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Steve McQueen’s
12 Years a Slave
Opens Friday, October 18, 2013

Written by: John Ridley, based on the memoir by Solomon Northup & David Wilson

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alfre Woodard, Chris Chalk, Taran Killam, Bill Camp

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

I overheard two separate, distressing and perplexing comments at an early screening of 12 Years a Slave. One critic immediately announced to a colleague, as the credits were rolling, “Well, it wasn’t nearly as good as everyone is saying.” Another journalist, who had the good sense to wait until the credits were a minute in, mused on it’s slim Oscar chances (to his guest) stating it wasn’t “an Oscar film,” and that it was ‘too much of a downer for the Academy.’

I say bullshit and bullshit. I wish I had done so at the screening but I believe in keeping my big mouth shut until I am outside so no one has to suffer through my opinion, just in case they don’t agree with me! Both these bozos were bloggers who, without the magic of the Internet, would still be playing Dungeons and Dragons in their basements, where bodies are probably buried.

Forgive my harshness but I have grown weary and angry by the instant opinions that certain writers feel are mandatory in this age of the twittersphere. Can’t we give ourselves some time to meditate on a film—especially one as important (and I do not use that word promiscuously) as 12 Years a Slave?

And shouldn’t we let the year play out a bit more before we start dismissing Oscar hopefuls? Seriously, the screening was in early September!

To now give my two cents—in writing--AFTER I’ve had time to think, the film isn’t as good as everyone is saying it is—it’s better because it truly breaks new ground in historical storytelling and because it’s a riveting and enthralling piece of cinema.

Oh, and who the fuck knows what an “Oscar film” is? I’ve been following and predicting and ranting about the Oscars for three decades now (I started young) and I have no clue. Nor do the legion of prognosticators out there—the best of which admit, “No one knows anything.” Was Silence of the Lambs an Oscar film? (Well, yes—because it WON!) Wasn’t it a downer? How about The Hurt Locker? Would you think The Sound of Music and No Country for Old Men have a lot in common? Guess what? They’re both Oscar films because they both won. An “Oscar film” may have signified something cheery and musical forty or fifty years ago but today an Oscar film is whatever the Academy deems the winner is. Period. And merit does come into it.

I find it additionally fascinating that both grousing guys were white, male and in their twenties. I am not necessarily making parallels with certain (most) Republicans who hate Obama because he’s…shall we say a darker shade than they are, but I’m guessing their opinion might just deep down come from some type of racism. Ergo, my buddies at the screening. Because that is the only way you can dismiss a film like 12 Years a Slave as being not ‘nearly as good as everyone is saying.” My opinion. I’m allowed.

Oh, and in both cases cited above the respective persons being spoken to were also white, male 20somethings who agreed with their respective opinionators.

But enough about idiots…

Steve McQueen has only made two other feature films prior to 12 Years a Slave, Hunger and Shame. Both films bowed at the New York Film Festival (thank you, FSLC) Both are brilliant, difficult, ballsy depictions of the dark side of human nature. Both feature towering performances by Michael Fassbender. Both were praised by most critics. Both received zero Oscar nominations. Allow me to say here, that great and terrible wrong will be corrected this year. If it isn’t, the Academy will lose what’s left of its validity. The validity that began eroding with Crash winning over Brokeback Mountain in 2005 and The King’s Speech defeating The Social Network in 2010.

Here, in his richest cinematic offering to date, McQueen works from an insightful and unsparing script by John Ridley, which is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup.

The film begins in Saratoga, New York in 1841, when slavery is a harsh reality for blacks in the South.

The early scenes depict a free Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) enjoying his life with his wife and two children. He’s respected in his community and treated no differently because of the color of his skin. Through an outrageous sequence of events where he is promised money for his violin talents, he is, instead, drugged, shackled and tossed onto a boat to Louisiana where he is renamed and sold into slavery—and warned to never utter a word about the fact that he was a free man—or else risk being killed.

Solomon, now Platt, is sold to a kind (as kind as the times allowed) plantation owner, Ford (played with great sincerity by Benedict Cumberbatch). Solomon is sold along with Eliza (Adepero Oduye) who is separated from her children (common practice back then, this despicable behavior brings to mind Sophie’s Choice, without the choice). Ford’s wife incredulously tells Eliza, “You’re children will soon be forgotten.”

Solomon soon finds himself butting heads with one of Ford’s underlings Tibeats (Paul Dano, expertly creepy) and Solomon fights back, beating Tibeats, in a wonderfully cathartic scene. Normally a black man would have been put to death for such a deed but Ford steps in—after Solomon is strung up and almost hanged.

There’s a brilliant shot of Northup hanging, hardly able to stand on his tippy toes, barely staying alive, while everyone in the surrounding dwellings go about their business in the background.

The only way Ford is able to help Solomon is to sell him to a cotton plantation owner named Epps (Michael Fassbender, making his third appearance in a McQueen film). Epps is quite a piece of work. He’s an egomaniacal, God-fearing conundrum of a man stuck in a marriage to someone he despises and in love with a slave girl, Patsey (an astonishingly good Lupita Nyong’o), he can never make his—in the biblical sense. To say he’s bitter is an understatement. He is the personification of most everything that was misguided and wrong with the South and the reason they could never see reason on the issue of slavery.

Epps’ unloved spouse (an excellent Sarah Paulson) thinks nothing of brutalizing Patsey and no one, including Epps, does anything to stop her. Such commonplace cruelty, hard to fathom, was the reality back then.

It’s in the Epps household that we are shown something I do not recall ever seeing in any film about slavery and that is the slave owner’s skewed perspective.

Epps: “There is no sin. A man does what he pleases with his property.”

McQueen dives into the mindset of the slave owner, via Epps, who truly believes slaves are his property and, as such, must be subservient to his every whim. And further that it’s God’s will for him to treat his property however he wishes—no matter the cruelty (rape, torture, murder—all acceptable.)

The only fly in this “permission from God” ointment is that if they’re just property—why must they remain ignorant? This need to make certain they don’t learn to read or write denotes fear and knowledge that it’s all bullshit. Fear that the slave will realize a truth—that they’re indeed human and should be treated as human. That would obliterate any notions of a God-sanctioned slavery. So it comes down to WANTING it to be that way—for economic reasons, sure, but to also have that power and retain it--to feel like a God. Cocksure. Shrewd. The MASTER. Fassbender embodies all of this with an enigmatic cunning that’s astounding.

And he is matched by Ejiofor’s careful, controlled and heartbreaking performance as Solomon. He brings us into the heart and mind of the man and allows us to glimpse of his heartache and his anger--the way he must swallow every time there’s another injustice and how he must do harm to others to survive.

In one especially grueling scene, Epps decides that Patsey must be punished for disobeying him (truth to be told she is being punished for thinking for herself) and orders Solomon to whip her. When Solomon apprehensively does (in a way where he can do the least harm), Epps grabs the whip and does it himself. In this moment, the arrogant Epps must show Patsey and everyone else the price you pay for disobeying your master—for having a mind of your own, when you’re simply property. It’s a deliberately overlong scene, devastating but telling.

When Solomon is almost caught trying to get a letter sent to his people back home, he is smart enough to quickly manipulate the situation knowing his life is at stake. Epps believes him because he explains in a reasonable but subservient way. And how silly to think he can read and write.

Later in the narrative, Solomon finally finds someone he can trust to tell the truth to, a carpenter working for Epps, Samuel Bass (a solid Brad Pitt). Bass is his salvation and the film’s final moments are truly inspiring and transcendent.

But what stays with you are the images, the stories. And rarely has there been a story about blacks where blacks dominated the narrative. Here the performances (other than Fassbender) that you remember--that matter--are from Ejiofor, Nyong’o, Oduye and Afre Woodard, in a too-brief but fascinating turn. This is no white man as hero to the black man story (Cry Freedom, anyone—although it is a good film).

The design team is all working at the top of their game from the production designer (Adam Stockhausen) to the cameraman (Sean Bobbitt) to the composer (Hans Zimmer, creating another memorable score).

The non-linear structure of the film works magnificently as Ridley shares just enough with each flashback to enhance characterization.

McQueen doesn’t bother holding back the brutality. This is a true horror film--a film that could easily be titled, Shame or American Horror Story. It’s about a time in American history we should never forget.

McQueen brings up difficult notions of surviving vs. being subservient that are familiar to any Holocaust story and he isn’t afraid to delve deep into the dankest recesses of human nature to try and hypothesize and theorize.

There are no answers. But there are many questions. Many stories.

At a certain point McQueen has Ejiofor stare directly into the camera. He is looking at America—past, present, future. As he stares at the audience we want to look away in embarrassment, in disgrace, but we but we must hold the stare because it is both the character Solomon looking out as well as the actor in representation, forcing us to see—to see that monsters are real. And if we’re not careful, they can easily return.

After only three films, Steve McQueen’s expert filmmaking puts him among the best auteurs working today. Regardless of how many awards it wins, 12 Years a Slave is a remarkable achievement and will be remembered long after naysayers are dust.

Steve McQueen’s
12 Years a Slave
Opens Friday, October 18, 2013

Screenwriter: John Ridley, based on Solomon Northrup’s book

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on

If you’re looking for a movie on a serious subject with a great deal of wit and irony, you couldn’t do better than to go with Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. For more of an exploitation tone, Richard Fleischer’s 1975 movie Mandingo about a man who trains a slave to be a bare-knuckle fighter is your best bet. For a TV serial, of course there’s Roots, Marvin Chomsky and John Erman’s TV mini-series, which caused quite a stir for its graphic and accusatory look at man’s dehumanization of his fellow man.

For a serious consideration of what is called “the peculiar institution” with all of its degradation, brutality and immorality that makes one question what sort of nation we once were, 12 Years a Slave is your best bet. For such an epic tale, Steve McQueen is the perfect director. His Hunger in 2008 depicts the martyrdom of Bobby Sands who led members of the Irish Republican Army on a hunger strike in a Northern Ireland jail.

12 Years a Slave is drenched in blood, passion and injustice in its illumination of a story that is all the more wrenching in its being adapted from the actual memoir of one Solomon Northrup. From 1841 to 1853 he was enslaved on a southern planation despite his being a free man living in Saratoga, New York and enjoying the patronage of people of wealth who hired him to play the fiddle for their dances. Chiwetel Ejiofor takes the lead role as the title figure, one who is named Platt though in truth he is Solomon Northrup, a fellow with a wife and two kids who more often than not is spiffily dressed in a brown suit and matching bow tie. Trusting a pair of well-dressed people who offer him a sizable sum to accompany them and to perform on his violin, he is instead drugged with wine at a posh restaurant, waking up attached with chains to his legs and arms. Insisting at first that he is a free man living in New York, he learns to accept a new identity thrust upon him by his slave-masters, who would beat him unless he went along with their lies.

In one graphic scene we watch as Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) holds an indoor slave market featuring naked black men and women sold as though they were thoroughbred horses, noting for the rich attendees the muscular figures he pats on the chest. “Platt” is bought by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is relatively decent, and a final trade puts Northrup into the hands of the most sadistic of plantation owners, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) who has a reputation of breaking disobedient field hands and whipping workers who fall short of picking under two hundred pounds of cotton in one day (try it!).

The rich women don’t get off easily, as Epps’s wife (Sarah Paulson) resents the attention her husband pays to the beautiful Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o)—who aside from serving as an unwilling but resigned release for her master’s sexual tensions is also the most productive woman in the field. Expect the audience to gasp when Mistress Epps throws a heavy decanter into Patsey’s face and later takes pleasure in watching the poor woman get whipped to within an inch of her life by Platt, threatened with death if he refused.

While the R-rated 12 Years a Slave would be a perfect eye-opener for kids now in middle school or high school, one wonders how many parents would want their young ones to encounter what was going on in our freedom-loving nation during some of its most savage years. In filming the epic indictment of slavery which is adapted from Northrup’s book by John Ridley, Sean Bobbitt respects audience patience by his many long takes, enjoining editor Joe Walker from making the cuts that are so common in TV sitcoms and most serious movies alike. The war between master and slave is fully convincing given the impressive talents of much employed Michael Fassbender and of Chiwetel Ejiofor, the latter demonstrating his charisma as well in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, about a mutiny on a slave ship in 1839.

The soundtrack is filled with spiritual songs by the field hands, as though contrasting their love with the brutality of their overseers. Almost needless to say, 12 Years a Slave will be remembered during awards season, including on March 2 of next year at the Oscar celebrations.

Rated R. 134 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Martha Shane and Lana Wilson's
After Tiller
Opens Friday, September 20, 2013

Screenwriter: Martha Shane, Lana Wilson, Greg O’Toole

Starring: Doctors Shelley Sella, LeRoy Carhart, Warren Hern, Susan Robinson

Oscilloscope Laboratories

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

“Nobody wants an [expletive] abortion,” states one of the four principal characters in Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s documentary After Tiller. This comment would be unsurprising had it come from one of the thousands of protesters who periodically line up in one state or another demanding that abortion be made either illegal or at least banned after twenty or twenty-four weeks of pregnancy. But the speaker, Dr. Susan Robinson, is one of the only four doctors in the entire United States to perform abortion procedures on patients who have been carrying fetuses for over twenty-four weeks. Such patients are said opt for late-term abortions, illegal even in generally liberal New York State (unless the health of the mother is compromised). While some of us may have thought that New York would be among the few states to allow abortions after twenty-four months, a time that the fetus is allegedly able to feel pain, what is surprising is that nine other states including Maryland are on board with legislation to protect physicians who operate on latecomers.

After Tiller is a conventionally structured doc which may come across to some as balanced, but in fact Shane and Wilson tilt the politics leftward in favor of a more liberal use of abortion procedures. The directors, who wrote the script together with Greg O’Toole, spend much of the film’s time showing the doctors in a sympathetic light, interviewing patients who come to them—some in tears and shaking, others resolute—as though the physicians have all the time in the world to play therapist and lend an empathetic ear. At no time do any of the four doctors, who along with Susan Robinson include LeRoy Carhart, Warren Hern and Shelly Sella, put pressure on the patients, all to ensure that none will return a month, a year, or any time thereafter full of misgivings. In fact as one doctor states, not a single patient ever entertained serious regrets about the decision to abort.

