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Wladyslaw Pasikowski's
Aftermath (Poklosie)
Opens Friday, November 1, 2013

Screenwriter: Wladyslaw Pasikowski

Starring: Marcej Stuhr, Ireneusz Czop, Jerzy Radziwilowicz, Zuzana Fialová, Andrzej Mastalerz, Zbigniew Zamachowski

Menemsha Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com

One mystery that has remains resolved by historians, psychologists, philosophers, sociologists and thinking people everywhere is this: why is it that on the whole, some nations acts morally and some do not? World War II provides an excellent example. As the Nazis conquered one state after another, the people under German occupation resisted and collaborated to different degrees. The Danes acted well: when word got out that the Jews would be rounded up, Danes got thousands of them together and enabled them to escape to neutral Sweden. Albanians were great: they “converted” Jews to Islam and dressed them as shepherds: as a result, Albania had more Jews after the Holocaust than before. On the other hand, France acted largely in an immoral way, the gendarmes helping to round up the Jews for deportation to the camps. While many Polish people risked their lives by hiding Jews, at least one incident in their history stands out as the most atrocious. In 1941 in the village of Jebwabne (see the book Neighbors by Jan Gross), the Catholic population did not turn Jews over to Germans, but assured the Nazis that they, the Poles, would personally do what the SS had set out to do from the start. They herded the Jewish citizens together in a building and burned it to the ground, women, men, and children alike, then stole the property of the departed. Fearing that their heirs might some day come back, they were alert to any situation that might force them under current laws to return the property to the rightful owners.

Thereby comes the fictionalized tale, based on this actual event, as constructed by filmmaker Wladyslaw Pasikowski. While the entire story is told in the present tense with no generally expected flashbacks to the war, Aftermath is an engrossing tale well told, one which has been banned in parts of Poland despite being shown at the Warsaw Film Festival to an audience partly enraged, partly somber. Polish people are not ‘fessing up to what their grandparents may have done in this rural area, and treat those who insist on digging up the truth in the most hostile and even violent way.

The two people who angered Poles the most in this narrative are Franek Kalina (Ireneusz Czop) and his estranged brother Józek (Maciej Stuhr). Franek, who did not attend the funeral of his parents as did his more conventional brother Józek, returns from his residence in Chicago to the village for the first time in decades, where he is met with understandable hostility not only from Józek but from almost all the local farmers and tradespeople. Both retain anti-Jewish feelings; Franek by insisting that “the Yids” have the Chicago industries so under control that “it’s difficult for a Pole to make a buck.” Józek’s view is more complicated. Though he, like his neighbors, considers Jews not to be “real Poles,” he has mysteriously dug up some stones used to pave the roads because the roadway is built with the gravestones of the departed Jews. He more or less insists that he’d do this for any group because “it’s not right to desecrate a cemetery.”

Now and then violence from the village breaks out against both brothers and Józek’s home, a shack, really, is filled with graffiti, a big “Jude” greeting passersby, and his dog is decapitated with a scythe. While Franek is dumfounded by his brothers’ actions, he slowly comes around to his kin’s morality as they learn the truth through visits to some older people who remember the atrocity and by looking at the municipal land records from a friendly caretaker.

Though Pasikowski hammers away at the unsavory actions of today’s villagers in much the way that Arthur Miller burrows through a similar act of corruption by suppliers to the U.S. air force in his first play, All My Sons, he appears to use blunt verbal force rather than a nuanced approach as he wants to reach as large an audience as possible—knowing that a great many people in today’s world may not have even heard of the Holocaust.

The film stands out as well because Pasikowski does not take the usual road of using Jews to find out about their unfortunate brethren but employs and all-Gentile Polish cast to recreate the events of that fateful year. Terrific acting by Ireneusz Czop and Maciej Stuhr, who in one scene appear to recreate the story of Cain and Abel, lifts this film into what could have been a tired history lesson into a force made all the more riveting because the writer-director takes appropriate liberties in order to revitalize an event. Despite its occurrence over seven decades previously, the barbarity is still adamantly denied by much of Poland today.

Unrated. 107 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




David O. Russell 's
American Hustle
Opens Monday, December 16, 2013

Screenwriters: Eric Singer and David O. Russell

Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro

Columbia Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com

There’s a reason that the masses of moviegoers prefer narrative fiction to documentaries. Take this paragraph from Wikipedia on the Abscam scandal: “Until 1970, only ten members of Congress had ever been convicted of accepting bribes. In 1978, the FBI launched its first major operation to target corrupt public officials. The FBI hired Melvin Weinberg, a convicted con artist, to help plan and conduct the operation. The FBI formed Abdul Enterprises, Ltd. As its front company for the investigation. They code-named the operation Abscam, a contraction of Abdul scam.”

That’s not bad as encyclopedia articles go, perhaps because it deals with criminals and FBI agents, at least one of the latter being as corrupt in a sense as the principal forger/loan shark. But give director David O. Russell the latitude to take off, to be as undisciplined as he feels like, and you get a movie that’s more of a comedy than a police action, one in which Russell evokes from the ensemble cast a rousing tour de force with over-the-top characters that are difficult not to love.

The movie opens in a comical manner, but also one that foreshadows the phoniness and just plain human-ness of the characters. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) has an extended take applying a rug to his combover, using glue with a thin brush and carefully pasting on the hair, then whipping his own hair over the ersatz material. This guy is a phony through and through, a loan shark, a money launderer and art forger with some legit dry cleaning businesses and a beautiful spitfire of a wife, Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence). Irving’s business becomes ever more complicated as the story progresses as Rosenfeld falls for a fiery redhead, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) who joins his scams using the fake name Lady Edith and using a British accent.

When Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) becomes suspicious of Rosenfeld’s dealings, catching them in the act of one scam, he forces the man to work with the FBI in order to avoid jail, requiring him to allow the Bureau to arrest some higher-ups including Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). The money prize is two millions dollars, supposedly a down payment on ten million that the Mob under killer Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro) requires in order to set up casinos in Atlantic City.

Conflicts abound across the board, each leading to comic intervals that make the two hours and eighteen minutes fly by. Rosalyn is envious of her husband’s new mistress, Sydney. FBI agent DiMaso falls hard for Sydney, humiliating himself to get the lass to his bed. And DiMaso is having problems with his straight-laced boss, Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.), the latter unwilling to use two million of FBI money for the sting. Carmine and Irving, by contrast, form a duo of mutual admiration, the mayor having no idea that he’s being entrapped.

Zany as the picture is, there is a lack of tension throughout, though maybe this is what director Russell and co-scripted Eric Singer choose—to bring out the comic nature of bureaucrats and criminals, and provide more than enough fodder to embrace the war between the sexes.

Crew members do a bang-up job, particularly Linus Sandrgen behind the lenses, Jay Cassidy as editor and everyone associated with providing the cast with the ugly costumes of the late seventies and early eighties.

While the actual arrests of congressmen, one senator and some state officials are doubtless more serious in real life, this movie gives the impression that life is a jolly carousel of human nature, with crime-busters and lawbreakers going full circle.

Rated R. 138 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Adam McKay's
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
Opens December 18, 2013

Screenwriter: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay

Starring: Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner, Christina Applegate, Kristen Wiig


Paramount Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com


There’s a reasonable chance that the majority of the audience for Anchorman 2 is not familiar with the newscasts of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow. In one appearance, Cronkite broke down in tears during his historic newscast announcing the death of J.F.K. Not only were these two anchors reporting on the highest level, but their producers, trusting the audience, gave them stories of international importance to involve their following. Now, however, their places have been taken by pretty faces, often a man-woman team who appear lovey-dovey with each other, and they are given principally items of local interest as though what happens in the immediate area is more important than what's breaking in North Korea or Syria or Chile. Goodness knows the current practice favored by TV news producers is ripe for satire. They may be giving the audience what it wants, but perhaps the news teams are themselves creating these desires to some extent.

When director Adam McKay takes on the role of satirist, using his own screenplay co-written with Will Ferrell, he throws situations at us that are so off-the-wall absurdist that we forget that there’s really nothing either satiric of comic going on. The guys and gals of the news teams seem often to be riffing without any script at all, simply shouting their lines or acting in mock fights with one another to take the place of anything meaningful. Physical comedy is fine: but Anchorman 2 does not give us physical comedy to laugh with, though, granted, there will be some in the youthful audience for this parody who don’t “get it,” who don’t see that there’s a reason to send up the ways that news is presented on TV (if they can break away from their smart-phones long enough to watch a segment at all).

There’s nary a person on board in this movie who is not cartoonish and who thereby can involve an audience for two hours with their high-jinx. Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), having been fired from his slot as anchor in San Diego (which he pronounces, two or three times as “San Dee AH GO” ho ho ho) is fired by the producer (Harrison Ford) but his co-anchor, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Appelgate), who happens to be his wife, is kept on. It’s the early 1980’s: a producer (Dylan Baker) of a new 24-hour news service known as GNN, the Global News Network, offers him a job on the graveyard shift, allowing him to round up his old news team of Champ Kind (David Koechner), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), and weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell). We are introduced to Brick Tamland when he delivers a eulogy at his own funeral, shouting and moaning, crying and shaking, until he finds out that he’s still alive (don’t ask).

When the team decides to give the public what it wants to hear and not what it really needs,such as focusing on car chases, cute animals, and blatant national chauvinsim, their ratings soar, getting the attention of their boss Linda Jackson (Meagan Good) and the network’s Australian billionaire owner (Josh Lawson). When Burgundy is introduced to Jackson, his only retort is “black.” He repeats this as though possessed by a demon: “black.” If you find that amusing, go for it.

Like the blazing finale of a Macy’s fireworks show on the fourth of July, McKay (or should I say producer Judd Apatow) pulls out the stops, bringing in cameo performances from some of the best-known names in cinema, all sporting for a free-for-all fight principally against the team of the previous news star, handsome and hubristic Jack Lime (James Marsden)—a fight that includes the participation of a minotaur.

For the women in the audience, there’s more than a touch of formulaic sentimentality. Burgundy’s seven-year-old son, giving a piano concert before an SRO crowd, wants only to see his dad in the audience. Will Burgundy forgo a part of his career to bond with his estranged wife and lonely boy? There is, however, a single scene of great comic merit when Linda Jackson invites her latest beau to dinner with her extended family. Burgundy jive-talks the table, inappropriately of course, but that gem of a reversal of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, cannot be maintained either before or after its clever scene.

Rated R. 119 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Frederick Wiseman’s
Documentary Feature
At Berkeley
Opens Friday, November 8, 2013

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 51st Annual New York Film Festival

There are so many engaging ideas presented in Frederick Wiseman’s sprawling, 4-hour documentary, At Berkeley, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all of the debate and discourse being depicted. But Wiseman carefully and thoughtfully peppers this work with plenty of regroup moments where minutiae-laden campus shots/lab moments, like a robot trying to fold a piece of cloth and other not-as-dull scenes—like musical interludes and theatrical presentations—allow the viewer a respite.

Wiseman, now in his 80s, has been making important documentaries for decades--he began with the seminal Titicut Follies in 1967—and he shows no signs of slowing down.

His subject this time is the University of California at Berkeley, a school many consider to be the best public University in the U.S. It’s an institution with a rich history of leadership and research, but also a place where protest flourished in the 60s and 70s—against the Vietnam War as well as for free speech.

Way back when, Berkeley was a free school, today it’s riddled with economic hardships and tuition is on the rise each year.

The film captures many debates among faculty and students as well as administration. Wiseman allows lengthy segments to go on unedited allowing us more than just a glimpse into what goes on at Berkeley. He doesn’t bother clueing the viewer in on who is speaking. It doesn’t matter as much as what is being said.

A Caribbean student discusses how, in her country, schooling is completely paid for as opposed to the U.S. That same debate brings up how anti-education the U.S. has become.

A renowned cancer research professor discusses how impossible it was to get respectability and funding because her hypothesis that cancer was an organ-specific disease was considered too radical way back when, but she believed in her convictions and, “they now give me so much money I don’t know what to do with it.” Her mantra being to not listen to anyone and “always think outside the box.”

We also learn that the campus mainframe network is attacked (and hack attempted) millions of times a day.

In the doc’s second half, the campus readies for a demonstration by students and the amount of thought that goes into preparing for anything and everything that might occur is pretty astonishing. The day comes and about 300 students march through campus and into the library with a list of “impossible demands,” one of which is that ‘education is a right and should be free.’ How sad is it that this notion cannot even be taken seriously?

At Berkeley should provoke its own amount of dialogue and debate. So many urgent ideas and issues are raised and while Wiseman could have had a tight-fitted 2-½ hour film, he chose to feature a greater spectrum of this legendary school and, in doing so, has made a work that will be remembered for many years to come.




Brian Percival's
The Book Thief
Opens Friday, November 8, 2013

Screenwriter: Michael Petroni

Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nélisse, Barbara Auer, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch, Levin Liam, Roger Allam

20th Century Fox

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com

When I was a kid during World War 2, I would note that everyone on the subway would be reading a newspaper, usually the Daily News, the Daily Mirror, or the NY Post. Take a look nowadays and you’ll likely find nobody with a paper in hand but many, instead, with a gadget that appears glued to every young woman’s left hand from which she presses buttons. That’s the extent of reading and writing enjoyed especially by today’s under-35 generation. These folks would find it incredible that at one time, an eleven year old girl, illiterate to boot, would learn to read and fall in love with books to such an extent that she would even risk censure by the authorities when she dared to save a volume from the fires of the Nazi book burners.

