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Lotfy Nathan's
12 O’Clock Boys
Opens Friday, January 31, 2014


Starring: Pug, Coco, Steven, Wheelie Wayne, Superman, Barn, Shawn Sean, Kevin

Oscilloscope Laboratories

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

They say that getting old is not all bad. Age enjoys the benefit of wisdom, but then, who would not (like Faust) give up all this cerebral sludge in favor of the glories of youth? Of course, unlike Faust, we would not want to pay a price, but then again, the youths often pay a big price for their irresponsible behavior—including severe injury and death. A great example of the impetuously of the young is illustrated by Lotfy Nathan, both as director and behind the camera, in his brief documentary 12 O’Clock Boys. The kids in the movie, including some men in their twenties, don’t want to hear about “taking care.” They are exuberant, they have a hobby that impresses the young women, and they love what they’re doing. This, especially so, since this West-Baltimore-centered look at inner-city culture, deals with the kids and bikes, a perfect combination for fun, and a good opportunity to thumb their noses at the police, who are not allowed to chase the bikers for riding on sidewalks for fear of injuring innocent civilians.

Nathan’s picture is three years in the making, using one cute youngsters, Pug, as an anchor. Pug’s mother bears responsibility for bringing up four children on her own (her main man is in jail) and fears that if she herself becomes incarcerated, the welfare authorities would take the young ‘uns away from her.

Nathan affords us some sharp photography, some dizzying in nature, as he follows these fast-moving folks on the mean streets of Baltimore. Most impressive are some extreme slow-motion takes, almost like stop-action animation, to picture the tikes leaning way way back on their mobile equipment, leaving the back wheels to transport them, to, where? To nowhere. As the expression goes, it’s the journey, not the destination.

Speaking of going nowhere, one may wonder what will happen to Pug and his friends when they’re old enough to have careers. Pug’s foul-speaking mom is full of trash-talking. She actually thinks that because her Pug likes and knows things about animals and keeps a number of pets (including an angry tied-up Pit Bull, a turtle and hamsters), that he is on the road to becoming a veterinarian. But as liking people does not a doctor make, neither does a love for animals inevitably lead to veterinary college.

Pug is an adorable, seemingly bright kid, but his accent seems to be from nowhere. He is articulate but his speech is difficult to understand. Subtitles are in place in this movie to deal with the English spoken by others in this ‘hood.

The movie has a soundtrack almost as energetic as the players, featuring hip-hop, all designed to help us understand how a kid without the traditional presence of a father, and a worried mother who is hardly a role model with all her yelling and cursing, would look to the bikers as the people to emulate.

Unrated. 75 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

 




David Posamentier & Geoff Moore’s
Better Living Through Chemistry
Opens Friday, March 14, 2014

Written by: David Posamentier & Geoff Moore.

Starring: Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Michelle Monaghan, Harrison Holzer, Ken Howard, Jenn Harris, Norbert Leo Butz, Ray Liotta & Jane Fonda.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Jane Fonda, for some odd reason, does the voice-over narration for the new indie film, Better Living Through Chemistry. It’s an inspired choice since she makes even the most cliché and mundane sentences sound fascinating and exciting. And, of course, there’s the anticipation of her appearance in the film—which happens at the very end and lasts all of about 45 seconds.

Combine that with her 90 wonderful seconds in The Butler as Nancy Reagan and you must wonder if filmmakers realize that this is one of the best actors alive, with 2 Oscars and 7 nominations under her belt. Seriously, this diva-talent needs a meaty role that manifests itself in some bloody screen time!

In Chemistry, Fonda appears to play herself, which had me wondering, why? That, unfortunately, isn’t the only head-scratcher about this seriously anemic comedy with an admirable message but paper-thin characters and a borrowed-to-death story.

Sam Rockwell, so good in everything, is a p-whipped pharmacist living in a the dullest suburbia (this is no Gilmore Girls town) who meets a wealthy, married seductress (stunning Olivia Wilde) and begins to shed his inhibitions and find his true self—through drugs and sex, basically. The two concoct a plot to dispose of her husband in order to…well, you know!

Why this nice man stays with such a bitch-wife is never explained. And Wilde’s character ends up having no dimension. And, of course, Rockwell ends up bonding with his stranger-than-strange son—who ends up not being that strange after all. This is another indie film that seems to follow Hollywood movie rules. So frustrating.

The newcomer writer/director team (it took 2 men to make this mishmosh), David Posamentier & Geoff Moore seem to have watched Double Indemnity and Body Heat repeatedly, but their film is too afraid to follow-through.

Norbert Leo Butz and Ray Liotta have some nice moments.

And Ms. Fonda gets to use a few expletives, to nice effect. Now why Posamentier and Moore couldn’t weave her into the actual plot is a mystery since what this film desperately needs is the kind of liveliness and originality that she provides.




Navot Papushado & Aharon Keshales'
Big Bad Wolves (Mi mefahed mezeev hara)
Opens January 17, 2014


Screenplay: Navot Papushado, Aharon Keshales

Starring: Lior Ashkenazi, Rotem Keinan, Tzahi Grad, Doval’e Glickman, Menashe Noy

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

Anyone who thinks that Israelis cannot mount an exciting thriller has not seen Hostages, which ended its run in January. The Americans may have invented their own version, but it’s pretty close to Big Bad Wolves.

With Big Bad Wolves, the themes of revenge and kidnapping are stunningly illustrated in a first-rate thriller which unfortunately portrays all the principal actors as seriously flawed and just one Arab in two scenes that are almost surreal in their symbol of innocence, even saintliness. The Arab, who comes out of nowhere, riding a horse at night, looks ready to ascend to heaven. By contrast, Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales, who wrote and direct the picture, play into the stereotypes that anti-Zionists have of Israelis as boors who have no problem with torture.