The patients’ faces are either blurred out or not shown at all, which in a way is unfortunate in that it makes them look like people about to leave their chairs to do a perp walk. But they have good reason to be cautious: Dr. Tiller, the deceased title character who is shown in a file film, was murdered a few years ago by an anti-abortion fanatic, the killer, Scott Roeder, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment—an excellent judgment, even one that is surprising considering the depth of hatred that some Americans have over even first trimester abortions.

While governors and legislators in some mid-Western states are falling over themselves to pander to their constituents who are perceived by them to be largely anti-abortion, we are treated to the four sane professionals who are literally risking their lives, given what happened to Dr. George Tiller. Susan Robinson is a sweet, grandmotherly type, the rare breed of physician who is easy to talk to and allows her patients to express misgivings, if necessary, as long as they need to be assured. Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who had once worked with Tiller, was forced to relocate when a hostile legislature determined that a fetus feels pain at twenty-four weeks (probably untrue) and banned the procedure. Warren Hern, who at seventy-four is determined to spend more time with his family, is not ready to give up a practice that he considers life-affirming, given the numbers of mostly poor women or perhaps ignorant teens who would otherwise injure themselves severely or even die by trying to abort their fetuses with hangers.

Dr. Robinson does not allow herself to treat patients whose “stories” she does not believe in. That would presumably encompass one woman who wants to terminate her pregnancy because she needs time to do her taxes. Another woman is a rape victim, which makes one wonder why such a person would wait past twenty-four weeks rather than, perhaps, take the so-called French pill now available for women who have had unprotected sex.

After Tiller is the voice of reason, at least to me, a film that demonstrates that “nobody wants an [expletive] abortion” but which some people, whether because of rape or a diagnosis that a fetus may never walk or talk and would probably die before age four, is compelled to end late-term pregnancies safely in the hands of experienced professionals. As such, the documentary, which happily has a PG-13 rating and is therefore open for viewing by vulnerable teens, is a welcome, non-sensational call for the American people to give up extremist views and have sympathy for both the patients and for the few who provide services to them that 99.99% of ob-gyn docs will not or cannot legally perform.

Rated PG-13. 88 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

J.C. Chandor’s
All is Lost
Opens Friday, October 18, 2013

Written by: J.C. Chandor

Starring: Robert Redford

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

I don’t believe that Robert Redford has ever challenged himself onscreen the way he does in All is Lost. He’s given great screen performances (The Sting, The Way We Were, 3 Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, The Electric Horseman, Brubaker, to name my personal favorites) and his work with director Sydney Pollack in the underrated Jeremiah Johnson, did require his braving certain mountain man-type elements. But he’s never taken the risks he takes with his new film. Risks have a way of paying off. And at 77, Redford gives the performance of his life.

With his second feature film, J.C. Chandor, the mind behind the smart and savvy indie, Margin Call, which premiered at Sundance in 2011, achieves a most remarkable feat: he’s made a film with only one actor that mesmerizes for almost two hours.

It joins Gravity, Captain Phillips and 12 Years a Slave, in examining a protagonist’s ability and will to survive. And like the film’s named above, All is Lost is a challenging, emotionally debilitating yet invigorating piece of cinema. It’s also much more existential and abstract than the three other films, making it about the act of survival more than about the reasons why the character (billed in the credits as “Our Man”) wants/needs to survive.

Consequently the film’s focus is on Our Man’s will, resourcefulness--his refusal to capitulate, even when all does, indeed, seem lost.

Our Redford is some 1700 nautical miles from the Sumatra Straits as the film opens. He is also in the worst possible situation as his boat has sunk. The film then flashes back 8 days and takes us on the tense, gripping, thrilling and wrenching journey of just how he has gotten to such a precarious place. A large, abandoned, shipping container, loaded with sneakers, collides with his yacht and tears a great big hole in the lower part of his boat, allowing water to flow into his cabin—destroying all of his electronic gadgets, ergo any communication he might have with the outside world. Our Man must repair the tear and pump the water out. We watch as director Chandor meticulously takes us through the process. Our Man is not a seasoned sailor, so he must rely on his own instincts and ingenuity (and manuals he has on board). He also attempts to repair the radio, to no avail.

Shortly thereafter, luck obviously not on his side, a massive storm hits and things get pretty grim and horrific. Our Man must abandon ship, with few supplies, and hop into an enclosed inflatable raft while he watches his vessel disappear into the vast Indian Ocean.

No less than two large ships sail by and do not see him, despite the fact that he shoots up flairs.

Will he be rescued? Or will the Ocean swallow him whole?

There is very little dialogue in the film. Mercifully, Chandor doesn’t have Redford monologuing with himself or any narration. So the few words Redford does utter are all the more potent. There is one profane word that he shouts that provides a great emotional release for audience members. At the very beginning, there is also a voiceover in which the Our Man tells his loved ones that he “fought to the end…” We never learn who these loved ones are and his relationship to them. We never know why he is so far out at sea. And it’s a welcome change from the backstory-heavy fare we usually get in films about people fighting for their lives.

It is inferred that there was something missing in his life, some adventure he needed to embark on to fulfill a dream, a desire.

The film is reminiscent of 127 Hours, The Old Man and the Sea, Cast Away and Life of Pi but only fleetingly.

Chandor directs the movie in a way that forces us INTO the man’s struggles. The silences allow us a way in so we share in the experience. So does the placement of the camera (credit Frank G. DeMarco’s terrific work) as well as the editing (Pete Beaudreau) and the gripping score (Alex Ebert).

And one shouldn’t underestimate the power of the screenplay. Despite the dearth of dialogue, the script is well thought out and detailed. And exciting. For 107 minutes we are splashdab there in the middle of the ominous ocean with Our Man and it is never dull--and always intriguing.

At one point, right after Our Man sees that the storm is heading his way, he stops to shave. It’s a great, if oddball, moment. When confronted with a life-threatening situation, panicking is inevitable but our protagonist attempts something normal to prepare himself for the challenge ahead.

Because Redford has so often embodied the all-American hero, in varying forms, our immediate impulse is to root for him, to desperately want him to will out—to succeed to conquer the situation--no matter how dire.

Asking Robert Redford to appear in such a film took balls. Redford’s agreeing took bigger balls. Redford’s revelatory, outstanding work in the film took talents that were always there but rarely tapped into. The actor’s full immersion here (body and spirit) is phenomenal.

One can only hope he worries less now about his looks and his image and, instead, continues to take on more daring work.

Up until now, Robert Redford’s arguably more appreciated as a director. With All is Lost, the ship has now tipped in another direction. Here’s hoping he continues to make us seasick.

J.C. Chandor’s
All is Lost
Opens Friday, October 18, 2013

Written by: J.C. Chandor

Starring: Robert Redford

Lionsgate/ Roadside Attractions

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

Barbra Streisand is perhaps best known for pronouncing the notion that “People, people who need people, are the luckiest people in the world.” Our Man, which is the only name we know for Robert Redford’s character in J.C. Chandor’s “All is Lost,” is at first a person who does not need people, but in time—in just eight days, in fact-- he stands to be the luckiest person in the world if he could find someone, preferably someone with a big ship. “With one person, one very special person, no more hunger and thirst,” concludes Barbra in a song that lyricists Dunbar, Rolie and Schon could have written with Our (hungry and thirsty) Man in mind.

Our Man, a fellow whose backstory remains a mystery to us in the audience, illustrates the writer-director’s breaking with the usual movie conventions in that he makes no effort to teach us anything about the man’s past while at the same time having him exhibit a range of emotions from surprise to fear, from resilience to ingenuity. He could stand in for Everyman, if Everyman, as though thumbing his nose at our crowded planet of seven billion, heads off to the high seas solo, probably with no motivation even to make the Guinness Book of World Records, and so far as we know with no specific purpose at all except to show that the Indian Ocean is to him what Walden Pond was to Thoreau.

In his fairly small yacht, equipped with a stove, potable water, a suitable supply of canned beans, and some primitive fishing equipment to catch whatever the sharks don’t see first, Our Man becomes just slightly alarmed when noting that water is seeping into his small vessel because of a collision with some detritus on the high seas. He pours himself a couple of glasses of bourbon, spoons up some beans, and tries to make do with a large container of potable water. He extends his line only to discover that a sizable fish was seen first by a shark. Believing that all will be well upon his detachment from the metaphoric iceberg, he is dismayed to discover that his vessel has become too crippled for further use, requiring him to change venue to a lifeboat.

As his skin becomes increasingly red, he curses just once with a loud yell, the only thing we hear from him save for an initial narration that takes place in what may be his final day on water: he declaims that all is lost.

All is Lost is as minimalist as a movie can be, one which, absent the ocean, would be yet another one-man show like Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape that you’d find occasionally in a New York off-off-Broadway theater, but Chandor is even more sparing by giving his lone character just a few words of monologue and a complete absence of dialogue. At 76, Redford is exhibiting his thesp chops as the old man and the sea, looking weathered from both age and circumstance.

More minimalist than Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, about a boy alone on a raft in the Pacific but with considerable exposition about his family; and more Spartan than even Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away, which at least gives Chuck Nolan a number of possibilities to develop his island real estate, All is Lost is writer-director’s Chandor’s about face from his Margin Call with that story’s flurry of chatter and energy. Existentialists hold that we are what we do. We’ll have to settle for considering what Our Man does in his eight desperate days at sea (filmed in Baja California and the Bahamas) to be the sum of his character.

While I’m not as sanguine about this rules-breaking film as some other critics similarly data-based on, I am suitably impressed about seeing a movie that is not like any other. Originality at a time that film and TV studios resort to the familiar rather than take financial risks is to be cheered. Americans, particularly those of a politically conservative bent, can interpret the story as one glorifying the American individual over the European-style collective, and metaphysicians can look at the whole shebang as an allegory about the losing struggle that all of us make on a headlong slide toward death. Whatever you see in this, you’ll likely agree: watching Robert Redford is watching one of the major icons of the film industry.

Rated PG-13. 107 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson's
American Promise
Opens Friday, October 18, 2013

Screenwriter: Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson

Starring: Idris Brewster, Anthony Summers, Stacey O. Summers, Oluwaseun (Seun) Summers

Rada Film Group

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

Though this film focuses on four African-Americans—Joe Brewster and Michèle Brewster and their child Idris, and Anthony Summers and Stacey O. Summers and their boy Seun (pronounced Shay-Awn), I can relate closely to their joys and fears. Like Idris and Seun, I am a long-term Brooklynite spending several years in a private high school, (Poly Prep), though I arrived straight from a public junior high where I had completed three years in a Special Progress class. I thought I was Einstein at the Montauk JHS, but my balloon was quickly deflated at Poly where I found myself competing with young men who had either gone to Poly from an early age or to some other prep school where the demands were undoubtedly higher than those I faced at age twelve. Like the young men in Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s documentary, I required long months of tutoring while many of my peers coasted through Trig, Plane Geometry and Biology. Though white, I believe I can understand at least a large part of the boys’ frustrations during their attendance at the prestigious Dalton School on New York’s Upper East Side where they, too, competed against others who were at least equally bright.

One of the boys, Seun, was not considered meritorious enough to advance to Dalton’s high school and transferred to Banneker, a public high in Brooklyn, where the contrast must have caused Seun some cognitive dissonance. Though Seun adapted readily and graduated, later to go on to Fredonia College in upstate New York, his future may not be as bright as that of Idris, his fellow Brooklynite who, despite having a psychiatrist father who attended Stanford was turned down there and from a few others, winding in L.A. at Occidental College. They should both do fine.

American Promise, probably inspired by Michael Apted’s famous 7-Up series in which the director followed a group of people beginning when they were seven years old, and last year distributed 56-Up which summarized their lives to date. Brewster and Stephenson’s American Promise has been 14 years in the making, cut down from 800 filmed hours to 2 hours and 15 minutes, originally focusing on five families which over the years of the filming narrowed down to just two. What’s remarkable is that the directors capture their pairs’ disappointments as well as successes, the presence of four cinematographers apparently not putting a damper on their arguments and rejections.

Idris, blessed with highly involved parents, one of whom attended Harvard and the other Columbia Law school, did not mix in as well as he might have had he attended a mostly African-American/Latino-populated public school. Nor did Seun, who was unable to bounce back as did Idris. Surrounded by white kids as two of just a few African-Amerian students, they and other black children were singled at for special tutorial attention as both needed extra help. Seun, in fact, was found not to be material to continue to Dalton High School and transferred to Banneker Academy in Brooklyn.

We get to know both boys as well as can be expected during the 135 minutes in which the cameras are aimed largely at them. Idris became the only freshman on the Dalton basketball team, but is kidded about his short height and criticized by his demanding dad for not putting forth his best effort on the court. Seun, as sweet a kid as Idris, is diagnosed only in tenth grade with Attention Deficit Disorder and is hardly able to keep up with school pressure. Nor does it help his stability that his mother is afflicted with colon cancer which had spread to her lymph nodes and his kid brother dies in an unexplained accident at home.

The film, which appeared at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in U.S. documentary competition, is a testament to the loving pressure of two sets of parents and to the ways that two African-American boys deal with kids racially different from them. (Seun’s mother, in fact, admits that she is not always comfortable among white folks, but wants her son to fit in with them as with those of his own race.) The doc is filled with poignant moments, good acting by four sets of “nonprofessional” performers who appear to ignore the omnipresence of cameras, and, to coin a cliché, the boys laughed, they cried, their joys and disappointments parts of all our lives.

Unrated. 135 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Kat Coiro's
And While We Were Here
Opens Friday, September 13, 2013

Screenwriter: Kat Coiro

Starring: Kate Bosworth, Jami Blackley, Iddo Goldberg, Claire Bloom
Well Go USA Entertainment

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on
Grade: B-

What chance does a guy in his thirties have when his wife meets an attractive kid of nineteen who appears skilled in the art of seduction? Usually there is no contest. If the man is attentive to his wife, provides enough materially for her, and is as mature as she, the marriage is as sturdy as the diamond on her finger. However writer-director Kat Coiro illustrates in And While We Were Here a marriage that is flawed, one which finds the husband clueless about his mate’s needs. Never mind that he is a professional London-based viola player who travels to Naples with his wife, who, while he is rehearsing with his orchestra, is sure that his charming wife is busy writing a book on her grandmother’s war experiences. All bets are off despite our seeing a woman whose husband loves her and the sex is OK (don’t forget they’re already in their thirties). What’s missing? According to her, it’s spontaneity, something she finds in the callow youth who picks her up in Naples, follows her around (considered stalking in our parts), and invites himself to join her on a day-trip to the island of Ischia.

