyenne Jackson, Michael Stahl-David, Christina Cole, Ross Partridge, Michael Chernus, Jennifer Lafleur

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Matthew Watts has crafted an ambitious first feature, Mutual Friends, set in NYC, that doesn’t quite live up to it’s promise but is still an entertaining and enjoyable effort.

Hunky Christophe (Cheyenne Jackson) is turning thirty and his fiancée Liv (Caitlin Fitzgerald) is about to assemble a truly messed up group of friends and family for a surprise party pregnant with possibilities. Chief among the guests that Liv does not want attending is her best friend, Nate (Peter Scanavino), who has a “no strings” dating policy and slept with Liv the same day Christophe proposed. Liv was in love with Nate but has moved on…or has she?

Other invitees include: Liv’s snooty friend, Beatrice (Christina Cole), who recently discovered she is pregnant and her not-so-thrilled husband, Paul (Michael Stahl-David); Liv’s brother Sammy (Ross Partridge) who just found out his wife is having an affair, Liv’s younger, bumbling brother, Thomas (Devin Burham), who has hired a stripper to work the party and Christoph’s ex, Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), who, of course, wants Christoph back.

Confused? I don’t blame you. And I haven’t even mentioned Sammy’s always-stoned employee and his oddball wife or Liv’s loony ex as well as--okay, I’ll stop.

There are seven screenwriters credited and, although that was part of the concept, it’s also a big part of the problem—too many points-of-view and not enough of a cohesive vision. That and there are too many characters to keep track of in such a short running time. Perhaps if Watts decided to really delve into the lives of these people and expanded the stories beyond the slight the film would be more than just a mild confection.

I do admire the central choice that Liv must face but we know where that decision is going VERY early on.

Watts did gather some very talented actors and should be commended for that.

Jackson is charming as ever in a much too brief turn.

Fitzgerald manages to make us care more about Liv and her decision than we should.

Scanavino delivers the most touching performance as a guy who discovers he might just be ready to stop screwing around before he loses the love of his life.


 



Nick Cassavetes'
The Other Woman
Opens Friday, April 25, 2014

Screenplay: Melissa Stack

Starring: Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Kate Upton, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Nicki Minaj, Taylor Kinney, Don Johnson

20th Century Fox

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

This would-be sit-com features a situation that may be typical for the genre, but as comedy The Other Woman is a complete dud with nary a chuckle throughout its fast-paced but mean-spirited screen time. Directed by Nick Cassavetes, whose The Notebook is a sensitive treatment of a love between a poor and passionate young man and a rich woman, this new feature is vulgar, not necessarily a negative aspect, but one that does not do what a sit-com is supposed to do, which is to elicit broad laughter. The idea behind the faux-feminist picture is that a married man who hides affairs on the side deserves revenge, but when you consider what a trio of women do to the handsome lothario is five-fold punishment deserved maybe by a Bernie Madoff.

The lead roles are played by strikingly handsome, Danish-born Nicolaj Coster Waldau as Mark, whose commanding presence makes many a woman wilt; by Cameron Diaz as a frisky lawyer, Carly; and by Leslie Mann as Mark’s wife Kate. Kate and Carly may be opposites, the former a stay-at-home woman who gave up her career to enhance her husband’s prospects, while Carly comes across as a partner in a white-shoe law firm who dresses for work like a hooker. But they make a perfect team when they plot vengeance on a fellow who cannot keep his pants zipped, getting even more traction when joined by Amber (Kate Upton) who, like Carly and Kate have no knowledge of the man’s other relationships.

There’s an occasional gem of a line, as when Mark in a fit of temper announces “I get more ass than a toilet seat,” and thankfully, there are only passing scenes of physical vulgarity as when Mark finds himself with a severe case of the runs and when Kate brushes the teeth of the family Great Dane then plunges Mark’s toothbrush into the toilet. These get-backs are mild compared to a climactic scene that all but ruins Mark’s life, a fate well beyond what he deserves.

This is writer Melissa Stack’s freshman movie as a scripter. One hopes that she can gain inspiration on her next try.

Rated PG-13. 110 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Gia Coppola's
Palo Alto
Opens Friday, May 9, 2014

Screenplay by Gia Coppola. Based on the short stories of James Franco.

Starring: Jack Kilmer, Emma Roberts, Nat Wolff, James Franco, Val Kilmer, Chris Messina, Zoe Levin, Olivia Crocicchia.

Reviewed by Harvey Karten at the 13th Tribeca Film Festival

The kids I taught in high school for thirty-two years and the youths featured in Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto are poles apart in social class. My charges have been mostly inner city, young people who in many cases have not had male role models in their homes. In Palo Alto the teens have dads but they’re emotionally absent. In one case, a mother neglects her daughter in favor of setting up engagements on her cell phone while the man of the house is zonked out on weed and who knows what other drugs. These Northern California young people have been indulged by their parents, driving their own cars and throwing wild parties in which the elders are absent. What adults are around to file complaints when their daughters are (statutorily) raped by others their own age or, in one case, by a man who looks in his mid-thirties?

Palo Alto, which is based on short stories by James Franco, features just a few characters in Franco’s book, allegedly the less sensational ones, though we wonder just how rebellious are the ones left on the cutting room floor or simply ignored. Gia Coppola, a granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola, evokes solid performances all around, though those in the audience who prefer a tightly-knit plot might have reservations. Coppola tucks and weaves the boys and girls, with appropriate overlapping since, after all, the action takes place within and about the local high school, one with ample grounds for the playing of sports. But the sports that these people are interested in are the kind that takes place indoors, the attractive girls actually making fun of the one in their group who is still a virgin. Times have changed since I was a high-school student.

