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Declan Lowney's
Alan Patridge
Opens April 4, 2014

Screenplay: Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons, Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci from characters created by Coogan, Iannucci, Patrick Marber, Peter Baynham

Starring: Steve Coogan, Colm Meaney, Felicity Montagu, Monica Dolan,
Tim Key

Magnolia Pictures

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

If you think that the U.S. is the only country that specializes in egomania, you should get out more often, specifically in this case to the movies. Steve Coogan, Britain’s funniest comedian, inhabits the role of Alan Patridge, admitting that he feels “puffed up” by the madcap events that unfold on one particular day, and no wonder. While Declan Lowney’s Alan Patridge is ostensibly about a hostage taking situation, a siege as it were, it’s really about Alan Partridge, a fellow that many Americans may not be acquainted with. However in England he’s a household word, a fictional person who has had ups and downs from life like the rest of us. But he has the media to explain himself. He has been on national television, He has been a radio broadcaster after being demoted to that older medium. He has had a nervous breakdown, has self-published a book Bouncing Back, which was remaindered. It’s all on BBC, perhaps the best cable channel that TV has to offer.

The current movie shows Steve Coogan in virtually every scene—broadcasting, cracking jokes, running backwards and forwards, even getting stuck when trying to crawl through a window and winding up upside down with his trousers stripped right from his waist by the vindictive window. He’s a funny man indeed, the humor both physical and verbal, but with the fast-paced, zany script giving him opportunities for some gems of comic wit.

For example, instructing his sidekick at the Norfolk, England radio station about the uses of humor, he holds that you should “never make jokes about Muslims; about Jews, a little bit…that Neil Diamond is still King of the Jews. And Christians, well you can say anything you want about them, he believes.

We in the U.S. who fear job loss about as much as anything else will relate to Alan Patridge’s barging into a corporate meeting, the bigwigs trying to decide whether to fire Alan or the guy with the late-night program, Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney). After Alan convinces them that Pat should be sacked, beginning by dropping hints that Pat is a union man and graduating to writing straight-out on the board “Pat should be sacked,” he and the corporate guys and the others at the broadcast station are held hostage by an infuriated Pat, now imprisoning them with a rifle. The cops convince Alan to return to the station as a hostage negotiator. As the danger increases, Alan sees himself as a media hero, becomes puffed up, and becomes embroiled in a dilemma which, if this were a serious movie, could cause him his life.

Others in the cast have their own shticks, flinging out what might be called British humor that survives well across the Atlantic. While Colm Meaney operates as a great straight man, others in the cast like Tim Key as “Sidekick” Simon Denton, Felicity Montagu as Lynn Benfield who takes special case of Alan, and Paul Blackwell as the humorless police officer fill out the cast nicely.

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

Greg Williams's
The Anonymous People
Opens March 14, 2014


Screenplay: Aaron Cohen, Jeff Reilly, Greg Williams

Cast: Kristen Johnston, Chris Herren, Patrick Kennedy, Tara Conner, William Cope Moyers, Jim Ramstad, William White, Laurie Dhue

Kino Lorber

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

In much the way that Stephen Farber’s exciting documentary How to Survive a Plague deals with the struggle to get politicians involved in finding an effective treatment for AIDS, Greg Williams’s The Anonymous People runs with efforts to change the way we deal with folks addicted to drugs and alcohol. The overriding theme is that is in most states, the push is to arrest, prosecute and punish people (as Bush 41 states in the film) who are users of illegal drugs, presumably (though not mentioned in the movie) because demand for drugs creates a market for suppliers. (For example, also not cited by director Greg Williams, U.S. users of heroin and cocaine propel the Mexican drug market, which has already resulted in 60,000 murders by competing cartels south of our border.)

Why are we willing to spend some $50,000 to house a drug user annually in prison while for a lesser figure we can cure at least some of these people? Probably because our “lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality, particularly in Red states (again, presumably), influences politicians who get votes by being tough on crime. But drug use may be technically a crime for the aforementioned reason (demand propels supply), but if so, why not change the mentality of the American people, who will then demand politicians to legislate treatment for the unfortunate people who are addicted?

Our mentality is encouraged by the stigma that so many sober people, lording over the others morally, pin on addicts. “Hey, I’m OK, but you’re not. What do I know that you can’t get into your thick heads?” What our high-minded people who may flood their body chemistry with legal prescriptions seem unable to realize is that addiction is a disease. Yes, addiction is a disease, a point made over and over until we in the audience may find it difficult not to look at our watches in dismay and be thankful that The Anonymous People clocks in at only eighty-eight minutes.