The eternal triangle is on display with Kate Bosworth as the 30-ish writer Jane, Iddo Goldberg as her musician husband Leonard, and Jami Blackley as Caleb, the Massachusetts-born nineteen-year-old who certainly does not think like so many other males of his age that a woman in her thirties is old.

I think the husband gets a raw deal, but ethics get shunted aside when a new attraction electrifies Jane, who is seduced by a kid with no visible means of support, but who is wandering about in Italy, ready to hop off to Romania and Tibet. (Never mind that a trip to Tibet cannot be had for a couple of bucks and that a visa is required, and that’s only if the province happens at the time to be open to Americans.)

From time to time we in the audience are treated to a recording by Jane’s grandmother (narrated with a clear, excited voice by Claire Bloom), a woman who has lived through two world wars and whose memories are of her many boyfriends. A narrative such as this transforms Jane into a person who treats her grandmother as a role model, interpreting her stories to mean that the meaning of life is to enjoy it fully with an array of exciting fellas. No wonder she is dazzled by Caleb’s free spirit, joining him in a simple outdoor restaurant in Ischia, with the added fun of running like rabbits from the waiter when they had no money to pay the check. And jumping from the rocks into the water? There’s something that Jane could not expect from her all-too-proper British mate Leonard.

Considering how bland the marriage seems to be—but functional, in my opinion—a melodramatic note becomes a welcome change as Jane’s voice switches from a rumbling bass to a high piercing shout as she indicts her husband with the charge of not loving her, of not listening to her, and of simply not connecting. Leonard tries to rebut, accusing Jane of wanting to make him someone he is not, and this is true. She is depressed from a miscarriage, based on a pregnancy that hints that theirs was a shotgun marriage, but when she puts herself down by saying that she can never have children, she casts the blame onto him—assuring him without much evidence that he must be deeply disappointed that he will never be a father.

Much of the film is as bland as Jane and Leonard are before the meeting with Caleb. The lensing is in sepia when perhaps bold color punctuating the sights of the touristic island of Ischia might be more alluring. However director Coiro means us to focus not on Italy as travelogue but Naples and Ischia are projections of the inner lives of the couple.

At eighty-three minutes, And While We Were Here does not outlast its welcome. Some in the audience (like me) would condemn Jane for her brash activities. After all, she has no future with Caleb who will soon be traipsing around Europe and China. Some might make comparisons with French New Wave cinema, even with Godard’s Breathless—about a man who has shot a policeman and tries to convince a girl to hide out in Italy with him. And While We Were Here, however, is far from a classic, just a slice of life about a fading marriage burdened by a proper British husband, a depressed wife, and a rootless, spontaneous child.

Rated R. 83 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Abdellatif Kechiche’s
Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie D’Adele)
In French with English Subtitles
Opens Friday, October 25, 2013

Written by: Abdellatif Kechiche & Ghalya Lacroix. Freely inspired by "Le Bleu est une couleur chaude" by Julie Maroh.

Starring: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Lea Seydoux, Salim Kechiouche, Mona Walravens, Jeremie Laheurte

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

Leave it to a Franco-Tunisian filmmaker to craft a 3-hour intimate, revealing epic that deals with sex and sexuality in such a bracingly honest manner that it will frighten most Americans, turn off others and probably turn on many audience members—for prurient reasons.

Blue was already quite controversial coming out of Cannes, where it won the Palme d’Or. The film courted notoriety because of its graphic sex scenes—specifically a quite-lengthy lesbian love scene where simulation and real sex lines blur. Recently, the two lead actresses complained about just how difficult the director was to work with and how they’d never do so again. Kechiche angrily fired back wondering how they could complain when “everyone suffered.” And even the graphic novel author who wrote the story on which the film is loosely based chimed in with her two cents calling the film “porn.”

Hopefully all of the bitching and moaning will give the film a good push at the box office here since it will be released with an NC-17.

No matter the controversy, the film is an audacious, intense, raw--coming-of-age, coming out and coming to terms with being an adult—story. It’s the type of film US filmmakers could never make because of our faux Victorian attitude towards sex—especially in movies.

Broken into two parts, the film deals with a young woman’s sexual awakening followed by her first real relationship.

We first meet Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos) at age fifteen. She’s a sweet, blue-collar girl who loves to read. She is courted by a cute boy named Thomas (heartthrobby Jeremie Laheurte) but senses something is missing when she fantasizes about girls during their time together. And when she dares to allow herself to kiss a fellow female student, her “friends” relentlessly grill her as if she’s committed some heinous crime.

No matter, Adele knows what she likes and heads towards a lesbian bar to get it. There she meets plucky, rebellious artist, Emma (Lea Seydoux) who gently takes Adele through the awkward and enticing first stages of love. Adele’s awakening to true passion and pleasure with Emma is startling to watch since the viewer is placed in peeping tom mode, but it’s also an integral part of the story. In some respects, it is the story.

Emma’s upper class parents are very accepting of their daughter and her sexuality while Adele cannot even tell her parents.

The film then jumps ahead and both women have set up house with one another. Adele is now a content kindergarten teacher and Emma is doing her best to make it as a painter. Emma needles Adele about publishing some of her (diary) writing but Adele is not interested. Emma cannot fathom why she wouldn’t want to.

The class theme becomes even more obvious as Adele tries to fit in with Emma’s friends but cannot get past her own feelings of inferiority. The love between the two women is real as is the attraction, but their backgrounds are wildly different and neither woman seems to have the proper amount of empathy to overcome their differences. It’s a truly fascinating relationship study and Kechiche does not shy away from any aspect of its presentation.

Exarchopoulos carries the film with great love and care. This 19-year-old has the gifts of a veteran actor. She expertly conveys Adele’s confusion, repression, excitement, ecstasy and deep regret. Rarely is an actress allowed to run the gamut of emotions, let alone etch a fully rounded portrait.

Seydoux is simply magnificent—whether she’s falling in love with a minor and conflicted about it, pleasing her new lover or angrily chastising her because she’s been hurt and refuses to even consider forgiveness--you can’t take your eyes off of her. It’s one of the edgiest performances of the year.

Kechiche and his co-screenwriter, Ghalya Lacroix boldly examine what it means to be different in this world. The debate of whether existence or essence came first is a theme openly discussed in the early part of the film and emanates throughout. Also the notion of whether life is predetermined or not. Can we overcome our nature and nurture burdens and actually become something wholly unique? Are we at the mercy of chance when it comes to who we spend our time with—whom we love—who we’re attracted to?

I loved so much about this film—the mood, the feel, the colors, the fluidity of the camerawork, the intelligent script and the sexiness and tenderness of the love scenes--and the ending (which I will not give away). In addition, the notion that there are different kinds of repression is cleverly analyzed. Repression could stem from a religiously influenced lower-middle class upbringing. It could also come from misguided societal ideas about sex and monogamy.

Blue is the Warmest Color never ceases to mesmerize and stimulate, both intellectually and emotionally.


Paul Greengrass’s
Captain Phillips
Opens Friday, October 11, 2013

Written by: Billy Ray, based on the book “A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty

Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Max Martini, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez, David Warshofsky, Catherine Keener

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

In March of 2009, four Somali pirates hijacked a U.S. container ship, the Maersk Alabama, and kidnapped the Captain of the vessel. Paul Greengrass, working with an expert script by Billy Ray (based on two books) recreates the events in one of the most gripping, intelligent, extraordinary films of 2013.

One of the first scenes in the pic is between Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener) having a serious conversation while en route to Norfolk to drop him off. They discuss how difficult it gets each time he must go on another journey (subtext about the dangers involved pervade) and they talk about their children and how they worry that it’s so much tougher in the world today than when they were starting out. It’s a normal conversation between two people who love each other and have been together for quite a while but it will later prove to be telling and rich with subtle but potent ironies.

Phillips is, indeed, concerned about his latest voyage which will take him along the Somali coast en route to Kenya. He reads a warning email about pirates in that area and upon boarding, immediately demands that the crew begin emergency drills.

Meanwhile in Somalia, we watch a harried scene where men and boys are being recruited to hijack ships and bring back money and, possibly, hostages for ransom. These ‘pirate’ tasks are so coveted, many of the Africans must bribe the Captain for a spot. We also meet the greedy warlords they have to answer to if they fail.

Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd immediately establishes his kinetic, yet taut style in these opening scenes.

Captain Phillips’ worst fears are realized when he spots two smallish boats rapidly approaching. He has one of his officers place a call to the US Maritime Emergency line and, incredulously, there is no answer so he attempts a bluff that partially pays off—scaring away one of the boats. The other group, led by an anorexic and ambitious Somali named Muse (an exceptional Barkhad Abdi) is undaunted and, even after the motor fails, remains steadfast in his pursuit of the large vessel.

The next morning, they’re fast approaching and Captain Phillips and the crew begin to scramble to try and lose them but the ship is too large and the only weapons they have on board are streams of water shooting out of the sides of the ship. This is one of the most lunatic realities presented—there were no guards on board that could fend off an attack in those waters.

In an exciting, edge-of-your-seat sequence, the four pirates board the ship as the crew hide deep below in the engine room. Captain Phillips must think fast and try and outwit Muse and his gang.

Muse refers to his actions as just “business,” and Phillips challenges him when he is about to murder one of his officers with, “Is this how you do business?” One of the wonderful things about how Muse is portrayed is that, on many occasions, he can be reasoned with. He is not all villain--not by a long shot.

Muse personifies the downtrodden being given an opportunity to rule and how that power can go to a person’s head if it isn’t tempered with reason.

Through a series of events I will not mention for fear of spoiling great moments, Phillips is taken hostage by the Somalis and, soon, the U.S. military is involved and Navy SEALS are put on alert just in case since Washington has issued an order that, ”Whatever happens, Captain Phillips does not reach Somalia.”

Greengrass holds pretty true to the actual events as they took place—save compressing 4-5 days—and the results are one of the most spectacular cinematic experiences in years.

Phillips and Muse go head-to-head in a few scenes and the results are surprising. Instead of good vs. evil, we get a psychological exploration of each of these “Captains.” Both risk their lives for their chosen work—one inside the law, the other, breaking international law. One lives quite well; the other is as poor as they come. Both have dreams, but only one will likely be able to have his fulfilled (or already has). One is on a mission to do good (Phillips: “We were carrying food for starving people in Africa.”) The other has his own, more pressing reasons.
Muse may be arrogant and avaricious but he’s also trying to stay alive—and trying to get a piece of the elusive pie that he and his fellow band of pirates have been denied by both the warlords as well as the international community who leave them little choice but to turn to a life of thievery.

In a very illuminating moment, Phillips gently admonishes Muse for his actions saying there must be some other alternative for him than kidnapping people. Muse sighs, “Maybe in America.”

Ray’s script is rich in complexity, as the class distinction remains a factor throughout the narrative, as does this odd, mutual respect both Captains have for one another.

The film is superbly edited (by Christopher Rouse, who will be Oscar nominated) and the score (by Henry Jackman) perfectly enhances each scene—never offering too much manipulation.

Both Tom Hanks and director Paul Greengrass accomplish career-best work with Captain Phillips.

Greengrass is responsible for the second and third Bourne films (Supremacy and Ultimatum) as well as United 93. As thrilling as those films were, his work on Captain Phillips surpasses all his previous efforts.

Greengrass’s hallmark, energetic, handheld style places the audience smack dab in the midst of the action and with Captain Phillips, it is more dizzying, terrifying and gripping than ever. And while United 93 was more of a docu-film, Captain Phillips, is a more layered, nuanced and robust work.

Hanks is certainly no slouch having received two Oscars (Philadelphia, Forrest Gump) in the 90s and going on to solidify his place as one of our most respected actors in films such as Saving Private Ryan, Cast Away and Road to Perdition. Yet, in Captain Phillips there is something transcendent about his performance. It’s his most fully realized work by far.

Hanks cuts deep into the psyche of a man who faces his own mortality and must use all his strengths—physical, mental, psychological—to survive. And while he does all this, he also manages to attempt to understand his captors, and in doing so, we don’t see them as evil—we see the person behind the action. To call his performance remarkable and transformative is only scratching the surface of what he accomplishes here.

And in the final scene, which it turns out was a last minute idea, Hanks brings Phillips’ journey to such a human end it’s as shocking as it is sublime. And that last scene is enough to assure Hanks an Oscar nomination—if there is any justice within AMPAS.

We’ve come to expect the depiction of courage and grit in films about survival. What we rarely get to see is the true terror, confusion and humanity that must usually take a backseat to entertainment. Hanks gives us that gift. And he’s raised the 2013 acting stakes in the process.

And Greengrass secures a place among the best filmmakers working today.


Paul Greengrass's
Captain Phillips
Opens Friday, October 11, 2013

Screenwriter: Billy Ray

Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Catherine Keener, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Max Martini, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vázquez, David Warshofsky

Columbia Pictures

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

What I wanted to know and what Captain Phillips does not get around to telling us is: What do these Somali pirates do with the millions they collect as ransom? What can you possibly buy in one of the world’s horribly failed nations? Sand? No, there’s lots of that and it’s free. An internet search gives the pirates’ motivation. One leading fellow said that the first thing he did with the million he netted on one operation was buy a Toyota Land Cruiser for $30,000. What more can one ask for? Just this: when his car needs a repair, he does not humiliate himself with his peers by getting it fixed. He buys a new car. Then he gets cars for members of his family and allegedly, to show how moral he is, he gives thousands to the city administrator for repairs of the village. What else? Women, drugs (like khat) and alcohol. I guess that makes risking your life time and again worthwhile. It’s apparently better than plying your trade catching fish.