To their credit, nobody in the cast is weighed down by a screenplay that insists on the use of the word "like" in every sentence, and in fact from where I sat I didn’t hear a single invocation of the hoariest of teen clichés. Though only one member of the school is shown doing homework, these kids are reasonably articulate whether or not they are stoned.

What allows Ms. Coppola to rise above the typical Judd Apatow fare and other illustrations of wasted kids is the sympathy she shows to all, whether they be promiscuous, or overly extroverted; whether conducting a suicidal mission in a Cadillac or delivering oral sex to people who are said in one instance to be lining up outside her home.

The action is seen through the eyes of the lead actress, Emma Roberts in the role of April, a senior in high school who has no idea what college she hopes to attend even though money is not a problem. As the class virgin, she takes her energies out on the soccer field under the direction of Coach Mr. B (James Franco), whose interest in his all-female team goes beyond training them to kick a ball into a net. As she wanders about the grounds of school and home, she has contact with Teddy (Jack Kilmer) who, despite awkward moments in which neither can think of what to say, are fond of each other. In fact Teddy in a moment of weakness confesses that he loves her, though for kids this age, "love" may be equated with "fondness." Teddy is pals with Fred (Nat Wolff), whose charm comes from his ability to say and do whatever he pleases, whether he is playing verbal games with Teddy or throwing the slutty but pretty Emily (Zoe Levin) into the pool.

Teddy, the more stable person when communicating with Fred, winds up having to do community service for committing an infraction, but he is better off than Fred who, in a moment of crazed mania, drives his car in the wrong direction on the highway. The girls’ conversation is anchored on boys, no surprise there, but what people of a different generation may realize how things have changed since the 1950’s is that the young women are sirens who entice the young men into their sexual fantasies.

Some of the filming is realistic, while other scenes are dream-like as though to sum up the high-school experience as part drudgery, part "let us now in youth rejoice." Coppola has done us a service by providing an entertaining view of part of Franco’s short story collection, giving us insight into what probably passes for truth, at least where privileged kids are concerned.




Gia Coppola’s
Palo Alto
Opens Friday, May 9, 2014

Screenplay by Gia Coppola. Based on the short stories of James Franco.

Starring: Jack Kilmer, Emma Roberts, Nat Wolff, James Franco, Val Kilmer, Chris Messina, Zoe Levin, Olivia Crocicchia.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 13th Tribeca Film Festival

Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Francis Ford and niece of Sofia, does a fine job with her first feature film, based on James Franco’s short story collection titled Palo Alto Stories.

The moody and affecting adaptation, written by Coppola, is a meditation on direction-less teens and their morally challenged parents.

The film brings to mind the Peter Bogdanovich masterpiece, The Last Picture Show—only here affluent Californians are the target of this Franco/Coppola indictment. Actually, despite it’s setting, Palo Alto has an Everytown/Everyteen, USA, feel about it.

Timid and shy April (a refreshingly subdued Emma Roberts) crushes on blond boy Teddy (newcomer Jack Kilmer, son of Val) and the feeling is reciprocated but neither knows how to relate that to the other.

Meanwhile April’s soccer coach, Mr. B (a perfectly lecherous James Franco) has declared his love for her and goes about seducing her.

Teddy hangs out with his daredevil friend Fred (Nat Wolff, overdoing the crazy) and gets himself in trouble when, driving drunk, he hits another vehicle and races away from the scene. Fred dates Emily (Zoe Levin) whose sluttiness masks a desperate desire to be accepted and loved.

Fred’s father (Chris Messina) likes to get high and in a particularly uncomfortable scene, hits on Teddy.

It would have been too easy to present these kids in an unsympathetic manner. Coppola allows us to see their confusion and longing so we care about them. She also shows us that most of the adults in their lives behave like selfish children themselves, taking advantage of kids for their own pleasure.

Sure these youth are making a slew of mistakes, but they have no role models to speak of. And they’re seeking attention more than rebelling.

Coppola eschews the traditional narrative and, instead, presents vignettes from the lives of these teens.

The film sometimes feels too subtle and laid back but the two central performances keep it vital: Roberts and, especially newcomer Kilmer, whose father has a brief, memorable cameo.

 




Ti West's
The Sacrament
Opens Friday, June 6, 2014

 

Screenplay: Ti West

Starring : AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Gene Jones, Kentucker Audley, Kae Lyn Sheil, Talia Dobbins, Donna Biscoe, Lashaun Clay, Dale Neal

Magnet Releasing

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten TomatoesGrade
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If you seek the classic study of brainwashing, look no further than John Frankenheimer’s incredibly tense film The Manchurian Candidate. In a movie ahead of its time, Russian and Chinese agents program Americans to go back to their own societies, formerly captive people who will kill on command. The Manchurian Candidate, arguably one of the top ten thrillers of all time, features a performance by Frank Sinatra at the top of his career.

Ti West’s The Sacrament is about brainwashing as well, though it does not feature edge-of-your-seat nail-biting like the Frankenheimer film. How could it? After all, this faux documentary is based on reality, on a situation in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978 in which over nine hundred brainwashed people committed suicide at the orders of the group’s founder and leader. Anyone who reads the paper or watches the news on TV is aware of the unusual events of that time, but then again American millennials, born since 1980, may not be as hip to the actual events. For them, the entire film could be a jaw-dropping surprise despite some amateurish acting by some of the extras in the plot.