A previous film from Papushado and Keshales, Rabies, tells of a young woman who falls into the hands of a psychopathic killer, her brother racing against time to rescue her. This time, the directors make a strong political statement which puts them into the camp of the Peace Now community, those members of the Israeli left who believe that a peace treaty with the Palestinians would make the Middle East a heaven on earth. Nonetheless there is no information on the Internet Movie Database or Wikipedia that might give us a lead into the actual politics of the filmmakers.

The story gains momentum when a young girl is found beheaded in the woods, her undergarments pulled over her legs. Gidi (Tzahi Grad), the father of the victim, is out for revenge, but first the alleged killer, schoolteacher Dror (Rotem Keinan) is worked over by a pair of goons who are certain that Dror is their man. Though Dror is released and given hush money by the police, his torture has been photographed by a young man and put on Youtube to the embarrassment of the police precinct commander, who places cop Miki (Lior Ashkenazi) on leave, telling him as though with a wink that he is now a civilian and can do as he pleases.

Which he does, racing after and capturing the alleged perp while Gidi, the victim’s father who has just bought a house surrounded by Arab villages, takes over by pulling the man’s fingernails and toenails (“just as you did with my daughter”), horrifying even the police detective. Though Gidi’s own father (Dov Glickman) is understandably upset when he visits his son in the latter’s new home, it doesn’t take long before even he determines that the truth about the murder emerges through the magic of a blowtorch placed against the alleged perp’s chest.

The soundtrack is particularly loud, hitting us throughout this tense thriller, which at times exhibits scenes so horrific that we’re reminded of Eli Roth’s Hostel 2 and the Saw franchise. The films is loaded with gallows humor and a number of intriguing plot twists.

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




Joe Sorge's
Divorce Corp.
Opens January 14, 2014

Screenwriter: Joe Sorge, James D. Scurlock, Philip Sternberg, Blake Harjes

Candor Entertainment

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

In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 2, act 4, scene 2, Dick the Butcher says, “Let’s kill all the lawyers,” which, proves that the Bard was indeed a clever man. Polls taken in current times often show that in terms of professions we trust and those we do not, lawyers fall a little above used car salesmen.

You don’t have to read Henry VI to get an inkling of how lawyers—and judges as well, and throw in psychologists and assorted others—corrupt the American Way, leading Joe Sorge, who directed the entertaining and insightful Divorce Corp. to compare the good old USA with Iceland and Scandinavia. In fact, if this documentary were widely shown, Americans might a) give up their citizenship and live in Reykjavik or Stockholm, or b) forget about ever getting married or having children.

Frequently using cartoon graphics to illustrate key points, such as literal fights between a man and woman over a bagful of money and using piles of money stacked to the ceiling, Joe Sorge condemns many of our judges and lawyers but believes that the problem is the system that allows this corruption. (See above note about Iceland and Sweden.)

The title Divorce Corp., a little wordplay on the term divorce court, holds that the divorce industry in American is a moneymaking proposition—provided that you’re not one of the parties to the marital split. In fact if we emulated the Scandinavian system, we would have enough money to pay for fifty new drugs yearly and feed every kid from kindergarten through high school free, year after year. Or provide full college scholarships to five million students annually. If you wonder how the laws of our various states are written to enrich the stockholders in the divorce corporation, consider that some judges are given campaign contributions by lawyers who appear in their divorce courts, and yet no conflict of interest is maintained. In fact some judges can wear the black robes on Monday, then on Tuesday appear in that same courtroom as lawyers!

While admittedly some lawyers in America are starving because of an oversupply, some who specialize in family law make $600-$750 an hour, and what’s more they’ve billed people while taking their kids to the movies or doing anything but advocacy work. In one case, a poor schlub who criticized a judge on the Internet is held to be in contempt and is sent to jail when he refused to continue apologizing on the ‘net for remarks that he thought were protected by the First Amendment.

The ninety-three minutes zip by given the film’s fine editing and choices of locations—particularly California but including states like Indiana. But don’t expect a Hollywood ending. If you become depressed for a while after seeing this documentary, Joe Sorge has done his job well.

93 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Shana Feste's
Endless Love
Opens Friday, 14, 2014

Screenplay: Shana Feste, Joshua Safran

Starring: Alex Pettyfer, Gabriella Wilde, Robert Patrick, Bruce Greenwood, Rhys Wakefield, Daya Okeniyi

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

Endless Love is a serviceable enough romantic drama which follows the path of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1981 film of the same name, though the some aspects have been changed for a more Hollywood ending. The movie, shot in Georgia in Fayette County and Atlanta, looks sumptuous. Writer-director Shana Feste comes on strong about the frustrations of social class differences. Gabriella Wilde, known principally for her role as Sue Snell in Kimberly Peirce’s remake in 2013 of Carrie, and Alex Pettyfer, who turned in a performance as Adam in Steven Soderbergh’s comedy about male strippers, Magic Mike, have satisfactory chemistry. The movie, based on the poignant 1979 novel by Scott Spencer, deals with adolescent or “puppy” love between two new high-school graduates. Some parts are difficult to swallow, zeroing in on the efforts of a controlling, upper-middle-class surgeon to derail the happiness of her daughter when he sees that the new boy in her life could disrupt his plans for his daughter.

David Axelrod (Alex Pettyfer—23 years old in real life) and Jade Butterfield (Gabriella Wilde—23 years old as well in real life) have just graduated from high school. The two seventeen-year-olds do not exactly meet cute since they had attended the same school for several years, and that’s where the most unrealistic concepts take root. David, who works as a valet with his best friend Mace (Dayo Okeniyi) when he is not repairing cars in the garage owned by his father (Robert Patrick), is no wilting vine yet he has been unable to say a single word to the love of his life throughout the years. This is not credible. For her part Jade, being prepped by her father for a career as a doctor, is so shy throughout her school years that she has no friends and nobody to talk to—as we see at the graduation ceremony where everyone else is chattering excitedly while she stands off to the side. We’re asked to believe that the death from cancer of her brother, Chris, is the source of her depression, and yet from the time that she and David are “introduced” through Mace’s efforts, she changes instantly from a wallflower to a live wire, encouraging her new boyfriend to dance with her at a party and, stripping down to her bikini, seduces him into jumping into the water at her dad’s lakeside beach house. Oh yes: and the surgeon with the Beamer, the mansion, the lake house, and the speedboat, sends his daughter and his son to a public high school?