The above information is more interesting than anything that happens in the film directed by Paul Greenglass, known for The Bourne Identity and United 93, both of which are more than respectable. Here, however, Greengrass has his camera person shake and bob in switching from the pirate chief, Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and the ship’s skipper, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks)--this as though it were not enough that the waves on the high sea are nausea-inducing. The movie is based on the real-life year 2008 adventure of a Captain Phillips as stated in his memoir, but one hopes that the printed page is more substantial than the flat-out repetitive and banal chatter at ear-piercing volume between Phillips and the pirates, who seem always to look emaciated perhaps by their habit of chewing khat.

The film begins on terra firma as Virginia resident Captain Phillips tells his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener who, blink and you might miss her) that he loves her, gets driven to the airport, and winds up in Oman where he is to lead a crew from there to Mombasa, Kenya, to deliver hundreds of tons of food and other supplies. But Greengrass and Ray are not interested in telling us more about this aid, which presumably makes America look good, preferring to spend most of the movie’s hour and a quarter on the palaver between Phillips and Muse, the latter speaking broken English, and calling Phillips “Irish, “ because the skipper tells him that he is Irish –American. Abdi, who was born in Somalia and emigrated to the U.S., performs in his film debut, but he has nothing particularly interesting to say other than to appeal to his pals “Don’t kill him” and “Do I look like a beggar?” when the captain offers him the $30,000 on the boat—which he should have taken and gone home, quitting while he was ahead.

If you saw Tobias Lindholm’s Danish film A Hijacking, you’re going to be spoiled, because that pic gets it tension not from loud confrontations but from the clever give and take of the Danish negotiators led by the CEO of a shipping company who are in Copenhagen when the vessel is seized and where the entire crew, particularly the cook and the engineer, get to participate actively in the story. Captain Phillips is just one more evidence of how Hollywood substitutes action and melodrama for a genuinely absorbing screenplay.

Rated PG-13. 133 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's
Don Jon
Opens Friday, September 27, 2013

Screenwriter: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headley, Brie Larson, Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke

Relativity Media

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

In some ways, guys are more independent than gals. When was the last time you heard a man ask for directions? Though we men like to consider ourselves self-sufficient—we don’t need anyone to set up a TV, fix a stopped toilet, or paint a room. While this independence is something we value, there is one major way that do-it-yourself is not as esteemed as getting help from someone else, and that’s in the area of sex. While Woody Allen once said, “Don’t knock masturbation: at least you’re having sex with someone you love,” the implication is that spanking the monkey is something that is “knocked,” while sex with a partner elevates you (so to speak).

All this is illustrated by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who, amazingly wrote, directed and stars in Don Jon, the year’s best comedy to date. With the able help of Lauren Zuckerman, whose rapid edit complete with collages keeps the pace furious and Thomas Koss whose lenses capture a working-class town in New Jersey and some brilliant close-ups of Gordon-Levitt, Don Jon should take off with audiences who appreciate the delightful vulgarity that has made current film a far cry from the days of the Hollywood censors who insisted that if a man and a woman are in bed, each must have at least one foot on the floor.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt pulls off a working-class Italian accent (again, so to speak) throughout as a young man who serves as a bartender, a student in night college, and a Don Juan with an enviable array of women he picks up in crowded bars. Called “the Don” by his two best buddies Bobby (Rob Brown) and Danny (Jeremy Luke) because of his skills with the fair sex, he must stun girlfriends and members of the movie audience alike in declaring that he prefers porn to the real thing, on one day beating his meat a record eleven times, a feat that hardly disturbs the parish priest who regularly absolves him of his sins.

In addition to being this year’s comedy to beat, Don Jon is the best movie about sex addiction since Steve McQueen’s terrific Shame, which stars Michael Fassbender as the junkie, a more serious tale on a similar theme, specifically about a guy who has no problem getting it up in the shower and with an assortment of hotties, but could be in a Viagara commercial when he begins to develop a serious relationship with a woman.

In the case of Don Jon, the serious relationship comes in the guise of a gum-chewing Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), the only “dime” in the bar (meaning a woman who rates a score of 10 in body and looks), and presumably the only one who makes Jon wait for a couple of dates before giving in to their mutual electricity. He is also ostensibly the first woman he introduces to his paisan family, a sitcomish Jon Martello, Sr. (Tony Danza), Angela Martello (Glenne Headly) and sister Monica (Brie Larson), sitcomish but a lot more vulgar than you’d find in any shots of Leave It To Beaver. Young Monica appears to like texting as much as her brother digs sexting, given only two lines in the entire movie since she’s is otherwise occupied with her iPhone.

No sooner does Barbara catch her b.f. watching porn, thereby altering their relationship, then does Jon meet Esther (Julianne Moore), a sensible woman and fellow student who had lost her husband and son fourteen months previous and who helps turn Jon into a more mature version of himself, giving the audience the impression that perhaps Jon would now spend, oh, twenty percent less time making goo-goo eyes at his laptop and more time enjoying a refined, new significant other.

Rated R. 89 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Nicole Holofcener's
Enough Said
Opens Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette, Ben Falcone, Eve Hewson

Screenwriter: Nicole Holofcener

Fox Searchlight Pictures

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

Enough Said is the kind of movie that Woody Allen would write and direct if our greatest director of comedies dealt with suburban families rather than urbanites. The humor is relatively dry, which is good—meaning that it’s far from the mindless sit-coms on TV like Mike and Molly where in the “audience” laughs every twenty seconds. The dialogue may be interpreted as conventional, but meandering may be the better word: that’s a compliment. Director Nicole Holofcener, whose Friends with Money in 2006 dealt with a woman who quits her lucrative job and wonders about her future, especially about her continued relationship with wealthy friends, hones in on two divorced people who don’t especially look for new soul-mates but who luck out, getting to consider a rosy tomorrow.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a terrific comedian whom most people would know from TV’s Seinfeld, performs in the role of Eva. Eva is a successful masseuse who makes the rounds of her customers in upper-middle-class California. At a party, she tells her friend that she is not attracted to anyone, a complaint echoed by heavyset Albert (James Gandolfini). Despite their differences in weight and social class, the enjoy a first date together, her taste in men questioned when she coincidentally begins massage therapy with Marianne (Catherine Keener), who is Albert’s ex, and who badmouths the man as a slob. Marianne overlooks Albert’s good qualities: his dry wit and his easygoing demeanor, qualities that make Eva comfortable with him from the beginning.

True to Woody Allen’s style, the happy couple discuss their philosophies of relationships, specifically why one man and one woman would opt for divorce while the same two people would fit quite well together with new partners. Some of these questions are brought up as well during Eva’s discussions with her friend Sarah (Toni Collette), and even the college-bound teen daughters of Albert and Eva are brought into the confabs as though they were adults. Comic thrusts involve Sarah’s brittle relationship with her Latina cleaning woman (Anjelah Johnson-Reyes), who doesn’t take crap from her employer but tells her boss that she disgusts her.

One may wonder why Marianne, a poet with published books, can afford her lavish home, particularly since people after divorce tend to be financially poorer, and we’re not dealing here with ambitious people in the field of finance or law.

Southern Cal is shown in its opulent splendor by Xavier Grobet’s lenses.

In a film dedicated to him, James Gandolfini in one of his last roles shows his ability to play the laid-back sweetie-pie despite his fame as a gangster in The Sopranos on TV. He and Louis-Dreyfus share a palpable chemistry despite their physical differences, and the ensemble serve as background with aplomb.

Rated PG-13. 91 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Luc Besson's
The Family
Opens Friday, September 13, 2013

Written by: Luc Besson & Michael Caleo.

With: Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Luc Besson's The Family is a genre-blend of gangster film, dark satire and melodrama that is meant to be escapist entertainment and succeeds more than it doesn't. Warning, though, if you are fond of subtlety, look elsewhere since Besson spares no bloody expense piling on the corpses and filming violent sequences with aplomb. But if you relish over-the-top lunacy then The Family may just be your cup of brown water.

Plotwise, you have your average, ordinary mob family of sociopaths trying to survive witness protection. Papa Giovanni (Robert DeNiro, surprise!) informed on his other 'family' years ago and is hiding out in Normandy, France, with his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and two teen kids--having just fled from the South of France via mysterious circumstances that can be found in Gio’s trunk. Giovanni is secretly penning his memoirs much to the consternation of the FBI agent protecting him (Tommy Lee Jones).

Lots of fun is had with the Brooklyn meets small French town clash of cultures. Think Carmela Soprano meets snooty Hollywood stock frogs.

Maggie deals with anti-American supermarket chatter (directed at her) by blowing up the store while her daughter Belle (Glee's Dianna Agron) and son Warren (John D'Leo) react to conflict in their own crackpot ways. Belle, in particular, can turn psycho on a dime and beat someone bloody. The way she exacts revenge on a horny teen boy is priceless...and merciless. Belle is like the daughter Joe Pesci wishes he had in Goodfellas. (That Scorsese gem provides the film with it’s biggest laugh, btw.)

This is Besson's first English-language film since The Messenger in 1999 and, while it's less of a mess than that film there are a slew of missed opportunities and the climax is predictably predictable. Fault the writers, too (of which Besson is one).

The cast works overtime to win us over. DeNiro, yet again, riffing on his past mob portrayals, amuses. Agron sheds her Glee-stigma nicely and beats and murders with, well, glee! (I just had to.) D'Leo shows promise and even Tommy Lee cracks a smile or two.

But it's Pfeiffer that magically raises the stakes. She ‘married’ the’ mob’ in the 80s, but as an actual moll, she is simply hilarious and it looks as if she hasn't aged a day since Married to the Mob. When is this Diva going to get another role worthy of her gifts?

Bill Condon’s
The Fifth Estate
Opens Friday, October 18, 2013

Written by: Josh Singer, based on the books "Inside WikiLeaks" by Daniel Domscheit­-Berg and "WikiLeaks" by David Leigh & Duke Harding.

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Peter Capaldi, Carice Van Houten, Dan Stevens, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The blog-pack are out in full force wanting to destroy yet another exceptional film simply because it’s not what they want it to be. Last time I remember such animosity towards a pic that dares to take the media to task in any way was Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs in 2008—although I am sure there have been more.

It’s difficult to make a film about something that basically just happened and truly be able to objectively comment on it. So many articles, editorials, books and blogs have already been written about Wikileaks and Julian Assange, that if you have been following the story, you’ve been saturated with opinions, and, you probably have a strong one yourself. All that is well and good, but it’s okay to open your mind to a few new thoughts on the subject, isn’t it? Perhaps allow some gray to eek into your black or white?

There are those who will go into The Fifth Estate with very little knowledge of the narrative; many more than we want to believe--those persons who don’t read the Times or the blogs daily and don’t pay that much attention to current events. For them, this film will probably play like a sci-fi thriller. They may enjoy it most, simply because it will all be new and exciting and they won’t have preconceived notions of who and what Assange and WL are.

But the film does debate broad but important themes such as accountability, loyalty, privacy, fairness and integrity and that is to be applauded.

Director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) deliberately begins this ambitious work in a lofty and pretentious manner using a flashy montage credit sequence that traces the history of journalism from cave painting to the Internet—where basically every human who wants to can call him/herself a journalist--thanks to social networking, blogging, etc.

And from there things get even more ostentatious but is there really any other way to portray a megalomaniacal figure like Julian Assange? The man has a savior/rock star complex. Would subtlety really be the way to tell his lunatic, dastardly and daring story? Methinks not.

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person, but if you give him a mask, he will tell you the truth.” Assange, the self-proclaimed "moral man…and whistleblower," defends himself and his actions by quoting Oscar Wilde.

Condon traces the history of the rebel Australian journalist whose subversive actions made him one of the most notorious figures in modern times consequently changing the way the world would look at the media and news reporting.

The non-linear plot traces Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his meeting German activist Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) at a hacker’s convention. The two hit it off, with Daniel showing signs of having a small mancrush on the maverick. The paranoid Assange, surprisingly places his trust in Berg and takes him under his wing to be a part of his grand plan—posting secret docs and vids that will reveal all the corruption and injustices throughout the world. One of the fun reveals is that Assange exaggerates the size of his office ever so slightly—he is the only volunteer/employee!

After taking down a billion dollar Swiss bank, exposing death squads in Kenya revealing Neo-Nazis in the Brit National Party and, shockingly, proving U.S. soldiers murdered journalists in Iraq and covered it up—Assange and Berg make a name for themselves and are just getting started. Condon’s camera captures it all in a frenzied style, thanks to DP Tobias Schliessler.

We also learn Assange was raised in an Australian cult called, “The Family,” and that marked him for life. Is that why he has contempt for authority? Is that where his need to expose the monsters of the world comes from? Condon asks the questions but doesn’t provide clear answers.

Of course all the work leads up to one of the greatest scandals of our time: Wikileaks—along with The Guardian and The New York Times uncovering and disclosing tons of military and diplomatic documents (a sort of Pentagon Papers 2) which became the largest leaking of classified information in history.

And, although Assange promised his partners he would redact names and more sensitive portions of the 91,000 documents, he does not—standing on his principal that Wiki doesn’t edit.

Is Assange a dangerous troublemaker who doesn’t care who he hurts or a noble soul who truly believes that editing reflects bias and that the people deserve all the truth, no matter who it hurts in the process? Again, no clear answers but certainly a fascinating conundrum to ponder.

As he becomes more infamous, Assange becomes less trusting, more arrogant and accountable to no one. And there is more than a suggestion that he did not enjoy sharing success—that he saw himself alone as Wikileaks. So did he truly feel that Berg was disloyal and attacked him accordingly, or did he pick a fight so he would be able to claim full spoils? Hubris or self-preservation? Some of both?

Assange may or may not have believed all his proclamations but I don’t think that is really the point. What he is saying bleeds truth. We are now living in a time when no one seems loyal to anyone else. When corporations, governments, organizations and religious institutions get away with whatever they want to with no one challenging them. Assange, at least, tried.

The film speculates that if journalists were really doing their job then there would be no reason for a whistleblower. But instead of the Woodwards and Bernsteins of print past, today we have reporters who are spoon-fed lies and inaccuracies and report them verbatim without bothering to do any real investigating.