The story opens on Sam (AJ Bowen), filmed by Jake (Joe Swanberg), who interviews Patrick (Kentucker Audley) about the fashion designer’s upcoming trip to visit his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz). Caroline, troubled by addictions, had gone to a remote area called Eden Parish to get “clean,” and appears to be deliriously happy. She waves her arm about a primitive, socialistic “paradise” where everyone is family. For a while the reporters believe her and wish her well, listening to their raucous cheers whenever the group’s leader known as “Father” (Gene Jones) speaks to them over a PA system or during an interview that he has granted to the visitors. But when one woman, through her mute daughter, slips the outsiders a note “please help us,” all hell is about to break loose on this would-be heaven-on-earth.

Some powerful acting by Amy Seimetz rivets attention, a woman who alternates between ecstatic joy and furious paranoia. In fact, given the changes that appear to take place among some of the one hundred sixty-seven followers, we in the audience must wonder why “Father” agreed to the interview in the first place, especially considering his notion that if the U.S. government knew what was going on in the compound, bombs would falls.

Some of the scenes are visually arresting. The view of scores of screaming people eager to get on the helicopter that could take them back to civilization resembles the scene of the U.S. embassy in Saigon in April 1975 when the forces of Ho Chi Minh take over the city to the dismay of those who could be marked for execution. The mass execution planned for, really, no apparent reason (there is not necessarily any threat from the U.S. government) resembles nothing less than the wholesale suicide of nine hundred sixty Jews hiding out on the cliffs of Masada during the first century B.C., all favoring death over surrender and slavery to the invading Roman armies.

Though The Sacrament is produced by horror maven Eli Roth (Hostel 2, about businessmen who pay handsomely for the thrill of killing human beings) and directed by Ti West (The House of the Devil about satanic ritual), it is more a psychological thriller than an entry into the horror genre. Yet though there are no supernatural forces here, you might swear that some sort of witchcraft is going on, yet it is difficult to see how the obese, sunglasses-wearing-at-night “Father” could have such a hold on these folks.

Rated R. 99 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 



Jerome Sables'
Stage Fright

Opens Friday, May 9, 2014

Screenplay: Jerome Sable

Starring: Minnie Driver, Meat Loaf, Allie MacDonald, Douglas Smith, Brandon Uranowitz

Magnet Releasing

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

Kids whose parents have the money to send them to sleep-away camp are lucky indeed, assuming that no killers are prowling on the baseball diamond, the swimming pool or the bunks. That last scenario encompasses the situation found in Jerome Sable’s freshman feature, Stage Fright, a revenge fantasy photographed by Bruce Chun in rural parts of Ontario and featuring a cast that includes only two people who could classified as adults. Stage Fright is Glee with knives and kabuki masks, with a story that follows the oft-used subgenre of campy (it takes place in camp, after all) but has enough serious action to be taken as straight-out horror. Think Little Shop of Horrors (a clumsy young man must feed a carnivorous plant by giving it fresh kills), The Phantom of the Paradis (a disfigured composer sells his soul for the woman he loves), Cannibal (the sole survivor of a mining expedition discovers a taste for human flesh) and of course The Phantom of the Opera (a disfigured genius living in the basement of a Paris opera house has a taste for a beautiful singer), Stage Fright is a musical.

Sable, who together with long-term partner Eli Batalion composed the all-original lyrics and music, appears to both pay homage to the youthful excitement of Broadway musical theater and mock the conventions at the same time, put together a youthful cast of the types of people that I, as a former, high-school teacher would have loved in my classes. The entire, wildly enthusiastic patrons of summer camp are expertly choreographed by Paul Becker and, particularly the kabuki phases of the movie, nicely costumed by Michael Ground.

At the center of the action is Camilla Swanson (Allie MacDonald), a 17-year-old with an exquisite voice (think of any principals in a Lloyd Webber musical such as Sarah Brighman), but has been traumatized ten years earlier to hear that her mother, musical star Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver), was stabbed to death in her dressing room for reasons that we learn as the story unfolds. When producer Roger McCall (Meat Loaf) decides to air the play The Haunting of the Opera after that decade, the director considers Camilla, now working with her brother Buddy (Douglas Smith) as a cook. Buddy, similarly traumatized by his mother’s murder, urges Camilla not to mix in with the types of people that musical theater draws, but the lovely lass has stars in her eyes and who can blame her?

The music is typical of Lloyd Webber’s style with a mix of Stephen Sondheim, each song sounding much like the others, but we all know that since the passing of Lerner and Loewe, Rogers and Hammerstein, and others, Broadway has never been the same. Allie MacDonald, who may or not be synched, has a lovely voice and is well cast as a woman often subservient to her brother. Once the knives flash, the gore is what horror fans go to movies for: multiple stab wounds by a guy or gal hiding behind a kabuki mask and, in one homage to Carrie, a can of bright red paint splashes down on Camilla.

For fans of horror and/or music. Is there anyone else?

Rated R. 88 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 



Sylvia Caminer's
Tanzania: A Journey Within
Opens Friday, April 25, 2014


Starring: Kristen Kenney, Venance Ndibalema

DolGer Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes


“I now have a soul. I feel reborn.” How often do you hear that from folks with whom you’ve traveled to foreign lands? Possibly never. But if you’re a traveler, and not a tourist, your life can be changed forever by what you experience when you get deeply into the people of a land that might seem like another planet. So move over, Paul Theroux: Kristen Kenney may not quite equal your version of traveling, which has included such luxuries as riding seventeen hours straight with goats and chickens on a rickety road, but few people have come as close to Kristen to the Theroux-vian spirit.