While Williams introduces us to lots of people who are “tired of being secretive” about their addictions and who open themselves up for Craig Mikhitarian’s camera, there is little of entertainment value in this well-meaning celluloid. What’s needed is a Michael Moore treatment. If Moore were directing, he would stop legislators in the streets and ask them point blank “Why are you voting for imprisonment instead of treatment since, after all, these people are physically ill and not moral cretins?” In investigating how General Motors threw people out of work and helped destroy Detroit’s economy, Moore knocked on the door of GM’s CEO Roger B.Smith in his Roger and Me, and to explore the reasons that our health system is hardly modeled against systems more efficient like those in France, Germany and Canada, he elicited humor in Sicko by interviewing relatives almost afraid for their lives when crossing the border into the U.S. for fear of coming down with an injury or illness.

The Anonymous People by contrast is virtually humorless, positioning people in 12-step groups who say all the things we already know, except that many now they say they are in recovery mode rather than “Hi, I’m Jim and I’m an alcoholic.” Instead of beating us down by repeating the theme that “society is clueless about how to deal with addicts,” Williams could have taken us to hospitals and other treatment centers to show what methods are used to get these people clean. For example, what exactly is done with drug addicts to get them off their cravings? Methadone? We don’t know. How do we clean up alcoholics? Williams gives us not a clue.

Without this information, we in the audience may have no idea how difficult or easy it is to undergo and succeed in treatment. If the politicians could see that addicts can be reformed by treatment other than simply the talking cure in the 12-step groups, maybe they would change their views. Perhaps the people in authority are cynical or believe that once an addicts, always an addict, so the best thing to do is incarcerate them—and to jail them again and again when they inevitably relapse when their sentences are over.

After sitting through passionate but uninspiring talks by legislators and those in treatment, we do get one dynamic speech by former NBA star Chris Herren, speaking to a group of young people and their parents. Anecdotes like his citing the case of a few school children sitting in the front row with similar clothing who say that they are “sober” and which caused the rest of the auditorium to laugh at them. That hits home.

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

Geoff Moore and David Posamentier's
Better Living Through Chemistry
Opens March 14, 2014

Screenplay: Geoff Moore, David Posamentier

Cast: Olivia Wilde, Michelle Monaghan, Sam Rockwell, Ray Liotta, Jane Fonda, Norbert Leo Butz

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

If you watch TV at all, especially the programs (like the news) that cater to people over the age of forty, you’re aware of ads for pharmaceutical products that seem to promise that if you take this pill you may get heart disease, weakened bones, irritation, rashes, hives, a lower immune system, and death. Since most of the ads tell us the bad effects, one wonders whether Big Pharma knows what it’s doing in spreading this information, which of course it would not do unless the FDA required those caveats. Now comes a movie that at first appears to counteract all the bad things in those ads, promising better living through chemistry. Until the side effects kick in, all’s well and good and, in fact, the two principal characters wind up liberating themselves as a result of their experience with pharmaceuticals, both legal and otherwise.

It helps that one of the funniest actors in the business, Sam Rockwell, takes one of the two lead roles, in this case that of a small town druggist in a town called Woodbury, a suburban area that writer-directors Geoff Moore and David Posamentier introduce to us a though it were a model town on an architect’s drawing board. In a way, it is a model of small-town America, featuring a happy letter carrier, a friendly police officer, a DEA inspector who is genial up to a point, a father-in-law who is often a pain in the butt. As for Douglas Varney (Sam Rockwell), he’s doing OK in a life that simply goes on day after day, a man who needs to be challenged to get out from the domination of in-law Walter Bishop (Ken Howard), who retires from the pharmacy business and advises his son-in-law Douglas to keep the name Bishop’s, because that’s the name that people have relied upon. His wife Kara (Michelle Monaghan) is bicycling fanatic who probably takes out so much energy leading a gym class on stationary bikes that she has no time for sex.

The routine changes when Doug, delivers a prescription in the town’s swankiest house, to Elizabeth Roberts (Olivia Wilde), a trophy wife who is not fond of her husband (Ray Liotta). They fall into each other’s arms, two people in need of more excitement that their current lives give them. It doesn’t take long before they consider doing away with Elizabeth’s usually absent husband. As they embark on a whirlwind of drugs, sex, rock-and-roll, Doug becomes so liberated that he is able to gain new rapport with his mischievous son Ethan (Harrison Holzer).

Though it’s difficult to imagine a stunner like Elizabeth’s going for a schlemiel like Douglas, the bond gains credibility as each is missing what life could offer. Still, like a great drug with bad side effects, Doug’s habits attract the attention of an amiable DEA agent, and Doug’s career seems ready to go down and out.