So I can see how it’s difficult for the people this film is criticizing to accept it. That would mean self-reflection and how many “journalists” do you know who are willing to examine their own consciences?

Bill Condon has crafted his best film since 2004’s Kinsey, another underappreciated portrait of a difficult man, misunderstood during his time. And Josh Singer’s script is dense, clever, idealistic and pessimistic.

I had a few caveats with the film. Firstly, it does force the “cool” factor a bit too often. Secondly, I would have zapped it of its more melodramatic elements—mostly the relationship between Bruhl and his girlfriend. I wasn’t invested and didn’t care. Both those are minor grievances.

Cumberbatch is astounding in a dazzling performance that is both extraordinary droll mimicry and deep character immersion. He takes the Assange we’ve grown to love/hate in all his interviews and videos and peels at the layers of the man revealing an enigma that—surprise--is both an egotist and lacking in self-esteem. In another time and place, Assange could have been a great actor.

Assange has blasted the film, without having seen it, but based on the fact that it’s based on two books that do not necessarily portray him in the best light. What did he really expect? Condon does his best to give us glimpses of all angles of the man, but ultimately, a good film director will allow a three-dimensional character to emerge, warts and all.

The Fifth Estate may not have captured the zeitgeist like David Fincher’s masterpiece, The Social Network, but it would be a respectful companion piece if you were having a digital-age-films double feature.

Joshua Sanchez’s
Opens Friday, September 13, 2013

Written by Joshua Sanchez. Based on the play by Christopher Shinn.

Starring: Emory Cohen, Wendell Pierce, Aja Naomi King, E.J. Bonilla.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at Qfest 2013

Rarely does a film come along that truly tries to examine this inability we humans sometimes have to connect with others—whether we are unwilling or truly unable to. When a movie smashes past that invisible but powerful area of loneliness most people live in, seldom does it keep things sketchy and messy—the way life usually is.

Joshua Sanchez has managed all that in his provocative new film, Four. Most of the controversy that will more than likely engulf the film will come from the statutory rape portion of the plot and Sanchez refusing to judge his characters—but that is part of the truth inherent in this wonderful work.

Four is based on a celebrated stage play by Christopher Shinn and probes one night in the life of four characters. That night happens to fall on the 4th of July. The metaphors about emancipation can begin.

June (Emory Cohen), is a fifteen-year-old boy who hooks up with Joe (Wendell Pierce), a middle-aged black man he met online.

Meanwhile, Joe’s teen daughter Abigayle (Aja Naomi King) is home caring for her sick mother and thinking dad is on a business trip. Needing to get out for a bit she calls biracial Dexter (E.J. Bonilla) a boy who has been trying to get with her. He happily comes to pick her up.

More plot should not be revealed since in watching the scenes naturally unfold, so many joys can be found.

There’s a desperation to these damaged characters that is both alienating and absorbing and Sanchez reveals just enough to keep us emotionally involved but never feels the necessity to overdue or overextend.

And there are nuances galore, from Joe’s leaving his clothes on during sex to June’s precociousness, behaving as if he’s an expert at seduction. But we are never given reasons for these things—thank God!

In addition, mom’s illness is never fully explained. All we know is that both Joe and Abigayle have been pretty messed up by it.

Wendell Pierce manages a carefully modulated performance—one that received an Indie Spirit nomination. Joe is never seen as a predator (even though he should know better) but, instead, he is really trying to make some kind of contact with the boy—beyond the sex act—as well as trying to force him to feel and not be ashamed of who he is (one gets the feeling, the way he was growing up.)

Emory Cohen perfectly embodies the painfully confused, petulant teen. Sex is easy; everything else, not so much. It’s the opposite of the obvious and fake portrayals of teens we get in films like The Twilight Saga (and Kristin Stewart in particular.)

Aja Naomi King gives us a girl who is so much older than she should be. Her walls are already built so high that reaching her seems impossible.

And E.J. Bonilla plays a sweet talker who is so much more. He’s so hopeful and craves love with such desire that his last scene devastates.

Sanchez has a way of mosaically weaving these worlds together in a manner that feels invasive and, yet, poetic.

Will these encounters in any way make an impression on any of the characters? We are left wondering. And, it’s that sense of wonder that keeps most moviegoers in a state of bliss.

Alfonso Cuaron’s
Opens Friday, October 4, 2013

Written by: Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron

Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

If you see one movie in IMAX 3-D this year--heck, this decade--make certain it’s Gravity. To describe the experience as riveting, enveloping, visceral and sublime, is still not doing it justice.

I have seen this gem twice now, the first time in 3-D and while I was completely enraptured and engrossed by it, the IMAX 3-D experience catapulted me into a cinematic state of awe and wonder that I have not felt in a very long time.

The film is a technical marvel with masterful visual and sound effects as well as exquisite cinematography (by Emmanuel Lubezki) that is thrilling, mesmerizing and downright astonishing. Only one time before was space captured in such a realistic yet magical way and that was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. Oddly enough, the other film I was reminded of was Jaws.)

From the hypnotic opening moments, director Alfonso Cuaron tosses the viewer into deep space, and we are there for the duration. That first shot lasts anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes but you are so entranced it feels like 5 as the camera glides through space establishing our characters, their routine mission and the occurrence that changes everything forcing the two main characters, quite literally, into the stratosphere. (I am going to do my best to refrain from giving any plot away—so that’s all you’re getting.)

And as much as the film’s tech aesthetics are off-the-charts brilliant, the script and performances rise to the same amazing levels.

Dr. Ryan Stone is played by Sandra Bullock, who does the best work of her career giving us such a raw and no-bullshit performance that is shocking in it’s honesty. There is nothing overly heroic about Ryan. When we first encounter her, she tells Houston she’s fine although her voice and the subtext in the delivery, say otherwise. Ryan has been damaged by a tragedy and her journey, though fraught with peril, is nothing compared to the pain she has been living with. She’s the kind of hero that we can all relate to because she’s not that standard Hollywood survivor who has this great will to persevere--quite the opposite, as a matter of fact, making her all the more real.

Stone’s anguish may be permanent. Her scars may be so deep that they’ve forever debilitated—even crushed her will. But the film shows that sometimes when a powerful, unexpected positive influence enters our lives, we can react in surprising ways.

George Clooney plays Matt Kowalski, using all the Clooney charm. It’s easy to dismiss his work in Gravity as no more than good, but that’s unfair and does him a terrible disservice. Matt makes such an indelible mark on Ryan and, consequently, the film that without him it could not reach the levels it reaches.

Director Alfonso Cuaron won me over with his seminal pic, Y Tu Mamá También in 2001. He directed the best of the Harry Potter films (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) in 2004. The extraordinary Children of Men followed in 2006. With Gravity, he sets such a high bar for what can be done in the motion picture medium that it is safe to use the word ‘groundbreaking.’

Cuaron, the film and Bullock are assured Oscar nominations, as is most of the tech team, including the terrific score (by Steven Price) and the deft editing (by Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger).

Survival is a major theme in 2013 films from Captain Phillips to All is Lost to Gravity. All great films with astounding lead performances from actors delivering career-best work.

An interesting note: the first time I saw Gravity, I was left with a sense that the film was operating on a subversive level and the message was pretty bleak—despite evidence to the surface contrary. This delighted me.

After the second viewing, I was more struck by just how, when given a reboot, the human spirit can surprise us in glorious ways—ways that have endless possibilities.

Alfonso Cuaron’s
Opens Friday, October 4, 2013

Written by: Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron

Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

Warner Bros.

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

Which is worse: to be buried alive like Rex Hofman in George Sluizer’s The Vanishing, or adrift far from earth like Professors John and Maureen Robinson in Stephen Hopkins’s Lost in Space? Would you dread the claustrophobia of being in a six-foot box, six feet underground, with diminishing air and no food, or would you be more horrified if you were lost and floating far above the Earth, in a way the opposite of the claustrophobic feeling of being down under?

Alfonso Cuarón, who directed Gravity and Jonás Cuarón who co-wrote it with the director does not answer the question. They deal, however, with one aspect: the feeling of being outside your space ship after debris from all the junk that was deposited there by the Americans, Russian, Chinese, and who-knows-who-else destroys their vessel, leaving the astronauts spinning as though in the most terrifying carousel imaginable but at least able to speak with one another for a time until everything goes silent.

The silence is quite a contrast from the opening credits which the filmmakers amplify with the perhaps the loudest sound ever made in a movie—at least from the theater in which I found myself. For all the eighty million dollars that the products set back the studio, Gravity is a two-hander, and those two hands are among the most celebrated of Hollywood stars: Sandra Bullock in the role of Dr. Ryan Stone, a brilliant engineer on her first space mission, and her experienced partner in space played by George Clooney as Matt Kowalsky. As in most George Clooney movies, his Matt is full of wisecracks while Ms. Bullock, known principally as a comedian, plays a more introspective role, that of a good listener.

Gravity may just be the most gorgeous film set in space, one which optimizes the use of 3D without that fringe benefit self-consciously putting objects and people right up to your nose. This is a story of survival, though the Cuaróns do not tell us in advance whether both will survive, both will perish, or will split the difference. The film does not outwear its welcome, coming in at just an hour and a half, possessing a screenplay that clearly takes a back seat to the special effects—which now, in the year 2013, have advanced considerably since Ken Russell’s 1980 movie Altered States.

As the two astronauts learn that they are the last couple on a mission 600 km’s above the Earth to survive an avalanche of debris that destroys the ship and presumably smashes into all other space cadets, they believe they are doomed as well—though Matt regularly makes encouraging statements to his partner, chatting her up by asking her things that he must have known before the mission such as whether there is “a Mr. Stone at home” the origin of her masculine name “Ryan,” and assuring her that, more or less, whoever is back there can start the air conditioner for her return. When Matt appears to sacrifice himself so that she can live (will he return as the movie’s big surprise?), she falls into a reverie, talking to herself about her earthly problems such as the death of her daughter.

Given the awesome technology and contrasting this with a mundane script, however, Gravity is a film to gaze at wide-eyed and with open mouth; one to respect and not necessarily one to like or love. Remember that this is not meant as a sci-fi drama: don’t expect Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Robert Zemeckis’s Contact. While the fate of the two cannot be known in advance, Gravity serves to put us symbolically far from terra firma with beautiful imagery and stunning CGI and fx.

Rated PG-13. 91 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Christian Vincent's
Haute Cuisine
Opens Friday, September 20, 2013

Screenwriter: Etienne Comar, Christian Vincent

Starring:: Catherine Frot, Arthur Dupont, Jean d’Ormesson, Hippolyte Girardot, Jean-Marc Roulot, Philippe Uchan, Laurent Poitrenaux, Hervé Pierre, Brice Fournier

The Weinstein Company

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

If Hortense Laborie (Catherine Frot) knew that Bill Clinton would adopt a simple vegan diet she would be both disbelieving and horrified. Horrified. To her a diet is a disease, any diet, a point that has her quoting Montesquieu in Christian Vincent Haute Cuisine to the effect that, well, a diet is a disease. Watching her prepare dishes for the President of France she turns Hippocratus’s dictum “Let food be thy medicine” on its rear end. Full steam ahead would be her motto, as she slathers on the pig fat, the foie gras, and pretty much all the foods that would scandalize anyone in this country who gives a fig about animal welfare.

The story is based loosely on chef Daniele Delpeuch, who was the personal chef for President François Mitterand during the early 1990’s. Vincent uses a framing device which is recalled now and then as a contrast between the elegance of the Elysee Palace and the chef’s role as cook to a group of macho men doing research on an island in the Antarctic. Catherine Frot commands the film, taking charge whether she is surrounded in the Antarctic by humble men or giving orders to her chief assistant in the Elysee Palace. Looked upon at first with suspicion by the denizens of one of the coldest spots on earth, she also becomes the enemy of a fellow chef in the Palace (Brice Fournier) when she criticizes his dessert as “impersonal.” When after a delay she hears what the French president really wants on his table, she’s surprised that it’s simple home cooking, but home cooking in France is hardly meat loaf and mashed potatoes which is how home cooking is defined on our side of the Atlantic.

Hortense proves this time after time in giving the audience cooking lessons using the imagination that was prominent in Babette’s Feast, Gabriel Axel’s 1987 film about an ultra-religious 19th century Danish Protestant sect living on gruel who, after taking in one Babette as a housekeeper, are treated to a lavish banquet with exotic foods imported from France. When Hortense defies protocol at the Elysee by using suppliers not on the approved list, she is castigated by the bean counters while glorified by the president (Jean d’Ornesson), who in one scene enjoys private time with Hortense munching on a sandwich of truffles like the ones his grandmother used to make.

If Vincent, whose script was co-written by Etienne Comar, has a single major point to make, it is that there is more fun, more rewarding to serve a group of simple people in the earth’s most remote region than to fit into the bureaucracy of the French court. Vincent is fortunate in having Catherine Frot as his lead, a woman who convinces us that she does not take kindly to official protocol and in doing so is endeared by Mitterand and the Antarctic crew as well. The principal flaw is that we know little about Hortense aside from her being at home on a farm. Why is she not married? What sort of life is she living on her farm? What are her views on French politics in the nineties? In fact the film gives the impression that the Mitterand has far less on his mind than Louis XVI as he acts more like the food critic of Le Monde than a man who must deal with supplying the Rwandan army with weaponry after the assassination of Juvénal Habyarimana and the sinking in New Zealand of a Greenpeace vessel, the Rainbow Warrior, which was protesting French nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

Rated PG-13. 95 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon's
I Am Breathing
Opens Friday, September 6, 2013

Screenwriter: Emma Davie, Morag McKinnon

Starring: Neil Platt, Louise Platt

Scottish Documentary Institute

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

Though sorely in need of subtitles for those of us who live thousands of miles from Scotland to better understand the conversations that Neil Platt has with his wife and with the film audience, I Am Breathing is an earnest look at the impending death of a fellow who is afflicted with Motor Neurone disease. This dreaded illness, known in the U.S. as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, slowly deprives its victims of mobility, first in the feet, then traveling up through the body until the bedridden patient must be put on a ventilator to breathe. In turn, the hands and arms lose their ability to move and ultimately the patient loses his power to speak, to swallow, and then to breathe. We’re not surprised that Neil Platt, who is bedridden during most of the brief documentary, must use a speech-activated mechanism on his computer, where he is intent on composing a long letter to his beautiful one-year-old son about what his father was like.