Tanzania: A Journey Within, put together by Emma-award-winning director Sylvia Caminer whose 2004 movie Passport to Europe: France and Italy depicts a culture far more modern and Western than that shown here, focuses on two unlikely friends who met as students at the University of Miami. Venance Ndibalema, sporting a Rasta hairdo which may fit into our culture as a style but simply does not exist in Ven’s home country of Tanzania, invites a friend and fellow student Kristen Kenney, to join him on a trip back to his home. She may have jumped at the chance, but not without trepidation. How would a stunning blonde, who could have walked away with a coronation from a Miss Virginia contest if not Miss America, feel about being the only white woman in a black world? She admits to having some idea of what Africa is like, but what she sees—such as the giraffe in Serengeti that makes her exclaim “Shut UP! A giraffe!”—is nowhere near in importance to what she does. With Ven’s support, she plunges headlong into the East African nation whose educated classes speak English but whose national language is Swahili.

She joins Ven and a small crew in climbing the famed Mount Kilimanjaro, called Kili by the locals, the highest point in Africa. But even that journey does not equal in insight the activities she pursues while riding from the crowded capital of Dar Es Salaam into villages known by Ven, some areas having changed so much that he would no longer recognize them. But the village in which his grandmother lives is as it was. Ven’s meeting with his grandmother after being in the U.S. for nine years is a thrill for both, even if the elderly lady scarcely wants to leave the doorway of her simple abode, cameras pointing menacingly at the shy woman. He meets with his brother as well, a fellow who has never left his native Tanzania.

The more interesting of the two (I’m a male) is this strikingly beautiful American woman of privilege who gets right into joyfully dancing with the locals to the cheers of onlookers of all ages, but who grows emotionally and spiritually by helping to take charge of a four-year-old orphan with a serious skin infection on her head who is shunned by the villagers who think she is HIV-positive. She embraces the young girl, taking her to the hospital where she tests negative for HIV and oversees the treatment of the skin infection in a hospital with a surprising array of equipment considering the poverty of the village. She befriends a 17-year-old woman who has never been to school, being unable to afford what we’d consider a modest expense. She sleeps in a hut next to her, and gets her into the local educational institution. She breaks down and cries in comparing what we have here in the U.S. with the travails of the village Africans she relates to. In one area the water is filthy. Cows do what they have to do in water that that local people scoop up in vases and drink. Ven reminds her that even when the water looks clean, such as in his village, is may still be infected.

Kristen catches malaria which is treated by the well-stocked hospital and she seems to be her old self in a matter of days. She is an enthusiastic person, the opposite of college students today who think it’s uncool to show emotion. When she is horrified, such as by the killing of a chicken, she covers her face with her hands, not realizing that the chickens in village Africa have far better lives running about and scratching the soil than those that are factory farmed here, filled with antibiotics, have their beaks trimmed, and are raised with barely enough room to move.

Director Caminer knows how to make a documentary. With the able help of cinematographers Francisco Aliwalas and Douglas Bachman, music from Richard Evans, The Footnote and David Rhodes, and editing by Avril Beukes and Rika Camizianos, she has fashioned a film that has no use for the typically dull talking heads interviews of so many of that genre. There are no interviews here, just the characters relating to one another and occasional narration by the two principals.

The filmmakers have launched a “Buy a movie ticket, save a life” in conjunction with the theatrical release of the movie in April 2014. For info, consult ttp://TanzaniaTheMovie.com/home/ Proceeds from every ticket sold to the public will be used to provide treatment for African malaria patients. So far as Kristen is concerned, she has said that back in the States all she thought about was having enough money for a house and the usual material goods, but has now changed her views. People are more important than things. Let’s hope she continues with that new philosophy for, well, would a lifetime be too optimistic for people living large in the land of plenty?

102 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Paul Haggis's
Third Person
Opens Friday, June 20, 2014


Screenplay: Paul Haggis

Starring: Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody, James Franco, Moran Atias, Maria Bello, Kim Basinger

Sony Pictures Classics

Reviewed for New York Cool by Tami Smith (Guest Reviewer). Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes


The three major female characters in Third Person do not get a fair treatment in this screenplay written and directed by Paul Haggis.

Anna (Olivia Wilde) a writer-journalist displays a strange taste in sexual partners. Her first boyfriend is thirty years her senior, though he gives a good sexual performance in bed. Her second boyfriend is even older and acts as “protector” of sorts.

Julia (Mila Kunis), an ex-soap opera actress, is caught in a custody battle over her young son. Her financial support is cut off, her legal expenses are mounting, thus forcing her to take a maid’s job in a New York City Hotel. Though Julia can cry on cue, this will not save her in the custodial war department.

Monica (Moran Atias) fairs the worst. She is a Roma person whose daughter will be sold to prostitution unless she pays a hefty fee to the smugglers. Acting in a hyper mode during her entire screen time this gypsy is one crazy gal.

The male characters do not fare any better.

Scott (Adrien Brody) is an American “businessman” who steels fashion designs. He hates Italian food, and thus finds himself in Bar Americano in Rome, in search for a beer and burger. Scott’s knowledge of the Italian language is so lacking that he uses the word “spasibo” (thank you in Russian) to thank an Italian bar tender in Rome.

Rick (James Franco) is a successful New York artist, who likes to be in control, even if it means denying his son the opportunity to interact with his birth-mother Julia (Mila Kunis).

Michael (Liam Neeson) is a Pulitzer Prize winning author whose imagination has dried up. His ex-wife Elaine (Kim Basinger) sums it up in a few words: “you can’t feel a thing, can you?”

This romantic melodrama takes place in Paris, New York and Rome, but was shot on sets that were built in Cinecitta Studios in Rome. Some of the exterior Paris scenes were shot on the Via Veneto in Rome.

Third Person runs out its welcome by forty-six minutes, but a first-rate cast makes the plot watchable.

Rated R. 136 minutes. © 2014 by Tami Smith, Guest Reviewer


 



Clark Gregg’s
Trust Me
Opens Friday, June 6, 2014

Screenplay: Clark Gregg.