Director Feste, using a script that she wrote with Joshua Safran, alternates between the joyous scenes of the two young lovers and the vigorous efforts by her father to dissuade her from continuing the relationship, though Ann Butterfield (Joely Richardson), the girl’s mom, undermines her own husband throughout by noting that her daughter has not been this happy in years.

Bruce Greenwood turns in the most credible role as the class-conscious surgeon trying to subvert his daughter’s fling, though we in the audience are waiting for the predictable time that he will change his mind, convinced that there is no stopping his daughter’s growing independence—so why not go with the flow and sign on? Gabriella Wilde can pass for a new high-school graduate but Alex Pettyfer looks as though he had graduated from college a couple of years ago. Yet somehow the heartbreaking plot unfolded by the novel—considered by the New York Times to be “one of the best books of 1979”—captures the exuberance of teen parties but falls short in delivering the intensity of the couple’s passion, downplaying the sexuality to keep the PG-13 rating.

Rated PG-13. 105 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online





Wes Anderson’s
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Opens Friday, March 7, 2014

Written by: Wes Anderson, Story by Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness, inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig.

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Jeff Goldblum, Mathieu Amalric, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Wes Anderson is a master of the clever and eccentric. And when he decides to sidestep preciousness and instead opt for true character development, narrative sophistication and sheer joie de cinema (as is often the case) we get magic. And The Grand Budapest Hotel is just that, an intoxicating, work of cinematic genius on par with his best film, The Royal Tennenbaums.

The relentless storytelling delights and confuses from the first frame as a narrative-within-the-narrative-within-the-narrative is at play. Oh, and add one more layer of narrative-within for good measure. Stir and bake.

Inspired by the stories of the memoirs of Viennese writer Stefan Zweig, the infectiously lunatic, high velocity plot takes place in the 1930s and centers on the relationship between an iconic concierge, Gustav H (Ralph Fiennes) and a young lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori). The older Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) recounts the epic events to a curious author (Jude Law) about how he and Gustav became entangled in the theft of a priceless painting and the murder of a wealthy old lady he’s been shagging, and how the woman’s greedy family were involved. More plot mentions would spoil the potpourri of delights.

Anderson pays lovely homage to 1930s Hollywood cinema—with emphasis on the comedies directed by Europeans who emigrated here—in particular one can sense Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder’s influences--but always funneled through the dastardly perspicacious mind of Anderson.

And while the period is pre-WW2 Europe, the dialogue is a delectable blend of 30s-speak with modern profanity.

In addition, fascism--in particular--the rise of Nazism—is an essential filmic element but the countries and parties are fictionalized (so we have the ZZ instead of the SS).

Anderson even messes with the aspect ratio of the film depending on the time period he is presenting with the 1930s scenes shot flat (1.33:1). It’s all a part of the splendidly satirical experience.

The film has some of the funniest moments I’ve seen in recent memory (Gustave’s reaction to realizing he’s the chief suspect in the murder is perfect). And Budapest contains the best, most ridiculously elaborate prison break ever captured on film!

Through all the whimsy and wackiness, Anderson has some very important and insightful things to say about propriety, protocol, grace and loss of innocence. There’s a surprising poignancy that creeps up on you and then washes over you. And the finale is emotionally devastating yet transcendent. This is Anderson’s Cabaret.

The cast is simply spendiforous with fantastic work by Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Tom Wilkinson, Jeff Goldblum, Owen Wilson...well, everyone!

Willem Dafoe and Adrien Brody clearly enjoy playing villains.
Tilda Swinton shows up in a role that is even strange by Tilda Swinton standards—and she, of course, rocks it!

Finally, there’s Ralph Fiennes’s sexually ambiguous Gustave H., such an original, charismatic, charming, daring and startling creation, it’s a joy to watch every gesture, every move he makes. And his hilarious deadpan delivery of Anderson’s brilliant dialogue astounds.

Allow me to discuss Ralph Fiennes and Oscar for a moment. Fiennes should have won for Schindler’s List, but lost to Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. If that isn’t a WTF, then I don’t know what is. But that’s AMPAS sometimes recognizing worthy actors for unworthy performances. Since the early 90s, Fiennes has delivered one great performance after another (The English Patient, Strange Days, Quiz Show, The End of the Affair, The Constant Gardner, In Bruge) and has only received two Academy Award nominations--no wins. Now, I know this shouldn’t mean anything when it comes to true talent. Peter O’Toole had eight nominations without a win and he was certainly one of the greatest screen actors ever. But, at least he had the eight nominations.

AMPAS has an opportunity here. Fiennes deserves recognition for this truly remarkable performance. I don’t know what the rest of the year holds in terms of lead actor turns (this past year was extraordinary) but I can’t imagine Fiennes not being among the five best come early 2015.

As is the case with Anderson films, the production design, by Adam Stockhausen, is beyond impeccable—it’s divine and becomes an urgent part of the storytelling. Keen and inventive camerawork by Robert Yeoman and sumptuous costumes by Milena Canonero add to the extravaganza of riches. Alexander Desplat’s terrific score compliments the film without overwhelming. And Barney Pilling’s swift and deft editing never allows for a dull or overdone moment.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is destined to be high aong my favorite films of 2014!



Valeria Golino’s
Miele (Honey)
Opens Friday, March 7, 2014

Written by: Valeria Golino, Francesca Marciano and Valia Santella, based on the novel, “A nome tuo” by Mauro Covacich.