The picture was originally to be cast with Jeremy Renner as Douglas and Jennifer Garner as the sensuous Elizabeth, but no matter. Wilde and Rockwell, however ill-matched they might at first appear, do make a credible pair and this lighter-than-air, somewhat sit-comish movie is a welcome entry into the field of easy-to-take entertnment. The film was shot over five weeks in Maryland.

Unrated. 91 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Diego Luna's
Cesar Chavez
Opens Friday, March 28, 2014

Screenplay: Keir Pearson, Timothy J. Sexton

Starring: Michael Peña, John Malkovich, America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson, Wes Bentley, Michael Cudlitz


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

Union days appear over in America, where only nine percent of workers are members of organized labor. This certainly does not mean that the working classes and middle classes that were formerly active in such groups are ecstatic about their wages: quite the contrary. Bosses have found ways to work around militant organizations by exporting jobs to China, Vietnam and quite a few other countries with much lower standards of living than our own. And given the fear that working people have of being tossed out of their jobs should they try to fight for better conditions, they give the owners of industries large and small their tacit consent not to protest.

In the exciting days of the 1960s, however, when Pete Seeger, the Weavers, and others with guitars and banjos showed their support for the down-and-out with protest songs, battles erupted between labor and management, perhaps the most exciting being that between migrant grape pickers and the owners of vineyards. In a stirring, narrative drama led by a fierce performance from Michael Peña in his first major role, director Diego Luna bursts forth with a story that has no shades of gray: just a glorious battle between good and evil.

In an effort to keep the drama authentic, Luna avoids filming in California as the fields do not look as they did in 1960s, but instead heads south to Hermosillo, against rural lands that resemble the acreage of our own country at that time. The title character, Cesar Chavez (Michael Peña), comes across as a saint, a man without a single blemish while the owners of the vineyards and the law-and-order authorities are racist and evil. Knowing how bosses would hire goons especially in the earlier days of union organizing, one can pretty much agree with this depiction.

Chavez, whose family lost its land in California during the Depression, decides against being the kind of union leader who works out of a comfortable office, living large and negotiating sweetheart contracts with the employers they bed with (so to speak). He moves his large family, including his wife, Helen (America Ferrera) and his children—all of whom want to stay where they are—to the Delano fields of the great state that now produces one half of all America’s fruits and vegetables. He goes through the steps followed in his past by organizations like the Knights of Labor, speaking first to small groups, then to large, trying to overcome their fear of being fired and sent back to Mexico according to the U.S. government rules dealing with migrants. Soon it became illegal (albeit unconstitutional) for any person to shout “huelga” (“strike”), promising beatings and a jail term for such advocates of free speech.

With the local sheriffs in their pockets, Governor Ronald Reagan called the strike “immoral” and President Nixon, who promises vineyard owner Bogdanovich (John Malkovich) that he can export his grapes to Europe to overcome a boycott, the union looks doomed. And without Chavez’s own charisma, the owners would have won. Instead, the workers, with financing from supportive groups, carry out a five-year boycott of grapes, urging consumers to settle for other fruits, while Chavez himself undergoes a fast for about a month to gain publicity for the boycott. Eventually Chavez becomes Time magainze man-of-the-year, his birthday, March 31, now celebrated as Cesar Chavez day.

Happily, Cesar Chavez, the biopic, is not a documentary, which would have resulted in desultory interviews with hopelessly dull talking heads. Instead Luna, using a vibrant script from Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton, captures all the excitement of an earthy group of largely illiterate farm workers, no longer settling for $2 a day in grueling work under a hot sun. Peña is superb, wholly convincing, and gets fine support from America Ferrera as his loyal wife and Rosario Dawson as organizer Dolores Huerta. Kudos to the Mexican state of Sonora for providing the movie’s broad, outdoor production design, and to the waiters in Hermosillo’s Chinese restaurants for turning into actors for a few weeks in their roles as Filipino migrants.

Rated PG-13. 98 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

John Turturro's
Fading Gigolo
Opens Friday, April 18, 2014

Screenplay: John Turturro

Starring: Vanessa Paradis, Sofia Vergara, Sharon Stone, Woody Allen, Live Schreiber, Bob Balaban, John Turturro

Millennium Films

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

Some critics have called Fading Gigolo a John Turturro vanity project, but whether that’s true or not, who cares? The movie delivers a lovely, heartfelt treatment of both loneliness and horniness, the latter embracing the more comedic parts while the former is done with appropriate tenderness. The idea that two beautiful women would pay for sex is not realistic, of course, but again: so what? Have you seen Jaume Collet-Serra’s Non-Stop? Enough said.