The time of this girl’s coming of age is 1938. The book that tells us all about her is by Mark Zusak, a best-seller which has now been adapted by Brian Percival into a quiet, serious, leisurely paced movie, script by Michael Petroni, a film that pays homage to some people’s humanity when that important trait is being squashed by the Nazi onslaught. There are just a few melodramatic touches: an air raid with devastating effects when shattering homes and killing sleeping civilians of a small German town; the beating of a man while a crowd watches; the breaking of glass in Jewish-owned stores on Kristallnacht; the fervent singing of “Deutschland über alles.”

In adapting the book to celluloid, Percival and Petronia needed to drop some subplots, but we all get the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, from this solid movie which could find an audience of all ages. (Its PG-13 rating should encourage parents to take their little ones to the movie, particularly since it’s told from the standpoint of an eleven-year-old.)

As narrated by Death (Roger Allam) whose presence bookmarks the story and who warns us that “nobody lives forever,” we are introduced to the one living person in whom the Grim Reaper is interested during her time on earth. That person is 11-year-old Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse—a French Canadian actress), who travels by train with her mother and her younger brother, the sibling dying during the ride. The mother is presumably arrested by the Nazis for being a communist, and Liesel is brought up by the termagant Rosa (Emily Watson) and her husband Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush). Because Hans does not join the Nazi Party, he is essentially unemployed but is a mensch, the sort who would have no truck with extremist political views and who gently and patiently teaches his adopted daughter to read and to love books. In fact Liesel’s romance with the printed page motivates her to steal—or “borrow”—books from the home of the burgomeister’s wife, Frau Hermann (Barbara Auer) whenever Liesel arrives with the laundry that Rosa prepares to get by.

Much goes on in Liesel’s life to make 1938 and the seasons following the years of her coming of age: her friendship with next-door neighbor, young Rudy (Nico Liersch) who, despite his golden-blonde locks and clipped hair style has no love for the National Socialists and whose major goal at age eleven is to kiss Liesel; the lessons she receives from Jewish Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), who is being hidden by Hans and Rosa because his father saved Hans’s life during World War I. The cryptic message she gets from Max is that Jews are despised because they remind people of their humanity.

The film is slow-moving, respectful of an audience that does not require many explosions or melodramatic flourishes during the war, photographed by Florian Ballhaus to evoke the temper of a small town, swastikas on every street corner. In other words, don’t expect the vivid action of Inglourious Basterds (a plan to assassinate Nazi leaders) or of Blackbook (Dutch resistance in action). No SS or German soldiers shot or stabbed from behind, no trains derailed by the Resistance, not even news coming across of German actions to take Moscow. Though you may chafe at the use of English with only a few German words like “nein” and “ja,” the English subtitles for extended sentences are clear.

In other words, though the war is the obvious background, we’re treated to a young person’s love of books, an affection that could have been acquired anywhere. Nor does it hinder the story that it’s anchored by Sophie Nélisse’s authentic performance as a kid who like others of her time are forced to grow up too fast.

Rated PG-13. 131 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Felix Van Groeningen's
The Broken Circle Breakdown
Opens Friday, November 1, 2013

Screenwriter: Carl Joos, Felix Van Groeningen

Starring: Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse, Geert Van Rampelberg, Nils De Caster, Robbie Cleiren, Bert Huysentruyt, Jan Bijvoet

Tribeca Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com

Belgium’s candidate for the Foreign Language Oscar is not only a gem from that small country, but is the most powerful film of the year to date. A shattering tale of how the death of a six-year-old daughter from cancer leads to a marital Armageddon is intense, riveting, absorbing, engaging in every frame. What’s more “The Broken Circle Breakdown” (forget the awkward title) is loaded with moments of passion, humor, and an array of the best bluegrass music heard on the screen since Kentucky-born Bill Munroe and the Bluegrass Boys captured the interest of fans of Americana in song during Monroe’s seventy years’ career as a mandolin player.

Felix Van Groeningen’s film, stunningly adapted for the big screen from a stage play by Johan Heldenbergh (a lead performer in the film) and Mieke Dobbels is crammed with enough music to convince an audience that “Belgian bluegrass” is in no way on oxymoron.

The film brings to mind Ingmar Bergman’s six-episode TV series in 1973 that focuses on ten years of a marriage between one Marianne and one Johan. If a message can be culled from both the Bergman and the Groeningen, it’s the adage that marriage requires work. When two people join in matrimony, they are not one person. The woman and the man remain different people whose beliefs and ways of coping with life’s sorrows and joys can never be entirely coincident. With a script from the director and Carl Joos, the film hones in on a couple living in Ghent, Belgium speaking in Flemish, also called Belgian Dutch, and singing now and then in perfectly-accented English. The story of Elise Vandevelde (Veerle Baetens) and her lover and husband Didier Bontinck (Johan Heldenbergh) is one filled, as is most marriages with great joy and heartbreaking sadness.

Van Groeningen wisely chooses to abandon straight chronology, as editor Nico Leunen shifts seamless to illustrate moments of passion juxtaposed with days of unrelenting grief as six-year-old Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), seen with thinning hair and ultimately bald, is destined to die of cancer. What may be unusual in her parents’ distress is that both Elise and Didier become equally unmoored by the tragedy, though when Elise first announced her pregnancy, Didier was enraged, accusing Elise of tricking him, affirming that having a child was the furthest thing from his mind.

The fairly graphic sexual scenes that accompany their first years together give way to furious arguments, as each blames the other for their daughter’s cancer. She smoked and drank during the first months of pregnancy, allegedly before she knew about her condition. He had cancer in his family. Though they continue to sing together despite the hostility, the marriage is breaking apart and then some.

One can but wonder whether the five thousand voters in the Academy will be encouraged by Didier’s statement that America is his favorite country, a place where the sky’s the limit and anyone with the right attitude can rise to the heavens. (Apparently he had not heard Robert Reich’s points of view in this year’s terrific documentary Inequality for All.) Nor does it hurt that Didier is a fan of Elvis Presley and that his wife would change her name from Elise to Alabama—“just like the Indians did whenever they felt like.”

In a tonal deviation that may dismay some in the audience but which is true to Didier’s atheism, is his rant in front of an audience against George W. Bush who, in a veto speech, put a curb on embryonic stem cells. If anyone could have predicted that Elise and Didier’s marriage (performed jokingly by a minister who imitates Elvis) would not last, it is that Elise, who runs a tattoo parlor, is devout enough to believe that her daughter has become a star in the heavens, while Didier is a romantic realist who attacks even God in an electrifying monologue.

Acting is tops all around with particular kudos to Nell Cattrysse in the role of six-year-old Maybelle, a young woman who presumably agreed to have her head shaved and allow tubes to be attached to various parts of her small body. As Elise, Veerle Baetens, who formed her own band in Belgium last year, is a sensation, doing her own singing as does Johan Heldenbergh. Other band members harmonize delightfully.

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




Fredrik Bond's
Charlie Countryman
Opens Friday, November 15, 2013

Screenwriter: Matt Drake

Starring: Melissa Leo, Shia LaBeouf, Mads Mikkelsen, Evan Rachel Wood, Rupert Grint, Vincent D’onofrio, James Buckley, Ion Caramitru

Millennium Entertainment

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

We in the U.S. do get a few arty movies from Romania, but rarely before now has a Romanian-based movie enjoyed (I use the word loosely) an American in two starring roles—plus a Dane and a Brit. Charlie Countryman is a prime candidate for one award nomination, and that’s the Golden Raspberry for the most dreadful movies of the year. Perhaps the whole story should be taken as tongue-in-cheek and, in fact, such an interpretation might save it from a critical and audience pan. Otherwise, it comes across as a series of episodes with few explanations, an inept use of magic realism, and an anti-hero played by a wide-eyed Shia LaBeouf who falls in love at first sight with a Romanian woman. She speaks fluent English with an Eastern European accent and goes through much of her performance as though zonked out on weed. A credit must be given to the studio’s makeup team, which manages to convert one of our most adorable actresses into a lifeless, overly painted but largely inactive zombie.

We see early on that the film deals with absurdism when the title character’s mother (Melissa Leo) dies in the hospital and then, yes after dying, counsels her son Charlie (Shia LaBeouf) to travel to Bucharest. No, she did not recommend Budapest as everyone around Charlie assumes. Or did she? On the plane his seatmate, Victor (Ion Caramitru), a Romanian fan of the Chicago Cubs, drops dead, but that doesn’t stop him from asking Charlie to deliver a gift to his daughter Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood)—a cello player who worked in a strip joint. Maybe that second profession attracted her to a local gangster Nigel (Mads Mikkelsen), who became her husband, and who gets involved with Charlie when he watches Charlie in the throes of romantic connection with Gabi.

Anyone with Gabi’s looks would not look twice at the disheveled, depressed Chicagoan, who has no idea why he is in Bucharest save for mom’s unlikely and unfortunate counsel. He looks bad: scruffy beard and uneven mustache, long hair unattractively styled, clothes that are sloppy even by the standards of American touristm. But his demeanor does allow him to become friends with two fellows in a youth hostel (Rupert Grint, James Buckley), who encourage Charlie to “experiment” with Ecstasy. That pill is more or less what anyone would need to feel a connection with those guys.

We find out that the late Romanian passenger’s love for the Chicago “Cubbies” could be a metaphor for a tape labeled Chicago Cubs 1995, an incriminating document that Nigel needs to recover and which motivates the gangster to beat Charlie to a pulp without dampening his interest in Gabi. Surprising, though, there’s no particular chemistry between Gabi and Charlie, despite their sexual embrace which comes out of nowhere even as Gabi notes that she “belongs” with Nigel. Nigel’s gangster associate Darko (Til Schweiger) specializes in shaking down tourist sin a strip joint for lots and lots of lei, specifically 9,000, which comes to $2700 in U.S. currency.

The ending is even more absurd than the magic realism. The Romanian Tourist Board is not going to like what it sees, nor will many American filmgoers be encouraged to switch their itineraries from Budapest to Bucharest.

Rated R. 108 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Jean-Marc Vallée's
Dallas Buyers Club
Opens Friday, November 1, 2013

Screenwriter: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Dallas Roberts, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne

Focus Features

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com

Followers of the politically conservative Tea Party are more likely than most others to be opposed to gay marriage and to the gay lifestyle in general. Many of these folks may find watching Dallas Buyers Club to be an unpleasant experience, given the scenes of a gay bar, a prominent actor in the role of a trans-sexual (or transvestite), and support groups for people afflicted with HIV or full-blown AIDS. Ironically, though, Tea Party people will support the struggle of one person with HIV to find a treatment for his affliction beyond road blocks by establishment doctors and particularly the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), the latter group doing its best to red-light drugs that could have a positive effect on the illness. This is because of the Tea Party’s small-government ideology, its mistrust of the agencies of the federal government in particular. These conservatives may well cheer the trials of a man who has no use for the FDA and who thinks outside the box by going to Mexico, Japan, Israel and the Netherlands to accumulate unapproved drugs that might have a favorable effect on the disease.

Dallas Buyers Club is inspired by Bill Minutagio’s lengthy article published in 1992 by the Dallas Morning News about a real person, Ron Woodroof (played here by Matthew McConaughey), who it not only a hero to the HIV/AIDS community but who is redeemed as a result of his illness. If McConaughey is barely recognizable from start to finish, that could be because he lost thirty-eight pounds for the role, transforming him from the comely metrosexual type he portrayed together with Scarlet Johansson in commercials for Dolce & Gabbana into the sickly pale, anemic Woodroof in the film.

As for Woodroof’s character, he is introduced as a gambler, a drinker, a cocaine user and a sex addict who has little trouble finding women to satisfy his lust—as we see early on at a rodeo when he pleasures a woman and himself standing up while shaded by some wooden boards. Like some of the good ol’ boys he hangs with, he has no use for “faggots,” but all this is about to change soon after he is diagnosed with HIV, given thirty days to live, and almost attacks the doctor for implying that he is homosexual. The year is 1985: doctors apparently do not realize that a man can acquire HIV through sexual contact with infected women. They therefore make Woodroff furious by implying that he is gay.

Woodroof goes quickly through the Kübler-Ross stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. He is applauded by HIV-positive men for giving them hope through alternative drugs and herbs and cheered as well by Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), a doctor in a Dallas hospital who in stages starts to empathize with the work that Woodroof is doing to skirt around the FDA prohibitions. He continues throughout the story to drink, snort, smoke and get into fistfights, but no more women. When he meets Rayon (Jared Leto) in the hospital, he at first pushes the trans-sexual away, given his homophobia, but predictably, he changes to embrace the man and to make sure that his homophobic cop brother (Steve Zahn) extends his hand to shake the one offered by Rayon.

I’m not a gambling man like Woodroof, but I’ll wager any time that McConaughey will be one of the five nominees for best actor not only at the Oscars but among the many guilds including Golden Globes that are an annual tradition with cinephiles and ordinary folks alike. It’s not just that he went through the rigors of losing those thirty-eight pounds, which presumably he put back in time to take the role of Mark Hanna in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. (Or perhaps he went through that role before that of Woodroof.) Jared Leto, a shoo-in for a nomination for best supporting actor in the role of Woodroof’s number one pal, could be credited with helping to motive McConaughey’s performance. The two share palpable chemistry. Speaking of being unrecognizable, Leto, in a low-cut dress and a fashionable wig looks hot: if you didn’t know him, you might not figure out his gender.