Starring: Jasmine Trinca, Carlo Cecchi.

In Italian with English Subtitles.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Jasmine Trinca, one of Italy’s acting treasures, delivers a subtle yet towering performance in Valeria Golino’s feature directorial debut, Miele (Honey).

Golino, a terrific actress in her own right (Emanuele Crialese’s Respiro), creates a mesmerizing narrative where important issues are introduced, discussed, analyzed but never polemicized.

Looking like a blend of Juliette Binoche, both Dragon Tattoo gals (Noomi Rapace & Rooney Mara) as well as Golino herself, Trinca plays Irene, a young woman who assists with ending the lives of terminally ill people. She travels from Rome to Mexico to purchase drugs that allows one to put their dog to sleep and she, then, instructs her clients on how to administer the drug. She even provides a soundtrack of their choosing. Dying with dignity is key for Irene. So is the fact that these people have no other recourse since they’re suffering. Irene goes by the name of Miele, which means “Honey.”

Irene occasionally has sex with a married, hotheaded Stefano (Vinicio Marchioni) although he knows nothing about what she really does. Nor does her doting but kept-at-a-distance dad, the only family figure we meet.

One day she is instructed to go to the home of an elderly, friendless man, Carlo (Carlo Checchi). This encounter alters her world when she discovers he isn’t terminal, but depressed and disgusted with his life. He just wants to die. This runs roughshod over Irene’s ethical and moral compass and she challenges his decision and he challenges her rigid views on the definition of “dying,” and how she can live in absolutes when she does what she does.

Miele is a film that forces the viewer to confront some heady themes and does not offer up any simple answers. Not simply dealing with euthanasia, this movie challenges anyone who is certain of anything to question that certainty—as well we should on occasion.

Is Carlo mentally-ill or of sound mind? Is Irene doing her ‘patients’ a true service? Does anyone want to die? Should anyone have the right to die? Does it matter if they’re terminal? Shouldn’t a person have the right to decide their own fate—regardless of their physical state?

At it’s core, is the unlikely but wholly believable bond that develops between Irene and Carlo.

Checchi does a masterful job of allowing us to see a man who is truly miserable but shows hints of once being content.

Trinca is a revelation. You can’t take your eyes off her, even if you wanted to and Golina’s camera makes sure you do not. Irene is so careful when she needs to be but then let’s loose like a wild creature in bed. It’s a paradoxical and complicated performance and one that deserves recognition.

Golino shows all the signs of a seasoned filmmaker. Miele is lovingly shot (by Gergely Poharnok) and the impressive script (by Golino, Francesca Marciano and Valia Santella, based on the novel by Mauro Covacich) is never judgmental, compromising or didactic. Fascinating that it took three women to write a screenplay that illuminates rather than preaches.


 



Sebastián Lelio's
Gloria
Opens January 17, 2014

Screenwriter: Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza

Starring: Paulina Garcia, Sergio Hernández, Diego Fontecilla, Fabiola Zamora, Coca Guazzini, Hugo Moraga

Roadside Attractions

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

How many movies have you seen with their title characters inhabiting every frame? I mean every frame! Sebastían Lelio provides us with one of those rare specimens which, in addition to being virtually unique, does not give such a role to someone looking like Rachel McAdams or Amy Adams. But who needs hot looks when you can contribute such a powerful performance? The Gloria of the title is Chilean but is someone that no small number of American women can identify with, given the incredible rates of divorce prevalent in our parts. She’s middle aged, fifty-eight to be precise, she wears oversized glasses though the film does not take place in the 1980s, and she has not given up on men. Not yet, not until she meets the one guy who may be more than the typical one-night stand with which she indulges herself by “coming there often” to a singles bar with a dance floor in Santiago, Chile.

Sebastián Lelio, the Chilean director, is best known for La sagrada familia, about a self-centered father and a disoriented mother awaiting the arrival of their son’s first girlfriend, a brash woman whose relationship with her boyfriend’s dad is not entirely familial. With Gloria, Leliohones in on the title figure (Paulina García), who meets Rololfo Fernández (Sergio Hernández), supposedly seven years older and who looks like Shimon Peres. Just when it looks as though this heretofore lonely woman has found her soul mate, he turns out to be mighty strange with a co-dependent relationshsip with his daughters. When a member of his brood calls, which is frequently, he has a habit of disappearing without a word to his date. In one scene at a classy restaurant in Viña del Mar, this rich guy who owns an amusement part in Santiago, excuses himself from the table but not to go to the men’s room. He’s simply outta there. When she takes him to her son’s birthday party where her ex-husband is in attendance, he…disappears.

This brings us to why director Lelio puts Gloria in every frame. He wants us to get into her skin…not in the way that Rodolfo does, but in our heads, to see what it’s really like to be divorced and middle-aged, and it’s not pretty. She’s full of life, she probably considers herself to be no different in pep than when she was thirty, and does not understand why it’s so difficult to find Mr. Right. It really shouldn’t be, considering how many divorcées are floating around all over the West. But you can take all the yoga classes you want, and she does indulge in a class taught by her daughter, Ana. You can go every night to a singles club. But people of a certain age have responsibilities. They may be supporting ex-wives and children. They may be emotionally connected to their former families. They are simply not available as they were before they took on the emotional and financial burdens of college students.

Gloria features a stirring performance from Paulina García, who has already won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival for Best Actress and was shown at prestigious festivals in New York and Toronto. She may well pile up some more prizes. But as a whole, the film is hurt by a banal screenplay, with unsurprising dialogue and bearing emotional weight only by the performance rather than by an intriguing story.

Rated R. 110 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Chiemi Karasawa’s
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
Opens Friday, October 21, 2014

A Documentary.

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

When the subject of your documentary is as irreverent and iconic (and I use that word carefully, not haphazardly the way so may use it today) as 88-year-old Broadway legend (again, used deliberately but cautiously) Elaine Stritch and you have access to her every move for a year, how could you not make an absorbing and entertaining film? What’s surprising about Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is how revealing and disturbing it proves to be.