The disregard of boring reality begins when Woody Allen in the role of Murray Schwartz adopts the name “Bongo” and becomes a pimp. Really? The owner of a failed bookstore as a procurer? All right, we’ll have to suspend disbelief. What’s more John Turturro, in the role of Fioravante, becomes a gigilo, receiving big bucks for his services by women who disregard his age and go for his manliness. No pretty-boy sobriquets for Turturro, who wrote, directed and stars in the hour-and-one-half production.

The idea for all this journey into unreality takes root when Murray learns from his dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), that she would like to take part in a menage-à-trois with a female friend, the beautiful but heavily made-up Selima (Sofia Vergara). Fioravante proves to be a good lover, not so much by getting it on with the two beauties, but before the bed action when he meets and charms the doctor. He pays attention to Dr. Parker in a way that she has not been treated before, which ratifies the old idea that women think differently from men: they want to be listened to while men want to talk.

The more interesting segment of the film deals with a Fioravante seduction—for massage therapy, good talk and good food, nothing more. The client is Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), whose Hasidic rabbi husband had died of a heart attack leaving her lonely and boxed in by the demands of the Hasidic community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. When she walks down the street with renewed confidence, we in the audience know that her happiness comes from her sensitive talks and massage from a Christian man, albeit one who plays the role of a Sephardic Jew. But the Hasidim on her block don’t like her happiness one bit. Avigal has her own beauty, the most refined kind if we compare her to Dr. Parker and Selima, making her the favorite choice of the titled gigolo—who gives her what may have been the first kiss she ever received notwithstanding the fact that she had borne six children. However, she has a potentially serious Hasidic suitor in Dovi (Live Schreiber), who performs in the role as a member of the Shomrim, which is a Jewish self-defense force in the neighborhood. In this tale, however, Dovi goes beyond official duties by annoyingly questioning Avigal, asking where she is going, telling her to be back before dark.

The Jewish community of Williamsburg does not come across too well, and a too literate audience would think that nutty things go on in the privacy of the rabbi’s home. Suffice it to say that Murray is kidnapped as a suspected pimp and given a trial by a three-judge bench of elderly, bearded men who (are they joking?) note that if he is found guilty, he might be stoned.

Much of the tale comes across as improvised: Woody Allen is Woody Allen, improvising with his usual, irritating use of the filler “you know,” but anyone with taste in movies will run to anything in which Mr. Allen appears. Some scenes that come across as filler focus on Murray as living with an African-American family, setting up a baseball game à la Jeremy Kagan’s The Chosen between the Hasidic kids who’d prefer to study and the young black males who assume they will have no problem beating them.

Rated R. 98 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Samantha Grant's
A Fragile Trust:
Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at the New York Times

Opens April 11, 2014

Starring: Jayson Blair, Macarena Hernandez, Seth Mnookin, Lena Williams, William Schmidt, Howell Raines, Gerry Boyd

Gush Productions

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

In her 1999 book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, philosopher Sissela Bok holds that virtually all lying is ethically unjustified—not even giving a free ride to doctors who white-lie to patients about pessimistic prognoses. The reason is simply that without truth, there is no trust. A civilization could collapse if we cannot trust teachers, doctors, lawyers, even used car salesmen to say anything but the truth. This extreme position can be subject to debate, but one thing is clear: when you are reading a story in the New York Times, purportedly the world’s most important and trusted newspaper, you don’t want to hear anything but the unvarnished truth.

Imagine, then, that a guy so emotionally ill that even given the job of intern and then later the authority to report on important global stories, does not realize that he could have had a glorious career for decades to come had he told the truth. Instead, Jayson Blair, hired at first because the NY Times believed that a multi-racial, multi-ethnic city like New York deserves to have a diversified staff of writers, became his own worst enemy.

The charges against him are: 1) He did not even show up at the places of many story datelines; 2) He plagiarized by cutting and pasting paragraphs from other newspapers such as one in San Antonio, presumably because he thought that his editors would never consult the journals of medium-sized cities.

In a documentary about the case against Jayson Blair, director Samantha Grant relies particularly on the testimony of…the liar himself! Mr. Blair, who appears penitent about his misanthropy, confessing over and over in cinematic close-ups, goes on and on about his crimes as though exulting in the notoriety. As you watch this fellow, who is clearly the star of the movie and given about as many minutes to condemn himself as the rest of the cast put together, you hope that his writing is better than his talking. He fills his cri de coeur with a peppering of “um” and “you know,” as though a college freshman giving his first talk in Public Speaking 101.

Director Grant allows Blair to metaphorically kick himself in the butt time and again, making this 75-minute film seem like a half-hour report padded out as far as it could go. Blair admits to taking cocaine and an excess of alcohol, checking into a hospital while the newspaper, perhaps reluctant to fire an African-American, turns the other cheek. This error by Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerry Boyd cost them their jobs as well, as corrections to Blair’s stories continue to fill the “oops we goofed” section while Rains and Boyd pretend that Blair would grow on the job.