Starring: Clark Gregg, Saxon Sharbino, Amanda Peet, Sam Rockwell, William H. Macy, Allison Janney, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Molly Shannon, Paul Sparks.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival

Writing, directing, co-producing and starring in Trust Me, Gregg takes on a mammoth and, potentially ego-trippy (okay, that would be said if he were female) endeavor. And it only gets the best of him in the film’s finale. Up until those messy moments, Trust Me proves to be a gem—a riveting and insightful genre-blend--one of the best indie films I’ve seen in quite a while.

Howard Holloway (Gregg) is a former child star that never quite got his due. Now in his early fifties, he’s an agent for other child actors but, after a few too many blunders, not a very successful or respected one. His agent-nemesis, Aldo Stankis (Sam Rockwell having a blast playing a reprehensible scumbag) is always poised to steal any potential clients from him.

Through happenstance (and isn’t that all life is), Howard develops an instant rapport with Lydia (Saxon Sharbino), a fourteen-year-old natural on the verge of landing a major franchise contract. Lydia takes an instant liking to Howard and wants him repping her, much to the ire of her white trash, ill-tempered dad (an effective Paul Sparks). Howard has the potential to be back on top but soon realizes something odd is going on with Lydia and her dad.

Gregg’s screenplay is a smart, satiric, nasty look at Hollywood. It’s also hilarious, poignant and surprising throughout. He writes crisp, clever lines that actors have a field day with. As director, he strikes just the right balance between the lunacy of the film world (let’s face it, the industry is a satire unto itself) and the dignity of his characters. As lead actor, he sweetly underplays Howard’s desire to succeed versus his wanting to be a decent human being. And it all works so well…until that climax I keep mentioning…

Gregg brings together one of the best ensemble casts and allows them to do what they do best. Standouts include the always-underrated Amanda Peet as Howard’s love interest and Felicity Huffman as the deliciously evil queen bee producer.

He has also discovered an amazing new talent in Saxon Sharbino (what a name!). She’s precocious, ambitious, sweet, sexy, manipulative, damaged. Is she playing some game? How ravenous is her ambition? Is she just using Howard? Sharbino strikes all the right cords—keeping Lydia a mystery right until that whiplash ending. There I go again…

So let’s get to it…

Can a filmmaker ruin a film outright with a misguided ending? Gregg’s climax is certainly a bold choice that guarantees a divided audience and who cares about that if it’s faithful to the spirit and tone of the movie. But therein lies the problem. Tonally, the film is seemingly all over the map—to be specific he adopts a lighter, black-comedic tone in the first hour and shifts things quite dramatically with a very significant plot development. It’s a risk that pays off until he steers us off the cliff in the final few minutes. I was so immersed in the world he created and then felt like I was ejected right out of it.

Perhaps wearing so many hats, Gregg couldn’t see things clearly. The ending felt forced upon by the writer and not organic to the story he was telling. And it angered me. Mostly because, up to that point, I truly felt Trust Me had so much potential—deserving of awards consideration—deserving of discussion…well, that hasn’t changed...

There’s a true Heart of Darkness quality in Howard Holloway’s journey with some very strong Mama Rose shadings as well. It’s a masterblend of the allure and often-castrating inevitability of a rose-colored world that is actually dark and soul-destroying. It’s the aftermath of Day of the Locust. And I get where Gregg’s need to include redemption came from but it felt like Jesus was being tossed into a tale already overstuffed with metaphors and allusions.

But who knows. I might revisit the film in a few months or years and feel completely differently. That’s one of the joys of watching movies you love again—being in a different mindset each time you experience it. I may just understand and accept Gregg’s denouement. And I may even sprout wings…





Roman Polanski’s
Venus in Fur (La Venus a la Fourrure)
Opens Friday, June 20, 2014

Screenplay by David Ives and Roman Polanski, based on the play by David Ives.

French translation by Abel Gerschenfeld.

Starring: Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric.

In French with English subtitles.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 13th Tribeca Film Festival

Roman Polanski has become the new master of adapting good theatre pieces into even better filmic experiences. Two years ago, the celebrated but slight Tony-winning play by Yasmina Reza, God of Carnage, became the swift and more robust movie, Carnage—with a different but just as powerful cast. Two decades ago he did the same for Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden. Now he’s adapted David Ives compelling Tony-winning work, Venus in Fur, into a leaner and more beguiling entity. And here the two mediums blend together rather seamlessly.

One of the director’s many gifts is his keen ability to set a suspenseful cine-stage capturing mood and tension brilliantly. In this claustrophobic cat-and-mouse chamber tango, Polanski’s in his element and draws on a plethora of camera angles and shooting styles to embrace and attack the psychosexual nature of the work.

The script has been adapted into French and now stars Mrs. Polanski, Emmanuelle Seigner and the great French actor Matthew Amalric, who bears an eerie resemblance to the director, albeit a younger version. And while the casting might reek of nepotism, it proves to be a stroke of genius, yet hardly surprising since Polanski, even at 80, is a master.

The crux of David Ives’ detailed yet simple story is inspired by Austrian novelist Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870, Venus in Furs, where a man becomes willingly enslaved by the woman he worships. The movie opens as playwright Thomas (Amalric), has undergone a long day of auditioning the role of Vonda, the leading lady in his play, to no avail. Enter a blustery mess of a woman named Vonda (Seigner), wanting to audition. Thomas protests. But the doggedly persistent, deliciously trashy Vonda insists-- wangling control almost from the outset. Let the perverse seduction begin.