Filmmaker Chiemi Karasawa follows the incomparable doyenne around as she takes her show on the road one last time before she retires. We are privy to her strutting about the New York streets showing off her fabulous legs. We watch as she forgets lyrics, constantly. A telegram from Stephen Sondheim announces that he won’t be at her show tribute to him so she can “feel free to make up your own lyrics.” Funny, snippy Sondheim.

After being sober for 24 years, Stritch has decided she can handle one drink a day (a cosmo), even though she’s diabetic and it appears to really mess with her system. On one particularly harrowing night, Stritch suffers a diabetic attack and can no longer put words together—speaking only gibberish. It’s disturbing as hell to watch her struggle and the viewer feels like an intruder. Later, commenting on the scary situation, Stritch states defiantly that although she could not speak, “I’m perfectly savvy, I know exactly who I am.” This is not a celebrity grandstanding. This is a woman struggling to hold onto who she is.

Stritch spent six decades figuring out just that and continues to do so—she is an obvious work in progress. And she’s having a damn good time living her life. Still her lack of self-esteem tends to overshadow her confidence more often than not and we see that in how she still yearns for approval. Celebrated director Harold Prince mentions, “the convent school girl is there…always.”

If I have any complaint with Karasawa’s wonderful testament to this survivor it’s that more time should have been spent on her career journey. It’s an 80-minute film—another 20-30-minutes would have been welcome. Perhaps this will be rectified on the DVD.

We are given snippets of treasured moments from her brief film role in A Farewell to Arms with Rock Hudson to a revealing letter Woody Allen sent her before they began filming September (such a fascinating story to be explored there alone) to clips from D.A. Pennebaker’s groundbreaking documentary Company: Original Cast Album (recut to make it seem that she was a perfectionist when the reality is that the powers-that-be, including Sondheim, tortured the poor woman into the wee hours of the night until she finally—the next day—nailed “The Ladies Who Lunch”).

We find out that in her early Broadway days she had the chutzpah to ask a young John F. Kennedy out and, after the second date when she refuses to sleep with him, he stopped calling.

On getting older: Stritch bellows: “Why not enjoy it because there’s not a goddam thing you can do about it!”

And when asked what she’d want on a desert island if she had to be there for the rest of her life, the immediate response: “A bar.”

Her good friend, Julie Keyes describes her as “a Molotov cocktail of madness, sanity and genius.” True that!

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is a fitting, fascinating, agitating chronicle of one of most enduring talents of our time.



Robert May's
Kids For Cash
Opens February 28, 2014

Starring: Mark Ciavarella, Michael Conahan, Justin Bodner, Hillary Transue, Amanda Lorah, Sandy Fonzo, Charlie Balasavage, Terrie Morgan-Besecker

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

In directing this documentary, Robert May casts his indictments across a broad spectrum of American society. May shocks the audience straight-out with the message sprawled across the screen that only three countries have refused to sign the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child: Somalia, South Sudan, and…the United States! One wishes that the director would afford an analysis of America’s refusal to go along with what seems like a win-win document and which presumably even North Korea and Iran have signed. Those who have ratified the document agree to allow U.N. inspectors to look into charges of injustices toward human beings under the age of eighteen, which may seem to us in America like too much sovereignty to give up to an international body. Or there may be another reason, but May does not try to analyze what an audience for his documentary should expect him to do.

Instead, he uses his 102 minutes of time repeating the out-of-court testimonies of both the kids who have been abused in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania and the country of Luzerne when he should have been analyzing what conditions are like in the detention center to which these children are sent—3,000 by a hanging judge who, together with a co-conspirator, has agreed to take an active role in the doc to defend himself.

Kids for Cash does feed our outrage by elaborating upon the evils of a judge who allegedly sent kids up the river for minor offenses. Why so? Some counts of an indictment against Judge Mark Ciavarella, who won two terms of ten years each by campaigning on a program that’s reminiscent of the “put ‘em away and throw away the key” policy which, especially after the tragic Columbine killings has become a watchword with all too many ordinary people.

Specifically: Judge Mark Ciavarella, who had made the rounds of the schools in Luzerne County, had been telling his youthful audiences that if they do wrong, they will be sent away by him to learn a lesson—forgetting that human brains have not developed to incorporate a complete sense of ethics until their owners are twenty-five. They indulge in pranks, eager to fit in with the cool kids in their groups, so why not take cars for joyrides, have fights in the schoolyard, and make fun of the teaching and administrative staffs in schools by posting caricatures on MySpace and Facebook? Would you believe that one kid was sent away to juvenile detention for making use of the Constitutional right to free speech?

The problem with this judge began in earnest when he arranged with a builder to set up a private “detention center” for juveniles, receiving half of a $2.2 million “finders’ fee” which he shared with another criminal judge, Michael Conahan, but then “forgot” to pay tax on the money. The federal government, in trying Ciavarella, rejected a plea bargain, yet found it necessary to avoid charging Ciavarella with collecting a bounty from the developer for every kid he sent to the detention center. Instead, he was charged with tax evasion, racketeering (we don’t find out why), money laundering (we do get the facts on this), and extortion (huh? From whom was he extorting money?)

Interviews with the young people he sent away after their release show that these teens are articulate. They are convincing in letting us on the ways their lives have changed. Some come out of the private jail hardened, instructed on such matters as how to build a bomb. Others wind up with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. One guy committed suicide with a rifle aimed at his heart.

Mothers are interviewed. While they are, of course, furious at the judge, they share some of the blame. They are asked before seeing the judge whether they waive their right to an attorney. Stupidly, most do thinking that they should trust the authorities to do the right thing by their offspring. Yet we wonder whether even Alan Dershowitz could make an impression on Judge Ciavarella who is presumably invoking guidelines set up by state law. We wonder whether the kids could have demanded the right to a jury trial. No details from director May. We wonder whether they were apprised of their right to file appeals? Again, we learn nothing from this doc about that.