It does seem absurd that a guy holding a great gig with a paper awarded readers’ 100% trust would not even leave his Park Slope, Brooklyn digs, though we figure he was too high on alcohol and coke to move away from his computer and get out into the world to cover his stories. The most infuriating breach of trust was Blair’s plagiarizing of Macarena Hernandez’s story in her San Antonio-Express News on Specialist Edward Anguiano, missing in Iraq.

In numerous takes on the plagiarist’s confessions, director Grant has no need to challenge him. Blair is the judge, jury and executioner, with scarcely a redeeming note except to state (and this is probably true) that he went into journalism to “help people.” Talk is cheap, and even the assumed finality of print committed to virtually holy paper may prove nothing to the world except that sometimes trees—and people--are needlessly wasted.

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

Roger Michell's
Opens March 14, 2014

Screenplay: Hanif Kureishi

Cast: Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan, Jeff Goldblum

Music Box Films

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

When you see people who have just come back from a vacation, you ask, “How was your trip?” Did you ever hear someone say, “OK, I guess, but there were so many hassles—customs, overcharges, bad weather, generally miserable time come to think of it.” Not a chance. “Great time, fabulous weather, can’t wait to go back.” After seeing Roger Michell’s Le Weekend, his fourth collaboration with scripter Hanif Kureishi, you’ll be discussing the weekend holiday taken by Nick Burrows (Jim Broadbent) and his wife Meg (Lindsay Duncan). Did they have a good time, all in all, or should they have stayed home? Nick and Meg, married for thirty years, take one weekend from their home in Birmingham, England to Paris, to rekindle their marriage—and what marriage does not need rekindling after three decades? Mostly a drama about a relationship between an older man and his older mate but with ample comic undertones, Le Weekend shows us the look of Paris from the terrace of a five-star hotel and the long, philosophic look taken by a man and a woman, the former facing the anxiety of being left alone while his wife is considering taking off and starting anew in a flat. It doesn’t help that Meg is sick of her teaching job and Nick has been ordered to take early retirement.

Meg may be encouraged in her existential wish when the couple run into Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), a former student of Nick, who is financially successful and enjoying his bond with a new, younger wife as a British expat in Paris. By contrast, Nick, who teaches philosophy at a school that “turns out idiots” and Meg, who is a teacher as well, have to support a son and the son’s family. They are now in an expensive city where they cast money problems aside (she doesn’t like the walk-up hotel they reserved so they switch to an elegant, costly place). They dine well in one of the fine Paris eateries and, without the money to pay an exorbitant bill, they run out—which is pretty funny, I suppose, when you’re dealing with middle-class folks and not with someone like Precious who bolts from a greasy spoon with a bucket of fried chicken.

Le Weekend provides a nice soundtrack largely of the kind of music you’d hear from an orchestra in a posh hotel serving as background music which, in the case of Meg and Nick serve only to rub in their lack of cash or a balance in their credit card to pay the bills for this single weekend and, what’s more, are facing the anxiety of a possible rupture in their long-term marriage.

The highlight of the picture is a dinner engagement that Meg and Nick attend at Morgan’s invitation where, on top of all their other woes, they simply do not fit in with a group of intellectuals—a sculptor, some writers, and assorted sophisticates. After a bubbly speech by Morgan’s new, young wife, the crowd is rendered speechless by an intimate confession from Nick, a feeling that he is wasting his life, though Morgan’s strange and neglected son from a first marriage, Michael (Olly Alexander), with whom Nick had enjoyed weed and booze, labels the talk “awesome.”

Needless to say, Jim Broadbent is incredible as he is in any role, whether the husband of Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” or Lord Kelvin in “Around the World in Eighty Days,” so it’s no wonder that he has five movies coming up in production and pre-production. Lindsay Duncan’s British accent and soft speech can be difficult to understand at times while, by contrast, Jeff Goldblum, the one major American actor in the movie, is loud, clear and amusing. If the drama comes across to some (like one Australian critic) as “not heavy enough to matter,” Le-Weekend is the kind of film that mature, intelligent moviegoers would not want to miss.

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

David Frankel's
One Chance
Opens March 14, 2014

Writer: Justin Zackham

Cast: James Corden, Alexandra Roach, Julie Walters, Colm Meany, Mackenzie Crook

The Weinstein Company

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

What causes a person to be bullied? The obvious answer is that the victim does not fit in with the group. He may be fatter, slower, dorkier, or may even have a talent that’s looked down upon by the majority. Paul Potts (James Corden) is the recipient of the dubious honor of being beaten up starting in what we in the States would call Middle School, then by a band of toughs when he becomes a young adult. Why so? He’s pudgy, but perhaps more important because he’s into opera. Even being the star of a boys’ choir makes the rabble suspicious of this talented individual. One Chance is based on the true story of a guy who looks pretty much like Corden, director Frankel even reproducing the real Paul Potts recital in a competition that won him £100,000 and changed his life. One way of describing the tale is that One Chance shows that Paul Potts’s dad (Colm Meany) succeeds in good parenting, in that he made his son “better” than his father.