As the two characters read from the play, a potentially explosive, mesmerizing game ensues that enthralls. Polanski smartly keeps most of Ives’ sharp and clever dialogue intact. At one point Thomas says he sees his play as a “beautiful love story,” Vonda dismisses his assessment and calls it “S&M porn” and goes on to mention child abuse—which, considering the helmer—adds yet another uncomfortable layer to the film.

Venus in Fur opened off-Broadway in 2010 to rave reviews, especially for newcomer Nina Arianda, and transferred to Broadway the next season. The producers chose to replace Wes Bentley with Hugh Dancy, probably for marquis value reasons. Both were quite good but it was Arianda who got all the glory and won the Tony.

Seigner and Amalric are significantly older than their stage counterparts (both in their late forties) and that works to the film’s advantage as well since there is now a palpably damaged sexual history to the characters.

Seigner brings her own sexually charged panache to the role. Where Arianda was a powerhouse no one could refuse, Seigner is slyer, more manipulative—certainly more mysterious. Seigner is a gorgeous creature. She’s also frighteningly crafty and slick. And did I mention sexy? God, is she sexy. As much as I liked Arianda onstage, I was put off by her. Seigner is inviting. She’s like the black widow, lying in wait. It’s a fully realized performance and the best I’ve seen from her.

Amalric starred in Julian Schnabel’s astonishing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly with Seigner in 2007. Their relationship in that film was slightly different (read: tremendous sarcasm). Here, after the initial apprehension, he’s like a post-pubescent boy eager to be told what to do, longing for anything sexual. And the fact that he’s a Polanski doppelganger, gives the performance a creepy, fascinating edge.

Tech credits dazzle from Pawel Edelman’s terrific camerawork to Jean Rabasse’s bizarre but perfect production design to Alexandre Desplat’s fantastically haunting score.

Venus in Fur is so intense and wizzes by so quickly, l felt steamrolled once it was over. Even though it ended in just the right place, I wanted more. I desired more. Such is the fate of someone enraptured by this meditation on passion, power and sexual desire.

For tickets visit www.tribecafilm.com/festival/tickets, or call (646) 502-5296 or toll free at (866) 941-FEST (3378). Additional information and further details on the Festival can be found at www.tribecafilm.com.



Lukas Moodysson's
We Are The Best! (Vi är bäst!)
Opens Friday, May 30, 2014

Screenplay: Lukas Moodysson based on the graphic novel Aldrig Godnatt (Never Goodnight)

Starring: Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne, Anna Rydgren, Johan Liljemark, Mattias Wiberg

Magnolia Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

When a boy has his bar mitzvah in America, we declare him to be a man, though given the extended childhoods that people have in modern, rich countries, we say this with a grain of matzoh. The thirteen-year-olds in Lukas Moodysson’s We are the Best are hardly men, well, hardly women, but they’re not aware of this reality, nor would they choose to be the kinds of adults they see around them. “Boring!” The troika whose early teen years are evoked by Lukas Moodysson in a film quite different from Lilya 4-Ever (a girl is lured to Sweden and winds up in the underground sex trade) are rebels presumably without a cause, though their being ostracized by more conforming teen society would likely fuel their anger. Two of the three, Klara (Mira Grosin) and best friend Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) are androgynous as they adopt punk hairstyles. Klara has more of a Mohawk and is the more assertive one while Bobo has a straight hairdo though we wonder why he’d keep that, given that the adults around him all praise what’s growing on top of his head. When Bobo’s mother, who seems to have a different boyfriend in the house each week, has a rowdy birthday party surrounded by good friends, the kid is convinced that she’s a bore and, later on, takes out his frustrations in a rollicking and coarse punk song about Brezhnev and Reagan.

It’s 1982. Young moviegoers might be surprised to see everyone using a land phone, perhaps wondering just what that equipment held in the kids’ hands can do. In a film devoted to female coming-of-age, a relative rarity when compared to aspects of male bonding, the forty-four year old Malmö-born director focuses on these kids who are considered freaks, partly because the punk era is dead, but apparently punk is alive until Bobo and Klara agree that it has passed away. They get friendly with Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a classmate who is one year older, one who is arrow-straight but is shunned by her fellows because she is a classical guitarist, a talented one at that, and a pious Christian who wears a discreet crucifix about her neck. Bob and Klara have two aims: one is to break into the punk music world though neither has talent or instruments, the other is to break Hedvig from what they consider her repressive religious belief. To sum up: they are determined to be respected punk musicians when the fashion is dead or on the way out, using the style to express their hatred of sports and of the attitude of the masses who care more about what happens to the soccer ball than about nuclear proliferation and starvation in Africa.

Adults are hardly seen in the story, the parents involved in their own lives and the twenty-something men first belittling the aims of the three and then encouraging them to perform at a concert in a small city outside Stockholm. The preponderance of journalists whose reviews are data-based on rotten tomatoes are ecstatic about the movie, stating such superlatives as “a joyous celebration,” “uniformly remarkable,” even “You’d have to have a heart of Arctic ice to finish the film not smiling.” Well, get the defroster going: the performances of these kids who look about fourteen in real life are spot-on, making the movie worth seeing, but ultimately their characters are simply not interesting enough to rivet my attention.

Unrated. 102 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online





Gael García Bernal and Marc Silver's
Who Is Dayani Cristal?
Opens Friday, April 25, 2014

Screenplay: Mark Monroe

Cast: Gael García Bernal

Kino Lorber Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

They like us! They really like us! No, not the Lebanese or Pakistanis, Slovenians or Russians. They’re Mexicans, many of whom literally risk their lives to cross to us at the fenced-in border between our two countries. Never mind that the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo lifted parts of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado from our loving neighbors to the South, reliving the Mexicans of at least one-third of their nation. They seem to forgive us, so much so that many Mexicans are perfectly willing to leave their home country and to work here in the good old USA for minimum wage at jobs that Americans allegedly do not want. These fellows on the run—not only from Mexico but from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—are not looking to dig up our sidewalks lined with gold but are realistically and with great ambition prepared to sweat in the heat of Arizona and other parts so that they and members of their families back home can live better.