Dallas Buyers Club, is in a way a follow-up to last year’s fantastic doc How to Survive a Plague, about a group of citizens who demonstrate forcibly to push the FDA into speeding up the approval process on HIV/AIDS drugs. Director Jean-Marc Valée, whose 2005 film C.R.A.Z.Y deals with a sexually confused boy who tries to live up to his traditional father’s ideals, gets the title of this movie from the club that Woodroof sets up to deliver alternative drugs, herbs and vitamins to subscribers at $400 a month—the pills are free. Woodroof has to fight with not only the F.D.A. which to this day drags its feet on many drugs (perhaps because of the Thalidomide disaster) but also with the I.R.S. that seeks to confiscate the man’s thousands of pills, leading him to sue the agency in San Francisco federal court. This riveting movie earns the attention that audiences will give it throughout its almost two-hour running time.

Rated R. 117 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

 





Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee’s
Frozen

Opens Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Written by: Jennifer Lee; Story by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Shane Morris

Inspired by The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson

Songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Robert Lopez

Voices: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Ciaran Hinds.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

It’s been a long time since I have been excited about an animated feature (yes, that includes Pixar). Exceptional films are being made, but I don’t believe anything truly daring has been done in, well, decades.

That changed when I saw Disney’s dizzyingly delightful new musical, Frozen, a truly magical combination of original storytelling, crisp dialogue, gorgeous 3-D visuals and truly terrific songs. All under the charmed guidance of directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (who has the distinction of being the first female helmer of a Disney animated film—and it’s about time!)

The movie made me feel deliriously giddy—embarrassingly so, not just because it was rich with keen songs and layered characterizations, but also because the film is quite startling and bold—especially for a Disney movie.

Frozen will transport audiences, young and old, to an enchanted world—which we expect--but some the themes explored and messages that can be gleaned are truly modern--some downright subversive--proving that Uncle Walt’s pioneering past is giving way to a potentially audacious future.

Will the geeky blogger boy’s club even be aware of how groundbreaking Frozen is? Who cares! The point is there is now a new pair of Disney royals in the pantheon that will leave young boys and girls with empowering thoughts and feelings—that it is never good to suppress your true nature and that, true love, does not only exist between a Prince and his Princess. There are different definitions of love—and some are more powerful than the single-minded one our grandparents and parents were sold on (by most Hollywood films and, yes, Disney).

Frozen gives us TWO central female characters, each her own person—or, at least, on her way to exploring what that means.

Elsa and Anna are sister Princesses of Arendelle, a Scandinavian kingdom somewhere far north. We learn early on that Elsa has powers that confound her parents—she is able to create snow and ice from a wave of her hands. While playing with her beloved sibling, she points her fingers towards Anna and almost kills her. This leads her parents to lock her up in her room where she can no longer hurt anyone. Instead of trying to understand their daughter, they decide it’s best to alienate and ignore her—and to shun this shame from the rest of the world. The well-meaning but misguided parents (karmically?) die in a shipwreck.

Now in her late teens, Elsa has become a guarded, angry ice Queen, while Anna develops into a curious, flighty and chatty young girl. On coronation day, Elsa, next in line for the throne, sees her powers exposed. Again, instead of trying to understand her, the town deems she’s an evil sorceress who must be stopped. But Elsa is much stronger than she even realizes and as she escapes the suffocating and stifling townies, she creates her own frosty palace, leaving the village with a deadly winter in her wake.

Confused but loyal to her sister, Anna leaves Arendelle in pursuit of Elsa, hoping for an end to their estrangement. She leaves Prince Hans in charge—a dashing chap she has just met and instantly fallen for. Along her journey, Anna is helped by a handsome, if bumbling Swede, Kristoff, his reindeer Sven, and a cockeyed-optimist snowman named Olaf.

Not to spoil the ending (skip this paragraph), but in order to save one sister, the other must commit an “act of true love.” So everyone is expecting the obvious, “true love’s kiss.” Suffice to say, there is nothing obvious about what this innovative gem of a film has to say about love, loyalty and what is truly lasting.

The score has been expertly crafted by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Avenue Q, Book of Mormon) and would be easily adaptable for the stage if they ever wish to do so—hint, hint!

Jennifer Lee’s clever, insightful and entertaining script insists on a realism and authenticity that is seldom on display in animated films.

The film’s look is quite new (the stark icy production design enraptures) and yet reminiscent of the best of the later MGM musicals (Gigi and Seven Brides came to mind for some reason).

The voice-ensemble proves perfection, beginning with the spunky and splendiferous Kristin Bell who happens to sing magnificently. Anna’s 'come alive' song, “For the First Time in Forever,” is rich with the yearnings of a sheltered girl who has dreamed of breaking free from her prison (castle). It’s harkens back to “Part of Your World,” from The Little Mermaid.

The fabulous Broadway Diva, Idina Menzel, captures the humiliation, fear, contempt and triumph of a girl becoming a woman and learning to not only accept herself but, also, celebrate her unconventionality. Haunted by the fact that she hurt her sister, Menzel shows us the isolation and trepidation she’s learned to fold herself into—which is why once she explodes, it’s rather spectacular.

The showstopper, “Let it Go,” is Elsa’s purging and possibly the best Disney Diva power song ever for so many reasons. It’s her release from repression--from the disgrace she’s made to feel by her parents—from her self-imposed desire to “fit in.” Had Elsa’s gifts been celebrated and honed, she might have used them to do tremendous good. Instead, she’s forced to defend herself and use them for destructive reasons. The song is her way of saying a big “screw you” to everyone who has ever made her feel substandard.

“Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know. Well, now they know.”

It’s such a potent proclamation of independence for anyone whose ever been made to feel inadequate or handicapped because he/she is unique-- something other than what is considered “normal”--and then coming to the realization that he/she is exactly what they’re meant to be. Mentioning the obvious: it’s an instant gay anthem.

The supporting males are all strong, especially Jonathan Groff as Kristoff, Santino Fontana as the duplicitous Prince Hans and Josh Gad as Olaf.

And speaking of Olaf, he’s the most pandering character in the film—on the surface—but proving just how dense these creations are, Olaf is a much more complex creature when you look deeper. He’s oblivious to his own precarious situation (the fact the he can melt if the weather turns) so he is willing to be heroic without any self-realization. He simply behaves the way you’d expect a moral/ethical person (creature) to behave. And it allows the Lopez’s to have a lot of fun with the hilarious, “In Summer.”

Despite its icy title and gloriously glacial content, Frozen leaves you with a warm, fuzzy feeling, but not the kind you usually get from Disney films—a new, thrilling impression that someone gets you. FOR you.

Frozen is one of 2013’s best films.




Gary Entin’s
Geography Club
Opens Friday, November 15, 2013

Written by Edmund Entin, based on the Brent Hartinger novel.

Starring: Cameron Stewart, Justin Deeley, Andrew Caldwell, Nikki Blonsky, Ally Maki, Scott Bakula, Ana Gasteyer, Grant Harvey.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at Newfest 2013

Geography Club is a film that could and should be shown in high schools across the USA.

Directed by Gary Entin, based on the book by Brent Hartinger and adapted by Edmund Entin (Gary’s twin), the film shows us just how far we’ve come with gay acceptance in this country, yet how far we still have to go when it comes to the way school systems still force antiquated notions of normalcy and where ‘fitting in’ is something every young person must cope with. And that no matter how ‘accepting’ people are, one must learn to accept himself/herself first—and that is never easy.

Good looking sixteen-year old geek Russell (Cameron Deane Stewart) is struggling with his sexuality and with the fact that he’s fallen for gorgeous, football jock Kevin (model Justin Deeley). Kevin has gotten Russell a spot on the team so he can hang out with him without raising any eyebrows. An Asian student, Min (Ally Maki) catches the two making out and sends notes to each inviting them to the Geography Club—which is a ruse for a room where gay and lesbian students can secretly meet.

Russell soon finds himself bullying fellow teammates in order to gain the acceptance of the jocks but after a few humiliating incidents, he decides he’s ready to come out. It’s a bold move for a teen. But will Kevin follow suit? And will his fellow misfits support him?

Geography Club is The Breakfast Club meets Get Real (a Brit gem from 1998), a timely, trenchant comedy that has quite a bit to say about what it’s like to come out in 2013 but doesn’t feel the necessity to be didactic or melodramatic.

Stewart’s winsome and charming performance anchors the film. And Deeley is more than just eye-candy; his tormented jock turn—despite the fact that his family is so accepting—encapsulates the insecurities every teen feels at one time or another.

Slickly made and cast very well, Geography Club sends a clear and pertinent message out to young America about the actual joys of being different and how empowering that can be. It takes balls to stand up and acknowledge who and what you are—especially when you’re at an age where you’re still trying to figure it all out.

NEWFEST: Screenings will take place at The Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. 165 W.65th St, New York, NY 10023 (between Broadway and Amsterdam) and the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th Street, New York, NY 10023. Tickets are $13; $8 for members of NewFest and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Special prices apply to the Opening and Closing Night screenings.

Visit www.FilmLinc.com for complete information.


 


Paolo Sorrentino’s
The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)
Opens Friday, November 15, 2013

Written by: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Conarello

Starring: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso, Iaia Forte, Pamela Villoresi, Galatea Ranzi, Massimo DeFrancovich, Roberto Herlitzka, Isabella Ferrari, Dario Cantarelli, Giulio Brogi

In Italian with English subtitles.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

With his sixth feature film, Paolo Sorrentino has fashioned a Rome that reeks of today—warts and all--and that includes the growing financial mess, increasing political confusion (if you can imagine Italian politics getting any more confusing), spiritual psychosis, sexual sterility, wasted talent and the city’s eternal magnificence, despite all the madness—sacred and profane.

The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) is one of the most delightfully entertaining, visually sumptuous and smartly written motion pictures of 2013. This is Italy’s Foreign Language Film entry and, if there’s any justice, it will be nominated. (I say this knowing full well it’s a banner year for foreign films—The Past being another gem that shouldn’t be overlooked).

Paying homage to Federico Fellini’s Roma, La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ as well as other personal filmmakers (Scola, Bergman and even Bunuel came to mind), but giving it his own Sorrentinian stamp and spin, The Great Beauty is a passionate, glorious, grand and glossy valentine to Rome and all it’s complexities, paradoxes and bizarreness.

After last year’s highly personal, deeply strange and richly satisfying, This Must Be the Place, his first English-language film, Sorrentino takes on the an epic, often-surreal, omnibus-esque endeavor grounded by the central character’s personal odyssey through his past and present and to his future--in search of beauty and meaning.

Jep Gambardella (the extraordinary Toni Servillo) is a semi-misanthropic, 65-year-old journalist who wrote one novel, considered a masterpiece, forty years ago and has not been able to write a second one. Jep has become obsessed with aging, haunted by his past and dogged by thoughts of what his legacy will be. “I can’t waste anymore time doing things I don’t want to do,” he firmly offers. He’s a jaded, cultured figure who parties hard and ponders even harder. He’s an observer who used to be a true trendsetter. There are so many layers to this character who seems to believably become more enlightened as the film progresses.

The episodic, highly stylized film follows Jep’s personal spiritual, psychological and sexual journey from decadence to transcendence (and back again, depending on what you take away from the film) in a 142-minute adventure that, shockingly, seems too short.

I don’t wish to give away too much since the movie is filled with so many offbeat, fabulous segments. Suffice to say some of my favorite moments involve the following: a reluctant child artist, an angry performance artist, rules at a funeral, a popular plastic surgeon and his clients, a giraffe and a ravaged 104-year-old nun, who may or may not be a saint, and her relationship with a slew of pink flamingos.

Through all of it Sorrentino is commenting on how we’ve lost a connection—with one another—but also with nature—with beauty—with the spiritual—with our own journeys. He is also making a statement about how we never really know one another, usually because we choose not to. Empathy has become virtually extinct. Ego has, instead, taken root.

And in a country where Catholicism is so deeply rooted, the notion of accepting and never questioning has created a culture of people who, instead of facing the harshness of reality choose to immerse themselves in fantasy, to indulge in, la dolce vita.

There is an instantly classic scene involving Jep tearing into a hypocritical friend who has just finished spewing her judgment about him. With a few cutting remarks, he exposes her secrets and lies, devastating her in the process: “We’re all on the brink of despair…You’re 53 with a life in tatters like the rest of us.” It’s a scene I would like to memorize so I can repeat it if and when the necessary time comes.

The Great Beauty is dazzling cinema, resplendently photographed by Luca Bigazzi. Each and every shot is distinctly and exquisitely arranged. And production designer, Stefania Cella, is to be applauded for striking work as well.

Take note, I’m aware that I’m using a lot of superlatives but it’s not only appropriate here, it’s well deserved.

Italian cinema has been in search of the next Fellini, Visconti, Pasolini, Rossellini, DeSica, Antonioni, Bertolucci for quite a while now. There have certainly been good Italian filmmakers in the last 25 years--Tornatore, Crialese, Ozpetek, Moretti, Bellocchio, Garrone—are all masters of their craft. Sorrentino, however, is a bold and daring visionary and may well be on his way to making his mark on new Italian cinema.




Peter Segal's
Grudge Match
Opens Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Screenwriter: Tim Kelleher, Rodney Rothman

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Kim Basinger, Alan Arkin, Kevin Hart, Jon Bernthal

Warner Bros

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com

Strange thing about political correctness. It’s no longer OK in civilized company (thank goodness) to put down a people because of their gender, ethnicity, race, religion, or sexual preferences. But somehow there’s no ban on laughing at the elderly. Ironically, most razzers would rather live a long time as this is better than the alternative, which means that everyone expects to get old. What’s the logic behind making fun of what you’re bound to become? In Peter Segal’s Grudge Match, much humor is made of the idea that two people in their sixties are training to fight each other. They’re called “geriatrics” and one guy wonders whether if one of the contenders is knocked down, does he have a life support system with him to contact help.

The comedy behind Grudge Match, then, is the very fact that two people, both former light-heavyweight champs, are getting together for a third bout thirty years after their previous time in the ring. It’s a grudge match because the publicity people like to spread the word that two boxers hate each other and because in this case one guy was sleeping with the girlfriend of the other a few decades back.