We root for the lad from the beginning. He’s a fellow who could not defend himself even if he had just one bully after him. We pull for him when he is brutally dismissed when giving a recital before Luciano Pavarotti, who broke into the young man’s aria after just a few bars, telling Paul that he may never be an opera singer. We cheer his love life, a virgin who meets Julie-Ann (Alexandra Roach) in an Internet chat room. Who says the Internet prevents us from socializing in person? Julie-Ann is adorable, with a pudge about her waist as well, so it’s love at first sight when they meet at a South Wales train station near Paul’s home. She’s a clerk in a drugstore, he’s a refugee from an industrial hell where the temperature reaches 2,000 degrees (which could be pretty hot depending on whether we’re talking Fahrenheit or Celsius).

We follow Paul as he attends a school in Venice, where cinematographer Florian Ballhaus photographs as though he were the principal photographer for Perillo Tours—stunning. There’s plenty of conflict even when Paul is no longer bullied. He lacks confidence, not unsurprising after he’s trashed by Pavarotti. His dad wants him to work in the mill like everyone in this Welsh town. But his mother (Julie Walters) is with him all the way as is the extended Venetian family of another competitor in the opera sing-offs. His boss in a cell-phone store (Mackenzie Crook), sober or otherwise, backs up Paul’s plans.

David Frankel, known for his direction of The Devil Wears Prada (another success story about a naïve young woman who comes to New York to work for a tough magazine editor) and Marley and Me (a family learns lessons from a neurotic dog), fills the screen with arias, sticking to those presumably familiar to the most Philistine in the audience. You’ll leave the theater disregarding the predictability of the outcome and perhaps even beginning to fall in love with Puccini and Verdi.

Rated PG-13. 103 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Lars von Trier'a
Nyphomaniac Volume I

Opens March 21, 2014

Screenplay: Lars von Trier

Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgardård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman

Magnolia Pictures

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

One can just imagine some shady-looking guy wearing a stained raincoat observing that a movie entitled Nymphomaniac is opening. He smacks his lips and figures it must be screening somewhere on West 42nd St (he’s in a time warp and doesn’t realize that those places are no more), then notes to his amazement that it’s showing at the classy Landmark Sunshine Theater! He wonders, briefly, what is happening to our city that people like him can be accommodated there.

Happily for the rest of us, he is mistaken. Nymphomaniac may be a title that attracts folks in stained raincoats, but the hot scenes are a small segment of the two-hour picture that encompasses Volume I. Director Lars van Trier is far more interested in character. In this case, he’s looking into what goes into the makeup of a woman who cannot be sexually satisfied despite her merry-go-roundelay of assignations, and per her own confession has always felt lonely even in the presence of a diverse assortment of men.

That Lars von Trier, whose Melancholia deals with a pair of sisters who test their relationship as the world is coming to an end, and whose more accessible Dancer in the Dark explores the psyche of an East European woman who go to America with her young son expecting our country to be like a Hollywood film, chose Stacy Martin for the lead role as title figure is puzzling. She is an upcoming (so to speak) performer who merits only one or two sentences on the Internet Movie Database. Moreover she is slim and androgynous looking, picked perhaps to convey her passage from the innocence of a girl of fifteen until her role is taken over now and then by Charlotte Gainsbourg) decades later.

There is nothing innocent about the mature adult, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), as she is found in the alley of an undisclosed country (where even Shia LaBoeuf speaks British) beaten to a pulp, seeming near death. She is taken in by Seligman (Stellan Skargård), the last character you’d expect to have a carnal interest in her. Nonetheless, Seligman, an intellectual who lives in a spare flat and is an ascetic whose two luxuries in life are Bach and fishing, encourages the middle-aged Joe to tell stories about her conquests as though he were talking to Scheherazade, with Seligman as a would-be therapist with possible visions of helping her over the hump (so to speak). We in the audience are regaled with details of her life, some titillating, some graphically sexual (lower-half body doubles of porn actors are used rather than subject principal performers to immodesty). Nymphomanic is nothing if not a patiently portrayed gaze into the woman’s inner life. We want to know why she tells Seligman about her life with a poker face, an unchanging look whether she is describing her teen seductions of passengers on a train—per a game she is playing with her best friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) betting who can have sex with more men—or when she is relating how she feels after destroying a middle-aged married man’s domestic life.