And what does the U.S. government do with people who unlike Lebanese, Pakistanis, Slovenians or Russians are ready to kiss the American flag to live better than they do in their own country? Why, we catch ‘em, put ‘em in detention centers, and fly ‘em back home, thereby adding to America’s debt and deficit rather than taking advantage of their ambition.

What’s it like to you to read statistics such as: Between 150 and 250 migrants die in the desert annually. In the past 10 years 2,000 migrants have died this way, according to the New York Times sourcing the Arizona Recovered Human Remains Project and No More Deaths. This does not touch your heart? Not your fault since these are statistics. How do we get to touch your heart? By putting the human touch on these figures. How do we do that? Thanks to the humanism shown by director Marc Silver (The Road to Freedom Peak, about former African child soldiers) and scripter Mark Monroe (The Tillman Story, about a fellow who gave up a multi-million dollar football contract to enlist in the service), we in the audience can see an actual troupe journeying from Honduras and Mexico, braving a ride on the top of a slow-moving train called “The Beast,” and joined by actor Gael García Bernal.

Now, Who is Dayani Cristal? does not carry the thrills of Gregory Nava’s 1983 masterpiece, El Norte,arguable the best movie ever to come out of Central America and dealing with teen sibs who leave their destroyed Guatemalan Village and journey to Los Angeles. This is a documentary. But happily it is a documentary without overbearing talking heads. Instead, García Bernal rides with these migrants on “The Beast,” fraternizing with them, making them comfortable with Marc Silver and Pau Esteve Birba’s cameras, and getting their story directly from the horse’s mouth, as it were. He focuses as well on the people back home, particularly on the Honduran family of a man found dead in the Arizona desert with “Dayani Cristal” tattooed to his back. Who, indeed, is Dayani Cristal? You will find that out soon enough as your watch the film but here is a hint: it is not the name of the Honduran victim, lying in the Arizona desert with flies buzzing around his unlucky carcass.

Not all Arizonans are heartless despite what you hear from the media about that state’s hostility to undocumented immigrants. In the Pima County, AZ Medical Examiner’s office, we watch as a sympathetic official cuts into John Doe corpses, in one case removing the poor guy’s hand to get better fingerprints. We watch as Arizona sheriffs gently lift bodies from the sand, covering them in white zipper bags for shipment to the freezers. A doctor, Bruce Anderson, states that while crossings are down, an effect of increasing the border patrol five times over, deaths are not. Bernal, who obviously shares the filmmakers’ leftish politics, would like U.S. policy to change, but nobody in the film states just what this country should do.

The 35-year-old, Guadalajara-born, Bernal was the perfect choice for principal character and narrator,a fortunate one given this splendid performer’s terrific characterizations in Walter Salles’s 2004 movie The Motorcycle Diaries, dealing with Che Guevara’s youthful motorcycle trip which led him to seek justice in the Americas, and Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mama también, about a road trip involving two youthful males and an attractive older woman: a tale of sex and friendship. The story is filmed on location in Honduras, Mexico and Arizona by Marc Silver and Pau Esteve Birba, who took away the Best Cinematography award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

80 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Álex de la Iglesia's
Witching & Bitching (Las brujas de Zugarramurdi)
Opens Friday, June 13, 2014


Screenplay: Jorge Guerricaechevarría, Álex de la Iglesia

Starring: Hugo Silva, Mario Casas, Pepón Nieto, Gabriel Ángel Delgado, Carolina Bang, Terele Pávez, Jaime Ordóñez

IFC Midnight

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

When Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, he presented us with a crackerjack story of actual events: the Salem Witch trials in which a relatively small number of people were burned at the stake, some after being outed by children. The play had no humor to speak of, it was deadly serious. Miller was using “The Crucible” as a metaphor for the 1950s investigations of right-wing extremist Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose “witch hunt” claimed that there were 57 communists in the U.S. State Department. As in the 17th century, no evidence turned up of any witches, or communists, in the State Department.

Witch hunts are alive and well in American politics, as witness the attempt by some off-the-wall Tea Party folks who claimed that President Obama was not born in the U.S. And that’s just scratching the surface of medieval thought in America, which also claims that the earth is 7,000 years old, that people were born at the same time as dinosaurs, and, if you’re like eighty percent of your fellow Americans, you believe in the physical existence of angels.

So don’t laugh when you hear of a literal witch hunt in a corner of northern Spain just south of the French border where trials of the Inquisition were actually held, accusing people not of a lack of faith in Catholicism but indicting people for being witches. In 1610, a declaration of auto-da-fé against thirty one people resulted in the burning to death of eleven, though to the credit of the Inquisitors, just as to the credit of the honorable judges of Salem, Massachusetts, a lack of evidence was declared and the trials came to an end. Yet Zugarramuri remains a tourist attraction, a town of 243 people who, on the day of the summer solstice each June light fires next to the cave of the witches.

What is remembered as tragedy by Spaniards—who choose to remember the 17th century events at all—is celebrated as comedy by the movie Witching & Bitching, a most unfortunate title that cheapens an already gross horror-comedy tale. Would it be a problem to call it The Witches of Zugarramurdi, a direct translation of the Spanish title? Witching is likely to be the most chaotic feature you’ll see this year, one that starts with a fast-moving robbery and whose pace never lets up. Once you become enveloped in the action, don’t be surprised if you’re able to suspend disbelief for the 110 minutes of the story and to believe that at least in this one, isolated town in the world, there indeed exists a coven of witches.