In one ring, we will find Henry “Razor” Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) and in the other, Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (Robert De Niro). (De Niro? McDonnen?) Of course most of the movie takes place before the big bout, much of the dialogue boggling the imagination even more than the idea of senior citizens in boxing gloves. For example, would anyone believe that Razor’s steady girlfriend 30 years ago was Sally Rose (Kim Basinger), a woman who now is chasing after her beau with romance on her mind and apologizing for hitting the sack with his rival? Basinger, who is sixty, looks just a few hours older than she did in 1983 when she appeared as Domino Petachi in the James Bond vehicle Never Say Never Again. Maybe someone looking like her today would not give a guy like Sylvester Stallone the time of day, but then Sly is looking fit and trim. He may not have had “work done,” but he has been training long before he signed on to this movie. For his part De Niro is no Raging Bull, but he impresses us at age seventy on the chinning bar and jumping on rope.

Everyone’s in great shape- Razor, The Kid, and Sally Rose - but the screenplay could use some shaping up as it’s loaded with the usual clichés and a motor-mouth Kevin Hart in the role of Dante Slate Jr. who is promoting the fight. Alan Arkin as Louis “Lightning” Conlon gets in some comic riffs about old age as Razor’s former trainer who has just been tossed out of assisted living home for giving the staff some mouth and who has been talked into taking the spotlight again by training the former light-heavyweight champ, while Jon Bernthal milks sentiment as The Kid’s estranged son who is convinced to train his dad.

It will be refreshing to see young people going to a movie starting Christmas Day about people twice their age, and hopefully they won’t find any need to make fun of the stars because of their long residence on our planet. This is commercial fare, polished, lots of extras, the usual $$$ though it’s not likely to draw a potential audience of those following Spike Jonze, Jim Jarmusch or Paul Thomas Anderson.

Rated PG-13. 113 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Spike Jonze's
Her
Opens December 18, 2013

Screenwriter: Spike Jonze

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Platt, Matt Letscher, Portia Doubleday, Scarlett Johansson

Warner Bros. Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com

A cartoon appearing in a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine shows a man and a woman in a romantic restaurant, both looking at their hand-held phones, paying little attention to each other. This might be amusing if it weren’t so much a reflection of the truth. Look around (if you’re not presently glued to your BlackBerry) and you’ll see people in mid-conversation pausing to look at the little screens as though what is coming across digitally is more important than the human beings they’re talking to. “I’ve got to take this call,” is almost obsolete now. People currently break off their conversations in mid-sentence without an excuse to engage in texting, in sexting, or whatever distracts them from real human contact.

The harmful effects of technology provide the theme of Spike Jonze’s Her, one of the most pungent satires since Jason Reitman’s 2006 masterwork Thank You for Smoking, which featured a contest by lobbyists for the three legal agents of death—tobacco, alcohol, and gun—to see which poison is responsible for the most annual deaths. Nobody literally dies in Jonze’s take on digital insanity, but many a soul is left in limbo; heartbroken, lonely, and miserable for being jilted by electronic toys.

Jonze, whose conventional good looks belie his unconventional movies like Being John Malkovich, in which a puppeteer finds his way literally inside the head of the title character, displays a vivid sense of fantasy as expected this time around. Without condemning our digital age outright, he locates a group of people in Los Angeles who have lost their ability to relate to one another presumably because of their ever-present connection to small machines. While this is a mature work with terrific performances especially from Joaquin Phoenix in an Everyman role, Her bogs down now and then because the little instrument of destruction is not a full-bodied person but simply a voice that acts like a woman, responds with increasing love to its owner, and by emotionally reacting more and more like a real person ultimately drives its possessor to insane distraction.

Nonetheless, Her is a treat for the intelligent audience to which it is directed, a true original, yet another way that science fiction uses fantasy to afford us an entertaining look at our own time.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) has a job in an L.A. for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, a businnes that does not seem much advanced. His position is not unlike that of any writer for Hallmark Cards, dictating letters to customers to express their love, their congratulations, or what-have-you. These messages lack the gift of lyricism. Though seeming a regular guy who chats amiably with a co-worker, he is depressed by the breakup of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara). Catherine accuses him of being unable to relate emotionally, but that changes when he meets Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johannson), who is really just a creation of Artificial Intelligence. Samantha is at Theodore’s beck and call, quickly responding to his chit-chat, reading his email for him, and growing emotionally just as Theodore is regressing. He has a successful blind date with a beautiful woman (Olivia Wilde), leaving her surprisingly in the lurch and, in the film’s funniest and most imaginative moments is given a human woman who acts out a male fantasy with Theodore by taking instructions from Samantha.

Jonze turns the entire silent film industry on its head by giving a starring role to a voice without a physical presence. Johannson wholly convinces with her seductive voice, being tender when called for though in at least one instance appearing to rebel against her role as a creative of A.I. rather than a full-fledged person. Humorous points include some video games which appear just slightly more advanced than the current crop, particularly one that gives or subtracts points from a player’s score by how well the participant takes on the task of being a good mother.

Flashbacks involving Theodore and Catherine in better times before the digital revolution went haywire, the entire ensemble doing a creditable job though strictly as a background to this largely two-hander. If we leave with a final thought, it’s an old one: Reach out and touch someone.

Rated R. 119 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Kevin Macdonald’s
How I Live Now
Opened Friday, October 8, 2013

Written by: Jeremy Brock, Penelope Skinner & Tony Grisoni, based on the novel by Meg Rosoff.

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay, Tom Holland, Harley Bird, Anna Chancellor.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Saoirse Ronan makes bold career moves. Since splashing in (and receiving an Oscar nomination for) Joe Wright’s underrated Atonement in 2007, she has gone on to play Hanna in Wright’s completely underrated futuristic thriller of the same name. And just this year she’s appeared as an assassin in Geoffrey Fletcher’s directorial debut Violet and Daisy and a vampire in Neil Jordan’s Byzantium—divisive films to be certain but exciting acting choices.

Now she’s starring in Kevin Macdonald’s riveting, disturbing and frighteningly believable film adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s book, How I Live Now. Another polarizing selection, this film is either being embraced or written off. Allow me to side with those wanting to give it a warm, end-of-the-world hug.

Set in the UK countryside in the near future, Ronan plays Daisy, a perpetually pissed off teen sent to stay with relatives she hardly knows. Pretty soon her alienation turns to fascination as she embarks on a romance with her quiet step-cousin Edmund (an exceptionally appealing George MacKay) and begins to get to know her other family members (Tom Holland, Harley Bird) and enjoy her seemingly utopian surroundings. But Daisy’s coming-of-age is interrupted by the detonation of a nuclear device that devastates London and sends deadly radiation into the air. In addition, the terrorists (who we never really see too clearly) seem to be everywhere and martial law is declared. Daisy and her cousins are forced to relocate and split up.

So begins a dystopian apocalypse story that, at it’s heart, is actually a love story—something sure to turn off the more geeky bloggers. It’s The Road meets The Hunger Games and I found it quite powerful and moving.

Director Kevin MacDonald does a fiercely impressive job of keeping things interesting and surprising. The film begins with an appropriate sense of foreboding and by the time we get to some of the grislier scenes, he pulls no punches, remaining true to the film’s dank, bittersweet tone.

Holding it all together is Ronan whose character undergoes quite a transformation. It’s a magnificently realized performance. This is Daisy’s story of love and redemption and Ronan takes the journey with a fearlessness that is as bracing as it is perilous. Lucky for us, she’s there to catch herself. And enchant and enthrall us in the process.





Joel & Ethan Coen’s
Inside Llewyn Davis

Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garett Hedlund, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, F. Murray Abraham

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 51st Annual New York Film Festival

The latest celluloid creation spawned from the bizarre, treasured heads of the Coen Brothers left me positively giddy, a tad stupefied yet wishing I didn’t have to leave the world they so delicately and meticulously created—not after only 105 minutes.

As much as Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) would be tagged an anti-hero and/or ‘unlikeable’ by some viewers, I adored him—even with all his legion of idiosyncrasies, faults and eccentricities. I loved his sarcastic responses and his semi-bumbling ways, his neuroses and his ability to kick his foot so far up into his mouth, it’s a wonder he can sing at times!

Inspired by musician Dave Van Ronk and his never-completed memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street as well as Homer’s Odyssey (yes, again), the Coens have crafted their own semi-surrealistic folk music world--with great attention to period detail and atmosphere--and created a wholly original, puzzling character with Llewyn Davis.

The film begins (and ends) in Greenwich Village in 1961, at the Gaslight Café (a folk music club), in the days before Bob Dylan changed that style of music forever. Llewyn Davis sings a bewitching and bleak version of “Dink’s Song (Fare Thee Well), ” which is essentially about hanging oneself, and we are instantly taken with this oddball visual blend of Lenny Bruce, Dustin Hoffman and Che Guevera (again, we are talking looks). He’s a shlubby Phil Ochs.

Llewyn had a partner but he “threw himself off the George Washington Bridge.” One can only wonder if Llewyn may have been directly or indirectly responsible.

The guy has no money, is constantly hitting friends up for a place to stay and seems to like sleeping around but doesn’t care about responsibility. Case in point, he may or may not be the father of his folk-singer friend Jean’s child and upon hearing she is pregnant, immediately assumes she’s having an abortion. Jean is embodied by the fabulous Carey Mulligan, who is filled with the kind of anger that is deep and penetrating and can only come from a place where intense passion and love live.

Jean happens to be the wife of fellow folk singer, Jim (Justin Timberlake, in a turn that nicely plays against type), who has no clue his wife sleeps around. Jim asks Llewyn to take part in the recording of a ridiculous single called “Please, Mr. Kennedy,” (one of the film’s many treats), along with a Jew-cum-cowboy who calls himself Al Cody (an uproarious Adam Driver). In an effort to get quick money for Jean’s abortion, Lleywn signs away the rights to royalties. Guess what happens later…

At this point the film takes an even more bizarre detour as characters played by cantankerous John Goodman and gorgeous Garrett Hedlund (Dean Moriarty in Walter Salles’ On The Road, apropos casting here) and Llewyn take to the road and our protagonist suffers some major career setbacks.

In a rather devastating but equally hilarious moment, Llewyn sings for a big time club owner (F. Murray Abraham). He pours his heart and soul into the performance and the man responds, “I don’t see a lot of money here.”

It’s too easy to label Llewyn as a failure. He’s an artist who may not be committed enough to his craft. Or he may simply not have luck on his side. He’s certainly talented, but many talented people never make it.

The paradoxical nature of the character and the fact that we care so much is, in large part, a tribute to the acting talents of Oscar Isaac. This is that proverbial star-making turn. Isaac makes Llewyn vital, despite the character’s self-destructive nature. You need only watch his antics with a cat to get how enigmatic Llewyn truly is.

In the end, we hope that Llewyn finds some kind of contentment, or at the very least a gig where his artistry is fully appreciated and he doesn’t get the shit beat out of him.




Ralph Fiennes’s
The Invisible Woman

Opens Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Written by: Abi Morgan, based on the book "The Invisible Woman" by Claire Tomalin

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander, Joanna Scanlan, Tom Burke, MF, Amanda Hale, Perdita Weeks, John Kavanagh, Charissa Shearer

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 51st Annual New York Film Festival

This lush costume drama about the tortured relationship between Charles Dickens and an 18-year old girl named Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, begins charmingly enough but becomes less involving as it slogs along.

Borrowing a framing device from her script for The Iron Lady, screenwriter Abi Morgan, adapting the bio by Claire Tomalin, begins her tale with Nelly (Felicity Jones) living a lonely life. The film opens with her storming a beach, years after her affair with a certain Mr. Charles Dickens. Despite being married, she is lost and ill-at-ease, yet immersed in directing one of Dickens' collaborations for a grade school.

We move back in time to 1857 in Manchester, England when she first encounters the great Charles Dickens, who takes a passing fancy to Nelly—which soon turns into an obsession with having her. Nelly refuses his advances at first but eventually—after an interminable length of time-- succumbs.

What intrigued me most about the film is its portrayal of Dickens’ as author and father of several hundred children (only ten, really) and what a loving father he was despite the fact that he was such an egotist.

Dickens was immensely popular in his time and treated the way we treat rock stars today. Allowing a lot of his popularity to go to his head, Fiennes embodies a self-centered, self-serving man—who craved the attention fame brought him and took advantage of the women who threw themselves at him. Fiennes’ Dickens is a man full of verve and vigor chasing after his dying youth.

Dickens was immensely popular in his time and treated the way we treat rock stars today--allowing a lot of his popularity to go to his head. Fiennes embodies this self-centered, self-serving man to perfection. Fiennes' Dickens craved the attention fame brought him and took advantage of the women who threw themselves at him. He is a man full of verve and vigor chasing after his dying youth.

If only the film were as filled with energy and vitality.

I honestly could not get that excited about Felicity Jones’s performance. It’s technically good but there’s a lack of passion that frustrated me. I get that she’s repressed but some sign of life would have gone a long way towards my believing Dickens would have been attracted to her in the first place.

Joanna Scanlan, on the other hand, broke my heart, with an intense, riveting portrayal of a woman who must deal with being shunned by the love of her life, a woman being replaced by a younger, prettier one. A scene where Dickens forces her to bring Nelly a gift mistakenly brought to her, is a study in subtle devastation and capitulation.

Fiennes’ English Patient co-star, the great Kristin Scott Thomas shines in the too-smallish role of Nelly’s morally-challenged mother.