The sexual scenes are one thing. They show young Joe generally ecstatic except for the time she is fifteen and invites a boy to help her lose her virginity. She is hurting and vows never to have sex again. What’s clear from these scenes is the temporary nature of release leaving the poor nymphomaniac feeling as lonely as the old man she sees regularly when she takes her cleansing walks in the woods. She has sex with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), who turns up later as the guy who hires her for his printing firm despite what Jerôme’s secretary (Felicity Gilbert) thinks about the prognosis of a woman sans skills. She has sex with a man who is not allowed to touch her. In the film’s best scene, one which brims with morbid humor, she causes a breakup of Mr. H’s (Hugo Speer) marriage leading the roving man’s wife, Mrs. H. (Uma Thurman), to deliver a caustic, guilt-inducing monologue to her husband and her three young boys (Frankie Dawson, George Dawson, Harry Dawson).

The movie is filled with style, particularly the metaphor that Seligman draws in the first chapter of this Volume 1, comparing Joe’s ventures of hooking in men with Seligman’s own acquaintance of fishing with artificial fly baits, which he uses to tantalize the fish, pulling away, drawing back. In split screens von Trier compares a slice of humanity with a tiger bearing prey in its mouth. If Joe has a saving grace, she loves her father (Christian Slater), spending long hours with him when he is on his deathbed, watching as the nurses respond to an emergency delirium and orderlies clean him up and mop the floor.

Ultimately, this volume tantalizes the audience enough to want to see the second part, one which involves African partners and brings in Willem Dafoe while showing us what has happened to Jerôme, her favorite bedmate, when he is old.

Unrated. 117 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Jim Jarmusch’s
Only Lovers Left Alive
Opens Friday, April 12, 2014

Written by: Jim Jarmusch

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Jeffrey Wright.

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

The only U.S. director that rivals David Lynch in terms of creating truly strange and personal works on film is Jim Jarmusch. Since the early 80s, Jarmusch has enthralled us with his unique and bizarre visions of love and individuality—from Stranger Than Paradise to Dead Man to Broken Flowers. With Only Lovers Left Alive, he has made one of his most accessible and, yet, most singular features.

When was the last time you saw true love portrayed onscreen with no conflicts tearing a couple apart? What was the last American film you saw that depicted devotion so wholly and pure?

Yeah, I can’t recall either.

Only Lovers Left Alive is so rejuvenating (especially after the summer of Hollywood crap) and resplendent, you almost forget that the film is about a couple that happens to be undead. And they also happen to be Adam and Eve. Yes, that Adam and Eve. I think. Sure seems like it.

So we have the two oldest vampires on the face of the Earth who so adore one another and look out for one another. Nothing can or will stand in the way of their togetherness. Is Jarmusch saying that only non-humans can be capable of such unflinching allegiance?

Set in Detroit and Tangier, the film is a melancholy and moody meditation on love (that word again), passion and survival—even when things are at their bleakest.

When the film opens, Adam is living in decaying Detroit while Eve relaxes comfortably in the Moroccan city. Times have changed and it is no longer advisable to simply drink blood directly from a human. And there’s a fear of contamination so they must be extra careful.

Just why Adam and Eve are apart is never addressed but as soon as Eve gets an inking that Adam is depressed and possibly suicidal, she boards the next nighttime flight, making certain she arrives after dusk as well since our vamps sleep during the day, as they are want to do.

Adam is a musician with a cult following (he wrote Schubert’s Adagio but decided to give it to him). Adam is quite depressed since he sees the human race as hopeless. He has grown weary of the ‘zombies’ (his nickname for humans) and the fact that, “they fear their own imaginations.”

Eve can speed read in all languages and knows the name of every species on Earth. She’s definitely the cheerier of the two and, as opposed to Adam, is ready to embrace new things (check out her Iphone 5!).

As soon as Eve arrives in Detroit so does renewed passion and hope for Adam and we are able to enjoy the couple’s genuine devotion to each other with no contrived conflicts, no petty jealousies, no bullshit. The two vamp-sophisticates have traveled the world and seen everything—together.

There is a reference to Einstein’s theory of entanglement where if you separate two entwined particles, even at opposite ends of the universe, both will be affected by the other. In this case, nothing can break their connection.

Trouble does, indeed, arrive in the body of Eve’s sister Eva (a deliciously wicked Mia Wasikowska), but it’s nothing they can’t handle—as they probably have for centuries.

The film has a definite eerie quality to it and is almost psychedelic in it’s visual style. Gorgeously shot by Yorick Le Saux, the pic features a haunting score by Jozef Van Wissem.