The infant will have no problem figuring out his dad’s character since he has left abundant archival film, shown to us now and then during the story by directors Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon. We see him at far happier moments, at his wedding where all the guests appear to know how to waltz, at the beach, with groups of friends. In better days he has a huge head of hair and a well-trimmed beard exhibiting to the world that he and Louise have a marriage that seemed made in heaven. But this was not to be. What is extraordinarily painful to note is that Neil was an architect living in a spacious house, everything to live for, but now struggling to make his thirty-fifth birthday. He had formulated a living will wherein his wife and doctor agreed to disconnect the ventilator when he could no longer swallow.

Neil Platt is no celebrity, the film exudes no chance of recovery, and for all we know there is not much of a “race for the cure” for this illness, the only thing worse would be locked-in syndrome as depicted by the French actor Mathieu Amalric in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. In that celluloid the afflicted person is able to blink with only one eye, miraculously dictating a small book by blinking out each letter of the alphabet.

Though we do what we can to avoid the inevitability of death—attend movies, plunge ourselves into work, in short live fully—we are made more aware that death does not necessary come in our eightieth decade or later but can strike at any age. And what’s more, death may not strike swiftly and painlessly. As a downer, the doc may be a hard sell particularly outside of its native UK, but deserves to be seen for its sincerity and courage in tackling a most difficult subject.

Unrated. 73 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Jeffrey Schwarz’s
I Am Divine
Opens Friday, October 25, 3013

A Documentary

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

I Am Divine is a lovely tribute to an unconventional artist. It’s a tragic tale of an actor about to embark on an entirely new and welcome chapter in his career, only to have his life cut short at the age of 42. It’s a portrait of a truly groundbreaking personality who redefined what audiences came to accept onscreen.

Jeffrey Schwarz has crafted an enjoyable and informative chronicle of the life and work of Harris Glenn Milstein, the man who “wanted to be Elizabeth Taylor.” The doc captures the spirit of the drag queen/actor/superstar whose collaboration with maverick filmmaker John Waters would unearth underground cinema and introduce it to adventurous filmgoers.

The movie traces Milstein’s roots in Baltimore (including an interview with his Prom date—he did her hair and makeup and she was still clueless—but it was a different time), his life-altering friendship with Waters (two High School misfits), his starring in Waters’ early films (Waters gave him the name, “Divine”), his lesser known stage work and recordings, his estranged relationship with his parents (mom is poignantly interviewed), his love life (he apparently had “plenty of lovin’” including a relationship with porn star Leo Ford) and his skyrocketing to mainstream stardom with Waters’ seminal Hairspray.

Finally, Schwarz delves into the next stage of Milstein’s life, which involved his great desire to be taken seriously as an actor out of drag. And with a decent role in Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind and snagging a role on the sitcom, Married with Children, he was on his way. Unfortunately, he died the night before shooting on the series was scheduled to begin.

For those already familiar with the career of the outrageous, anarchic Divine, this feature will act as a reminder of his accomplishments. For an entirely new generation of gays, cinephiles, and pop culture aficionados, this depiction of a fascinating, bold and bizarre personality, will act as a great introduction to the notorious actor who once ate dog doo onscreen—something he wanted to forget but would dog him (do what you will with the pun) all his life.

Schwartz certainly puts together a treasure trove of archival footage, film clips and interviews. My one complaint is that I wanted more. But then it would have also been nice to have had more Divine. As it stands, his film performances are a testament to someone who pushed—heck, tore open the cinematic envelope at a time when challenging the status quo was encouraged, but certainly not in such a subversive manner. Divine carved his own path and created truly original characters. I Am Divine justly celebrates the man, the artist, the Diva.


Jacob Kornbluth's
Inequality for All
Opens Friday, September 27, 2013

Screenwriter: Jacob Kornbluth

Cast: Robert Reich


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

Leave it to the reactionary columnists with The Wall Street Journal to come up with a headline like this one (on September 10th): “The Weak Recovery Explains Rising Inequality, Not Vice Versa.” John B. Taylor holds that ….“tax cuts in the past 30 years are [not] responsible for the widening income distribution.” Our president “blames tax cuts that began under Reagan for today’s slow growth. The data don’t back him up.” Oh, but the data certainly do back up that tax cuts for the rich are largely responsible for our present inequality of income, at least according to Robert Reich, the 4’11” former labor secretary for the administrations of Ford, Carter and Clinton. The author of twelve books in the field of economics which generally have a left-of-center political bent is not only a brilliant person, one who thinks and speaks clearly, but a charmer. And a charm is what you need to rivet the attention of a class of some two hundred students meeting together for Reich’s course at the University of California at Berkeley.

Reich’s chief point under which he narrates and illustrates “Inequality for All” is that it’s not just a fact that the four hundred richest Americans control an equal slice of the economic pie of, get this, the bottom one hundred fifty million of us. Let that sink in: add up all the wealth of just four hundred folks, then add up the wealth of one hundred and fifty million Americans and the sum of assets would be…equal.

Did those four hundred Americans with eight-figure and nine-figure salaries and savings earn their money? Maybe yes, probably no, but Reich does not argue whether they earned the bucks or not. His thesis is that such a division of money is what causes our entire economy to break down as it did during the stock market crash of 2008. Why so? This is because the four hundred rich dudes are not “job creators” as the dinosaurs on Channel 5 like Bill O’Reilly insist that they are. The job creators are…we, the middle class customers of goods and services. Since seventy percent of our economy is supported by private sales (and presumably the rest by government orders), it is essential that these hundreds of millions of customers have the money to buy goods. It doesn’t matter whether they buy what they need or buy for conspicuous consumption. Their spending fuels the economy, granting a measure of prosperity to the stores from which they make their purchases and the workers therein. If the middle class does not have the money to spend, businesses have to retrench, close down, lay off workers. In a vicious cycle, these poor workers will not be able to spend and so more businesses must close and workers will be laid off.

What’s more, because of the maldistribution of wealth, Amazon, a giant corporation with millions of customers in the U.S., is able to turn out goods with sixty thousand employees. If thousands of individual stores had to produce these goods, they could employ perhaps five hundred thousand employees. Bigness may be good for consumers, or at least with the ones who have the cash, but as more businesses close and workers are laid off, the rich will get richer and the poor—you know the rest.

Inequality for All is anything but an eighty-nine minute lesson on what has been called “the dismal science.” Dismal may be the condition of the middle class today, but Reich is an incredible teacher whose narration rivets attention. What’s more he has at his beck and call a dazzling array of graphs, especially bar graphs that illustrate the way middle-income wages have become stagnant, requiring many women to enter the labor market not so much to show how liberated they are but simply because of their financial needs. Especially convincing is his equation of graphs with a bridge, showing that the large columns that suspend the bridge stand in for the money going to the top earners while the rest of the bridge is level or even sloping downward.

Reich may not be Michael Moore, but he has a rich sense of humor, a self-deprecatory one especially about his height, which resulted from a genetic disturbance not inherited from his parents. He has quite a bit more charm than Al Gore, who may have graduated with honors from Harvard University but whose heart-felt An Inconvenient Truth was as stiff a doc as is Mr. Gore himself. Reich is not altogether pessimistic about America’s economic future, but given the robotics that have resulted in layoffs even within companies that manufacture products inside the U.S. and the globalization of our economy as executives look for the cheapest places to make their goods, there seems no great future for masses of American workers. And given that during the Eisenhower Administration our I.R.S. put a marginal tax rate of 91% on the rich, now 35% or 39%, the Tea Party shows chutzpah in its watchword “Taxed enough already.” Yet as government subsidies to public colleges like Berkeley have declined with declining government revenue, colleges have had to raise tuition, adding to a vicious cycle wherein many capable students are not able to afford higher education.

Not mentioned in the doc is the government bailout of brokerage firms, banks and auto companies, though archival films of the largely unfocused Occupy Wall Street are on tap. Reich was bullied as a kid because of his height, which formed the basis of his political view that masses of Americans are bullied by the big corporations. Needless to say, that’s not the whole source of his politics: he did graduate summa cum laude from Dartmouth and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford to study philosophy, politics and economics. This documentary clearly shows the mixing of those three disclipines which, combined with Reich’s warm personality and electrifying delivery, make Inequality for All the Best Documentary of the year so far.

Rated PG. 89 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Jamie Meltzer's
Opens Friday, September 13, 2013

Screenwriter: Jamie Meltzer

Starring: Brandon Darby, Scott Crow, Lisa Fithian, Caroline Heldman, Michael May, David Hanners

Music Box Films

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

There’s a saying, “If you’re not liberal when you’re young, you have no heart. And if you’re not conservative when you’re older, you have no brains.” People do tend to become gradually more conservative as the years roll by, but there are extremes. Think of Italy’s Benito Mussolini, a socialist in his youth, a fascist when that served him politically. On the other hand, think of the retired Israeli information- gathering, terrorist fighting Shin Bet (in the service of safety) agents in Dror Moreh’s movie The Gatekeepers. Though these folks mirrored the hopes and dreams of the Israeli right, they moved considerably to the left in retirement as the Palestinian side made more sense to them.

In one of the more extreme incidents of recent years, one Brandon Darby, the “star” of Jamie Meltzer’s documentary Informant, went to post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans to search for a friend, and, after lending his hand and founding Common Ground to delivery water, food and medical attention, won the respect of the locals. Feeling that the authorities were trying to stymie the organization, Darby, already with an anarchist mind-set, threw his lot in a group determined to disrupt the 2008 Republican Convention in St. Paul allegedly by nonviolent means. He was also asked to fund a Palestinian terrorist organization, which helped to cause Darby to reverse his hard left stance and go all the way to the other side.

There was at least one other set of incidents that compelled Darby to turn coat. According to at least one member of the radical group, Darby was ironically the guy who got the young people interested in throwing Molotov Cocktails. In this partially re-created film, Meltzer shows us how Molotov cocktails can be shopped for (separate ingredients in in Walmart), put together, and thrown at police cars. When Darby asked a fellow revolutionary “What if you kill a sleeping cop in his car,” he got the reply, more or less, “that’s the way it goes” or collateral damage. This woke Darby up to the possibilities not only of murder but of his spending no small number of years in jail.

So what’s a de-radicalized revolutionary to do? Darby, who had gone to Venezuela hoping to meet President Chavez and get funding for American domestic terrorism, did an about face and turned FBI informant. You’ve got to appreciate how this action would go over with his friends when his identity is outed, both among his fellow hard leftists and members of a church congregation in New Orleans who state that he sold out for thirty pieces of silver. (No money was involved.) His testimony led to jail terms for his colleagues David McKay and Bradley Crowder, prompting a series of death threats. To this day Darby sleeps with a rifle for a bedmate, refusing to move to an FBI safe house because “this is my home.”

Too much of the film, however, relies on extreme close-ups of Darby, who becomes the stereotypical “talking head”—the bane of so many docs. His soft answers to interview questions are peppered with a distracting barrage of “you know.” This doc, a portrait of Brandon Darby, follows up Kelly Duane and Katie Galloway’s 2011 film Better This World, which focuses on David McKay and Bradley Crowder’s plans for a peaceful protest at the 2008 Republican National Convention. Darby’s former friends accuse this hero of New Orleans of convincing the FBI that this peaceful demonstration was anything but. Ultimately we are left wondering about what really caused this far-left fellow to go to the other side as hard-and-fast motivations are subject to interpretation.

Unrated. 81 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

John Krokidas’s
Kill Your Darlings
Opens Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Written by: John Krokidas & Austin Bunn

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston, Ben Foster, David Cross, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Elizabeth Olsen, Kyra Sedgwick, John Cullum, David Rasche

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Daniel Radcliffe has definitely proven he is much more than Harry Potter.

Whether onstage naked in Equus or singing and dancing in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, he has shown the world he is a multi-faceted performer.

In the terrific new indie, Kill Your Darlings, he demonstrates he’s a fine actor as well.

Radcliffe plays the young poet Allen Ginsberg and Darlings tells the notorious tale of a homicide that involved some of the most influential literary giants of the 20th Century—while they were all still in the larval stages of their lives and careers.

As the film opens a young, naïve Allen Ginsberg seeks to escape his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, and applies to Columbia University. He is the son of a blue-collar poet (David Cross) and an emotionally disturbed mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who relies on him to get through her days.

At University, Allen is able to explore his intellectual (and eventually his sexual) freedom. He is immediately drawn to a magnetic, rule-breaker, Lucien Carr (ubiquitous Dane DeHaan) who, upon learning he’s a writer, indoctrinates Allen into his boozing, toking, sexy bohemian world that includes: William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and, eventually, Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston).

Carr has an odd relationship with an older man, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). At times it appears they are lovers, other times he treats him like a hated enemy and Kammerer seems to masochistically thrive on the abuse. Is Carr taking advantage of Kammerer’s obsession with him? Are they even having sex? Does he love him? These questions become key later in the narrative.

It is Carr that actually comes up with the idea of creating a new literary movement called the New Vision, that will destroy the current literary conventions and introduce a new kind of writer. Carr encourages Ginsberg to spearhead this movement by getting out there and living life before he writes about it: “A real writer’s gotta be in the trenches.”

In the midst of all the creative hullabaloo, anticipation and turmoil, a murder is committed that changes the course of all their lives.

In the last few years two very good films have been made about the Beat Generation; Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman’s Howl, which was about the scandal caused by Ginsberg’s famous poem and featured a solid James Franco as the poet and Walter Salles’ On The Road, an ambitious adaptation of Kerouac’s groundbreaking novel. Both films tried to convey the power of poetry and lit onscreen and only partially succeeded.

Kill Your Darlings goes a step further and examines the joyous/painful, deeply personal feelings involved in birthing poetry. But KYD is not just an academic exercise or a pretentious voyage inside the soul of its artists. It’s a film that tries to convey the spirit of creation.