Fiennes is a deft director and the tech credits are above par across the boards, yet The Invisible Woman remains elusive to me. Perhaps that’s the point and I’m just not getting it.



Jason Reitman's
Labor Day
Opens Friday, December 27, 2013

Screenwriter: Jason Reitman, from Joyce Maynard’s novel

Starring: Josh Brolin, Kate Winslet, Gattlin Griffith, Brooke Smith, Clark Gregg, J.K. Simmons, James Van Der Beek, Maika Monroe, Alexie Gilmore, Tobey Maguire

Paramount Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com

As this film moves along at a steady pace, occasionally stopping for flashbacks, you may be thinking, “Hey, this doesn’t sound believable.” True enough: the romance between a convicted murderer and an innocent, divorced woman may not be something that has occurred to any of your neighbors, but stranger things have happened. Apropos, think of Stockholm Syndrome, the concept that a kidnap victim develops empathy for her abductor, even trying to defend him. When Patti Hearst was kidnapped in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army, this nineteen year-old would-be heir to her father’s fortune not only bonded with her radical-left captors but joined them in holding up a San Francisco bank, where she was filmed with an M1 carbine yelling orders to the customers.

Jason Reitman’s Labor Day is representative not only of Stockholm Syndrome but of its reverse side known as Lima Effect—wherein kidnappers develop so much sympathy for their victims that they release their hostages unharmed even if ransom had not been met. My advice, then, is to curb your criticism that this story is incredible—it is not: it is just unlikely—and savor the slow buildup of emotions between two adults who each have understandable reasons for their emotions and actions.

The story opens on Labor Day, allowing two people to spend a long weekend together, a five-day period in which the element of danger adds to their passion. Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet) is a lonely, divorced woman with one boy, Henry (Gattlin Griffith) about to enter seventh grade in a small town (filmed by Eric Steelberg in rural Massachusetts). Gerald (Clark Gregg), her husband, has flown the coup with his secretary with visiting rights to his son just one day a week. We suspect that Gerald did not give enough time to the boy, a role that becomes filled by Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), a five-day father figure who has escaped from prison where he is serving an eighteen-year sentence for murder and who insinuates himself into the home of Adele and Henry.

Frank is a charming fellow, but so was Ted Bundy: we in the audience are therefore alert to any sudden event that would turn him into a killer once again, as he becomes the classic father-figure to the boy, teaching him how to bat and throw a baseball, a lover-figure to Adele, teaching her how to bake a peach pie, and an it’s-so-nice-to-have-a-man-around-the-house fellow who cleans the rain gutters on the roof and changes the oil in the family car. All events are seen through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Henry, who looks with awe at the criminal whom he spots snuggling with his mom, a middle-aged man who becomes in just five days the guy he’d dream about for a dad.

Director Reitman is perhaps best known for Juno though anyone with taste knows that his masterwork is one of the best movie satires of modern times, Thank You for Smoking. He develops a humorous, even satiric subplot from the budding friendship between Henry and a purportedly anorectic girl (Brighid Fleming) a year or so younger but with much greater knowledge of sex.

The implausible is made credible by the growing chemistry between Adele and Frank, a romance that is not rushed and one that covers its bases by showing Adele as a nervous, affection-starved woman and Frank as a man who has just spent several years in prison without female companionship. Henry is emerging from a boy to a young man, changing his facial features dramatically between freshman and senior year in high school. (His role is played by three young men.) He intently watches every detail in the relationship of the two adults in the home, his curiosity furthered by his chats with a girl about his own age—all happening on a single, long weekend where the kid learns more about life in a few days than he will in all of seventh grade.

Rated PG-13. 111 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online





John Turteltaub's
Last Vegas
Opens Friday, November 1, 2013

Screenwriter: Dan Fogelman, Adam Brooks

Starring: Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen, Jerry Ferrara, Curtis Jackson, Romany Malco, Weronika Rosati, Redfoo, Michael Ealy

CBS Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com

To paraphrase Sophie Tucker, I’ve been young and I’ve been old. Young is better. But you don’t have to believe me. If you watch the antics of four sexagenarians; Billy (Michael Douglas), Paddy (Robert De Niro), Sam (Kevin Kline), and Archie (Morgan Freeman) who (tee hee) throw Billy a bachelor party in Vegas because the sixty-something friend since childhood is getting married, you’ll decide to stay young. It’s not the fault of the four principal performers—really. Blame is on the script by Dan Fogelman and Adam Brooks, and on John Turteltaub’s direction, which make being old cute and yet laughable. There’s little doubt that these four actors who risk their reputations on a sitcom do not act like their characters in real life. They’re too sophisticated for that. But Turteltaub pulls out quite a few ageist and hoary images from his grab-bag of stereotypes.

Which stereotypes? Early on, we see Sam exercising with fellow biddies in a pool. He needs the pool because he has a titanium knee implant—doesn’t everyone his age? He accidentally steps on the bare foot of a rotund woman of about seventy-five and excuses himself: “I’m sorry, was that your foot or your breast?” Sam, though, has an understanding wife who, hearing that her long-term husband is setting out for a hot weekend in America’s gambling capital slips him a condom and wishes him luck. When a babe asks the men whether they deal drugs, the reply is: “Does Lipitor count?”

At a funeral, an optimistic Billy, giving an oration for the departed, taps the deceased on the shoulder and says, “See you in thirty years.”

The story opens on these four as ten-year-olds hanging around a Brooklyn counter, then flashes ahead fifty-eight years to show us how, while most kid friendships are history long before that, this quartet is bonded. But not entirely: Billy has a vendetta against Paddy, as he “gifted” the woman he loved to Paddy, who enjoyed decades of a happy marriage with her until she died a year earlier. What’s more, Billy did not attend the woman’s funeral. This hostility between the two, after being milked for jokes, turns sentimental as does the story. In the final scenes, seriousness trumps comedy particularly as Paddy gives Billy’s fiancé some advice one day before the marriage is to take place, counsel that has dramatic repercussions. Mary Steenburgen as Diana, a singer who doesn’t get the audience she deserves, figures large in the life of one of the guys.

This is an expensive production for a sitcom, showing Vegas in all of its gaudy splendor, including a room at the luxurious Hotel Aria, a guest residence with four pools, 4,004 standard rooms and 568 luxury suites. The men who are out on the town get to stay in the best suite in the house, complete with draperies that open and close at the touch of a button and Lonnie (Romany Malco), a private concierge. The bachelor party is a big success with wall-to-wall hotties, preceded by a would-be beauty contest that drafts the four men as judges carrying cards from one to ten. Are you surprised that a number of guests are trannies? If not, you’ll find Last Vegas a rehash of ancient gags, a look at people in life’s twilight (which, by the way, are shown in polls to be on average the happiest time of people’s lives), with a ending whose sentiment is fully deserved.

The picture enjoys a rapid pace with an ensemble that come across as true, lifetime friends. The gags, both physical (being thrown into a pool fully clothed) and verbal, are old but still amusing.

Rated PG-13. 90 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Dheeraj Akolkar’s
Liv & Ingmar
Opens Friday, December 13, 2013

A Documentary

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 50th Annual New York Film Festival

The great Liv Ullmann lays her feelings bare in the new documentary, Liv & Ingmar, providing insight into her tempestuous relationship with the iconic director Ingmar Bergman. Ullmann helps demonstrate just how often art would imitate life—usually deliberately as Bergman and Ullmann both worked out their demons on celluloid for all to see.

Ullmann is searingly honest about her affair with Bergman and their cohabitation on Faro Island in Sweden as well as the psychological cruelties that followed. She discusses both their insecurities and the enormous pain they would inflict on one another. These moments are peppered with clips from Bergman’s films (often unspecified).

Most interesting is Ullmann’s discussion about her arrival in Hollywood as the “new Garbo” and how she did four studio films in one year and managed to “close down two studios” in the process. Tinseltown had no clue what to do with her talents. Bergman always did.

The two collaborated on twelve films and she directed two of his screenplays. Their enduring, friendship continued until his death. They also had a child together which forever bonded them. Bergman wrote that they were “painfully connected.”

Liv & Ingmar, directed by Dheeraj Akolkar, is visually underwhelming and should have included more film footage of the two outside of explaining their relationship. A big part of what makes this pair one of the greatest teams in film history is the end result of their pain and toil—the art they created, so to not delve into these cherished film moments is a cine-crime.

And while the film touches on some of the Bergman themes such as the existence of evil especially within all men, Akolkar doesn’t back it up with enough proper film clips.

Still the joys of seeing the ever-graceful Ullmann, now 73, still radiant with just the right amount of lines on her face and no hint of plastic surgery-- discussing her life and work with one of the great helmers of all-time-makes this endeavor more than worthwhile.

 




Peter Berg's
Lone Survivor
Opens Friday, December 27, 2013


Screenwriter: Peter Berg, based on Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson’s book “Lone Survivor”

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emilie Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch, Eric Bana, Alexander Ludwig

Universal Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com

When Touchstone Pictures released Pearl Harbor in 2001, the studio was apparently so afraid of the impact on Americans of the Japanese victory over our naval shipyard that director Michael Bay tacked on a feel-good ending. Specifically, by adding the Doolittle Raid, a big American success on April 18, 1942 on Tokyo and Honshu Island, we showed ‘em that their territory was vulnerable to a U.S. military action. No such saccharine finale from Peter Berg, who directs and wrote the script for Lone Survivor. The title serves as a spoiler, if you will, telling us in the audience that only one U.S. combatant survived a brutal battle between the elite SEALs and the Taliban in an Afghan village. The film is based on actual events, and to prove this we are treated to a series of still pictures before the credits showing the happier SEALs with their brides. A blissful bride sharing a cake with her groom is not exactly what he’d expect in a land some 6,700 miles from New York, but there’s reason to believe that our fighting men, based on the planning of an attack whose aim was to take out Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami), a Taliban leader, would be wholly successful.

But successful was not to be, though ultimately the U.S. won a Pyrrhic victory from this campaign. Since Mark Wahlberg is a producer of this movie, you might want to take a wild guess as who the lone survivor would be. As depicted, the actual campaign, known as Operation Red Wings, may bring to mind Zero Dark Thirty, the film that tells the story of our successful move to take out public enemy number one. A closer relative would be Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, a film about the mission of 123 elite U.S. fighters in Somalia whose aim was to capture two renegade warlords.

The most involving parts of the picture are the scenes of SEALs training. The elite squadron are subjected to testing their ability to hold their breath under water, to move rapidly across rocky landscapes, to climb ropes, to run, and do everything designed to weed out those who’d ring the bell and deposit their helmets on the ground to indicate their resignation from the force.

Despite the incredible training, the mission to capture or kill a Taliban man responsible for the deaths of twenty Marines, is a disaster. The action is based on Marcus Luttrell’s book co-written by Patrick Robinson that deals with the debacle beginning in July 2005 taking place near the Afghan-Pakistani border. The team is small: Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny P. Dietz (Emile Hirsch, and Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Forster). They shoot the breeze, conversing with one another with no restrictions on the f word, offering no dialogue that might threaten Shakespeare. The dog-fight takes place in the mountains of Kunar (filmed entirely in New Mexico), the camera shifting frequently from the U.S. Bagram base to the battlefield. The SEALs are surprised by three unarmed goatherds with their flocks, a trio that could conceivably warn the Taliban of the Americans’ presence—which leads to a debate about options, including whether to kill them, tie them up, or release them per Geneva Convention. Their choice is moral but tactically the wrong one.

The section of the movie that will be loved by fans of computer and video games is a forty-minute, virtually non-stop shooting gallery. When a Taliban fighter is shot in the head by a Yank with a scope rifle, the blood spurts up convincingly. When an American is shot, we see the wound close-up as bullets tear into legs, backs and heads of the heavily outnumbered SEALs. Several times, the SEALs tumble downward over the sharp rocks, landing on large rocks beneath with a thump. Credit Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger as the make-up team that could result in an Oscar in that realm.

During the entire time, little if any attention is given to differentiate the characters, perhaps by having them discuss their families back home, why they joined the SEALs, or what are their hopes and dreams after the war (assuming that this war will end). The film happily does not paint every man with a turban as an enemy. An extended take finds a group of villagers on a rescue mission, with neither the American nor the Afghans able to say a single word in the other’s language. (Don’t they teach the SEALs at least how to say “hello” and “thank you” in, presumably, Pashto? Dari?)

The movie does give us living large in America a look at both the camaraderie of our fighters who are ready to die for one another, but for the most part there is only bare human interest in these courageous folks.

Rated R. 121 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 


Shaul Schwarz's
Narco Cultura
Opens Friday, November 22, 2013


Documentary With Richi Soto and Edgar Quintero

Cinedigm

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com

As the audience watchs the frames unfold in director-cinematographer Shaul Schwarz’s Narco Cultura, some will see parallels with the vulgar lyrics of the American hip-hop movement. Others may remember scenes from docs and dramas about how the Nazi party in Germany had no problem getting millions of that country’s citizenry to raise their arms in salute and cheer wildly when listening to speeches of their evil chancellor. The Israeli-born director, whose documentary The Block follows the last months of the Jewish settlers’ lives in Gaza, points his lenses on the seemingly hopeless drug wars in Mexico, which have resulted in the deaths of 60,000 of that country’s residents since 2006. The cartels, notably the powerful Sinaloa gang, target rival drug gangs (for example the criminals in Sinaloa move in on their opposite numbers in Juárez), and go after police and business owners who do not give in to extortionate demands.

More specifically, Schwarz gives us a view of one aspect of the tragic conflicts in our neighbors to the south, that of the popularity of narco corridos, i.e. songs whose lyrics glorify the activities of these very gangs, its listeners bopping to the rhythms of the songs about people looked up to as heroes who have made it out of the ghetto and are living large.