Adam and Eve love to name drop (Byron, Shelley) and there are quite a few hilarious moments like when Eve sees Adam’s mess of a flat she drolly states, “I love what you’ve done with the place.” Or when Adam discovers that Eva has drained his only human friend he, slightly upset, sighs, “You drank…Ian.”

The banter between Adam and Ian is also a treat with Anton Yelchin doing his best Ethan Hawkesque grunge dude.

John Hurt shows up as Christopher Marlowe (yes, Shakespeare’s rival) in time for a few wise-old-man moments.

But the piece belongs to Hiddleston and Swinton and they play weirdly/brilliantly/sublimely together.

Tilda Swinton is devilishly otherworldly on a good day so it’s no stretch for her to be believably ethereal and witchy. But Swinton goes far beyond the obvious here with a charming and subtle portrait of a woman fiercely dedicated to the man she loves and the planet she wishes was thriving again. I don’t think there’s any role this masterful actress cannot tackle. And if she ever wants to play a deeply flawed but loyal mother to a bullied gay son, I have the perfect part for her. But I digress…

Hiddleston’s droll, tired Adam is just a joy (as odd as that sounds) since once Eve shows up we realize what he was missing. Hiddleston is one the best actors working today. And his chemistry with Swinton is palpable.

Jarmusch doesn’t bother with too much vamp explanations or blather. He knows we are a culture steeped in knowledge of the genre. There is an intriguing bit about them wearing white gloves and only taking them off when they’re in each other’s presence…just enough to make us curious.

And as far as Adam and Eve—there’s a throwaway line referring to God as a myth—again just enough to whet our wonder.

Jarmusch cleverly comments on our present times using the couple as representative of the current, fragile nature of humanity. Can we survive? Do we want to? Do we deserve to?

Only Lovers Left Alive is the stark yet feel-good fringe-indie vampire movie of the century!

Roger Gual's
Tasting Menu (Menú degustació)
Opens April 18, 2014

Screenplay: Roger Gual, Javier Calvo based on an original idea by Sílvia González Laá

Starring: Jan Cornet, Claudia Bassols, Vicenta N’dongo, Andrew Tarbet, Fionnula Flanagan, Stephen Rea, Togo Igawa, Marta Torné, Akihijo Serikawa, Timothy Gibbs,
Magnolia Pictures

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

Tasting Menu might be compared to Babette’s Feast, Gabriel Axel’s film about a remote, 19th Century Danish community whose religious views forbid them to eat more than gruel, but who are upended by a fantastic meal prepared by their French housekeeper. But Roger Gual’s movie does not center on food. That’s too bad. The menu of the title is from the best restaurant in Spain, a Barcelona eatery whose chef is holding court at a final dinner before she goes on to do something else with her life. One may wonder why people at the peaks of their careers would suddenly want to do something different and quit their old lives, but such is not explored by director Gual, using his own screenplay co-written by Javier Calvo. In fact, nothing much is being decided by a group of thirty diners who have had reservations—some made one year previously. You might have reservations yourself if you’re looking for a story that focuses on food (this does not, and in fact the shaky camera acts as though it’s ashamed of the output of the chefs). You might have reservations yourself if you think you’re in for a treat, a fly on the wall listening to at least some sentences that rise above the banal. There are none.

The characters who gather for the last supper, as it were, are representatives of personality quirks rather than fleshed out individuals. The leading couple, Marc (Jan Corner) and Rachel (Claudia Bassols) are a pediatrician and writer respectively, now divorced and showing up only because they reserved places at the table a year back while married. Rachel is being pursued by Daniel (Timothy Gibbs), a handsome but “Ugly American” who insults his waiter and is confident that Rachel will accept his ring. Walter (Stephen Rea) sits glum and alone, suspected of being a feared restaurant critic, while flibbertigibbet Mina (Marta Torne) plays host to a pair of inscrutable Japanese (Togo Igawa and Akihiko Serikawa), earning their contempt when she blows her nose at the table—not at all kosher in parts of the Far East.

The most irritating of all is the Countess (Fionnulla Flanagan), who takes an urn with her husband’s ashes to accompany her at the table and plays the hackneyed role of worldly-wise elderly woman, instructing Marc and Rachel that life is short and passing off what she considered the bon mots allegedly earned only by people in her age range.

Max (Andrew Tarbet), plays overall host, an actor who was born in America, is living in Barcelona, and speaks Spanish and English with absolute fluency, while Vicenta N’dongo (Mar Vidal) uses her skills as the best chef in Spain and one of the best in the world. Too bad Emilio Guirao, the cinematographer, does not have enough respect for the food to do more than shake his camera at the dishes.

Rated PG-13. 85 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


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