Director and co-screenwriter, John Krokidas, along with fellow scripter, Austin Bunn, capture the time in all it’s Greenwich Village-Beat glory—using a thumping jazz score (by Nico Muhly), frenetic camerawork (by Reed Morano) and spectacular production design (Stephan Carter) and costumes (by Christopher Peterson) to create the perfect period atmosphere.

In addition, Krokidas delves into the taboo gayness of most of these characters (and those that weren’t gay were definitely bi) in a way that honors both the dangerous nature of being homosexual in the 1940s and just how this sexual repression often manifested itself in either dangerous or creative ways. Without being preachy, Krokidas makes it clear that these boys survived a world mired in homophobia and anti-Semitism.

The non-linear structure is refreshing as is the madcap style. And the use of music is to be commended--from the “Lili Marleen” opening to “Sunny Side of the Street” playing as we watch Ginsberg arriving at Columbia to “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” being featured in an important moment in the latter part of the film.

The film is based on fact and it’s obviously been thoroughly researched, although the filmmakers do some necessary hypothesizing—especially when it comes to the reasons behind the crime committed.

The ensemble rocks beginning with Radcliffe, who is superb.

Ben Foster burrows into Burroughs thoroughly and completely—so much so it’s scary…and hilarious right from the first shot of him inhaling nitrous oxide while sitting, fully clothed, in a bathtub.

Jack Huston, with little screen time, manages to nail Kerouac.

DeHaan makes the biggest impression portraying Carr as the embodiment of the ultimate jack-of-all-intellectual-literary-trades, yet master of none. He’s a cocky lost boy who thrives on adventure and all things new, but cannot allow anyone to get too close. DeHaan is definitely a star on the rise and represents a new, exciting and bold kind of matinee idol--one that appeals to gals, geeks and gays. He’s a James Dean for the new millennium.


Stanley J. Orzel's
Lost for Words
Opens Friday, October 18, 2013

Screenwriter: Stanley J. Orzel, Joseph Bendy

Starring: Sean Faris, Grace Huang, Joman Chiang, Will Yun Lee

Fabrication Films/ Studio Strada

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

While auditioning for a solo role in a Hong Kong ballet production, Anna (Grace Huang) is called “adequate” by the artistic director, but is chosen because the instructor, who has a romantic interest in the dancer, supports her. “Adequate” is the best word to describe Stanley J. Orezel’s movie Lost for Words, a painfully slow-moving romantic drama about star-crossed lovers. The male lead, Michael, played by Sean Faris, is star-crossed (if you will) with Anna, the former en ex-marine from L.A. hired by a Hong Kong-based company, while Anna comes from a village in southern China, studied dance in Beijing and is hired by a Hong Kong company ultimately to perform a solo piece. Caucasian American and Chinese dancer meet cute while jogging, their romance developing leisurely, but the best part of the film is the stunning views of Hong Kong, which until the recent decade or so stood out distinctly from the mainland for its modern skyscrapers. Lost for Words might serve as free publicity for that city’s tourism department. As for Michael and Anna’s courtship, however, the film lacks the usual conflict we find in the romantic formula boy chases girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl.

The closest we get to conflict is Anna’s own hesitation in moving forward with Michael since she is an observant Catholic, a member of one of China’s registered minorities, and is a virgin who believes that one must love a man before “giving in” to his lusts. He is fortunately patient, though he appears to shoulder more stress because of his break-up with a girlfriend back home than he must have had in serving his country.

Mei Mie (Joman Chiang) provides some comic relief as Anna’s best friend, a woman who unlike the ballerina is a free spirit who has no problem expressing herself when she sees a man who is “hot,” and who does not believe that love must precede sex. “Love is love. Sex is sex.” Amen.

We in the audience do wonder why Michael winds up incarcerated on the mainland, a scene which opens the story which then flashes back several months to answer our queries. The thirty-two year old Sean Faris resembles a young Tom Cruise but comes across as timid where Mr. Cruise is extroverted. As a fish out of water, Faris enjoys looking up Chinese words on his computer but especially appreciates the lessons he gets in that difficult language from Anna. When Michael gets together with Anna’s grandfather, who presumably must give his blessing to any thoughts of marriage, the older man, patch over one eye from a mortar he received during the Korean War, must get over any animosity he may feel for the fella whose father fought in Vietnam and grandfather in Korea.

Will they get ultimately get together, two people from opposite ends of the world? They make a lovely couple. We certainly hope so.

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

Andrew Dosunmu's
Mother of George
Opens Friday, September 13, 2013

Screenwriter: Darci Picoult

Starring: Danai Gurira, Isaach De Bankolé, Yaya DaCosta Alafia, Tony Okungbowa, Bukky Ajayi, Angelique Kidjo

Oscilloscope Laboratories

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

Those of us with an interest in theater as well as in movies will likely compare Andrew Dosunmu’s Mother of George with Federico Garcia Lorca 1934 play Yerma. Yerma, which means “barren” in Spanish, tells the story of a childless woman living in rural Spain. Her desperate desire for motherhood becomes an obsession that eventually drives her to commit a horrific crime. Because of the time she is living in, she is expected to bear children. When she cannot, she is forced to take measures that even those in her society would view as extreme. If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, the anger from hell’s most fiery layer must be reserved for those of her gender whose lives center on their fervent desire for children.

This brings us to Mother of George directed by Andrew Dosunmu, whose Restless City in 2011 focuses on an African immigrant living on the fringes of New York. This time the director unfolds the tale of Adenike (Danai Jekesal Gurira), pestered daily by her mother-in-law Sade Bakare (Yaya Alafia) to produce a grandchild. The couple’s attempts to do so over a two-year period are shown graphically, but to no avail. Still, Adenike is not about to commit murder as did Garcia’s leading lady. Instead she tries to convince her husband, Ayodele (Isaach De Bankolé), coming from a macho Nigerian culture, to go to go to a clinic to test his own fertility. In a story taking place wholly within a West African neighborhood near Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, a marriage is put to the test when Adenike, not familiar with the rules of the game in the U.S., does not get herself tested since she believes the infertility is “probably my fault.” Kid or no kid, she loves her husband dearly, or at least her mother-in-law says so. She will come to a climactic decision that will make or break the marriage.

Bradford Young, who won Best Cinematographer during the year’s Sundance competition, photographs the characters with some originality. Though he sets his lenses wide in the opening scene, an extended look at the wedding of Adenike and Ayodele with characters in colorful African dress, major dramatic turns make his focus change exclusively on the pretty Adenike. He often keeps individuals who are conversing with her slightly off the screen. This serves the film well, as Iowa-born actress Danai Jekesai Gurira is adept at showing the full force of her fury, making us in the audience wonder whether she will kill either her husband or her mother-in-law. Just as in Spain during the Franco era, when a chaperone had to be present when a man and a woman would date, in the Nigerian culture—never mind that the action takes place wholly inside Brooklyn—the mothers-in-law are expected to be on hand to encourage and berate the unfortunate young women who have tried to take their sons away from them.

While Mr. De Bankolé is the best-known performer in this picture, having starred in the likes of Chaos as Vincent, who moves with his wife from Paris to the south of France only to have his marriage threatened by a student, this is Ms. Gurira’s movie. The stunning actress is able to show great love for her husband, repressed irritation at her husband’s mother, and a tsunami of fury when she is frustrated at her inability to produce a child, a child who, by the way, has already been named George by mom-in-law.

In the broad sense the film grants the audience a look at what most of us would consider an exotic culture, one that celebrates by feasting on goat (we see a goat actually being killed in one of Brooklyn’s authentic goat markets) and which tries to get by economically, in this case by running a small restaurant catering principally to people of African background.

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

Michael Mayer’s
Out in the Dark
Opens Friday September 28, 2013

Written by Michael Mayer & Yael Shafrir.

Starring: Nicholas Jacob, Michael Aloni, Jameel Khouri.

In Hebrew & Arabic, with English subtitles.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at Newfest 2013

Michael Mayer’s feature debut, Out in the Dark, examines a slew of Jewish/Muslim grey areas with a gripping gay love story at its core.

Super hottie Israeli lawyer Roy Schaefer (super hottie Michael Aloni) hits on timid Palestinian student Nimr (loveable Nicolas Jacob) in a Tel-Aviv gay bar. The two begin a tumultuous affair and fall deeply in love.

But the relationship is threatened when Nimr’s visa is revoked by a bully security chief (Alon Pudt) who blackmails homosexual Palestinians into giving him damning information in exchange for not informing families about their sexuality. Nimr’s brother has been stockpiling weapons and may be planning a terrorist act--so there is much to lose. In addition, and most importantly, any idea that Nimr is gay would bring shame on his family and seal his fate—as it did with his drag queen friend, Mustafa (Loai Noufi).

Roy has his own family issues with a mother who is anything but happy about her son’s sexuality and a father who appears indifferent.

When Nimr’s secret is revealed, his once loving mother throws him out, virtually sentencing him to death. Nimr becomes a fugitive who is despised in his own hometown and not wanted in Tel-Aviv. He turns to Roy for help and Roy must make some challenging decisions.

There are no easy answers, explanations or motivations in this film and

Mayer never forces melodrama on his audience, making the film all the more powerful and the narrative all the more exciting.

Besides the thriller aspect of the film, the love story keeps us involved and invested. The prevalent and pervasive homophobia in the Middle East is presented in a very honest and heartbreaking manner.

Aloni and Jacob are wonderful—we instantly feel the passion between these two and, even when they spar, we know they believe in each other.

Peter Landesman's
Opens October 4, 2013

Screenwriter: Peter Landesman from Vincent Bugliosi’s book Four Days in November

Starring: James Badge Dale, Paul Giamatti, Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Colin Hanks, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver, Ron Livingston

Exclusive Releasing

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

Three major events of the past 100 years are so earth-shattering that inevitably people would ask: Where were you when…” For example, “Where were you when the Towers were brought down on 9/11?” “Where were you when Pearl Harbor was attacked?” And “Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?” In the last instance, I was busy teaching a Social Class in a Brooklyn high school when the word got out shortly after 1 p.m. on Nov. 22, 1963. Needless to say, no more work went on in the school on that day. The mood of the country was obviously somber (not including that of Malcolm X who said infamously “Chickens coming home to roost”). A number of people in Texas were allegedly overjoyed in a state that was known at the time for right-wing conservatism and dislike of the “Eastern establishment.”

In an equally somber film filled with melodramatics, Peter Landesman, directing the film with an adaptation of Vincent Bugliosi’s book Four Days in November, the screen is taken up largely at Parkland hospital where almost ironically both Kennedy and his assailant Lee Harvey Oswald, were taken—the latter after being shot by Jack Ruby, whose name does not come up at all in the movie.

Landesman captures the frantic scene, throwing in some elements that appear theatrical to keep the movie running at a furious pace. For example, maybe this is true though I had not heard about it at the time, but is it possible that the principal doctor working over the JFK’s body was a resident, Dr. Charles James “Jim” Carrico, who was sleep-deprived as are most residents in hospitals across the nation? We can understand that he and the staff, including nurse Doris Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden), did not have time to wash their hands and that nurse Nelson was instrumental in chasing out members of the Secret Service, slamming the door on them, and then proceeding to help work over the president’s body.

Peter Landesman, at one time a journalist now knocking out his first film, is adept at making the time go by quickly, as there is virtually no letup in the action. Some of the major conflicting moments include that of a physical battle between the medical examiner and the federal Secret Service men over possession of the body, the former insisting that the crime is one in which the state has jurisdiction (true) and that no body may leave without his autopsy. Nonetheless the feds win control over the president by sheer force, taxiing him to a waiting plane and removing a couple of seats to allow the coffin to remain stable.

A conversation between the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong) and his brother Robert Edward Lee Oswald, Jr. (James Badge Dale) makes the killer seem like a normal person, claiming his innocence to the disbelief of Robert. The only person in town who insists on LHO’s innocence is Oswald’s obnoxious and arrogant mother, Marguerite Oswald (Jacki Weaver), who claims that her son had served as a U.S. agent and deserves to be buried “in Arlington National Cemetery next to the president.”

Paul Giamatti turns in an overwrought performance as Abraham Zapruder, apparently the only person to have photographed the president’s arrival at the fateful curve in the road and whose 8mm film had to be adapted to a 35mm format. One need not wonder why presidents today no longer ride in open-top convertibles. Obama, for example, uses a bulletproof limo with windows shaded. Lyndon B. Johnson is shown much more adequately protected as he is hustled onto a plane after his swearing-in, Secret Service agents on all the man’s side ready to take a bullet for the Chief Executive is needed.

If something appears stilted about the entire proceeding, it could be that the “stilted” is a good way to describe the blah 1950s and early 1960s, men in black suits, white shirts, narrow ties with clasps lest a piece of fabric look natural. This is a film that should be seen especially by whole generations who were not even alive fifty years ago and know about the Kennedy assassination only through their history classes.

Rated PG-13. 93 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Régis Roinsard's
Opens Friday, September 6, 2013

Screenwriter: Régis Roinsard, Daniel Presley

Starring: Romain Duris, Déborah François, Bérénice Bejo, Shaun Benson, Mélanie Bernier, Nicolas Bedos, Miou-Miou, Eddy Mitchell, Jean Pamphyle

The Weinstein Company

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

When I was a freshman in college and almost as naïve as I am now, my upperclass fraternity brothers convinced me that I should enter the university typing contest. They knew that I got a 99 in Junior High School typing and heard me clacking away on a Smith-Corona. They must have had a big laugh after I left the room as I looked wide-eyed at the chance to be the school’s typing champ and win the co-ed of my dreams. (In fact there are typing competitions in the U.S. One in particular was held in 2010 at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, won by Sean Wrona as 213 words per minutes, a speed not possible before computers were in most homes.)

There was no typing competition at my college, Tufts—hear that U.S. News, which rates the country’s universities?—nor do I think there is a regional, national, or world typing championship such as Régis Roinsard illustrates for us in the remarkable film Populaire. (Populaire is the brand name of a French typewriter used by the film’s female star.) If this film were nothing more than a dramatization of a typing contest, I doubt that it would have anything like the terrific appeal it has as this year’s best non-English-speaking comedy to date. What gives Populaire its appeal is the way Roinsard projects the story as a confection, a French one at that; call it a cinematic crème caramel if you will.