The doc divides its time primarily between two individuals: Richi Soto, a crime scene investigator living in Juárez with a family that wants him to quit his dangerous work; and Edgar Quintero, a musician living in Los Angeles who makes a good living recording these narco corridos.

We need not wonder who is more admired by fans of these songs, and it’s not Richi Soto—who is in most ways a better person than Edgar Quintero. Soto, now thirty-four years of age, is called upon to look into crime scenes whenever a body is found either sitting bloodied in a car, lying on the street, or even cut up into several pieces. To add to Soto’s problem, the official does not even have the pride of doing great things for his country, since most killers are not caught. In fact, 97% of the homicides are scarcely investigated, and of the 3% of murderers who are brought to trial, figure half of those are going to be found not guilty. In just the city of Juárez in 2010, almost 4,000 Mexicans were murdered by the cartels, while just a football-field’s distance away, over a tall, barbed-wired fence in El Paso, Texas, the police registered only five murders, making El Paso the safest urban center in the U.S.

Meanwhile Quintero, seven years younger than Soto, is knocking out ballads to celebrate the criminals notwithstanding their role in destroying the social fabric of Mexico. In fact Quintero is shielded from the blood by recording his songs in the U.S., perhaps not even visiting Mexico to get a better feel for its culture. The ballads may remind some of us here in the U.S. of a fashion still followed by some of our youths for wearing T-shirts with pictures of Che Guevara, perhaps not even knowing much of his exploits or of Guevara’s habit of ordering the execution of hundreds of alleged spies and informers without a trial.

Schwarz contrasts Quintero, rich and successful, protected from the dangers in Mexico, with Soto, who must be considered by all rational people to be the better man, up to his neck in murders while never knowing whether he will be the next victim. But who’s rational? Surely not the vast assemblages eating up the music on both sides of the border. Now and then, Schwarz shows us the grisly carnage, getting his cameras up close to the bodies of people whose murders will never be avenged.

One sin of omission, a major one at that: while I’m not fond of an over-reliance on talking-heads interviews, I would have liked to see interviews with members of the audience for these songs. After all, isn’t Schwarz’s principal point that hordes of innocent citizens revel in these ballads? I’d have liked to hear from members of that audience in L.A. and Atlanta and Juárez and Culiacán the reasons for their interest. Would they say, “My friends like it, so I do to?” Or, “These gangsters are the most exciting people I know?”

What do you think would they say?

Rated R. 102 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Alexander Payne’s
Nebraska
Opens Friday, November 15, 2013

Written by: Bob Nelson

Starring: Will Forte, Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Louise Wilson, Angela McEwan.

Review by Frank J. Avella at the 51st Annual New York Film Festival

Nebraska is pleasurable tonic in a year filled with mindless or broad comedies that bombard the senses. Here the jolt comes from just how funny a movie can be when it doesn’t try so hard and presents fascinating characters in off-kilter situations--then deals with it all in a very real way.

It’s a road movie of sorts, a family dramedy, a look at a Midwest that is disappearing and morphing. It is a lovely picture postcard album of a country. It is also a harsh comment on the bill-of-goods our citizens were sold and how it imbeds itself into your being.

It’s hard not to personalize when I related to the father’s plight since my dad—as he got older--upon receiving each Clearing House Giveaway letter in the mail, used to insist that he was a winner. That all he had to do was fill out the form and mail it in and someone would show up at his door with a check for one million dollars. His misguided but steadfast enthusiasm and insistence that they wouldn’t send him such things if it wasn’t true is permanently embedded in my memory.

Well, the father in Nebraska takes things a few steps further...

Woody (Bruce Dern) is a headstrong, cantankerous old man (my dad again!) of few words whose health is in decline and who might be losing his memory. Upon his receiving his lucky winner’s letter, he insists he’s won and wants to travel 750 miles from his current home in Billings, Montana to the sweepstakes office in Lincoln, Nebraska. And since no one in his family believes him, he begins his journey on foot. Of course, Woody can barely walk and needs liquid sustenance to get through his day (one of his two son’s calls him an alcoholic).

His tell-it-like-it-is wife, Kate (June Squibb) has grown annoyed by all Woody’s antics and dismisses him outright.

His son David (Will Forte of SNL) is concerned about Woody and agrees to take the trip with him, knowing it’s a study in futility. The decision is made, against Woody’s will, to stop in their hometown of Hawthorne and have a reunion where Kate and the older “local celebrity” son (Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk) will also show up at the home of one of Woody’s brothers and their misfit offspring.

Upon hearing of Woody’s good fortune, everyone in the family—heck, the town, devise some story about how Woody owes them money—when usually the opposite is true. The biting satire here isn’t so far off the reality mark as anyone who’s come into any type of money would corroborate.

David ends up learning more about his gullible father than he expected and we, the viewer, come away with a great sense of who Woody is, despite the fact that he’s a man of few words.

In the hands of another director, this could have been a condescending mess, but Payne has respect for his characters and takes a fairly ridiculous situation and grounds it in intense, emotional reality.

Don’t misunderstand, the screenplay, by Bob Nelson, tells a terrific story and is loaded with great lines and moments.

Woody takes one glance at Mount Rushmore and dismissingly grouses, “It doesn’t look finished to me.”

And the sight of Kate flashing a tombstone to show a dead suitor, “what he coulda had,” is simply priceless.

Payne honors the script and the deadpan humor of the characters while creating a stately, picture-perfect film. He’s a master of filling the celluloid frame in certain moments (the family sitting around the TV) and keeping it deliberately sparse in other scenes (a shot of the barren streets of Hawthorne).

And with Phedon Papamichael’s gorgeous black and white photography (using old CinemaScope lenses), the film pays homage to some classic American movies.

His style here is a throwback to the clever, genius directors of the 30s and 40s (Billy Wilder and, especially, Preston Sturges come to mind instantly) as well as the stark, elegant yet sometimes zany quality of the best of Peter Bogdanovich (specifically The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon). He has the smarts of the Coens, without the condescension. He may poke fun but it’s in a reverential manner.

Payne continues to add to his illustrious homeland oeuvre. Nebraska fits nicely along side the greatly underrated About Schmidt, the slightly overrated Sideways and his stunning jewel, The Descendants.

I’ve never really thought of Bruce Dern as a great actor. Sure, he was superb in Coming Home but with such a fantastic script, Hal Ashby directing and Jane Fonda to play opposite, it’s hard to suck. At the press conference following the Festival screening, Dern talked about how he studied with Strasberg and Kazan and basically said he was waiting his whole life to show what he could do. Well, thanks to Nebraska, he will be remembered as an actor with extraordinary gifts.

Underplaying Woody at every turn, Dern deliberately keeps the mystery of this stubborn mule of a man alive. And every time we think he’s going to say something revealing, he either turns away or says something inconsequential. The richness of the performance is in the subtext and the quick-revealing facial expressions. Dern’s eyes are bulging with the despair of a life unlived—dreams unrealized, desires unfulfilled. He is the essence of today’s dying American dream—the Eisenhower-era bullshit promise pissed on and cast aside.

June Squibb is a scene-stealing dynamo, munching on the landscape like a ravenous Midwestern Ms. Pacman. Is Kate overbearing? She sure is. Has she been the one to hold the family together? She sure has! Is there a heart at the center of Squibb’s portrayal? There sure is. And an Oscar nomination will prove that.

Forte’s performance is so subtle, he almost gets lost in the family of loons and loudmouths, but it pays off in a key father/son scene where he understands more about his dad than he imagined.

Payne has crafted a precious, exquisite look into Americana—what it (allegedly) used to be vs. what it’s become…and what it still can be.



Scott Cooper's
Out of the Furnace
Opens Friday, December 6, 2013


Screenwriter: Brad Ingelsby, Scott Cooper

Starring: Christian Bale, Zöe Saldana, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard

Relativity Media

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com

The middle class in America may be doing fairly well these days compared to its equivalents in the rest of the developed world, but we have a problem that’s sad to report. That is the helter-skelter decline of the manufacturing industries as the big guys are outsourcing to China, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, and other low-cost producers. Out of the Furnace, which opens in 2008, focuses on a Pennsylvania steel mill, which might make some in the audience wonder if this is an anachronism—that there is even one such company left to knock out domestic steel. What may happen to the mill a few years down the road is anyone’s guess, but Scott Cooper, in a movie he co-wrote with Ingelsby, features one young man who, unlike his brother, does not want to work in such a place. “Look at what the mill did to our father,” exclaims Rodney Baze Jr. (Casey Affleck) to his older brother Russell Baze (Christian Bale), noting that their dad is dying as a result of the pollutants that pour out of the North Braddock, PA mill. So far as Rodney is concerned, he’d rather be signing for a fourth stint in Iraq notwithstanding that he saw an infant with his head cut off and rows of amputated feet lying in the road.

If all this misery suggests that some Americans have given up their right to pursue happiness as our founding fathers would have prefered, so be it. There’s even more trouble brewing for the Baze family: director Cooper underscores the physical violence from the opening scene at a drive-in movie (yep, they still have those in Pennsylvania), where Curtis DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), thinking that his date (Dendrie Taylor) is laughing at him, grabs her hot dog, tosses the bun, and tries to shove the entire sausage down her throat. When a neighboring customer makes it his business to intervene, he gets flattened.

If Woody Harrelson, so fragile and naïve during his role as bartender Woody Boyd in TV’s Cheers, is a one-dimensional bad guy, Cooper and Ingelsby would not have it any other way. Harrelson’s performance as Curtis DeGroat is without a single redeeming feature. He is a man who bets in the low-life fight clubs featuring contestants using bare fists and pummeling one another even when they’re down. He is also the baddest baddie that the movie studios have produced this year. “I have a problem with everyone,” notes DeGroat. At least he’s aware of his violent temper and his inability to avoid killing people who do not cough up money for his crystal meth habit.

Out of the Furnace is a fiercely critical look at the culture of the Rust Belt, in this case centered on the Carrie Furnace in Braddock PA where the picture is set. If Harrelson is the chief cynic and scuzz of the town, Casey Affleck’s Rodney is the naïf—who gets himself into serious trouble by borrowing money to bet on the ponies and is forced to become a victim in the town’s fight club to make money lest he wind up on a slab. Yet his chief creditor, bookie John Petty (Willem Dafoe), is a decent man who tries to talk Rodney out of putting his body on the line. The principal person in this exceptional ensemble cast, Russell Baze, is a generally good guy who works steadily in the mill, takes care of his sick dad, and even in one instance gets a deer within his telescopic sights and refrains from shooting. Yet because he accidentally kills a person while drunk driving and serves time in jail, he ranks among the sad cases for human beings that Cooper unfolds for us in this dismal place, a world away from the neighborhoods that most of us know.

This is a macho pic, the un-chick flick, with Lena Warren (Zöe Saldana) as the only strong female, in the role of Russell’s significant other who leaves her lover while he is in jail and teams up with the town’s police chief, Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker). On the whole, Out of the Furnace puts on display a terrific ensemble of performers, an entry into the awards film category of 2013-- a powerful melodrama but one which lacks the depth and nuances of fare like The Deer Hunter.

Rated R. 116 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Asghar Farhadi
The Past (Le passé)
Opens December 20, 2013

Screenwriter: Asghar Farhadi

Starring: Bérénice Béjo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, Pauline Burlet, Elyes Aguis, Jeanne Jestin, Sabrina Ouazani, Babak Karimi, Valeria Cavalli, Eleonora Marino

Sony Pictures Classics

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com

If this were one of the abundant numbers of sitcoms about family dysfunction, the moral might be something as vacuous as “Don’t mess with married men.” But The Past is a serious drama written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, whose previous entry, A Separation, looks closely at a family that must make a serious choice: A couple must decide whether to leave Iran for rosier shores, or stay put in that repressive state in order to care for a mother afflicted with Alzheimer’s. So what might be this serious writer-director’s moral for The Past? “Don’t mess with married men.” Sounds simple, but Le passé as it’s called in France where it was filmed, is delightfully complex, filled with almost as many twists and surprises that you’d find in a story by Stephen King or Sophocles, or Shakespeare, or for that matter just about any writer who gets jollies messing with the minds of the audience.

The Past is in French, a language in which the Iranian director is hardly fluent, making his job that much more difficult than the task he faced filming wholly in Iran. With a mischievous eye looking to satirize us here in the West with our “liberated” penchant for serial marriages, Farhadi hones in on a married couple on the brink of divorce. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) had lived in a Paris suburb with his wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo), but their union had not resulted in children. For her part Marie has had two young ones from her now-divorced Belgian husband: Lucie (Pauline Burlet), now eighteen, and little Léa (Jeanne Jestin), now about seven. With those two kids living with her, she takes on another child, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), whose father, Samir (Tahar Rahim), is her intended third husband. Already pregnant for two months with Samir’s child, she might look forward to at least some years of wedded satisfaction, but there are complications. Samir’s wife is still alive, albeit in a vegetative state for eight months, a coma that Samir’s daughter Lucie blames on Marie, her mother, noting that mom had been carrying on an affair with Samir even before Samir’s wife lapsed into her unfortunate state.

You can’t get much more dysfunctional than this family. Loud arguments from the adults punctuate the screen combined with melodramatic flourishes from the children. Lucie would like to break up her mom’s relationship with Samir. Marie dislikes Ahmad, as divorcing couples are wont to feel, despite what you hear about “amicable splits.” Fouad is not fond of anyone but his young sister, resisting all efforts of his prospective stepmother. And something may be going on between Samir, who owns a dry cleaning establishment in this dreary Paris suburb, and his assistant, Naïma!