The ultimate text that flashes across the screen notes that the U.S. spends $10,500 to educate a child for a year. To finance a child’s stay in a detention center? $88,000. Incredible. As stated, fault lies with the state for allowing this disproportionate sentencing; for the kids, though they are generally too young to know the consequences of their relatively mild criminal activities, to the mothers who seem all to come from homes without fathers, and of course to Judge Mark Ciavarella. Does Ciavarella get a taste of his own medicine? Tune in by seeing the film.

Rated PG-13. 102 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Hirokazu Kore-eda's
Like Father, Like Son
Opens January 17, 2013


Sundance Selects

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

Screenwriter: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Starring: Keita Ninomiya, Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono, Lily Franky, Yoko Maki, Hwang Sho-gen, Isao Natsuyagi

Like Father, Like Son is a movie that gives literal meaning to the otherwise slang expression “Who’s Your Daddy?” We’re treated here to that hoary subject of infants switched at birth. Perhaps the most recent example using this theme is Lorraine Lévy’s The Other Son, about the switching of a Palestinian infant with an Israeli baby with the Palestinian enjoying the rich life of a wealthy couple with a daddy who is a high-ranking officer in the Israeli army. That comedy of errors has serious implications because of the cultural and political divide between Israel proper and the West Bank. Like Father, Like Son similarly deals with babies given to the wrong parents, the difference being of class rather than politics: an architect and his wife bring up a baby that actually should belong to a working-class couple and, of course, the working class folks gets the kid who belongs to the upper-middle class family.

The Japanese film written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-ed, whose 2006 film Hana treats the subject of a troubled young samurai who seeks revenge for the death of his father, evokes the theme of biology vs. environment. Specifically, if one six-year-old boy is brought up by a couple who believe themselves to be the biological parents but are not, and another six-year-old boy lives with a man and woman who likewise believe themselves to be of the same “blood,” what should happen to the youths when a hospital admits the mistake it made six years earlier? I don’t know the laws of the various states here in the U.S., though probably the biological parents would be given custody and the little ones would be torn away from the only adults they knew well. Everyone will have an opinion on this, but so far as I’m concerned, a child is damaged if taken from the people who bring him up for six years, and who cares about “blood” anyway?

The two children are so adorable that if they were orphans they would have a line stretching to the moon of adults who would be more than happy to adopt them. One of these kids, Keita (Keita Ninomiya), belongs biologically to the suburban appliance store owners Yudai Saiki(Lily Franky) and Yukari Saiki (Yoko Mak) but has been brought up for six years by a successful architect, Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) and his wife Midori (Machiko Ono). For his part, young Ryusei (Hwang Sho-gen), who actually should have been given at birth to Ryota Nonomiya and Midori, is brought up by Yudai and Yukari. Both appear happy enough, though Keita has been inhibited by the architect and forced (like me) to study piano, a futile project for the lad.

At a school entrance interview Keita had been told to lie that his dad taught him to fly a kite, which means that rich Ryota at least knows that there is something amiss, that he is uptight and that he does not have a close relationship with his young charge. As is traditional in Japanese culture, the women are subservient and docile, having little say about whether the Ryusei and Keita should remain as they are or exchanged. Still we get strong hints that Midori is the sensible one, urging a retreat to the status quo despite her husband’s desire for “blood.”

When the boys are actually switched at age six, each accommodates himself in time to the other couple. Keita plays readily with his real siblings while Ryusei is at first uncomfortable with his stick-up-the-butt biological father, easing up when Ryota becomes playful and affectionate. Ryota is even told by his boss to spend more time with his family and less time at work.

There is nothing melodramatic here and no shouting save for one instance of Ryota’s insisting that his young charge stop banging on the piano. The film is superb in bringing out Ryota’s slowly developing a more casual mindset, enabling him to give love to a boy who does not share genes with him and who in time will not look like him. This is a warm, affectionate drama with several comic moments, a convincing narrative that could serve as advise to viewers about what should be done in similar circumstances.

Unrated. 122 minutes © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




George Clooney and Grant Heslov's
The Monuments Men
Opens Friday, 7, 2014

Screenplay: George Clooney, Grant Heslov

Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Cate Blanchett, Sam Hazeldine, Dimitri Leonidas

Americans who hear criticisms of our country from Frenchmen sometimes revert to the obnoxious retort, “Hey, Frenchie, we saved your butt in the war.” Along comes The Monuments Men, which rubs salt into that wound by making heroes of Americans brought into the service of recovering thousands of art works stolen by the Nazis from Jews and from museums around the German occupied countries. True, not all of the band of so-called monuments men are Americans. There are even one French guy and a Brit. Come to think of it, by looking at the group of seven who performed a service not well known to those unaware of Robert Edsel and Bret Witter’s 2010 book The Monuments Men, we may forget that 350 people from thirteen countries were pressed into the service of recovering such major works as Michelangelo’s incredible sculpture “Madonna and Child.”

Instead of capturing the excitement of the book, Clooney and Heslov turn the story into one part PBS documentary, sober and calculating, and one part drama--except that narratives should have a modicum of character development, perhaps including a backstory or two. The seven Momuments Men led by American George Clooney as Frank Stokes include a group of professionals in the art world: a museum curator, James Granger (Matt Damon); an architect, Richard Campbell; a sculptor, Walter Garfield (John Goodman); a British citizen, Donald Jeffries); an impresario, Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), a Frenchman, Jean Claude Clermont--and later, picked up from her secretarial job with a Nazi big shot, Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett). Their task is to recover stolen merchandise rather than allow these treasures to be destined largely for the Führermuseum in Linz, Austria.