The film features two appealing principals, Romain Duris, whom cineastes know from his title role in Jean-Baptiste Poquelin’s Molière, and Déborah François, not as well known, but who served recently as a principal performer in Rémi Bezançon’s Le premier jour du reste de ta vie. As small-town girl Rose Pamphyle, François is the perfect innocent, one who despite her adorable good looks probably would wind up with the local garage mechanic’s son except for one thing. She is an incredibly fast typist, using just two fingers as she had never learned the touch system.

She must have learned early on that she’s doomed to be either a housewife or secretary, as small-town Gallic women in the late ‘50’s were wont to be, which takes her to the larger town of Lisieux where she wins a secretarial job from the handsome Louis Échard (Romain Duris), boss of an insurance firm, who picked her out of a line of candidates who look upon him as though he were a rock star. She’s a klutz, but such a whiz at typing that he enters her into a regional contest, which morphs into a national type-off and ultimately the world typing championship in New York. When Roinsard sets the camera up at a competition, he appears to be satirizing sports events in general. Take the way the master of ceremonies announces the winner as so-and-so with a slow five…hundred…and…fifteen…strokes, all stated with rising inflection.

Since this picture is a rom-com and not an ESPN documentary, the French follow the same rules as the Americans; that is, a couple meet, sparks develop, they break up, and they go into the sunset together. The movie would not be the hit that it is without the incredible photography: it comes across in 1950’s Technicolor pastels, the period exemplified by the amount of smoking. The boss smokes while he conducts interviews and everyone at the dining table puffs away.

The film also features top ensemble performances from Bérénice Bejo as Marie Taylor and Shaun Benson as her husband Bob, both friends of Échard, and Frédéric Pierrot as Rose’s papa Jean Pamphyle. Word is that François underwent six months of professional tying, practicing for three hours daily, with nothing sped up in order to give the story the feeling of authenticity.

A lovely piece of work all around.

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

Denis Villenueve's
Opens Friday, September 20, 2013

Screenwriter: Aaron Guzikowski

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Maria Bello, Viola Davis

Warner Bros

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

There is little doubt that the subject of kidnapping is ripe for filmed resonance. When prized family members are abducted, not only are the victims terrified: their families are likely to respond with extreme measures. One can imagine some people drugging themselves to sleep or oblivion while others take the opposite move of going ballistic.

There are three motives that kidnappers generally have. The more rational ones, e.g. the Somali pirates, simply want money and will release their charges as promised (see the Danish movie A Hijacking which takes us up close to the dangerous men and their terrified cargo). There are sexual predators seemingly compelled to capture underage children. Then there are those who abduct to fill a gap in their family structure. They don’t ask for ransom. They don’t even send notes to the families. Money is never the motif with Prisoners., which has us believe that the other two motivations guide the criminals.

Denis Villenueve, whose résumé includes Incendies, a 139-minute look at twins who journey to the Middle East to find more about their family histories, now takes on the even longer Prisoners. Villenueve, who fills the screen with the usual twists common to police dramas, nonetheless breaks with the conventions of the genre to illustrate the ways that both kidnappers and concerned families share the need for violence, both prisoners of their own compulsions. He does so by using real violence which, despite its being used infrequently, is horrifying, all the more so because characters resort to physical means only now and then. There is nothing cartoonish or crazily edited, signs of similar films of a lesser quality. The pace is not overly swift, yet there are few moments that allow the audience to look away, to look at their watches, or to think about the latest messages on their iPhones.

What’s more the acting is terrific, particularly the give and take between police detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the aggrieved dad of a six-year-old daughter, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman). The ensemble are all spot-on providing top background for the movie’s moral center, which is that all of us under the proper circumstances could employ the violence of the criminals.

The characters are well developed, as they should be in a film that’s almost two and one-half hours long. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) are being entertained by their friends Nancy Birch (Viola Davis) and Franklin (Terrence Howard) on Thanksgiving, feasting on the deer shot by the Dover’s son Ralph (Dylan Minnette). While the Dovers’ daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and the Birch’s young one Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) are playing outside, they disappear, driving Keller particularly frantic. When the police bring in Alex Jones (Paul Dano), previously spotted in an RV near the Birch home, they fail to get a confession and must release him after forty-eight hours. This constitutional privilege does not gain Keller’s favor: he believes that the police are not up to doing the job and that he must take the law into his own hands.

Hugh Jackman, in perhaps his best role, performs as a survivalist, one whose basement is filled wall to wall with canned fruits and vegetables, water and propane, mirroring the view that many Americans form a paranoid society. He seems more in touch with the woodlands that with suburban Philadelphia, a trait that makes his physical actions against the alleged kidnapper credible. For his part, Franklin, though insisting that he is as concerned with getting his daughter back as is his best friend Keller, retreats from the kind of lawlessness that Keller believes is necessary to get a confession from Alex Jones. For his part Alex has been under the wing and in the household of his aunt, Holly Jones (Melissa Leo), allegedly because of an accident that deprived the brain-damaged Alex of his parents.

Prisoners was shot in the suburbs of Atlanta, with cinematographer Roger Deakins capturing the spirit of America’s Northeast on cloudy, dreary, winter days, some of which are inundated with rain. To show that violence has more effect on people than on Bugs Bunny or Tom from Tom and Jerry cartoons, the makeup team does a bang-up job on Paul Dano, closing both black eyes and covering his face and parts of his body in blood.

If you want to know what a family goes through when one of its own is taken away and presumed dead, you can’t get a better insight than by watching Prisoners.

Rated R. 146 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Brad Furman's
Runner Runner
Opens Friday, October 4, 2013

Screenwriter: Brian Koppelman, David Levien

Starring: Ben Affleck, Justin Timberlake, Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackie, Oliver Cooper, Ben Schwartz

20th Century Fox

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

Runner Runner offers much to be disappointed with, but the major displeasure is that Costa Rica was not actually used as backdrop though that wonderful country is supposed to be the film’s location. Not that Costa Rica would have enjoyed allowing the film crew to take over, given the disrespect that the company tosses their way. Though Costa Rica is noted for refusing to bend the knee to developers to keep its animal sanctuaries “pura vida,”director Brad Furman gives prospective travelers many reasons to avoid tourism, all of which are false.

For example, in one of the opening scenes, Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) tells his friend that he is bound for Costa Rica, only to receive a warning: get your shots—the monkeys bite. In reality, no shots are required and the monkeys, though eager for food, do not sink their teeth into their benefactors. All the women in the cast of Runner Runner are hookers or man-starved and all the men are on the take. The only person doing an honest job is FBI Agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie), and even he resorts to strong-arm measures to get the conviction he wants—never mind that the FBI has no jurisdiction there.

The story is not interesting enough to be considered a thriller, notwithstanding its marketing, nor is Justin Timberlake possessing the charisma needed to rivet attention. On the other hand Ben Affleck does fine as chief villain Ivan Block, a man who exploits Richie Furst, a man who has already been taken for a ride back home at Princeton University where he markets online poker gambling to fellow students. Why shouldn’t he promote gambling? As he puts it, everyone’s a gambler—whether you’re playing the stock market or buying a home, gambling that you will keep yourself employed long enough to pay off the mortgage.

After Princetonian Richie Furst is read the riot act by the university dean (Bob Gunton) for promoting gambling on campus, Richie takes off for Costa Rica in search of Ivan Block, the chief executive of the online poker empire that has captured the attention of Richie’s pals back home. He complains that he had been cheated, quoting something about a standard deviation, but Ivan is not insulted. In fact he offers Richie a gig, which should supply the bright young man with enough money to complete his Master’s in Marketing at Princeton plus flashy autos, gorgeous babes, the best Scotch and cigars. Somehow, not even Richie’s Ivy League education allows him to see that Ivan is not legit - in one scene, Ivan covers a couple of cronies in chicken fat and feeds them to the local crocodiles.

Beaten and harassed by both the criminals and the aggressive FBI agent, Richie wants only to go home, a sadder and wiser man. The movie might be compared to others of the sub-genre like Boiler Room, Ben Younger’s story of a college dropout who gets a job as a broker in a shady investment firm, but Runner Runner lacks that movie’s subtleties and twists to keep the audience on their toes. Runner Runner is predictable from start to finish, and did I mention that the whole scene filmed in Puerto Rico lacks the charm of Costa Rica’s Papagayo Beach while giving the audience the feeling that the Central American state is one big carnival of hot women and glitzy casinos?

Rated R. 91 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Ron Howard's
Opens Friday, September 20, 2013

Written by: Peter Morgan.

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino, David Calder, Natalie Dormer, Stephen Mangan, Christian McKay,

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Early on in the thrilling new movie, Rush, there is a seeming obligatory butt shot of Chris Hemsworth—possibly to please his female and gay fans, possibly for Ron Howard to prove--right from the get-go--that this is no typical Opie movie.

But two things become clear as the film progresses. This quick naked bit will be the only reminder we get of Hemsworth as vapid pretty boy heartthrob since the remainder of his screen time is spent completely immersed in the role of a daredevil racecar driver who courts death the way most people covet money! Sure he’s pretty and he’s sexy, but there’s nothing vapid about the character he creates.

The second crystalline thing to be sure of is that Rush is, indeed, no typical Ron Howard film. The director tests his own limits and challenges himself in the way Spielberg did with the brilliant Munich in 2005 and the results are similar. Howard has made the most mature, most assured—basically the best film of his career, hands down.

A lot of the film’s success should be credited to screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen) who has a way of penning real events as if they were made up --a great compliment. Certainly, having such a good script can’t hurt. But Howard style here dazzles, grabbing the audience and never letting go. And you don’t have to be a fan of racing to be swept up and absolutely riveted.

Even Hemsworth’s butt shot makes narrative sense later when his character boasts, “God gave me a really good ass that can feel everything in the car,” after he notices something is off with one of the race cars. Okay, maybe I’m pushing that a bit…but it could have all been intentional…

Hemsworth plays Brit James Hunt, a boozing, womanizing, cocky, uber competitive speedracer bent on crushing his arrogant, “rat-faced,” brutally-honest nemesis, Austrian Niki Lauda (an extraordinary Daniel Bruhl). Lauda is a stickler for the rules of the game while Hunt could give a shit. He does, however, care about the thrill of cheating death every time he’s out on the track.

Hunt also enjoys charming reporters and fans. Lauda is a loner who loathes kissing ass and making friends. Both admire and detest one another. In a wonderful scene after Lauda’s near-tragic accident, Hunt defends his foe by giving a slimy journalist his just desserts. The inferred backstories of these two are so fascinating, it’s worth a separate film.

Both face off for the 1976 World Championship, racing all over the world, which gives Howard the opportunity to create a prestige action pic (rare)—that works on each level (even rarer). The only exception is where the female roles are concerned, but Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara make the most of what they’re given.

But the film belongs to Hemsworth and Bruhl, who does Oscar-worthy work. They both do, but it’s a ridiculously rich year for Lead Actors. Bruhl’s best bet is to compete in the supporting category. Not sure if that’s fair but if it gets him a deserved nomination, to hell with fair!

Another magic trick Howard, Morgan and the two actors pull off is that they give you plenty of reasons to root for BOTH contenders. This is no Rocky bullshit. We become invested in both stories for very different reasons.

Hans Zimmer’s pulse-pounding score is outstanding as is Anthony Dod Mantle’s amazing camerawork. The entire team does awesome work re-creating the 1970s and the exciting Formula One world.

Rush is one of the best films of 2013.

Eran Riklis's
Opens Friday, September 20, 2013

Screenwriter: Jader Rizq

Starring: Stephen Dorff, Abdallah El Akal, Alice Taglioni, Loai Nofi, Ali Suliman, Ashraf Barhom

Strand Releasing

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

The family that pees together, stays together, or at least that’s what the two lead persons in Eran Riklis’s Zaytoun have demonstrated. Though the family in this case is just two people and only distant cousins, when they simultaneously water the dry landscape in the sticks of Lebanon, their bonding is assured.

The film features a remarkable performance from the fifteen-year-old Abdalla El Akal as Fahed, a twelve-year-old Palestinian refugee in an unhappy camp in Lebanon. The young man, who recently won Best Lead Actor in the movie David & Kamal at the Brasov International Film Festival in Romania, performs in the role of a kid who understandably dislikes living in a camp and wanders outside the boundaries to sell gum. More likely than make sales, however, he is kicked around by Lebanese citizens who call him a dirty Palestinian, a punishment that makes credible his turnaround on a fateful day in 1982 when an Israeli jet is shot down and its pilot, Yoni (Stephen Dorff), is captured and imprisoned as the enemy hopes to exchange him for “1000 Arab prisoners in Israel.”

When the unfortunate soldier, cuffed on the hands and feet, is freed by the kid with the soldier’s promise to allow him to return to his former Palestinian home, Fahed, hostile at first to “ the enemy,” is hooked. Never mind that he looks too street-wise to believe the soldier and that, while only occasionally attending school, is able to speak fluent English. (Most of the movie is in the English language with a smattering of Arabic and Hebrew.)

The story becomes a road-and-buddy movie with a wholly predicable ending, though the road trip, which takes place in a taxi and a jeep among other vehicles might cause some in the audience to wonder “Are we there yet?” The two must go through mine fields and checkpoints to escape to the border—where the soldier naturally wants to go—but the real story might be called a fable with human beings taking the place of the lion and the lamb that sleep peacefully together.

The film was shot in Haifa and its outskirts taking the place of Lebanon and Northern Israel, looking nothing like Israel’s leading seaport metropolis. In what is basically a two-hander, the sentiment’s as thick as a jar of molasses, focusing on the kid’s intention to plant an olive tree just outside his previous Palestinian home. (Zaytoun means “olive.”) Is it too much to ask Bibi Netanyahu and Abu Mazen to come to the kind of agreement that binds Fahed and Yoni? Yeah, probably, but as Alexander Pope tells us in his Essay on Man, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

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



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