The ensemble has done terrific work. Notwithstanding the difficulties that directors have working with children, we are surprised by how realistic the terminally pouting and sometimes door-kicking Elyes Aguis comes across, truly a boy who is frightened by changes whose origin he is too young to comprehend. Pauline Burlet is especially good in the role of the teen Lucie, who charges the atmosphere by revealing a secret that she should have kept to herself for a lifetime but which becomes the major twist of the film. We can see how Bérénice Bejo would capture the accolades of the folks at Cannes this year, taking away the Best Actress award while the film won the Ecumenical Jury prize and secured a nomination for the Palme d’Or.

Oh yes, another moral for those of us who insist that every story must have more than one: if you’ve failed at two marriages, the men disappearing on you to other parts of the world, chill out: don’t be in such a hurry to find a third husband. Iran chose The Past as its Oscar nominee for movie opening in 2013.

Unrated. 130 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Kim Mordaunt's
The Rocket (Bang fai)
Opens Friday, January 10, 2014


Screenwriter: Kim Mordaunt

Starring: Sitthiphon Disamoe, Loungnam Kaosainam, Bunsri Yindi, Sumrit Warin, Alice Keohavong

Kino Lorber

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com

Part National Geographic, part Hallmark Hall of Fame and even some leftist political points make up the exotic fare called The Rocket. The Rocket is filmed mostly in rural Laos and is directed by Australian Kim Mordaunt—whose documentary Bomb Harvest in 2007 deals with efforts to clean up the unexploded bombs in Laos, known as the most bombed country in the world. The Rocket is right up her alley, then, as she focuses principally on the superstitions of a country that fell victim to a covert U.S. campaign by the Strategic Air Command to blast away at Viet Cong targets in Laos. This was known as the Secret War.

The Rocket features a terrific performance from Sitthiphon Disamoe as Ahlo, a ten-year-old kid who fall under a curse. Since he was a twin whose sibling was stillborn, it was not known which was the evil child and which the blessed one, according to Lao superstition. The boy’s aim is to prove to be the latter, which he can do by winning the annual rocket contest, filmed during the actual event by Andrew Commis. The boy’s best friend, Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) is a girl about his age, an orphan who is theoretically cared by her alcoholic uncle Purple (Thep Phongam—a Thai comedian with an impressive résumé), a man who think he’s James Brown, wears his hair accordingly, and trots out a few dance steps to the beat of the soul singer.

As for the leftist political message, the folks in the village are being displaced by modern imperialism, in this case a project of the Australian government to build dams, which would create electricity but would allegedly favor only Australian corporate interests. (The production notes tell us that 60 million people around the world have already been displaced by dams alone.) The mountain people, miserable and now living in tents, need a scapegoat: Ahlo, suspected by animists and perhaps some Buddhists of being cursed, is the obvious target—a kid motivated not only to prove himself blessed but to restore his relationship with his emotionally distant father Toma (Sumrit Warin) and judgmental grandmother, Taitok (Bunsri Yindi). Nor does it help the kid that the accidental death of his mother, Mali (Alice Keohavong) is blamed on him.

The co-production of Australia, Laos and Thailand, entered by Australia as a candidate for an Oscar this year for films in a non-English language, is principally a coming-of-age drama about a child who feels guilt about being born a twin, blamed for the death of his mother and who seeks redemption via a victory in the rocket contest. The contest itself is a metaphor: since Laos was carpet-bombed in ’69 and ’70, the rockets would in effect lift the armaments back up to the sky. Does the kid win the contest? I won’t tell, but get ready to see his rocket bring about a particular unplanned benediction for all the people of the village.

Isn’t it interesting how some people can become solid actors without going to a school to learn song, dance, and the ability to convey dialogue? Sitthiphon Disamoe was recruited as a street kid, a boy from a family of seven children whose parents could not afford to keep him. He was turned out to the street, the sort of fellow who travelers to Mexico and third-world countries see selling chiclets and trinkets to tourists. The characters speak Lao, with good English subtitles for our benefit.

Unrated. 96 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




John Lee Hancock's
Saving Mr. Banks
Opens Friday, December 13, 2013


Screenwriters: Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith

Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, B.J. Novak, Rachel Griffiths, Kathy Baker, Colin Farrell

Walt Disney Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com

J.K. Rowling became the richest woman in England for her Harry Potter books, which not only sold four hundred million copies, but gained even a wider audience through the movie adaptations. You’d think that anyone would jump at the chance to get a Hollywood producer to sign you up if you wrote a novel, since the proceeds of your movie contract would likely exceed the royalties from your writings. Not so, P.L. Travers whose books on Mary Poppins captured the interest of Walt Disney when his kids begged their dad to make the classic into a screen version. You’ve got to be a mighty negative person to resist Walt Disney’s pleas to get you to sign on, and John Lee Hancock, using Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay, created one of the most negative people imaginable in the major role.

The movie slogan states, “When her story ended, their real story began,” as Saving Mr. Banks is the behind-the-scene campaign to win authorial rights to make the novel into a movie. What’s her problem? According to John Lee Hancock’s film, the author, who had a childhood devoted to her father but one that was marred by poverty, did not want to allow Disney to insert that spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. She believed that the public deserved a realistic view of the kids who became charges of a magical nanny, Mary Poppins. No music, no dancing, and especially no animation. Any other author would be given the heave-ho if she demanded such rights to control the screen version, but Disney persisted, his twenty-year campaign serving as a backstory that is almost as entertaining as the eight Travers books themselves.

In fact, Saving Mr. Banks is so delightful that many a patron of the film will go back and buy the complete series of Mary Poppins books. Goldderby.com, the leading Oscar prediction site on the web, has just come out with a prognostication that the movie has a good chance of “Best” awards, placing just behind 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, according to word of mouth chatter in Hollywood.

The film breezes seamlessly between the childhood of the author, whose real name is Helen Goff and who is played delightfully as a child by Annie Rose Buckley. The story opens in the sticks of Australia in 1906 (excellent cinematography from John Schwartzman) where young Helen, who later takes the first name of her father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), is one of three children. She adores her dad, who dotes on her and is indifferent to her struggling mother (Ruth Wilson), though her dad’s drinking may have made him into a magically good-natured fellow to the young girl but creating misery for the harried mother.

Switching to 1961, Hancock shows an eager Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) going full throttle to seduce the author now known as P.J. Travers (Emma Thompson), giving her a first-class seat from her elegant London home to L.A. Travers’s book royalties had dried up, leading her to worry that she may lose her home in a fashionable London neighborhood. Yet for most of this movie, she appears more willing to lose her home than to agree to what she considers would be a vulgarized, sanitized, saccharine Disney movie, especially loathing the idea that animated penguins would dance with Dick Van Dyke.

The ensemble cast profits from insights into the Mary Poppins scripter, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and lyricists Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak). How Disney was able to convince P.J. Travers to sign is revealed near the conclusion, though one wonders why he did not think of using psychology on her during the last two decades.

Though Travers appears to be content with the way Mary Poppins turns out when she first screens it at the Hollywood premiere, in reality she felt abused by Disney and refused rights to sequels. She also made sure that the Broadway version would be made only if nobody from the film crew would have anything to do with it.

Side roles are aces: Paul Giammati as Ralph the chauffer, the only American that Travels liked, Ruth Wilson as the put-upon mother who attempts suicide. But in the principal roles, Tom Hanks has the looks and personality of the great Walt Disney, while Emma Thompson looks like an Oscar candidate for Best Actress for her role as a neurotic snob, offended by what she perceives as American vulgarity (like our insistence on using first names) and the array of cakes laid out as she interviews with the creative team.

Rated PG-13. 125 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Ben Stiller's
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Opens Wednesday, December 25, 201
3

Screenwriter: Steve Conrad

Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Patton Oswalt, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn

Screened at: Regal Union Sq., NYC, 12/5/13

20th Century Fox

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com

Walter Mitty is Everyman. Who among us does not dream of being something more than we actually are? Don’t all men want to be Brad Pitt, all women Angelina Jolie? We go to the movies and are able to leap tall buildings at a single bound, drive across Rodeo Drive in a Batmobile, become the first person to set foot on Mars. Two or three of us may not daydream at all, but at nighttime you can’t escape it. You’re something other than you are, and so is Ben Stiller as Walter Mitty, a guy who works in the basement for Life magazine shuffling negatives, a fellow who himself has been missing out on life. And now on top of everything he’s being downsized. What’s left for him aside from a bowl of soup served by his mom (Shirley MacLaine)? Well for one thing there’s this young woman, a co-worker named Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig). He’d like to ask her out or at least chat her up but instead tries to contact her by a “wink” on his eHarmony site. But Walter Mitty is such a dork that even the computer has his number and filters out his “wink” by not allowing it to reach the intended woman.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is based on James Thurber’s two-page article in The New York Magazine seventy-four years ago, a short story brought magnificently to life by Danny Kaye in Norman Z. McLeod 1947 movie about a proofreader so introverted that his mother brokers a marriage to a woman who does little but henpeck the poor guy. The current version directed by Ben Stiller and starring Stiller in the title role has Mitty not henpecked by a woman but dumped on by a Life magazine transition director (Adam Scott) who must decide which personnel to lay off as that magazine reverts to an online edition and who in one scene flips a paper clip to the back of Mitty’s neck to see if the daydreamer is alive.

Walter’s problem is that he does not think Cheryl would give him a second look: that he would have to take part in some exceptional feats to win her attention and affection. He may be right. After all even his jacket is gray. But if he could bring back a sought-after negative from explorer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), he could win the heart of his love interest and maybe even a commendation from his new boss, whom he correctly calls “a dick.”

With some striking CGI, Walter Mitty flies to Greenland where he meets up with a drunken helicopter pilot (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), then on to Iceland, finally to a meeting with the great explorer who allows Walter to take a peek in his camera at a snow leopard and who tells him where to find the negative he seeks. Because the transitions from real life to daydreams are not obvious, we don’t know whether he really accomplished globe-trotting feats beyond his wildest dreams or whether he never left the New York locale of his residence.

One trouble with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is that it is not funny. But funny is not a requirement. Still, what is it? If a narrative drama, the film does not congeal and resembles little more than a series of adventures with Walter’s love interest serving as merely a fragile anchor. Although we can assume that Walter Mitty will win Cheryl’s affection, that would not be long lived as he does not reinvent himself simply by traveling to destinations that feature an erupting volcano or plunging into icy water chased by sharks. Soon after these moments of daring, he will go back to dreaming of flying into a burning building to rescue Cheryl’s three-legged dog and will wind up once again depending on an eHarmony customer service rep (Patton Oswalt) to secure dates. An optimistic ending for Christmas day? Hardly.

Rated PG. 114 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Alain Guiraudie’s
Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac)

Opens Friday, September 24, 2013

Written by: Alain Guiraudie

Starring: Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick D’Assumçao, Jérôme Chappatte, Mathieu Vervisch & François Labarthe

In French with English subtitles.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 51st Annual New York Film Festival

In the last few years, gay filmmakers have given us searingly accurate portraits of same-sex relationships. Films like Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, Ira Sachs’s Keep the Lights On and Travis Fine’s Any Day Now have broken new ground in honest gay storytelling. But nothing could prepare us for the temerity of Alain Guiraudie and his thrilling new film, Stranger by the Lake.

This profound work is so perceptive when it comes to the obsessive/ compulsive desires and behavior of gay men, I was gobsmacked, titillated and truly disquieted.

Realize, though, that the film transcends being solely about gay life and acts as a microcosm for what our world is turning into—an apathetic playground where people only care about things directly affect them. A world where people aren’t willing to take any action—even when people die right in front of us each day (think about the perpetual shootings in this country and how we do nothing about our gun laws). It may be harsh, but it’s also the truth.

Stranger by the Lake takes place in one setting--an unnamed lake area in an unnamed town in France where men of all ages, shapes and sizes go to sunbathe, cruise, have sex--oh, and occasionally, swim. No one reads, eats or tweets. Exactly when the film takes place is also a big question mark. It could be present day (but not one cell phone is shown) or a decade or so ago. The non-specificities add to the universality of the story.

Each day twinkish-cutie Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) arrives and parks in the same area. The film’s passage of time—a few days (weeks at the most)--is marked by Franck’s driving up to the same general locale each day.

The first day, Franck says hi to a friend, swims a bit and then meets a dumpy older guy named Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao) and the two guys strike-up a conversation. Over the course of a few days they become friends. Henri stays at his one spot and stares out most days—never bothering to play with the other boys. One of the joys of Guiraudie’s script is his fearlessness with depicting the odd and, yet, natural silences that are often part of any conversation between strangers or even friends.

As soon as Franck lays his eyes on Michel (Cristophe Paou), a sexy new guy shimmering from his swim, he darts off to follow him into the nearby woods, leaving Henri alone on his perch. Once Franck finds Michel, he is too late as the moustache’d hottie is already having sex with another guy amidst the shrubbery.

Franck finds his own consolation shag and, dejected but ejaculated, goes home.

It’s not much of a stretch to call Franck a slut. Sure, he’s looking for Mr. Right but ready, willing and able to settle for Mr. Right Here-Right Now until Mr. Right comes along.

The next day Franck comes face to face with Michel and mid-conversation is interrupted by a younger guy, who may or may not be Michel’s boyfriend, telling him he’s been waiting for him. Franck is thwarted again. Franck complains to Henri: “Guys I like are always taken.”

One night after most all the cruisers have left the area, Franck stays late and witnesses Michel frolicking with the same guy in the lake. The scene quickly turns macabre as Michel drown the boy and then swims to shore as if nothing happened. Franck’s does nothing, waits until it’s pitch-dark and then leave. This moment is exceptionally shot from Franck’s faraway point of view and is chilling and unsettling (I was reminded of Jaws).