In this tale, director Álex de la Iglesia, whose 1995 feature The Day of the Beast would have us believe that the anti-Christ would be born in Madrid on Christmas Day, is in his métier. After a daring robbery of gold rings from a Madrid pawn shop involving the robbers dressed at first as Jesus Christ, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, SpongeBob SquarePants and a stationary soldier, invade the store, make off with the loot, and during the chase—which includes the 10-year-old son of “Jesus” who has joined his divorced father by holding two revolvers—the comic lines begin. You might think that the perps would be talking about the heist, but instead José (Hugo Silva), the titular leader of the caper, laments how his ex is draining his money with alimony and denying the kinds of visitation rights with the boy that he would prefer.

As they head for the border with France, they enter the village of Zugarramurdi, a fearful land that taxis refuse to enter, but with cops chasing you, you’ve got to run. Soon they’re enveloped by a group of fun-loving, mostly female witches led by Graciana Barrenetxea (Carmen Maura—yes, you heard that right, the great Carmen Maura who had top billing in Pedro Almadóvar’s Volver), who is out with her gang to destroy Western Civilization. She has it in for men, who, she believes, are threatened by the news that God is a woman. “That just drives them crazy.” With her nutty band of crazed pseudo-feminists, including pretty Eva (Carolina Bang) who uses her wiles to trap the robbers, she plans to destroy her new captives to strike the first blow against the world.

You may wind up with a headache about one hour into the movie, but that’s a compliment. The action is so frenetic that if you don’t know Spanish but depend on the titles, you’d better be a fast reader. Ultimately the chaos becomes so frantic that the picture begins to lose steam, but cut the proceedings by fifteen minutes and you have an entertaining look at the battle between flawed humans and fun-loving witches with Carmen Maura in her most over-the-top performance and Hugo Silva as her handsome nemesis who must fight off not only the witches but also his own ex-wife for custody of the ten-year-old Sergio played winningly by Gabriel Ángel Delgado.

Call the picture what you will but I dare you to call it dull.

Unrated. 110 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



 

 



Fred Schepisi's
Words and Pictures
Opens Friday, May 23, 2014

 

Screenplay: Gerald Di Pego

Starring: Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Amy Brenneman, Bruce Davison

Roadside Attractions

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

There are Words (Shakespeare, Marlowe, Faulkner, Hemingway), and there are words (teen texts, teen phone talk). Similarly there are Pictures (Picasso, Rembrandt, Monet, Renoir) and there are pictures (snapshots on Facebook). An educated person should know the difference: that’s what teachers are for. Fred Schepsisi, a seventy-three-year-old Australian born director, has contributed Films like Six Degrees of Separation (a New York couple find their lives intruded upon by a young black man who is not who he says he is) and movies like It Runs in the Family (a dysfunctional bunch of New Yorkers who attempt to reconcile). This time around, he contributes a movie (not a Film), Words and Pictures, which takes place in an upscale prep New England prep school (think Choate) filmed in Vancouver city, giving human life to the two abstractions, words and pictures.

Where words and pictures can obviously complement each other, in this case they are at war. The battlefield consists of Jack Marcus (Clive Owen), an English teacher with a scruffy beard and disheveled appearance, and Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), an art teacher with rheumatoid arthritis which makes it difficult for her to paint or even open a child-safe bottle of prescription pills. Marcus, or Mr. Marc as the teen students call him, believes that words are superior to pictures, while Dina holds with the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words. The battle between these two human representations of words and pictures fires up the honors classes that the two teach leading to an all-out, staged battle complete with slides and poems, each side trying to convince the other about their strongly held positions.

Though Clive Owen plays out of character, a man noted more for action roles, the closest he comes to a similar literary character is in the HBO film Hemingway and Gellhorn, about a romance between the American writer and a World War II correspondent. Words and Pictures is a romance as well following the usual format wherein the two principals are kept apart for most of the story but come together at the conclusion. This is an entertaining picture though overlong, particularly irritating in Owen’s its repetitions of word etymologies as though to one-up his female opponent.

The unreality of the entire tale is not unlike several other stories about teachers such as Mike Akel’s 2006 movie Chalk, an improvisational take on the high-school experience as told from the points of view of the educators. In both cases, each teacher appears to have only one class, the one in which they spend all their energy. Given the efforts made by Dina Delsanto and Jack Marcus, who give themselves over to their honors group, there is no way they could have anything left to spend on the less brainy youngsters, which means that we have to suspend disbelief and pretend that they each spend an hour a day leading discussions and the rest of the time to, well, in the case of Marcus, to vodka and for Delsanto, to paint.

To the credit of the Juliette Binoche, a French-born actress completely fluent in English, all the paintings on display in this film are her real-life own. Her character uses the canvases as the needed prop to try to convince the faculty and students that pictures are worth thousands of words, while for his part, Jack Marcus quotes from the great authors with a special emphasis on John Updike, to paint metaphoric pictures. Never mind that he is apparently facing so much writers’ block that he has to steal a poem of his twenty-something son to pass off as his own, all in the service of keeping his literary magazine alive and to retain his job despite some awkward moments of drunkenness.

For their part, the students in this rom-com run the gamut of brainy and ordinary, wise-ass and naïve, one of them, Swint (Adam DiMarco) making the serious mistake of posting an embarrassing picture of Emily (Valerie Tian), the woman he regularly harasses, on Facebook. Words and Pictures has its moments, but given the irritating nature of the principal character and at least one of the teens destined to be expelled and the overused concept of class warfare, so to speak, the picture outlives its otherwise warm welcome.

Rated PG-13. 111 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 


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