The major theme of the movie is that without artistic creations (paintings, literature, sculpture, music), a people are without history, enduring a loss of the traditions that help to make life worthwhile. Even a murder or two of the monuments men could be justified if those persons had done heroic duty in saving a masterpiece, as professed at least twice after two of the men perish under fire.

The Monuments Men serves our public well by boosting whatever appreciation of painting exists in the minds and hearts of Philistines, i.e. those of us who value the riches that money can bring and deprecate the classics whose beauty should energize the hearts and spirits of human beings. Young people in the audience, including those who—like many of my former high-school students who thought that World War 2 was a conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union—might recall that some events took place in the last century before they were even born. It might be difficult, however, for them to slog through this overextended, unfocused story whose principal action is the chatter among people who share a love for painting but who are barely interesting as separate personalities.

The picture has its moments, of course, involving such scenes as Frank Stokes’ questioning of a captured Nazi who was a concentration camp commandant. When Stokes replies “no” to the German’s questioning, “Are you Jewish,?” the guy who asserts that he was “just following orders” offers, “Then you should thank me.” This leads to Stokes’ calm but penetrating monologue predicting that in the near future he would be sitting in Sid’s deli on New York’s Upper West Side reading the NY Times’ column about the hanging of the commandant as a war criminal. Stokes would have the paper on his lap, a toasted bagel and coffee in his hands.

Cate Blanchett, considered by some to be the world’s best actress, shines in her role, whether spitting into the champagne glass of a Nazi art thief or indulging in the early stages of a romance with James Granger—having dropped her armor of distrust in favor of welcoming the activities of the monument men. As a whole, though, neither the banal conversations of the men nor the activities involved in locating the art works come close to being riveting.

Rated PG-13. 118 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Jaume Collet-Serra's
Non-Stop
Opens Friday, February 28, 2014

Screenplay: John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach

Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Nate Parker, Michelle Dockery, Corey Stoll, Linus Roach

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

The year is young but already we have two movies which will probably not become in-flight entertainment. The first, the Japanese animated feature The Wind Rises, is a fictionalized biography of the man who developed the Zero planes used in the Pearl Harbor attack. Planes crash before the engineer comes to the rescue. Non-Stop is animated in another way, a live-action thriller about an airline hijacker who demands $150 million or “one passenger will die every twenty minutes.” Given that the villain, identity revealed near the conclusion, is aware that an armed air marshal is on board, one wonders how he thinks he would get away with killing more than one person before he is felled. But that’s just one of the holes.

Non-Stop has holes because that’s what thrillers like to have. Nevertheless, Non-Stop is suspenseful from start to finish, its extras (the passengers) choreographed deftly by director Jaume Collet-Serra, while John W. Richardson and Christopher Roach’s script is filled with credible twists. As a bonus, Liam Neeson serves as a terrific role model for people in the audience who think that at Neeson’s age, sixty-one, one is way over the hill for action adventures. His acting, complete with his lilting Irish articulation, is spellbinding.

All these attributes make Non-Stop one of the best thrillers to hit the big screen in years.

On an international flight from New York to London, air marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) gets a number of text messages on his iPhone by a person who appears to know everything about him: about his daughter who died at an early age from Leukemia, which turned Marks into an alcoholic, and the number of his bank account. In this whodunit, which will keep you guessing (“Aha it’s him, no wait, it’s her, or maybe it’s the 8-year-old girl who might have been only pretending to be scared”), the hijacker knows that Marks had been fired from the New York Police Department for his alcoholism, and wouldn’t you know: he was later hired by Homeland Security. This tells you either that the scripters have plowed themselves into one of the biggest plot holes, or that Homeland Security is not as efficient as we’ve been led to believe (nah).

Strangely enough, the account to which the 150 million is to be transferred is owned by Marks. Is a Homeland Security agent so dumb that he would think his bank number could not be traced, thereby implicating him as suspect number one? (Maybe.)

A diverse group of passengers react in various ways, in one situation preparing to gang up on the marshal who seems to be acting too uppity, beating up the folks in Economy. There’s one Muslim, Dr. Fahim Nasir (Omar Metwally), with a beard and a doppa on his head. That’s the Muslim version of the Hebrew kippa. Would someone dressed like that be the hijacker? Not likely, since a terrorist would probably shave his beard, color his hair blond, and wear blue contact lenses, although maybe he was double-psyching the authorities who are sure that no Muslim hijacker would be so obvious. Could it be Jen Summers (Julianne Moore), the charming seatmate who appears sophisticated enough to launch such an operation? Maybe. The director may think only a status-A star would be considered important enough to implicate. Could it be the nerdy guy who, before boarding, tries to make conversation by asking “Where ya heading?” This could be, since he did say he was going to Amsterdam and yet he was taking a plane with one stop in London when he could have gone direct with KLM. Maybe even Nancy (Michelle Dockery) one of the hostesses, wants to make more than she could earn is several lifetimes in the employ of the airline. Even Captain David McMillan (Linus Roache), could be at least part of the conspiracy, since it would be easy for him to text in the privacy of the cockpit. The leading suspect remains Bill Marks: in fact the other air marshal, Agent Marenick (Shea Whigham), appears to have cocaine stashed in his luggage, easy to bring abroad given his title.

There you have it: suspense, fast pace, full use of the big screen, and a brain-teaser that will have the audience putting suspicion first on this guy, then that woman, then that other guy, and so on.