Franck’s reaction feels very curious—but is it considering the circumstances and even considering the real world we live in? Does Franck not shout out while the boy is being drowned because he’s afraid or because he’s uncertain of what is actually happening OR is it because he simply doesn’t care? Or does it go deeper? Does he realize that Michel’s killing his beau, Ramiere, paves the way for him as Michel’s boyfriend? Does he care more about his lust than a human life?

The next day Ramiere’s towel and belongings lay on the beach and his car remains in the parking area, but no one seems to notice he’s gone.

A day or two after the murder, Franck and Michel hook up and have intense, unsafe sex. It’s a graphic scene, erotically charged, borderline pornographic. Franck is mesmerized by Michel and admits to Henri that he’s falling for him. When Franck becomes frustrated with Michel’s never wanting to grab dinner or spend the night with him, Michel responds with: “We can have great sex without eating or sleeping with one another.”

The body of Ramiere is found a few days later and an Inspector arrives to investigate, creating tension among the cruisers. But pretty soon it’s back to normal for everyone—meaning lying on the beach, swimming and, most urgently, having indiscriminate sex in the woods. Another comment on society and how people are much more concentrated on themselves and their personal pleasure than their fellow man or what is going on around them—even when it’s something terrible. No one wants to get involved in anything outside his own little world.

The Inspector questions Franck who denies ever having seen the boy. When asked about his alibi, Frank admits to not knowing the name or contact of the person he was having sex with. This perplexes the Inspector who cannot fathom enjoying oneself sexually with someone but then not wanting to see them again. The Inspector is also confused by what he sees as apathy on the part of the men at the lake, who are acting in a business-as-usual manner—back to getting off.

Tension soon percolates between Michel and Franck as Franck becomes increasingly irritated by Michel’s inability to give him more. Ironically, he doesn’t seem fearful of pissing Michel off. Henri, suspicious, confronts Michel with his own theory. The film becomes scarier, creepier and more beguiling until it reaches its climax.

Guiraudie’s direction is masterful creating a hypnotic visual style where the lake, woods and parking area act as significant characters in the film. And the sounds of the water, the wind blowing through the trees and even Franck’s car driving on the gravel road add to the Hitchcockian suspense.

The filmmaker isn’t afraid of nudity—depicting gorgeous bodies along with those that are less than appealing. He isn’t afraid of delving into the libidinous nature of men portraying the cruising as a nauseatingly repetitive and mundane compulsion--sex for the sake of getting off.

But he also show when feelings come into play as with Franck’s infatuation with Michel. Franck gives himself over to him in a way he doesn’t to other tricks. It’s telling that Franck wants to be kissed as he climaxes, showing that deep down his is after something real and lasting.

For Franck, and many gay men (many men) sex and love are two separate but intertwined things. For Franck, sex, love and death are seriously and frighteningly connected. Franck never asks Michel about the murder and the ‘why’ is very curious. Does Franck enjoy courting danger? Does that add to the attraction he feels towards Michel?

And is Michel a representation of man’s true nature—taking what he wants and then killing it when he’s done.

There’s also something to the idea of not just having unsafe sex but doing so in a manner that’s deliberate and more gratifying. It’s as if Franck willingly invites the possibility of death.

The film also reveals intriguing theories about solitude and how, even though we may be in the company of others, we can still feel alone. And how sex provides a fleeting connection with another person. But then we’re back to being alone.

Guiraudie isn’t afraid to deal with sex in a frank and vital manner. Some of the scenes in Strangers is so explicit that it makes Blue is the Warmest Color feel like Mary Poppins. But like Blue, sex is important to the narrative--to the character development.

And he’s cast his film very well.

Pierre Deladonchamps’s Franck is perfectly vapid yet alarmingly preoccupied with Michel. We sense a true infatuation that borders on the demented. How far is he willing to take his obsession? Deladonchamps embodies this guy wholly and completely and his facial expressions are a key to his psyche. It’s a captivating performance—easy to dismiss as simple—but that would be erroneous.

Christophe Paou’s Michel looks like the love child of a young Giancarlo Giannini and Freddie Mercury. He’s smoldering and dangerous and you can instantly understand the hold he has on Franck. Paou plays him ambiguously so you wonder about his backstory (actually, the backstories of the three main characters provide fascination) and whether he has a separate heterosexual life or is a politician or a celebrity of some sort. Or maybe he’s just a sociopath. Has he murdered before? Does he make a sport of killing the boys he grows tired of? The charm to Paou’s portrayal is the mystery he creates and sustains about his motivations. He’s an enigma.

And Patrick D’Assumçao is probably the most fascinating character. What does he really want? We get a glimpse of that answer with his last line, which ends up creating many more questions about him than providing answers. D’Assumçao etches a very familiar portrait of a lonely man who desires company but is too timid to seek it out.

Guiraudie is a courageous filmmaker who has given the world a provocative work of true cinematic art.


 



Jehane Noujaim's
The Square
Opens Friday, November 1, 2013

Screenwriter: Jehane Noujaim

Starring: Khalid Abdalla, Ahmed Hassan, Aida Kashef, Magdy Ashour, Ragia Omran, Ramy Essam, Aida El Kashef, Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Morsi

Noujaim Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com

Golly…look at all those people demonstrating in Cairo’s Tahir Square. Millions! Perhaps the largest single demonstration in world history, according to the narrator. What’re they saying? “Death to Israel?” Nope. “Down with America?” Sorry, not there either. What, then, could possibly draw so many Egyptians to the street, women included?

Here is your answer. Egyptians are against Egyptians. No, they’re not saying “Death to Egyptians,” but you get the impression from this riveting documentary, two years in the making, that large groups of people would not mind a helluva lot if their own leaders were, say, disposed of. What leaders you ask? Why, first there’s Mubarak, who ruled like a tyrant for thirty years, jailing and torturing opponents to his regime at least while the army was behind him. Despite this despotism, he was not all bad. After all he banned female genital mutilation and preserved his predecessor’s treaty with Israel. He also kept the political Islamists quiet, though, granted, with less than democratic means.

However, in this Arab spring, when young men’s (and women’s) fancy lightly turned to thoughts of freedom, the masses took to the streets, principally to Cairo’s Tahir Square, a locus for rebellion not unlike that of Beijing’s Tienanmen Square, where one brave young person once stood in front of a tank, daring it to knock him down. Tiring of the demonstrations, Mubarak admitted defeat and stepped down.

One down, and then freedom! No, again. The Egyptian people realized that one man’s defeat does not a democracy make, so back they went to Tahir Square to kvetch once again, this time against military rule. The army promised elections but you know how armies are in that part of the world. When the people tired of uniformed guys whom they called fascists, they demanded and got a free election. One problem: Mohamed Morsi, representative of the Muslim Brotherhood though with just 51% of the vote (presumably few from the secular Egyptians), overreached his authority and resorted to Mubarek-like tactics. After putting up with demonstrations once again, the army firing live bullets at the huge crowds, the military deposed Morsi. What’s not in the film is that while the U.S. supposedly stands behind legitimate democratic elections and opposes military coups, Obama decided that Morsi was not overthrown by a coup. I wonder if that’s because the U.S. did not look with favor on political Islamists? The military’s in charge now. Tune in to find out about yet a second democratic election.

Those are the basic facts. But facts in themselves do not always evoke tension. Jehane Noujaim, who has quite a résumé of films to her credit including Control Room in 2004 which deals with Al Jazeera’s perception of the U.S. war with Iraq, is the tireless hero of the Egyptian rebellions. Noujaim, utilizing big-screen archival film, takes us in the audience into Tahir Square with brilliant close-ups of the political sides: not just the army against the people, but the people against one another, depending on whether the individuals are secular or political Islamists.

Ahmed Hassan, one of the charismatic fellows on display, is a firebrand who is infused with all the idealism of his generation. He was willing to wait and see what would happen after Mubarek’s overthrow, but opined that it was a mistake for the people to go home and fold their tents because, well, you can’t trust the army to be freedom-loving and to hand out pita and baba ganoush to the people.

For his part, Rami Essam takes on the role of the revolution’s singer, belting out protest songs as though inspired by Pete Seeger and the Weavers. For his part Magdy Ashour, a pro-Islamic Brotherhood guy, debates Ahmed but has become disturbed by the actions of his putative leader, Mohammed Morsi, who overreaches himself to become in Ashour's mind “the new Pharaoh.” Less of a magnet but more of an educated man speaking fluent British English, Khalid Abdalla, who acted the principal role of Amir in the narrative The Kite Runner, gives us a lucid rundown of events and viewpoints.

This is not one of those dull, unbiased documentaries. Director Nourjaim finds herself strongly with the progressive secularists, ignoring pro-Brotherhood people with the exception of Magdy, who even comes out against his former champion, Morsi. Nor is this one of those dull, frustrating docs that feature talking heads sitting in chairs, answering interview questions. Aside from a quickie question on CNN-TV from Anderson Cooper, all the furious talk takes place in the field with nobody, thankfully, serving as interrogator. This is truly a revolution that has been not only televised, but featured on Youtube and the social media as well, with Twitter keeping us informed blow by blow and minute by minute of the proceedings.

We in the U.S. could compare the actions of these brave Egyptians with our demonstrations against the Vietnam War during the 1960s, when our army with few exceptions did not hand out flowers (though some accepted daisies from demonstrators), and which was the basis of several songs as well. While critics of the sixties rebels could rightly point out that their fervor came in large part from their fear of being drafted, you could not say the same of the Egyptians, most of whom would probably be able to go about their lives under Morsi or Mubarek minding their own business and not being harmed.

What’s missing in the pic is a look at economic causes of the frustration. Was the anger merely political? While there were cries of “bread, freedom, end of corruption, and social justice,” where is the evidence that poverty was increasing, that inflation was rising, that government subsidies were disappearing?

If filmmaker Jehane Moujaim anchors the proceedings, much credit should go to the team of editors for a terrific job of keeping the proceedings logical and continuous, underscoring the themes that we take for granted in our own Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Let’s hope for the best for Egypt. If the U.S. can recover from a government shutdown and threatened bankruptcy, anybody can. Kumbaya, everyone.

Unrated. 104 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Martin Scorsese's
The Wolf of Wall Street
Opens December 25, 2013

Screenwriter: Terence Winter from Jordan Belfort’s book “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Jean Dujardin, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Jon Bernthal

Paramount Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com

Does money buy happiness? Philosophers and ordinary people have debated this question since the ancient Greeks. The latest from the folks who write self-help books is that when you’re poor, money counts. You can added increments of happiness up to $75,000 annually. What you earn after that brings a few additional happiness credits but to an ever-decreasing extent. In fact, once you pass, maybe, the million mark, you actually become less happy, which could be because you’ve seen it and done it all. When nothing’s new under the sun, what’s the point? Martin Scorsese deals with that last point in The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the title character’s own book confessing all.

As directed by Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street is why American movies are loved all over the world, prime viewing by even the last leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Il. Whether this latest Scorsese will be a hit with the critics, it’s sure to having soaring box office figures by the sheer chutzpah of the project, the joyful lack of discipline, a tour de force performance from Leonardo Di Caprio, and, oops, I almost forgot: the naked women. What’s more the film enjoys Rodrigo Prieto’s splendid wide-screen photography, some sharp editing by Thelma Schoonmaker that takes us to back to the early work days of the book’s author, and Bob Shaw’s crackerjack production values including at least one brokerage house the size of a football field.

The subject of the movie is Jordan Belfort, who comes up from poverty with the drive and ambition to make as much money as he can, even though ironically he literally throws some Benjamins around including a $40,000 watch which he chuck to his cheering audience of brokers. The self-book authors say “Do what you like and the money will come,” and by gum, they’re right on target.

Belfort (Leonardo Di Caprio), who was banned form the securities business for life and sentenced to three years at a country club prison after taking a plea, began with a small outfit selling penny stocks, the brokers earning the unheard commission of fifty percent. “Who buys these junk offerings?” he wants to know, getting the obvious answer from a colleague, “schmucks.” He used the commissions earned from an obscure company into acquiring large amounts of stock, minimal disclosure, pumping up the price and then selling. Some of the profits are laundered into legitimate businesses (like the dry cleaning firms owned by Irving Rosenfeld in David O. Russell’s movie American Hustle), while others are cleansed through banks in Geneva, one of which is managed by a corrupt Swiss manager Jean-Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin).

You don’t have to be excited about Economics or finance to love this movie, but it helps to have a broad mind (no pun intended) which will allow you to revel in the scantily clad women who compete in pleasuring men with boatloads of drugs like Quaaludes that are taken by Belfort and his second-in-command, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill).

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll are thematic and put across by DiCaprio, probably the best actor for the job of being Belfort. When he bellows into a microphone, his fellow brokers cheer wildly, and they’re doing so not just to suck up to the boss but because they’re being well treated indeed by the maestro of money. Never mind that his stock manipulations involve investor losses of two hundred million dollars, and that money launderings brings him and his company, Stratton Oakmont, to the attention of FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) on Belfort’s trail like Javert chasing Jean Valjean.

A good deal of film is taken up with some of the most lavish and sexually uninhibited parties, Belfort admitting that without the drugs, the booze and the sex, his life would not be worth living. If you thought the parties in Bob Gosse’s 2003 movie I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and the stock scams in Ben Younger’s 2000 pic Boiler Room were far out, be prepared to take both activities up several notches. Marvel at Belfort’s many monoscinating pep talk in a lavish restaurant by Belfort’s first mentor Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), and at terrific supporting performances from Jonah Hill as Donnie and Margot Robbie as Belfort’s voluptuous wife Naomi.

This is the year’s best movie.

Rated R. 179 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 


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