Rated PG-13. 107 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Fedor Boncarchuk's
Stalingrad
Opens Friday, February 28, 2014

Screenplay: Sergey Snezhkin, Ilya Tilkin

Starring: Thomas Kretschmann, Yanina Studilina, Philippe Reinhardt, Mariya Smoknikova, Heiner Lauterbach

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

Since the movie begins around the current year, which serves as a framing device, the narrator might have noted one of the great ironies of the Battle of Stalingrad 1942-1943. Some decades after the brave Russian soldiers fought to defend their motherland against German occupation, the Soviet regime itself dismantled statues of Stalin and renamed the site of one of history’s bloodiest battles Volgograd. But never mind. To allow for credibility, the narrator, Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov) is at the scene of an earthquake in Japan in which Russian emergency workers are busy rescuing German children who are buried by the catastrophe. To keep one kid’s spirits up, Gromov tells the story of his “five fathers,” who turn out not to be biological. The “fathers” are a small group of Russian soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in 1942 in Stalingrad, entire seen center of the city as destroyed as you could find in a modern dystopian movie about the apocalypse. The Germans had blown up a fuel supply: a small group of Russian are hidden in an apartment building where they “adopt” a young tenant, Katya (Maria Smolnikova). A brotherly relationship develops as the Russians determine to save Katya from harm.

The more interesting romance develops across the way where Hauptmann Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann), a German officer, rapes Masha (Yanina Studilina), a mostly silent, 18-year-old Russian woman, and then falls in love with her. That they don’t understand a word spoken to each other, that’s no matter. Nor does nationality matter or the fact that a war is on. Love is love, though Masha’s Russian countrymen—and the Germans as well—consider Masha a whore, a collaborator. As hearts go out—from the Russians to Katya and from one German to Masha—the battle goes on, a battle that will last for one hundred sixty-two days marking a turning point in the war against Hitler. After Stalingrad, the Nazis lost all momentum.

The fight scenes are filmed in St. Petersburg and Kronstadt, using movie sets depicting the center of Stalingrad and the east bank of the Volga River. Director Fedor Boncarchuk, a forty-six year old with an impressive résumé of acting credits, makes good use of the 120 million rubles (thirty million dollars) to display an impressive an array of firepower, including explosions, machine gunning, tank firing, grenades, stabbings, close range pistol firing and hand-to-hand combat. In the most impressive scene, one which could have used a background of Shostakovich’s nationalistic Symphony #5, a squad of Russian soldiers, bodies aflame, charge the German lines shooting as they run and scream, jumping on the enemy and incinerating them.

As for human relationships—which as far as I know some people might be interested in more than in the IMAX 3D videogame photography—the more interesting one involves Masha and Captain Khan. Kahn does what he can to protect the new love of his life, and Masha can use all the help she can get given the feelings she evokes in her countrymen who call her the “German whore.” She realizes that her life is probably over, that she will be shot soon by a German (or by one of her own for collaborating) and that she faces an uncertain future when the war is finally over.

Filming the carnage, cinematographer Maksim Osadchiy-Korytkovskiy does an impressive job with Angelo Badalmamenti’s soundtrack knocking out the right patriotic notes. If the film lacks psychological development of the principal players, that’s not so bad. The patriotism and pride of the comrades are front and center and, surprisingly the Germans are not treated as little more than Huns by Sergey Snezhkin and Ilya Tilkin’s screenplay. The Nazi colonel (Heiner Lauterbach), even calls the Russians “barbarians,” who would “shoot you in the back,” and another notes that he came into the war as a soldier and has turned into a beast.

The picture is overlong. The framing device could be cut without loss and some of the repetitive confessions of love could be shaved. Subtitles, originally said to have included some “howlers,” seem just fine now, and, thanks goodness, the German speak German (originally the crew meant to have Germans speak Russian).

Unrated. 135 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Teller's
Tim's Vermeer
Opens Friday, January 31, 2014


Starring: Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, Martin Mull, Philip Steadman, David Hockney

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

What was your worst subject in middle school? If you’re like me, you’d find a dead heat between art and penmanship. I couldn’t draw a line with a ruler or a circle with a silver dollar. But what if someone told me that I could paint like Johannes Vermeer, the 17th Century Dutch painter considered by some to be the all-time greatest man in his field? I’d think that a scam, of course, and would keep clicking on the ‘net to see if I could find an ad even more absurd.

Nonetheless, a look at Teller’s documentary Tim’s Vermeer would give me pause. The title character, in no way a painter but rather an inventor and technologist who made his fortune furthering the fields of digital video, raised enough money with his inventions to enjoy a life of leisure. Jenison’s would now be a life busy doing notable things, discovering new ideas, even coaxing out a generally entertaining movie under the direction of Teller, who is one-half of the team of Penn and Tiller known for shows featuring prestidigitation. Tim Jenison, based in San Antonio Texas, had the idea that Vermeer was somewhat of a cheat: that given the fact that Dutch folks in the 1600s did enjoy looking at telescopes and had mirrors in their bathrooms, the great artist was painting by the numbers, if you will.

The theory is that without smoke but with mirrors, Vermeer was able to get such lifelike detail into his creations that he must have used the technology of his time, specifically the camera obscura, literally a darkened chamber room, to project images of surroundings on a wall or canvas. Jenison painstakingly built a room, copying and setting up a modern camera obscura. He simulated the scene in Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” and, constructing a likeness of the objects in the painting with appropriate lenses, he created a more than passable likeness of “The Music Lesson.” Thus, he conjured up what so many of us want from paintings: a canvas that could in some ways pass for a photograph rather than the mystifying examples of abstract art that make people wonder, “That’s great art? My small daughter could do that in a half hour!”

Teller joins his obsessed inventor in Holland, to Vermeer’s own town where Jenison learns to read Dutch, then to London to visit the great British painter David Hockney, who is impressed by Jenison’s theory. The film asks us whether Vermeer’s achievements are lessened now that some believe he created his works with the help of technology, but Teller, who comments now and then, seems more interested in exposing the nature of obsession. How many people would spend two hundred thirteen days simply copying a great painting, and thereby summoning up evidence that Vermeer did not work simply with his models, a room, a blank canvas and a complex battery of mixed paints?

Jenison elicits the remark that his doings are literally like watching paint dry, and a good part of even this brief doc might seem to some in the audience (like me) to be turgid. Still, Tim’s Vermeer, though burdened with Conrad Pope’s lively but incessant wall to wall music, is an original.

Rated PG-13. 80 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 


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